The fifth meeting of the season promises to be the most visually impressive yet, with headlights and brake discs cutting through the darkness at the French venue. A total of 51 cars will take the start at 17.45 CET on Saturday evening and compete for up to six hours, with the podium ceremony scheduled to begin shortly before midnight.
With a longer-than-usual race distance comes the reward of additional points: the winners will take home 33 rather than the 25 usually awarded at Endurance Cup races, with 24 for the runners-up and 19 for third.
But, at this stage of the season, championship standings are not at the top of the agenda. As the final Endurance Cup round before the Total 24 Hours of Spa (26-29 July), the Paul Ricard event allows for crucial fine-tuning ahead of the most important race of the year.
A strong result is still the main objective, but there is also considerable focus on uncovering information that could make the difference between glory and heartbreak at the Total 24 Hours.
25-CAR GRID FOR THRIVING PRO CLASS
As was the case at Monza and Silverstone, Paul Ricard will play host to a hugely competitive field of Pro class contenders.
The French circuit represents a home race for AKKA ASP Team, who took runner-up spot at Silverstone thanks to the #88 Mercedes-AMG of Raffaele Marciello, Tristan Vautier and Adam Christodoulou. Vautier steps aside this weekend, but the addition of Thomas Jaeger ensures there will be no drop-off in quality.
There will be a further four Pro class Mercedes-AMG machines on the grid at Paul Ricard, including the SMP Racing-backed #35 AKKA entry. Black Falcon will field their #4 machine while British outfit Strakka Racing are set to deploy their #43 and #44 entries, with 2016 Stock Car Brazil champion Felipe Fraga joining the latter crew for Paul Ricard.
R-Motorsport were in devastating form at the Silverstone, with the #76 crew of Nicki Thiim, Jake Dennis and Matthieu Vaxiviere converting pole into a comfortable victory for their Aston Martin V12 Vantage. They will now have their sights set on back-to-back triumphs, while the sister #62 car should also be in contention following a solid run to fifth at the British venue.
At the conclusion of the Silverstone race, the jubilation of the R-Motorsport crew was matched only by the emotion in the Emil Frey Lexus Racing garage.
The team achieved a major milestone at the British circuit, with third place for their #114 car of Stephane Ortelli, Norbert Siedler and Markus Palttala representing the first podium for Lexus in the Blancpain GT Series. They will be targeting another strong result at Paul Ricard alongside the sister #14 car.
The Emil Frey Lexus held on to its podium spot at Silverstone despite intense pressure from the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine. This ended a fine run for the German marque as, for the first time in 2018, there was no Audi representation on the podium.
But, with five cars competing in the Pro class, there is every chance of a return to the top-three this weekend. The WRT squad will field their regular #1 and #17 entries, with the former featuring overall points leaders Christopher Mies and Alex Riberas alongside second-placed man Dries Vanthoor.
Audi’s remaining Pro class representatives consist of two cars from Attempto Racing and one from Sainteloc Racing. The latter sees Markus Winkelhock join regular drivers Christopher Haase and Simon Gachet in the #25 Pro entry, with the French squad preparing to defend their Total 24 Hours of Spa victory from 2017.
In the six previous visits to this circuit, only a Bentley has taken victory in the Pro category more than once. The #8 crew of Andy Soucek, Maxime Soulet and Vince Abril secured top spot last year and return to hunt a repeat victory in 2018.
In 2014 the #7 Continental GT3 took the spoils, though from their winning crew that day only Steven Kane remains part of the line-up. He is joined by Jules Gounon and Jordan Pepper, with the latter making his first Blancpain GT Series appearance for the marque following the retirement of Bentley stalwart Guy Smith.
Lamborghini will once again be represented by three cars from the Grasser Racing stable. Local ace Franck Perera will hope to kick-start his season aboard the #82 Huracan, while Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart – who share the #63 with Andrea Caldarelli – will be looking to continue their record of scoring points in every Blancpain GT Series race this season.
There is significant French interest among #911 Manthey Racing Porsche crew, where Dirk Werner is joined by a pair of local favourites: Romain Dumas and Fred Makowiecki. There will also be two BMW M6 GT3s on the grid courtesy of the ROWE Racing squad.
