The biggest talking point won’t come as that much of a surprise to you, we’re guessing! Having said that, heading into the penultimate round of this year’s 24H SERIES, there’s plenty to discuss at the top of the GT European Trophy standings. And could we potentially be celebrating a third, brand-new outright winner this weekend…?
Words – James Gent
Images – Nico Mombaerts / WorldSBK
Among the biggest talking points this weekend will be the fact that CREVENTIC is organising its first-ever endurance event at the Circuito do Estoril, the 23rd different venue at which the Dutch promoter has been hosted since 2006.
Opened in June 1972, and after some significant political machinations had been put to bed (the ‘Carnation Revolution’ overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo Regime in April 1974), Estoril hosted its first international motor race in 1975. It wasn’t until 1984 though that the circuit landed its biggest catch – Formula 1 – after a successful, multi-year campaign by the Automovel Club de Portugal, foreshadowed in-part by the sport’s decision to forego its traditional site in Kyalami for winter testing. radiolemans.com’s Joe Bradley rounds out some notable moments during F1’s tenure at Estoril HERE – we’ll add “look left! It’s Villeneuve!” from 1996 to that list too – before the circuit, having burned the FIA one too many times when requests to improve its facilities weren’t met, was dropped from the calendar ahead of its scheduled 1997 Grand Prix.
In a bid to reverse the decision, a hefty chunk, approved by Portugal’s national economy minister, was invested to speed the revamp along, and F1 design guru Herman Tilke was even brought in to oversee some of the changes. All to no avail however, and F1 has yet to return to the state-owned facility since 1996.
Still, Estoril saved significant face when, having obtained FIM homologation, the circuit revived the Portuguese motorcycle Grand Prix for the 500cc and, latterly, MotoGP calendars between 2000 and 2012 (won fives times, incidentally, by a certain Valentino Rossi). Endurance racing was also given a kick when the 4H ESTORIL, first held in 1977 as a round of that year’s World Sports Car Championship and won by Arturo Merzario aboard an Alfa Romeo T33, was revived in 2001, and held seven times as part of the European Le Mans Series and the FIA Sportscar Championship until 2016.
Interestingly, despite the myriad racing disciplines that have rattled Porto’s surrounding hillside since 1972 (we haven’t even mentioned the European Touring Car Championship or the DTM), the 4.350 km ribbon first lain more than half a century ago hasn’t changed much since then. An uphill chicane was introduced to bypass the high-speed ‘Tanque’ right-hander in 1993 (a second chicane was added for the World Superbikes’ visit that year, but only used once) while turn one and the lap-ending ‘Parabolica Ayrton Senna’ were both tightened as part of the 1999 overhaul. That’s pretty much it though, marking Estoril as one of the true ‘old school’ circuits on this year’s 24H SERIES calendar.
Did you know that the Circuit do Estoril almost hosted its first 24H SERIES event in 2020?
After the season-opening Hankook 24H DUBAI, CREVENTIC was gearing up for its first European round of the season at the Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello, two months later. The increasingly unstoppable freight train that was Covid-19 however had rendered that impossible by mid-February as restrictions across Europe understandably started getting even heavier. With no cases confirmed in Portugal at all early doors (Italy by comparison had its first confirmed cases in late January), and with the true severity of Covid not quite realized, discussions were held to move the 24H SERIES’ first European round of the year to Estoril instead, with a provisional 26-27-28 March date scheduled.
Of course, as the severity of Covid grew, the decision was quickly made to cancel the ‘first’ Hankook 12H ESTORIL as a state of emergency began to take hold. Ironically, when ‘normal’ racing life began finding its legs again during the summer, CREVENTIC’s first Covid-era event was indeed held in Portugal, albeit at the Autódromo do Algarve on 12-13-14 June.
Heading into the penultimate European round of this year’s 24H SERIES powered by Hankook, things are looking increasingly tight at the top of the overall GT standings, with the overall leaders – Red Ant Racing and Buggyra ZM Racing – level-pegging on points.
Reigning 992 Teams’ champion Red Ant Racing and GT4 standings leader Buggyra ZM Racing have so far acquired 108 points, with both teams, interestingly, having picked up a 1st, a 2nd and a 3rd in-class across the opening three European rounds of the season.
Red Ant Racing’s title defence got off to a rocky start in Mugello when several punctures meant the Belgian team was unable to take the fight to either class winner Willi Motorsport by Ebimotors. The reigning 992 Teams’ champion bounced back to finish 2nd on home turf at Spa-Francorchamps, and despite receiving a hefty time penalty in Monza, Red Ant Racing completed a spectacular drive to take its first class win of the season. As we discuss HERE meanwhile, Buggyra’s season highlight thus far is a controlled GT4 class win at Spa, and the team was still able to bank valuable points with 2nd in-class at Mugello and a frustrating drive to 3rd in Monza.
