Three McLarens and 24 hours of racing

I tentatively approached committing myself to another 24 hours of racing after my utter heartbreak over Toyota at Le Mans. I still can’t even think about that without a tear (many tears) coming to my eye; but you know what they say about getting back on the horse… so I dived right in, and it was glorious. Just beginning to glance over the entry lists made me giddy with excitement. So much coolness in one race. Bernd Schneider already super cool for having once tested a McLaren F1 car as a present for winning DTM for Mercedes, was back yet again, having previously won the race in in both 2013 and 1989! A true 24 hours of Spa veteran. The driver listing is full of supreme driving talent from around the motorsport world not least those in the three car line up of Garage 59. Yes that’s right THREE McLaren’s. What could be more exciting than that!? Alongside regular Blancpain GT series contenders car #58 and #59 we had a very special #60, beautifully decorated with a Bruce McLaren heritage livery. A joy to behold for every McLaren fan, it should have got points for its beauty alone.

We had the usual stellar line up of Rob Bell, Shane Van Gisbergen and Come Ledogar in #58 and McLaren academy drivers Alex Fontana, Struan Moore and Andrew Watson in #59 with a Brazilian vibe in #60 with Bruno Senna, Duncan Tappy and Pipo Derani. With this, it was already clear before the start of the weekend that regardless of what happened, this would be spectacular to watch.

Free practice and qualifying

I was a little nervy through free practice as the times set by the McLaren’s were a little less competitive than could have been expected. The first qualifying was also quite nerve racking as #58 car only just managed to scrape through into 19th place (the top 20 cars from the two qualifying sessions would go through to the super pole shoots out). Shane Van Gisbergen stating that he was initially unhappy with the car, but happily a lot of set up work really paid off for the second qualifying session where he killed it, launching the McLaren into a seemingly easy first place and very safely through to the Super Pole session. Andrew Watson in the #59 car was less happy, having found it hard to find any space amongst the 65 cars out on track and as a result ended up a frustrated 38th place. #60 also unable to quite get it together on the busy track qualified in 49th. After such a stunning performance in the second quali session I was looking froward to the super pole shoot out, each of the 2 drivers getting 2 flying laps to se their time, starting with the 20th car and ending with the fastest Shane Van Gisbergen, an exciting, but slightly scary concept given the forecast for rain towards the end of the session which could have disadvantaged the McLaren with its late time slot, but none of this mattered in the end as unreliability struck and the McLaren ground to a halt at the side of the track during its outlap. Game over. 20th place, or so it would seem, but thanks to the stewards handing out random penalties to almost half the Super Pole competitors, Rob Bell earned the luxury of starting 12th.

Race

If you read any of the race summaries afterwards, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was an uneventful race for McLaren. Let me put you straight. After somewhat of a disastrous qualifying we knew there was lots to do, so much potential that had not yet been reached.

There was a long safety car period early on, of around 70 minutes, after a Porsche and Ferrari collided resulting in a lot of work for the marshals, however once the race was back on proper, it didn’t take long for all three McLaren’s to start making up some ground. Just under four hours in both the #58 and #59 cars were inside the top ten, with Ledogar rapidly hunting down the first place BMW #98 Catsburg. After dodging traffic and worrying the BMW driver for a good 10 mins, Ledogar went for it and swept past taking the lead and making it look oh so easy. Come then ducked into the pits and handed back control to Shane Van Gisbergen. A good pit stop enabled the team to keep the net lead of the race (although it doesn’t show on my wonderful graph below since pit stops meant that the McLaren was not technically first on the hour). The order was constantly changing due to random pit stop strategies caused by the extended safety car period at the beginning of the race, meaning that at one point we had #59 up into second place. Sadly we never got to see the #58 make its way back into the lead as a long pit stop was required resulting from some contact on the in lap when lapping back markers in the darkness.

After their successful charge through the field, the number #59 guys seemed a little over eager in their speedy McLarens as they seemed to sustain quite a bit of damage with much pitstop work occurring until they were eventually forced to retire shortly before the halfway point. Car #60 was also a bit war torn as it battled its way through, and by the end of the night had sustained too much damage and spent too long in the pits to be able to mount any kind of a come back, ending up in P40.

After a long and gruelling race, #58 brought the car home in 32nd, however since points are awarded at various points throughout the race, they still managed to score at the six hour mark, therefore allowing McLaren and Rob Bell to maintain their positions at the top of the Blancpain GT series championship.

