Emil Frey Lexus Racing snatched a historic Blancpain GT Series victory at Circuit Paul Ricard, when a dramatic final-lap pass brought six hours of action to a thrilling conclusion.
With the French track shrouded in darkness, Albert Costa was aboard the Lexus RC F for the deciding stint. The Spanish ace made the headline move with just four corners remaining, passing the #7 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 of Jules Gounon to secure the first Blancpain GT Series win for the Japanese manufacturer.
In fact, this was also the first Endurance Cup victory for the Emil Frey Racing squad and all three of its drivers, with Costa celebrating his maiden triumph alongside crew-mates Christian Klien and Marco Seefried.
The #14 Lexus was in contention for a strong result throughout the long-distance race, but it was only late in the contest that it emerged as a serious threat for top spot.
Indeed, the #58 Garage 59 McLaren 650 S led for the vast majority of the first five hours. Starting from second on the 50-car grid, the McLaren assumed the lead almost immediately, while the pole-sitting #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin V12 Vantage plummeted down the order.
The #58 crew of Ben Barnicoat, Andrew Watson and Come Ledogar all delivered excellent stints, with their car leading by as much as 12 seconds at one stage.
But their race began to unravel after the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari 488 took the lead at the final round of pit stops, having saved their joker stop – for which there is no minimum time – until the last possible moment.
The Garage 59 crew then hit more trouble when they received a drive-through penalty for an infringement during their final pit stop, all but ending their chances of the win.
Saving their joker for the final stop was a shrewd move by the SMP-Ferrari crew of Mikhail Aleshin, Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina. It looked to have ensured them the win late on, but their hopes were dashed in cruel fashion when a suspension issue forced them out of the race.
In the space of a few dramatic minutes, the two leading cars had fallen out of contention.
This promoted Bentley’s #7 Continental GT3 into top spot, though it was not there through fortune alone. The car had moved from 18th on the grid to second thanks to a clever use of their joker stop during Jordan Pepper’s opening stint. This elevated the car to P4, after which Steven Kane pushed the crew further up the order and into second.
Gounon handled the final stint and was passed by the fast-charging Molina, but when both of the leaders hit problems the young Frenchman found himself in P1.
But, as the clock ticked down, Costa closed in. The Emil Frey driver reduced the gap, although a late full-course yellow looked to have put Gounon beyond reach. Costa was able to close in once more, but as the final lap began the Bentley still held a slender advantage.
Then, with just seconds left before the chequered flag flew, Gounon suffered a problem with the Bentley’s bonnet. Costa pounced and the Lexus surged into the lead, crossing the line for the final time as fireworks lit up the skies above Circuit Paul Ricard.
Behind the leading duo, the #58 McLaren salvaged a strong result with third spot. The #88 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG car of Raffaele Marciello, Adam Christodoulou and Thomas Jaeger took fourth, while GT Sport Motul Team RJN secured their best finish of the season in fifth spot.
Silver Cup honours went to the #78 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini Huracan of Michele Beretta, Sandy Mitchell and Martin Kodric, who took the chequered flag more than half a minute clear of the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG to secure their first Blancpain GT Series win of 2018.
A Ferrari 488 was on top in the Pro-Am category, where the #51 AF Corse machine bagged the class win thanks to the efforts of Duncan Cameron, Gianluca de Lorenzi and Matt Griffin. The #49 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG had led much of the race but, as was the case in the Pro class, a dramatic final hour saw a change at the top of the order.
Arguably the most impressive performance of the race came in the Am Cup category, where the #188 Garage 59 McLaren 650 S of Chris Harris, Alexander West and Chris Goodwin delivered a faultless drive to victory. Indeed, the McLaren finished 18th overall from a starting field of 50, securing the manufacturer a class win 48 years on from the death of its founding father Bruce McLaren.
Following the dramatic events at Circuit Paul Ricard, the attentions of drivers and teams will turn to the 70th edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa. The official test day is scheduled for July 3rd, while the main event will take place on 26-29 July at the legendary Belgian venue.
Should the 24 Hours end in a similar manner to the Circuit Paul Ricard contest, it will be one for the record books.