A strong performance in Estoril meanwhile could prove equally as crucial for RD Signs - Siauliai racing team and Atlas BX Motorsport, standings leaders in GTX and GT4 respectively. Both have amassed 104 points so far this season, and lie just four points adrift of the overall standings leader.
Despite losing a potential class win Mugello and after several collisions in Spa (somehow the Lithuanian team still managed to finish 3rd in GTX on both occasions), RD Signs finally took its first win of the season after a storming comeback drive in Monza. Atlas BX meanwhile impressed with pace-setting wins in Mugello and Monza (despite losing a wheel at the former), though a 5th in-class in Spa proved costly.
Interestingly, things are equally as close the further back we look in the overall standings. Incredibly, just 12 points – or one 10th place – off the leaders, Vortex V8 (#701), Willi Motorsport by Ebimotors (#955), HRT Performance (#930) and 9und11 Racing (#719) are all sitting on 92 points, while GT3-AM standings leader CP Racing is only 10 points further behind.
GT European Trophy standings
1. Red Ant Racing (#903, Porsche) – 108 points
Buggyra ZM Racing (#416, Mercedes-AMG GT4) – 108 points
2. RD Signs - Siauliai racing team (#720, Lamborghini) – 104 points
Atlas BX Motorsport (#403, Mercedes-AMG) – 104 points
Fresh off its first class win of the season, CP Racing vaulted to the top of the GT3-AM Teams’ standings at Monza, albeit by just two points over E2P Racing.
A heavy impact against the barriers ended up relegating CP Racing to 11th in-class in Mugello, while a rare on-track collision meant the reigning GT Continents Trophy winner could only manage 13th overall at Spa-Francorchamps. The American team’s bad luck seemed to have followed them to Monza as well when the #85 Mercedes-AMG GT3 suffered a left rear puncture while running 2nd overall. After a steady drive however, CP Racing was in-place to benefit from a bizarre collision between 3rd placed Haas RT and 4th-placed BMW Italia Ceccato Racing heading into the final 15 minutes, an incident that promoted the American team onto the overall podium and into the GT3-AM class lead.
Spain’s E2P Racing meanwhile, after a gearbox-related retirement in Mugello and a collision in Spa, enjoyed its best weekend yet with its new Porsche 911 GT3 R. Pushing its first pit stop very late, the reigning 991 Teams’ champion, amazingly, led the Hankook 12H MONZA outright after the first hour, and by half-distance, was still running in the overall top five, a position the Spanish team held to the chequered flag to secure its first GT3-AM class podium of the season. Either team could leave Portugal as the GT3-AM Teams’ standing leader.
Hankook 12H MONZA – Overall top 5
1. Scherer Sport PHX (#1, Audi R8 LMS GT3 EVO II)
2. Herberth Motorsport (#91, Porsche 992 GT3 R)
3. CP Racing (#85, Mercedes-AMG GT3)
4. BMW Italia Ceccato Racing (#15, BMW M4 GT3)
5. E2P Racing (#90, Porsche 991.2 GT3 R)
Following the model’s 24H SERIES debut last time out in Monza, Ferrari’s new GT3 flagship – the 296 – will be represented on the grid once again this weekend, this time courtesy of the returning WTM Racing.
The German team began its ‘296 era’ in the NLS in March, and has since taken ‘SP9 Pro-Am’ class victory with the newly christened ‘Luigi’ at this year’s Nürburgring 24 Hours. The Hankook 12H ESTORIL meanwhile will mark the first 24H SERIES outing for WTM’s new GT3 charger as well as the German team’s first series outing since last year’s Hankook 24H BARCELONA. And don’t be too surprised to see the #22 Ferrari up among the GT frontrunners.
Kessel Racing’s pace at Monza ably demonstrated the new 296 GT3’s capabilities, while WTM’s prior performance’s in the 24H SERIES more than back up the claim: the 2022 Hankook 24H BARCELONA was the first series win for the German team which, earlier in the year, had also set pole position and finished on the overall podium at Spa-Francorchamps (one could also include a top three finish in Portimão, if we’re being generous).
On top of that, WTM Racing – then entered as ‘Wochenspiegel Team Monschau’ – impressively finished 2nd overall on its 24H SERIES debut in 2017, also in Portugal, and led more laps than any other competitor. Don’t be too surprised then if, following Haas RT and the Saintéloc Junior Team’s performances in Mugello and Spa-Francorchamps respectively, we celebrate our three first-time winner of the season in Estoril.
Interestingly, should Kessel Racing confirm its own 296 GT3 for the event, this year’s Hankook 12H ESTORIL will mark the first time more than one prancing horse has been on the 24H SERIES grid since 2021. On that occasion, Kessel Racing was joined by 2019 Overall GT Teams’ ‘Europe’ champion Middlecap Racing by Scuderia Praha – back for its first campaign in 18 months – at both Mugello and Paul Ricard.