Intercontinental GT series

As well as being part of the Blancpain GT series, the 24 hours of Spa also forms part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, this being the second round of the inaugural season. Last time out was the Bathurst 12 hours which of course was won by McLaren, with Shane Van Gisbergen taking the win alongside Alvaro Parente and Jonathon Webb. The result at Spa measn that Shane is now down into 2nd place in the championship standings, with Laurens Vanthoor taking over the top spot and Bentley taking the lead in the constructors championship. The final round will be the Sepang 12 hours at the beginning of December.

For those who would rather have a race summary in graph format – here is a depiction of how it went, hour by hour.

Spa 24h McLaren lap chart

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McLarens topping leaderboards everywhere

Blancpain Sprint Series

I love the Blancpain GT series, it’s super accessible. There’s a nice app that reminds you of all the sessions and you can watch all of the action live on the website. There’s also comprehensive youtube coverage. It’s a fan’s dream. http://www.blancpain-gt-series.com/

This weekend Come Ledogar was substituting for Craig Dolby to make his sprint cup debut in car #59. His first time racing at Brands Hatch (I believe) meant that he was disadvantaged from the start with other drivers having a superior knowledge of the track, not least Rob Bell in the #58 McLaren who had raced there just a week earlier in the British GT championship.

Bell and Parente ran well all weekend, keeping near the top of the 37 car line up in free practice 2 and finishing Q3 in 6th place. They were unlucky in the qualifying race when #84 Bauman tapped the back of the McLaren, forcing them aside as he overtook. A move which he later got a drive through penalty for, completely ruining his weekend and thus considerably helping out in the championship following two previous very successful weekends. Whilst the commentators were surprised by the penalty I actually shouted at loud at the news. Vindication! A bit too much passion maybe, it was only a battle for eight place in the qualifying race… It was the Mercedes AMG of Schneider and Szymkowiak who got the top spot.

The main race happened just hours later. From a McLaren fan perspective it was a quiet race, a quiet weekend even. In fact, as we approached the final ten minutes of the hour long race I began to wonder what I might write about, but true to Parente’s usual style, there was a nail biting finish as a safety car bunched the field together, creating a final sprint to the end. Parente in 5th place at the time launched a final attack on the cars ahead of him. Easily leap frogging his way into 4th place, Parente then proceeded to hunt down third place, however sadly he just ran out of laps. Still snapping at the heels of the Bentley as they crossed the line, he finished just one tenth of a second  behind. One more lap and it would have 100% have been a McLaren Garage 59 podium. It was the #33 Audi of Ide and Mies who took the win.

Following the success of the previous sprint and endurance rounds, rather excitingly it is now Rob Bell who leads the Blancpain GT drivers championship. Silverstone up next.

Australian GT

Just to caveat, I find it quite hard to keep up to date with the Australian GT in detail, not least because I’m on completely the wrong side of the world, but it is worth the effort. There are five McLaren 650S GT3s competing in the series! FIVE! With a quarter of the field McLaren, it’s a delight to watch regardless of the actual racing.

Klark Quinn is the dominant McLaren driver, currently heading up the top of the championship, ahead of second placed Nathan Morcom in another McLaren. When googling Quinn to try and find out more I instead stumbled across some man who seemingly has a whole website dedicated to asking the question “are you ready to Quinnovate?” By the time I realised I had spelt his name wrong it was too late. I had spent way too long distracting myself trying to find out what quinnovating actually is and had no time to do any genuine McLaren Klark Quinn reading, so you’ll just have to wait for any deep and meaningful insights picked up by my thorough google researching.

The third round of the Australian GT series was held at Barbagallo Raceway. A big accident on the second lap led to a 20 minute safety car and a trip to the hospital for Geoff Emery. The race was then red flagged to enable officials to to get Emery out of the car and to the hospital and fix the barriers. He is reportedly “in good spirits” which is good news. The race was restarted with 20 minutes left on the clock of what should have been an hour long race. However, to compensate for the lack of pitstops, the race director decided to confuse everyone by adding half of the compulsory pitstop time on to everyone’s time at the end of the race, so no one really knew who was going to end up where. As it was, Quinn looked like he was going to win, was overtaken at the last minute by some Mercedes AMG and then ended up in fourth place after all the random times had been calculated. I literally have no idea what happened, but there are five McLaren’s racing so what else really matters?

