As we head into the season opener of the 2019 European Championship in Mugello, which teams, which drivers, and which (hopefully) fascinating facts should be on your radar?
Keep an eye on A6-Am for those fastest laps in the GT division
Following the eradication of ‘Minimum Reference Laptimes’, PRO and SEMI-PRO drivers alike competing as part of an A6-Am line-up were finally able demonstrate their true pace across the 2018 season. And boy oh boy, did they do just that!
Indeed, at all but two races of last year’s European Championship – Imola and Spa-Francorchamps – the fastest lap was set by an A6-Am car. GRT Grasser Racing Team got the ball rolling at Silverstone, was followed just a few months later by Hofor-Racing in Navarra, by PROsport Performance at Portimão, and, finally, R-Motorsport in Barcelona. Interestingly, for an added dash of variety, these four A6-Am fastest laps were set by three different manufacturers, namely Lamborghini (GRT Grasser Racing Team), Mercedes-AMG (Hofor-Racing and PROsport Performance), and Aston Martin (R-Motorsport).
Don’t expect just one team or driver to repeatedly set the fastest laps
At Navarra, Hofor-Racing’s Christiaan Frankenhout posted the race’s quickest lap aboard the #1 Mercedes-AMG. One round later, and again at the wheel of the Hofor-Racing Merc, the Dutchman set the quickest overall lap during the Hankook 12H IMOLA. This was the only time across the six-round GT European Championship that a team and/or driver set more than one overall Fastest Lap*.
You’ll find a similar pattern – or lack of, more accurately – in the TCE division too, where, quite remarkably, no driver set more than one fastest lap and only one team managed to do it twice. These included (deep breath) Red Camel-Jordans.nl’s Rik Breukers at the Hankook 24H SILVERSTONE, Modena Motorsport’s Mathias Beche in Imola, and JR Motorsport’s Michael Verhagen at Spa-Francorchamps. CWS Engineering did manage to secure the fastest TCE lap in both Portimão and Barcelona, albeit courtesy of Steven Wells at the former and James May (not that one) at the latter.
*For any completionists amongst you, the remaining fastest laps across the GT division in 2018 were Rik Breukers at Silverstone, Adam Christodoulou in Portimao, Jake Dennis in Barcelona and Matteo Mallucelli at Spa-Francorchamps.
If you’re driving a Mercedes-AMG, you stand a good chance of taking GT pole position…
While fastest laps were set by myriad drivers and manufacturers in 2018, qualifying was another matter entirely, with one manufacturer leading the pack into turn one at all but one of the six European races.
In fact, the only time that a non-Mercedes took the top spot in qualifying during the 2018 European Championship was round one in Silverstone, when the GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini bested the RAM Racing Mercedes by just 0.254s. So strong was the three-pointed star in 2018 in fact that at least one Mercedes-AMG started on the front row on the grid at every race.
…and driving a SEAT/CUPRA TCR will stand you in good stead in TCE qualifying
Much like Mercedes, SEAT’s outgoing Leon and sister company CUPRA’s in-coming, Leon-based TCR machine proved the package to beat during qualifying, with only two of the TCE European polesitters representing another brand.
Those two rogues were Audi and BMW, courtesy of AC Motorsport’s TCE pole position in Barcelona and Munckhof Racing’s top spot in qualifying for the season-closing Hankook 12H SPA. Barcelona, just FYI, was the only race in which a SEAT/CUPRA/Leon/TCR did not start on the TCE front row.
However, taking pole position usually doesn’t always lead to victory. Or even a podium
Far from it. In fact, across the PROTO/GT and TCE races, only twice was pole position converted into a race win from 11 attempts. Put another way, less than 20 per cent of the 2018 European Championship outright pole sitters went on to win their respective race.
The only exceptions to rule are PROTO-spec Simpson Motorsport, which took outright victory at the Hankook 12H SILVERSTONE after starting from pole, and Kawasaki Racing by Bas Koeten Racing, which both started and finished 1st on the road in TCE at Portimão.
And unfortunately, the news gets even worse for 2018’s European pole sitters, given that of those 11, only five of them managed to finish on their division’s respective podium. Alongside Simpson Motorsport and Kawasaki Racing, the remaining three were Team Bleekemolen (2nd in TCE, Hankook 24H SILVERSTONE), Modena Motorsports (3rd in TCE, Hankook 12H SILVERSTONE) and SPS automotive performance (2nd in GT, Hankook 12H SPA).
Just goes to show, in 2019, pole position might not be everything…
Wins, Podiums and the Overall Top 10
Will TCE podiums be a near-TCR lockout again?
Despite its inherent speed advantage over the TCR class, high attrition meant TCE was not an overly happy hunting ground for SP3 runners last year. In fact, of the 15 TCE podium spots up for grabs during the 2018 TCE European Championship, only one went to an SP3-class car, and even that was at the final round in Spa (CWS Engineering memorably claimed TCE victory from NKPP Racing by Bas Koeten Racing by just 20s).
Fun fact, and with only the healthiest of salt pinches required, the TCE Spa podium was also only the second time last year that three different manufacturers finished in the overall top three in the European Championship, compared with the five across in GT. These included Ginetta (CWS), CUPRA (NKPP) and SEAT (Red Camel-Jordans.nl) in Spa, and CUPRA (Cupra Racing / Monlau Competición), Audi (Baporo Motorsport) and SEAT (Red Camel again) in Barcelona…
…okay, yes, we know that technically the SEAT Leon and the CUPRA TCR are effectively the same car, but they’re entered as different brands, so it counts!
Expect Mercedes-AMG to be a regular podium contender…
Take what we mentioned about the Mercedes-AMG GT3 and pole position, and copy-paste when discussing outright podium finishes. Simply put, nobody came close to Merc’s GT record in the European Championship last year.
Of the 18 outright podium spots available last year, a Mercedes-AMG took six / one-third of them. Now while that may not sound eye-poppingly impressive at face value, bear in mind that means a Mercedes-AMG was on the GT podium at EVERY race during last year’s European Championship.
Porsche got closest to equalling this achievement with five, but missed the overall top three in both Navarra and Spa. Amazingly, however, Porsche was the only manufacturer to have two cars finish the outright GT podium at the same time in Europe in 2018, Herberth Motorsport and Förch Racing grabbing a 1-3 for Stuttgart at Imola. How’s THAT for competitive variety?
… and individual class winners finishing in the overall Top 10
While you may think that the GT-division Top 10 is largely the domain of A6-Pro and A6-Am GT3 machinery, it might interest you to know that on only two occasions last year – Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps – did a 991 or SPX class winner fail to finish inside the overall Top 10.
The Hankook 24H PORTIMAO is perhaps the best example of this, with FIVE entrants from the 991 and SPX classes finishing in the overall Top 10 (2nd, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th) and six finishing in the Top 11 (three apiece for 991 and SPX). Fittingly, Portimão also featured the best finish for a non-A6-class entrant all season when the SPX-category Manthey Racing Porsche 991 GT3 R finished 2nd on its series debut.
Though not as prevalent as the GT race, non-TCR and SP3 runners also troubled the top 10 in the TCE race at Portimão, with Hofor-Racing powered by Bonk Motorsport and Sorg Rennsport – both CUP1 entrants – finishing 6th and 10th respectively.
*Images courtesy of Petr Frýba Photography and 24H SERIES