Ferrari will be represented by the #72 SMP Racing machine, which showed good pace at both Monza and Silverstone, while the McLaren 650 S GT3 is fielded by the Garage 59 squad and includes French ace Come Ledogar. Finally, the new-for-2018 Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 makes its third competitive appearance under the stewardship of GT Sport Motul Team RJN.
COMPETITIVE GRIDS FOR PRO-AM, SILVER CUP AND AM CUP
With 25 Pro entries confirmed for Paul Ricard, the event enjoys near-perfect competitive balance thanks to the addition of a further 26 cars across the Pro-Am, Silver Cup and Am Cup classes.
A clear favourite is yet to emerge in Pro-Am, with the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 488 having triumphed at Monza and the #49 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG taking top spot at Silverstone. Another competitive battle is in store this weekend, with 10 cars set to contest the class.
Rinaldi’s crew of Rinat Salikhov, Alexander Mattschull and Dominik Schwager are joined in the Ferrari camp by a pair of AF Corse machines, with Gianluca de Lorenzi linking up with regular drivers Duncan Cameron and Matt Griffin in the #51 machine.
Ram Racing’s Silverstone-winning crew of Salih Yoluc, Darren Burke and Euan Hankey are one of four Mercedes-AMG entries on the grid. They will face stiff competition from the #42 Strakka Racing squad of Chris Buncombe, Nick Leventis and Lewis Williamson, who have shown pace at both events but are yet to take a class win. Entries from AKKA ASP and Black Falcon complete the Mercedes contingent in Pro-Am.
Also competing for class honours are the #27 Daiko Lazarus Racing squad with their Lamborghini Huracan, and the older-spec Bentley Continental GT3 of Team Parker Racing. The #888 Car Collection Motorsport crew, led by the experienced Frank Stippler, complete the Pro-Am field.
While no clear leader has emerged in Pro-Am, the same cannot be said of the Silver Cup class. The Emil Frey Racing G3 Jaguar was the pacesetter at both Monza and Silverstone, but while it secured victory at the Italian event there was no repeat triumph at the British circuit.
Despite leading for much of the race, late problems for the Jaguar allowed the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG of Abdulaziz Al Faisal, Hubert Haupt and Gabriele Piana to seize victory. There is further Mercedes representation from the overall Silver Cup points leaders Jack Manchester and Nico Bastian, who share their #90 AKKA ASP entry with Jules Szymkowiak.
Lamborghini will again be represented by four Silver Cup cars, with Ombra Racing, Daiko Lazarus and Barwell Motorsport all fielding Huracans. But the most consistently quick Lambo has been the veteran Gallardo R-EX of Reiter Young Stars, with Lenny Marioneck, Mads Siljehaug and Patric Niederhauser showing an impressive turn of speed at both Monza and Silverstone.
The Silver Cup contingent is completed by Oman Racing with TF Sport’s Aston Martin V12 Vantage, and the previous-spec Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 of GT Sport Motul Team RJN.
Finally, the Am Cup class promises to add further excitement to proceedings, with an additional entry boosting the field to seven cars.
The points lead is currently held by the AKKA ASP squad. Their crew of Philippe Giauque, Eric Debard and Fabien Barthez triumphed at Monza and took a runner-up finish at Silverstone, confirming their ability to fight for the class title in 2018.
But they will not have it all their own way at Paul Ricard. Having secured victory on home turf, the Garage 59-run McLaren of Chris Harris, Alexander West and Chris Goodwin will be hunting a repeat triumph on AKKA’s home turf.
Walkenhorst Motorsport will once again field their BMW M6, while Barwell Motorsport’s Lamborghini Huracan will see Francisco Guedes return to the British outfit’s line-up. The Rinaldi Racing squad will deploy their Ferrari 488, while Porsche have Am Cup representation thanks to the #991 Herberth Motorsport machine.
The additional car comes from Sainteloc Racing, whose #26 Audi R8 LMS has run in the Pro-Am class at previous rounds. But, with Winkelhock stepping up to the #25 Pro car, his regular teammates Marc Rostan and Nyls Stievenart are joined by Christian Kelders to form an Am Cup line-up and add further depth to the class.
Preparations for the Paul Ricard race will begin on Friday (1 June), with free practice taking place at 10.50 CET, followed by the pre-qualifying session at 15.40. On Saturday, qualifying begins at 09.40 before the 1000km race gets underway at 17.45.