McLaren take triple victory

There has been so much spectacular McLaren action this weekend it’s been almost impossible to keep up ad I’m still a bit confused about who won what and where, however basically our GT3 superstars have been showing the world what McLaren is all about by taking three victories across three different series. Count them. Three.

Pirelli World Championship

Another week, another couple of rounds of the Pirelli World Championship and another chance for McLaren factory driver Alvaro Parente to show the world how the McLaren 650S is the best GT3 car on the planet, and he’s pretty awesome too. This week we were in Barber, otherwise known as the Grand Prix of Birmingham, which has a whole other ring to it as a British person. Putting aside that mental image and focussing on the racing, one of the Cadillacs tried to drag race the McLaren to the first corner. Clearly not going to win that one and that was that. According to Parente it was a little more challenging than that but he made it look easy. Parente finished second in the second race of the weekend and is now third in the GT class driver championship.

Blancpain Endurance Cup

Back in Europe, the opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Cup was everything I love about endurance racing. After three hours it was a mere three tenths of a second that separated the winner from the losers. It was the #58 McLaren with Rob Bell, Come Ledogar and Shane Van Gisbergen that took the victory from the second place Mercedes (it felt so good writing that!) It was a tough battle in the last half an hour but the McLaren won out, naturally.

Sadly for the #59 car there was contact on turn one which meant they had to spend some time in the pits and only managed to finish in 36th place, which was still better than 21 other cars, so, er, good.

International GT Open

The first round of the International GT Open was bitter sweet. To give some context to my perspective, there’s a special place in my heart for car #88 with Kevin Estre and Swede Alexander West. As my adopted home and place of minimal motor racing (comparative to the UK), it is truly a beautiful thing when I get to support a swedish driver in a McLaren. It also gives me plenty of excuses to talk about McLaren with random swedish people. Garage 59 had been on track for a double podium finish right up until the last lap when tragedy struck in the form of some other random competitor in an unimportant Lamborghini. Luckily the second McLaren of Benham and Tappy was there to step into the void ensuring a McLaren win. As it should be.

Super Formula

Last but most definitely not by any means least, let us not forget McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne’s exciting Japanese debut the Super Formula. Clearly all warmed up after his fantastic points scoring venture in the Bahrain GP a few weeks ago, he finished in third place. I don’t care if people say it’s just hype, he will be a champion one day.

One step away from the podium

The Blancpain GT series has kicked off for real this weekend with the sprint series. McLaren GT customer team Garage 59 are the team to watch out for with two glorious McLaren 650S GT3s, in stunning black, white and orange Mclareny colours. With an insane 38 cars signed up for the first round and a wealth of hot young talent throughout the field, this year is surely going to be a brilliant year. Not least for Garage 59 with arguably the best driver combo of shiny gold and platinum ranked McLaren superstars in Alvaro Parente, Rob Bell, Craig Dolby and Martin Plowman racing in cars #58 and #59

First up, Misano, Italy, and things are looking promising as Alvaro Parente makes it into second place in an insanely competitive qualifying session that sees the top 15 cars all within one second of one another. As the drivers all line up on the grid for the cold, damp, darkness of the night time qualifying race, Lady Luck’s evil sister struck with car #59 which failed to get away from the gird and proceeded to spend the first 15 minutes of the hour long race in the pits. Dry/wet/in between conditions which are not a McLarens friend, coupled with incorrect tyre pressures meant that car #58 slipped right down the pack, however with a new set of slicks on a drying surface, Bell, the fastest man on the track, managed a speedy drive back up to 9th.

Rob Bell started in the #58 car, managing to get up to 6th, helped along a little by the scuffles up front and a drive through penalty for Vanthoor. It was pretty much a race on his own until after the pitstops when, with some pretty special overtaking, Parente made short work of Rast in the Audi, and moved the #58 up into 5th place. Car 59 was not so lucky as they were dished out a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane. A mechanical failure for third place Rosenqvist moved Parente up once again, finishing only one step away from the podium. A solid finish for the first race of the season.

Despite the army of Audis, there were four different cars finishing in the top four and I can’t wait to see how the McLaren is going to get along when not hampered by non-McLaren friendly weather conditions. This is shaping up to be a very exciting year in the Blancpain GT series. Roll on Monza in two weeks time when the endurance races also kick off!