Steven Kane and his Bentley teammates took a dominant win in last weekend’s round of the Blancpain GT series in France with Charlie Eastwood continuing his sequence of podium finishes. “At last, at last, at last!” shouted Steven Kane as his Bentley was driven into the winner’s circle at the end of 6hrs hard racing in the third round of the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup at the Paul Ricard circuit last Saturday, 1st June.
It was a cry of relief from the Northern Irish driver who has suffered a sequence of disappointing results since this race last year when, with the same teammates, Jordan Pepper and Jules Gounon, they had lost the lead on the last lap when a loose bonnet obscured their view. And the victory was even sweeter being the first for the second- generation Bentley Continental GT3 and also put Kane into GT racing’s elite as one of only ten drivers who have won three or more Blancpain GT races.
All three Northern Irish drivers in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup arrived in the south of France for the third round, the Six Hours of Paul Ricard in confident mood. Charlie Eastwood in the Oman Racing with TF Sport Aston Martin, Andrew Watson also in an Aston driving for Garage 59 and Kane in the M Sport Bentley all knew they had fast cars capable of winning. But so far it was only Eastwood who had converted his speed into results with Pro Am class podium finishes in the first two rounds of the championship. Watson had finished 9th at Monza and crashed out on the first lap at Silverstone while Kane had yet to score any points.
Qualifying proved their confidence was well founded. Kane took his first pole for Bentley and Watson with team mates Jonny Adam and Come Ledôgar lining up 8th on the grid. Eastwood’s Oman Aston shared with Salih Yoluc and Ahmad Al Harthy took pole in the Pro Am class with his individual time; grid positions are an average of all three drivers times; good enough for 6th overall.
The day-night 6-hour race began at 6pm in bright evening sun and as the rolling grid reached racing speed the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes and Marco Engel darted into the lead from 2nd on the grid with Jordan Pepper, Kane’s co-driver, tucked in behind. But the racing was short lived as three cars tangled at the end of the Mistral Straight on lap 2 bringing out the safety car for almost 30 minutes.
When racing restarted, Pepper took the lead but no sooner had he done than another full course yellow was called and several of the leaders including Engel took the opportunity of an early pit stop. Pepper and Watson’s Aston, in the hands of Jonny Adam, stayed out running in 1st and 4th places up until the hour mark when they took their scheduled stops.
That allowed Dennis Lind, FFF Racing Lamborghini, and Mikhail Aleshin, SMP Ferrari 488, to dice for the lead over the next 30 minutes while Pepper and Adam circulated in 11th and 14th with Eastwood’s teammate Yoluc keeping the Oman Aston well in contention for a Pro Am class win.
The out of sequence pit stops made it difficult to know what the real positions were but by the two-hour mark Pepper had again retaken the lead when he pitted to hand over to Kane. It coincided with another full course yellow which allowed the Bentley to retain the lead and Watson, taking over from Adam to re-join in 5th.
After two hours racing and two pits stops the leading three cars were separated by just 2 seconds. Fresher tyres on the second-placed FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan, now in the hands of Andrea Caldarelli, gave it extra grip which eventually allowed it to take a short lived lead ahead of Kane before another pit stop cycle began. That shuffled the pack again but as positions settled by half distance, remarkably, the race was led by two Northern Irish men, Kane first and Watson second with Eastwood’s Aston in the hands of Al Harty leading the Pro Am class.
However, it didn’t stay that way for long. Al Harty had an “assisted spin” and subsequent pit stops for investigation and potential flat tyres dropped the TF Racing Aston to third in class. Then Watson had a coming together with the slower Lexus driven by Fabien Barthez which coincided with an unrelated misfire which dropped the Garage 59 Aston down through the order eventually into retirement.
Up front, Kane continued to circulate in the lead with the following pack of Davide Rignon, Ferrari 488, Zaid Ashkanani, Porsche 911, and Caldarelli ready to pounce on any hiccup from the #107 Bentley.
But nothing in endurance racing is ever sure as Steven Kane well knows from bitter experience. At the four-hour stop the Bentley driver change and refuelling went well but a sticky left front wheel lost the leading team 14 seconds and Jules Gounon retook the track 8s behind the now leading Ferrari 488 of Miguel Molina with two hours racing in the dark to the chequered flag. Gounon began closing the gap and it looked like being a nail-biting finish. But then the stewards intervened. A mistake in Molina’s pit stop procedure contravened regulations and he was hit with a drive-through penalty dropping him to 4th. That put the Bentley back in a lead it was never to lose, eventually extending the winning margin to 37s from Molina in the SMP Ferrari, who fought back to second, and Marco Mapelli, FFF Racing Lamborghini, third. In the Pro Am class Eastwood finished third maintaining his run of podium finishes.
“It’s a great feeling to win again, it’s amazing” said Steven Kane, highlighting the obvious delight and relief in the Bentley team. Relief that there run of misfortune had ended and delight that they look in great shape for the Spa 24 hours in July, the blue riband of GT racing and a race the team would dearly love to win in the Crewe marque’s 100th anniversary year. Charlie Eastwood’s Oman Racing with TF Sport squad go to Spa in contention for the Pro Am Championship class while Andrew Watson’s Garage 59 Aston Martin continues to show winning pace amid the disappointment of consecutive retirements.
Images from Blancpain GT Series.