Not only was it a landmark success for the British manufacturer in its 100th anniversary year, but the win was reward for the M-Sport crew of Jules Gounon, Steven Kane and Jordan Pepper who came within a lap of taking the race last season. On that occasion, Gounon was passed on the final tour of the six-hour contest, however on this occasion the young Frenchman was on board for the final stint and took the chequered flag to seal Bentley’s triumph.
Victory at Circuit Paul Ricard marks a return to winning ways for the M-Sport outfit two years after its most recent triumph, which came at the very same event, whilst it is also the team’s third win at the track since taking its maiden Endurance Cup success there in 2014.
Despite having pole position, the Bentley squad had to work hard to earn their place on the top step of the podium after six hours of racing. Pepper was passed for the lead at the start by the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG, but the South African fought back into P1 between two safety car periods to hand over to Kane in the lead.
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The British driver also faced stiff opposition and was overtaken by the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan of Andrea Caldarelli. Kane then made clever use of a safety car to stop for fuel and fresh Pirelli tyres, which allowed him to return to the front of the field once more. The #107 Bentley remained at the head of the pack as the four-hour mark approached. It meant Gounon, who set the best time during the morning’s qualifying session, only needed to bring the car home during the final two hours. That would not prove to be straightforward though as a slow stop dropped the #107 Bentley into second position and a full eight seconds behind the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari 488.
Gounon immediately showed his pace, taking significant time out of Miguel Molina’s advantage in the Italian machine. The Bentley was closing on to the rear of the Ferrari, but did not need to make an overtake as the SMP car was hit with a drive-through for an earlier pit stop infringement. After Molina had served the penalty with 90 minutes remaining, Gounon held a lead of 14 seconds.
The French driver would then go on to show his maturity to maintain his advantage over the closing stages of the race, resisting the temptation to over-work the car while still pulling away. When his final pit stop ran without major incident, Gounon was on his way to victory. He extended his advantage over the concluding hour, eventually winning by a hugely impressive margin of 37 seconds.
Second spot went to the #72 SMP Ferrari, an excellent result for the squad following its drive-through penalty and after starting 15th on the grid, with the crew of Aleshin, Rigon and Molina now leading the Endurance Cup drivers’ standings.The podium was completed by the #563 FFF Lamborghini, which snatched the place during the final five minutes. Marco Mapelli was at the wheel and found his way past the #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage AMR to secure another top-three for the Chinese outfit.
The Silver Cup class was typically competitive, with several crews contending for the win. The pole-sitting #55 Attempto Racing Audi R8 LMS was eliminated early on, after which the #333 Rinaldi Racing 488 showed very strongly at the top of the order before running into trouble. The #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG then assumed the class lead, but the French squad was subsequently hit with a penalty for crossing the white line at pit exit.
This allowed the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS to seize P1, but a stellar final stint by Felipe Fraga in the AKKA ASP machine saw the Brazilian re-take the lead with less than 10 minutes left on the clock. It capped another superb showing by the #90 Mercedes-AMG crew, which secured its second class win of the season following victory at the Monza opener.
In the Pro-Am, the all-French AKKA ASP line-up took a popular home victory with its #87 Mercedes-AMG. The crew of Jean-Luc Beaubelique, Mauro Ricci and Jim Pla led for a large portion of the event, but saw the #74 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG stay in the hunt until the finish. However Pla remained in command and went on to beat Tom Onslow-Cole to secure class honours and ensure a double victory for AKKA ASP at its local event.
The Am Cup category was won in commanding fashion by the #188 Garage 59 Aston Martin Vantage AMR, which led from pole and never looked troubled on its drive to victory. It represented a return to the top step for the crew of Chris Harris, Alexander West and Chris Goodwin, whose last triumph was at this event 12 months ago. It also broke a run of four successive wins by the #77 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini Huracan, which finished second in class after making a late pass on the #488 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari.
The major incident of the race occurred on the opening lap, when the #2 Audi R8 LMS of Ezequiel Perez Companc (Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) and the #444 Ferrari 488 of Florian Scholze (HB Racing) crashed into the barriers at high-speed. Both were attended to quickly by the on-site staff, allowing the race to resume after the safety car period. There was no such drama for Bentley Team M-Sport as the British squad and the hugely impressive Gounon built an insurmountable gap.
Events in France set matters up nicely for next month’s Total 24 Hours of Spa (25-28 July) when Bentley will tackle the season’s marquee event with an expanded line-up of four cars as it seeks to conquer the Belgian endurance classic in its centenary year.
Before then though, there is Round 5 with the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe in Misano, Italy, from 28 to 30 June.
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