Not many would have picked the SMP Racing as title favorite at the start of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, yet the Russian squad, led by Ferrari veteran Andrea Bertolini, are riding an impressive streak in the GTE-Am ranks.
Bertolini and his relatively unknown co-drivers, Victor Shaytar and Aleksey Basov, head into this weekend’s Six Hours of Fuji with a 35-point lead in the championship standings and are seeking their fourth consecutive class victory.
For the former FIA GT1 World Champion, their recent streak of success, including becoming the first Russian team to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, hasn’t come by surprise but rather hard work.
“We started last year in ELMS and won the championship,” Bertolini told Sportscar365. “This year we won Le Mans and for a Russian team it was very important because it was never done before.
“I’m really proud of the guys because you can see the performance increasing every race.
“Victor is now really fast and really consistent and is really a good driver. Also Aleksey, being a Bronze, is making a good performance as well.”
Bertolini has played a key role in the development of both of his co-drivers, who entered the season lacking experience with the Prancing Horse in the championship
While Shaytar took part in the WEC last year in SMP’s Oreca 03R Nissan in LMP2 and has previous track experience, former Ferrari Challenge Europe champion Basov faces a steep learning curve every race.
However, according to the Italian, the 38-year-old Basov has been the major part of the team’s recent success.
“In this class, the Bronze driver makes the biggest difference,” Bertolini said. “If you have a strong Bronze driver, you can gain 1 second per lap.
“Alex doesn’t know the tracks. [For COTA], he did one day of test on the simulator and came [to COTA] and felt comfortable.
“With the Bronze, you have to push him. But I’m really, really proud. I always check the out lap, the in lap to see if he’s pushing and how he’s doing in traffic.
“He’s one of the best Bronze on the market.”
Bertolini, who helped take AF Corse to the GTE title in 2012, has seen the level of competition in GTE-Am increase over the years as well.
“The level in GTE-Am is going up,” he said. “You see every car have a factory driver.
“Every driver lineup, and the crews in each car, are very similar. For this reason, it’s tough. Everyone has a good Bronze, Silver and pro.”
Yet, the trio have found themselves in a prime position to re-write the history books yet again, in addition to their Le Mans triumph.
“Everyone is starting to think about the championship,” Bertolini said. “From the beginning of the [season], if I make the analysis, I think we were in the top-three in terms of cars.
“At the end, like always, if you win Le Mans, it makes a big difference in terms of points.
“Also for these guys it makes a difference for the experience and motivation. Now after Le Mans, both drivers are driving much better than before. This is the key.”
While having shared the 2014 ELMS GTE title with Shaytar, as well as this year’s success in GTE-Am, Bertolini is hoping to take one further step up together next year.
“My target is to grow Victor and the guys and to put him in a [GTE-Pro] car in the future,” he said.
“Now we’re looking forward to the [WEC] championship but it’s a long way to go. Then [if we do well], well decide what we do for next year.”