After four years of blood, sweat and tears, Bentley Team M-Sport lifted the biggest GT3 endurance trophy in the world: The Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. But the championship finale wasn’t plain sailing for the British team. Writing exclusively Mobil 1 The Grid, Bentley team manager Matthew Wilson relives the drama of a winning weekend the team would rather forget.
Walking into any motorsport team paddock is like stepping onto a rollercoaster – You have no idea where it’s going to take you, but you know that it has the potential to send you on the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This weekend, the final round of the Blancpain GT Series at Barcelona certainly gave us one heck of a ride.
We entered leading both the teams’ and drivers’ championships in the Endurance Cup – and our youngest driver, Vince Abril, was in contention for the overall GT drivers’ title. Testing had gone well at Barcelona just a few weeks earlier and our Continental GT3s had been quick and reliable all season. It’s fair to say that, as I walked into the paddock in Barcelona, I thought that a fair bit would have to go wrong for us to lose our lead.
On Saturday morning, we headed out on track and the rollercoaster ride had already begun. We steadily climbed up the timesheets and, by the end of the day, we were feeling good. Both cars were set up well for qualifying, we had six happy drivers and, although the second session had been wet, we had practiced in various conditions and had ended the day feeling prepared for any eventuality that may come our way.
On Sunday morning, we walked into a wet paddock. We received the weather forecast from MeteoFrance, warning to expect some showers later in the day, but that qualifying would be dry.
On inspection, the track was damp, but there was a dry enough line to go out on slicks, so we sent Vince out in car #8 and Guy Smith out in car #7 to complete qualifying session one.
With the track drying with each lap, the times began to drop and the cars began to push harder, but the final turn wasn’t drying as quickly as everywhere else. Vince came around the final corner and applied the power onto the straight and we watched him save a little slide. Moments later, Guy came around in much the same way though, this time, hitting a slightly wetter patch, which sent him front-end first into the pit wall.
As Guy came over the radio, we breathed a sigh of relief. But as we looked at the car, our hearts sank. The front-end was destroyed. Our engineers ran to parc ferme to meet the car there. The consensus was that it could be fixed, but maybe not in the four hours we had until the start of the race. As far as I was concerned, we only had one option: To do whatever it takes to get the car safely back on track.
It’s no secret that our team has a background in rallying, and it is moments such as these where our ‘never give up’ attitude and a underlying belief in our ability to fix anything comes into play. With just moments to spare, the team opened the garage doors and, to the amazement of our neighbouring teams and drivers, Guy headed out for a formation lap. With everything working fine, he returned to the pits to start the race.
The sense of pride in seeing that car leave the garage was unbelievable. It was definitely a highlight of the weekend. I thought to myself, ‘Right, that’s the bad luck out of the way, now we just have to secure the drivers’ title with the boys in car #8, Andy [Soucek], Max [Soulet] and Vince.’
Though we were pleased to be out on track, it’s fair to say that qualifying hadn’t gone that well for the car #8 crew. Mixed conditions and bad luck with traffic meant we would be starting from well back on the grid, in 28th. With an eight-point lead over our Lamborghini rival starting in P2, we had a challenge on our hands. But one we knew that we could achieve if things went our way.
And that’s certainly how it started. In the first 90 minutes of the race, Vince and Andy had climbed the car into the top ten. The Lamborghini had dropped back, putting us on course to win both Endurance Cup trophies, as things stood. We were back on top of the world!
But then, everything changed again. Just when it felt like nothing more could go wrong for this team, our third disaster of the weekend struck. During a fantastic three-way battle with the BMW and Jaguar, impact occurred.
As one of the strongest cars on the grid, we didn’t worry too much initially, and allowed our Continental GT3 to continue to race. However, as Andy came back through sector three, he couldn’t find his gears and had to pull into the pits and retire the car.
Andy’s on-screen reaction spoke for the entire team. We were devastated. The race had been taken from our control. We had become bystanders in our own battle. If the Lamborghini finished seventh or above, the drivers’ title would be taken from us. If it finished second or above, we’d go home empty-handed.
As the chequered flag dropped, the Lamborghini finished in third and we had won the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup teams’ title. It was a fantastic achievement for the whole of the Bentley Team M-Sport crew, who had delivered great results all season – We’d won the Paul Ricard 1000 kms and taken second place in the 24 Hours of Spa, after all.
Since launching the car at the start of 2014, Bentley has won multiple championships with the Continental GT3: The Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, British GT, GT Asia and – now – the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. What’s more, our customer teams have won races in America and Asia, and we’ve put ourselves on that podium at the Bathurst 12 Hours in Australia.
Though we were disappointed in Barcelona, a chance to reflect on the season leaves us feeling proud of our achievements. We’ve had so many highs and lows along the way, but that’s what makes our sport so exciting. We try to control what we can but, the truth is, so much of our fate is out of our hands. Every year when we step on that rollercoaster, we hope for the best and know that victory is all the more rewarding when it’s been hard-earned.
Matthew Wilson was writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid. For more from Matthew and Bentley Motorsport, follow Bentley Racing on Twitter (@BentleyRacing). Images provided by Bentley Racing & Gary Parravani/Xynamic.