In stark contrast to its Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS weekend, at which Adam Christodoulou, Eric Zang and Xinzhe Xie took a commanding 992 class win (and even led the Belgian event outright on merit), the Hankook 12H MONZA proved a frustrating weekend for HRT Performance. The #967 Porsche ground to a halt with terminal electrical problems after just 15 minutes, while the sister #930 992 GT3 Cup was hampered by five separate punctures en-route to a frustrating 5th in-class. Emirati’s Rabdan Motorsport, supported by HRT, did at least give the German team’s Italian weekend a boost by finishing 3rd in 992 after a solid run.
With their Monza weekend cut short, that leaves Roberto and Amedeo Pampanini, Stefano Monaco and Nicolas Stürzinger, who team up once again in the #967 HRT Porsche in Portugal, on 24 points amassed so far this year: 12 for a hard-earned 10th in Mugello, 14 for a heavily-rain-affected 9th at Spa.
It will be a tough mountain to climb back up to 992-AM Teams’ standings leader RPM Racing, but not insurmountable. The might of HRT Performance for example – Hankook 24H DUBAI stalwart and an event class winner, to-boot – needs little introduction, while Roberto Pampanini has quietly amassed a surprisingly good haul of top three finishes since 2015, with more than a third of his 21 starts to-date have ended on the category podium. The Italian and Swiss teammate Stürzinger even finished top three in-class on their first CREVENTIC outing, at Barcelona, in 2015.
Furthermore, should the #967 Porsche end a redemptive Hankook 12H ESTORIL on the top step, it would be the first 24H SERIES class win for Stürzinger and A.Pampanini full-stop, the first for R.Pampanini and Monaco since the COPPA FLORIO 12H SICILY in 2020, and the first, collectively, for the quartet to-date. Quite the story to lay a disappointing Monza weekend to rest.
Hankook 12H MONZA – 992 podium
1. Red Ant Racing (#903, Porsche) – 341 laps
2. Neuhofer Rennsport (#985, Porsche) – 339 laps
3. Rabdan Motorsport by HRT Performance (#977, Porsche) – 336 laps
Hankook 12H MONZA – 992-AM podium
1. RPM Racing (#907, Porsche) – 335 laps
2. EST1 Racing (#981, Porsche) – 332 laps
DNF. HRT Performance (#967, Porsche) – 23 laps
Unlike its previous events in Mugello, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza, the inaugural Hankook 12H ESTORIL will be run as one, unbroken 12-hour endurance race on Friday 7 July. Although that won’t be the only change to the established format this weekend.
For the first time, CREVENTIC will hold a six-hour ‘Qualifying Race’ on Saturday 8 July to determine the grid for the Hankook 12H ESTORIL itself. It’s a move designed to promote further additional on-track action, with a collective 18 hours of racing set to be live streamed.
“The 6H ‘qualifying race’ is a format CREVENTIC has been considering for some time now, and it will be exciting to see it come to fruition ahead of the Hankook 12H ESTORIL,” explains commercial event manager David Vink. “It’s an idea inspired by Formula 1’s sprint race weekends, albeit with our own #ThisIsEndurance twist, and a format that will give our competitors even more time on-track.”
The 6H Qualifying Race will follow CREVENTIC’s three-tier, 15-minute qualifying sessions – also a relatively recent addition to the 24H SERIES, having replaced the traditional one-hour in 2022 – which is scheduled to be held from 09.00 hrs to 09.55 hrs local time on Friday 7 July. ‘AM’ drivers are invited to set their best lap times across 15 minutes of ‘Q1’ before handing the race car reins over to two of their teammates for Q2 and Q3 respectively (all sessions, incidentally, will be run on the same set of tyres unless changing weather conditions determine otherwise). The grid for that afternoon’s ‘Qualifying Race,’ set to start at 13.30 hrs and run until 19.30 hrs, will be set using the fastest average times posted by each team across all three sessions.
Alongside pole position for the following day’s Hankook 12H ESTORIL, the winner of the 6H Qualifying Race will also be awarded 20 points, with 2nd earning 18 and 3rd handed 16 (the totals drop by two-point increments from 4th down to 6th, and down by one point per place from 7th down to 15th). Points will also be awarded when the chequered flag drops for the Hankook 12H ESTORIL – at 21.00 hrs – with 40 points awarded to the winner, 36 to 2nd and 32 to 3rd.
Theoretically therefore, a team and its drivers that win both the 6H Qualifying Race and the Hankook 12H ESTORIL could leave Portugal with a collective total of 56 points heading into the European season finale at Barcelona in September. Podium celebrations for both Portuguese races will be held as usual.