Akkodis ASP Team pairing Jim Pla and Jean Luc Beaubelique emerged at the front of an unpredictable opening GT4 European Series race at Misano, benefiting from a mid-race caution period that jumbled the order hugely to score the first outright victory for a Pro-Am crew this season.
Pla recovered from a tough start to the race to climb back up to second and then passed pole-sitter Lluc Ibañez for the lead just as the pit window opened. However, a full course yellow to clear debris on track coincided perfectly with the pit cycle, allowing many to complete their driver changes with the race at reduced speed.
Pla and Beaubelique timed their stop perfectly, emerging ahead and Beaubelique successfully fended off Kenny Herremans/Dante Rappange’s V8 Racing Chevrolet Camaro to claim the win.
It wasn’t all bad for Ibañez and Joulié, who still celebrated the Silver Cup victory in their #15 NM Racing Team Mercedes-AMG, albeit down in 11th place overall after the crazy pit period. The Spanish team also dominated the Am class fight on track, with Stanislav Safronov and Aleksandr Vaintrub bringing the #88 Mercedes-AMG to class victory in a superb seventh overall. However, a post-race penalty later elevated Benjamin and Mauro Ricci to top spot in the #61 Akkodis ASP Team Mercedes-AMG.
Akkodis times it right for victory
Qualifying on Saturday proved that the Mercedes-AMG GT4 was perfectly at home around a sweltering Misano with the brand locking out the top three spots on the grid. NM Racing Team’s Lluc Ibañez and Enzo Joulié snatched pole by just 0.043s ahead of Pla and Simon Gachet in the sister Akkodis ASP car.
However, the top three wouldn’t even last until the first corner as Pla got a slow start and was dumped back to fourth immediately, with Allied Racing’s Vincent Andronaco catapulting the #22 Porsche 718 Cayman up to second, right behind poleman Ibañez. Andronaco used a slipstream to briefly pass the Spaniard for the lead, but then got things wrong out of the last corner, allowing Ibañez to draft back past at the start of the second lap.
From then, Ibañez focused on pulling out a gap to the pack, and he managed to build a cushion of 1.5s before things started to close up behind. Determined to make amends for his start, Pla managed to fight his way past Gachet to recover third before then slipping past Andronaco to run second. With the lead Mercedes in his sights, Pla managed to reel in Ibañez and grab the lead into turn one just before the pit window opened and the race was turned on its head.
A handful of cars hit trouble in the heat, with Luca Bosco having to stop the #34 Mercedes-AMG with a problem, before Antoine Potty’s Toyota and Antoine Leclerc’s Alpine both stopped off the track. There was also contact between Alexander Hartvig’s #44 Allied Porsche and the championship-leading #10 Racing Spirit of Léman Aston Martin, which consigned the Porsche to the pits for front-end repairs. To make matters worse for Allied, Andronaco then spun out of third with a left-rear puncture.
That all added up to the race director having to call a full course yellow to clear the stranded cars, debris and gravel from the track safely, and in doing so it jumbled the race order. The neutralisation of the race coincided perfectly with the Pro-Am crews making their stops, meaning they could get their mandatory driver changes out of the way with the race at reduced speed.
When the order worked out, Beaubelique led the way ahead of Eric Debard in the #81 Akkodis car. Kenny Herremans ran third in the V8 Racing Chevrolet Camaro that Dante Rappange had done brilliantly to bring into the top five before the pit stops. In comparison, Joulié rejoined as the leading Silver Cup runner all the way down in 11th overall.
Herremans dived past Debard for second and tried to chase down Beaubelique, but his charge was stopped by a second caution period called for a three-car collision involving Aleksandr Vaintrub and Pascal Gibon’s Mercedes and Rodrigue Gillion’s PROsport Aston Martin.
Racing did resume with five minutes left, but with traffic between Herremans and the lead Mercedes-AMG, the win was secured for Pla and Beaubelique, and with it a healthy boost to their Pro-Am championship lead.
The Camaro would later be docked two places for passing the #81 during the caution period, putting it back to fourth in the result.
The fight for third on the road featured an incredible finish as a queue of cars attacked Debard on the final lap. Ivan Jacoma tried to get past in the Centri Porsche Ticino Cayman but was delayed by Debard’s defence, opening the door for Fabien Michal to make an opportunistic move for fourth in the #42 Saintéloc Racing Audi. Michal then got a great drive out of the final turn to out-drag Debard to the finish by 0.056s and snatch third on the road, but second after the Camaro's penalty.
Jacoma and Alex Fontana were fifth, ahead of Laurent Hurgon and Jean-Baptiste Mela’s Autosport GP Alpine.
Riccis grab AM victory after penalty for NM
The disrupted pit cycle also helped the Am runners, with NM Racing Team’s Stanislav Safronov and Aleksandr Vaintrub taking victory on the road before being penalised post-race. However, with the top two in the championship both failing to score, the title fight remains wide open.
Vaintrub brought the #88 Mercedes-AMG home in seventh overall, but was handed a 45-second penalty after the race for his part in the clash with Gibon and Gillion. That moved Benjamin and Mauro Ricci to the top step of the podium, with W&S Motorsport Porsche pairing Mikhail Loboda and Andrey Solukovtsev taking second ahead of Johan Vannerum and Jean-Luc Behets’ Selleslagh Racing Team Mercedes-AMG.
As for the championship top two, Michael Blanchemain had to retire the #69 Team Fullmotorsport Audi with broken suspension after a kerb strike on lap two, and then points leaders Wilfried Cazalbon and Julien Lambert were put out by damage sustained in an accident right after their pit stop.
Ibañez and Joulié take huge Silver Cup win
And that wasn’t the only championship drama, as the fight for Silver Cup honours was blown open by Ibañez and Joulié’s class win and a first retirement of the year for runaway leaders Bowers and Lachenauer.
Once he rejoined in the class lead after taking over from Ibañez, Joulié was never really threatened and raced to the flag ahead of Benjamin Lariche and Robert Consani’s Team Speedcar Audi R8, but the biggest swing was a third place for two-time Circuit Paul Ricard winners Mike David Ortmann and Hugo Sasse in the #24 PROsport Aston Martin. When Bowers had to bring the #10 Vantage into the pits when exhaust damage from the earlier clash threatened to destroy the car’s gearbox, it allowed Ortmann and Sasse to dramatically close the gap in the championship.
That leaves things tight heading into the second GT4 European Series race, which is scheduled for 11:15CEST on Sunday morning.