It was tears of joy and tears of sadness at Kyalami on Saturday for the 9-Hours of the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli – the joy being the overall win by Sheldon van der Linde and team mates Augusto Farfus and Nick Catsburg in the Walkenhorst Motor sport BMW M6, the sadness coming early in the race when championship contender Jordan Pepper saw his hopes vanish in a puff of smoke when his racing Bentley expired.
In addition to being part of the winning team, Farfus and Catsburg clinched the Drivers championship.
Audi Sport Team WRT’s Frederic Vervisch, Mirko Bortolotti and Charles Weerts came home second ahead of Matt Campbell, Patrick Pilet and Mathieu Jaminet (GPX Racing) who sealed the Manufacturers’ crown for Porsche in third overall.
Campbell also set not one but two new GT3 lap records, his second a 1m42.021s.
The race started well for the Bentley team with Pepper just being outdragged off the line by the pole-sitting Honda NSX shared by Mario Farnbacher, Renger van der Zande and Bertrand Baguette. Pepper slotted into second place, harrying the Honda.
This was to be the final race for the the British manufacturer, and it ended disappointingly when a day that started so well for the championship chasing #7 crew went literally up in smoke at the start of hour three. Pepper and Jules Gounon ran second throughout their stints before Maxime Soulet’s day ended almost before it began.
The #34 M6 spent most of the race inside the top-five but didn’t become a serious victory or championship contender until the final hour when a heavy thunderstorm turned the outcome on its head.
A final necessary fuel stop for Team Honda Racing and WRT’s need to re-set Frederic Vervisch’s stint length left the BMW in prime position when conditions required Full Course Yellow and Safety Car periods through until the chequered flag.
The pole-winning NSX had dominated up until that point. Indeed, the sole Honda – which needed to win to have any realistic chance of scooping the Drivers’ crown – remained the de facto race leader for almost eight hours after initially resisting Jordan Pepper’s Bentley into Turn 1.
It faced serious pressureonly in the seventh hour when Audi Sport Team Car Collection’s Patric Niederhauser moved to within 1,5 seconds. At that stage the winner would also lift the Drivers’ crown, but Midrand’s famously unpredictable weather was about to deny both entries.
Ninety minutes remained when the day’s first meaningful rain caught out Alex Buncombe whose stranded Bentley called for a Full Course Yellow. Walkenhorst were first to react to the deluge, which subsequently sent everyone into the pits for wet tyres. This was the moment that effectively ended Honda’s challenge: unlike its rivals, the team opted against also taking on fuel, leaving no choice but stop again for a full service before the finish.
Of course, the team wasn’t to know that, barring a few racing laps in torrential conditions, the rest of the race would be run either under FCY or behind the Safety Car. And with the lower speeds also reducing fuel consumption, the Honda ultimately lost out to those that only required a trip through the pits without stopping to re-set their stint lengths.
Car Collection’s chances ended when Mattia Drudi span in the treacherous conditions, which – with just over an hour remaining – prompted the FCY’s return, Honda’s final full service and Walkenhorst’s trip through the pitlane to re-set Nick Catsburg’s stint time.
By contrast, Audi Sport Team WRT opted to delay its final re-set. But when Frederic Vervisch finally emerged from the pitlane, the BMW had done just enough to take the lead.
Reversing those positions would have handed Matt Campbell, Patrick Pilet and Mathieu Jaminet the Drivers’ crown. However, third place for GPX Racing’s trio was more than enough for Porsche to retain its Manufacturers’ championship. The 911 yo-yoed up and down the order all afternoon after an unscheduled pitstop for a cut tyre left it out of sequence.
The Honda came home fourth – an undeserved result after dominating eight of the nine hours – while Car Collection’s Niederhauser, Christopher Haase and Drudi all starred at various points before the latter’s spin in torrential rain denied the Audi a genuine victory shot.
Walkenhorst’s second M6 couldn’t match the sister car but helped BMW secure second in the Manufacturers’ table by finishing sixth.
But there was disappointment at Dinamic Motorsport whose race slowly unravelled after Earl Bamber’s initial charge from 10th. His and Laurens Vanthoor’s championship chances were effectively ended by a cracked splitter, which required a lengthy pitstop to repair.
The Porsche came home one place ahead of WRT’s second Audi, which was forced in at the end of lap one after tangling with the #8 Bentley.
Lechner Racing’s local Team Perfect Circle Porsche crewed by Andre Bezuidenhout, Saul Hack and Dylan Pereira completed the points-paying positions in 10th.
Nick Catsburg – #34 BMW M6 GT3, Walkenhorst Motorsport: “Unbelievable. We are the champions in the drivers’ standings. Up to the final two hours of the race, we really did not expect that to happen. We hoped for something crazy to happen.
“Just like last year, it wouldn’t be Kyalami if something mad didn’t happen. It was just like that, apart from the fact that there was a restart at the end of the race last year. Congratulations to the team for getting it right. I am delighted to have won the race and the championship. I am a bit sorry for the Honda team. They dominated today and would have earned a good result.”
Augusto Farfus – #34 BMW M6 GT3, Walkenhorst Motorsport: “I am a bit speechless. It was a difficult year with many challenges on and off the track. I am very glad that BMW and the Walkenhorst Motorsport team stayed strong together. We delivered a very strong campaign. The race today wasn’t easy but we executed very well. None of the drivers made any mistakes and the car worked very well. I am very happy with this championship. Let’s celebrate!”
2021’s Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli campaign begins at the Total 24 Hours of Spa on July 31 – August 1.