It was a flag-flying day down under at the weekend when Jordan Pepper helped Bentley break its Intercontinental GT Challenge duck to win the Bathurst 12 Hour race and Kelvin van der Linde took his Audi R8 to the fastest lap of the race.
Bentley not only won the race but set a new distance record of 314 laps (1 950,8 km) at the Mount Panorama track with the M-Sport trio Jules Gounon, Maxime Soulet and Jordan Pepper enjoying a largely trouble-free run from 11th on the grid, the lowest starting position for any winner since the event’s first edition in 1991 – even a high-speed tyre blowout along Conrod Straight within sight of the final hour could not derail the crew.
McLaren finished second overall – some 41s behind the Bentley – while Mercedes-AMG and Porsche completed Intercontinental’s podium after Triple Eight’s Shane van Gisbergen, Jamie Whincup and Maxi Goetz beat Absolute’s Matt Campbell, Mathieu Jamient and Patrick Pilet.
Their positions were only confirmed post-race when GruppeM Racing’s Mercedes-AMG was penalised for a late pitstop infringement. Raffaele Marciello, Maxi Buhk and Felipe Fraga had been nip and tuck with the Bentley for much of the race and might have even challenged the Continental GT3 for victory over the closing 30 minutes were it not for a late puncture.
Indeed, GruppeM signalled its intent at the start when Buhk jumped from third to first at Turn 1. He remained out front for much of the opening stint until Ben Barnicoat prised open a gap at The Chase.
Several more cars took turns at the front during a Safety Car-interrupted first quarter. But while others grabbed the headlines, Bentley began edging into contention through a combination of sheer pace and short-fuelling their lead entry. Soulet had climbed to third by the end of the second hour before Pepper took the lead for the first time during the fifth.
Differing strategies then saw the Bentley consistently swap places with GruppeM’s Mercedes-AMG during their respective pit cycles. Only occasionally together on track, the battle was a predominantly proxy-war fought out until the penultimate round of stops when Marciello jumped ahead by dint of not changing tyres.
By contrast, Gounon’s fresh rubber helped the Frenchman reel in his Italian rival. Little separated them when Marciello took new tyres during his final scheduled stop with just over an hour to go. Gounon continued but was forced in soon after when his right-rear tyre blew heading down Conrod Straight. Somehow the time lost was not enough for Marciello to take advantage, and it was the Bentley that headed into the last hour out front.
Gounon’s six-second lead then grew significantly when a puncture forced Marciello in with 15 minutes remaining. He recovered to re-take second from the McLaren but was relegated to sixth post-race as the result of a pit infringement.
That left Triple Eight and Craft-Bamboo/Black Falcon as Mercedes-AMG’s top-two entries in third and fifth overall, as well as second and fourth in the Intercontinental classification. However, just like GruppeM, the car shared by Maro Engel, Luca Stolz and Yelmer Buurman was denied a podium when it picked up a puncture.
A late splash and dash for fuel dropped Absolute Racing’s #912 Porsche out of podium contention, but its second entry was on hand to claim an #IntGTC rostrum in fourth overall. Those points combined with #912’s leave Porsche joint-second in the early Manufacturers’ Championship with Bentley, who trail Mercedes-AMG by five points.
Aston Martin occupy fourth in the standings after its two surviving Vantages scored points. Garage 59 and R-Motorsport both suffered heavy accidents across the weekend but their second cars came through to finish 14th and 16th overall, and seventh and eighth of the #IntGTC contingent.
Audi’s promising weekend ultimately resulted in just six points after all three of its Team Valvoline Pro entries suffered separate issues and accidents. However, Kelvin van der Linde hinted at what might have been by setting fastest lap in the closing stages.
The single-car entries fielded by Lamborghini, BMW and Honda all failed to finish, while HubAuto Corsa’s Ferrari was withdrawn following an accident on Saturday.
Elsewhere, SRO Motorsports Group’s pledge to donate $5 AUD for every lap completed by Intercontinental GT Challenge entries raised $25 200 AUD for the Australian Lions Club Foundation National Bushfire Appeal. The event also attracted a record three-day attendance of 43 111.
Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli continues at the Total 24 Hours of Spa on July 23-26.