Raffaele Marciello and Michael Meadows clinched the 2018 Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup drivers’ title by taking victory in a dramatic season-closing race at the Nürburgring.
Piloting the #88 Mercedes-AMG, the AKKA ASP duo overcame a 9.5-point deficit to Christopher Mies and Alex Riberas (#1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) in a battle that remained impossible to call until the final moments.
The WRT drivers’ advantage meant that a fourth-place finish would ensure them the title regardless of what Marciello and Meadows achieved and cap a perfect Sprint Cup season for the Belgian squad, which clinched the teams’ championship following Saturday’s race.
The 60-minute contest began with Luca Stolz on pole in his #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG. The Silver Cup runner held his advantage into the opening turn, while Marciello slotted into P2 after going wheel-to-wheel with Dries Vanthoor’s #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine.
Vanthoor went wide and suffered a puncture, effectively ending the #2 Audi’s chances, while Christopher Haase assumed third spot in his #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi R8 LMS.
The lead battle soon settled down, with Stolz running around one second clear of Marciello for the opening stint and Haase gradually falling behind the two Mercedes-AMGs.
But while the leaders edged away the attention was focussed on Mies in the #1 WRT-Audi. The German driver started from 13th position following an accident in qualifying, but made instant progress by leaping to ninth on the first lap.
He then found himself behind the #87 AKKA-Mercedes of Adam Christodoulou, but was eventually able to make a pass into the opening corner after the British driver was slowed by Robin Frijns (#17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT).
Mies lapped well in clean air and was the first of the leading contenders to stop, diving into the pits before the 30-minute mark to hand over to Riberas.
As the pit stop phase progressed the title battle seemed to be shifting in favour of the WRT squad. Crucially, Riberas was able to overhaul the #19 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan of Ezequiel Perez Companc.
The momentum then swung back to the AKKA ASP crew as Marciello and Stolz stopped at the same time. The #88 Mercedes-AMG was able to exit the pits just ahead of the #6 car, with Meadows taking the race lead and Hubert Haupt now second.
When the pit window closed Simon Gachet was next across the line in the #25 Sainteloc-Audi, while Steijn Schothorst was fourth in the #66 Attempto Racing Audi. But, with Riberas rapidly closing on to the rear of the #66 machine, it looked as though the Spanish driver would be able to make the pass to take fourth – and with it the Sprint Cup title.
What followed was a tense duel between Schothorst and Riberas, with the young Dutchman fighting for every inch of track to keep the WRT-Audi behind. Out front Meadows was doing his job perfectly, leading in the #88 AKKA-Mercedes, but the destination of the title was now out of his hands.
Finally, with just four minutes left on the clock, Riberas launched an attack into turn 1. Both drivers ran wide and then went door-to-door for the next turn, but Riberas made another move that looked to have sealed the position and perhaps the championship.
Schothorst fought back, and as the two Audi cars tussled the #19 Lamborghini joined the battle. The #1 WRT-Audi came off worst, sliding into the gravel and dropping behind both the #66 and the #19. Riberas made it back on to the circuit, but had suffered a puncture that was enough to force him into the pits. Having briefly held the position that would have made them champions, the #1 car was suddenly out of contention.
That meant the #88 AKKA-Mercedes only needed to finish third to secure enough points for the championship. In fact, Meadows had held the lead for the entirety of the second stint and crossed the line as the race winner and the new Sprint Cup champion. In the pits, a jubilant Marciello celebrated their success with the AKKA ASP crew.
Haupt crossed the line in second place and as Silver Cup winner after a superb performance in the #6 Mercedes-AMG. The German kept Meadows honest for the second half of the race and closed to within a second of the British driver during the closing stages.
The podium was completed by Gachet, who recorded a third top-three finish from as many Sprint Cup weekends for the #25 Sainteloc-Audi crew. Schothorst held fourth – a crucial result, as it secured third in the standings for him and Kelvin van der Linde – while Perez Companc completed the top-five.
The Pro-Am category was won by the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 488, which made up 10 places during the opening lap in the hands of David Perel. The South African driver then handed over to Rinat Salikhov, who completed a strong comeback following a race-ending collision in Saturday’s contest.
The Pro-Am title, meanwhile, was secured by Markus Winkelhock and Nyls Stievenart (#26 Sainteloc Racing Audi R8 LMS), who completed the job with third in class. The Sainteloc crew also wrapped up the Pro-Am teams’ championship in the process, ahead of the Kessel Racing squad. The Silver Cup title was sealed last time out at the Hungaroring, with Jack Manchester and Nico Bastian (#90 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG) taking class honours.
Following the closing Sprint Cup contest of 2018 the Blancpain GT Series will conclude with a three-hour race at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya (28-30 September). The Spanish venue plays host to the final Endurance Cup event of the season and will also see the overall championships decided.
Marciello heads into the deciding round leading the overall drivers’ standings from Mies and Riberas, while Belgian Audi Club Team WRT and AKKA ASP Team are tied on points. Another dramatic encounter is in store as the curtain falls on the 2018 campaign.
Raffaele Marciello, #88 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG GT3: “There was quite a lot of emotion because as well as the Sprint Cup I am fighting for the overall drivers’ championship. It was tough, because you don’t know what you can risk and what you can’t. Then we needed to wait, because Michael was in front but the #1 Audi was fighting the #66. I am really happy to win the championship, because Sprint Cup is super-tough, especially with the pit stops. My thanks to AKKA ASP and to Michael, because they did a very good job. Now we need to finish well in Barcelona.”
Hubert Haupt, #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3: “First of all, it is fantastic for us to win the Silver Cup. I was surprised to be so quick today, but the car was fantastic and we are really happy. We were a bit slow in the pit stop, so we need to practice that because the others gained three or four seconds there. But we scored good points for the overall Silver Cup championship. In Barcelona we have to be in front of the #90 Mercedes-AMG to be champions, which would be fantastic.”
Christopher Haase, #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi R8 LMS: “For us this has been another great weekend. At the beginning my Sainteloc Audi R8 was just fantastic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t follow the two Mercedes. I tried everything, using every millimetre of track, but was always losing a few tenths each lap. We had a good pit stop and then Simon had another fantastic drive to the end to make the podium possible.”
David Perel, #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 488 GT3: “We had quite a bit of bad luck yesterday, so I was really looking forward to today. The start was fantastic. I chose some really good lines that I’ve been practicing in the sim and made up 10 places on the first lap. That set the tone for the whole race and we were then able to jump the Pro-Am leaders in the pits. Well done to Rinat for his pace during the race and thank you to our team for their work. We were just here for enjoyment, but I hope that next year we can do the full Sprint Cup championship.”