AF Corse played both the strategy and pace game to perfection en route to the team’s third win in four years in the Gulf 12 Hours at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit.
Davide Rigon, Steve Wyatt and Michele Rugolo shared the victory in the No. 3 Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, completing 315 laps. The trio also led after the first of two six-hour segments; additionally, this is Wyatt’s first major endurance race victory.
The Ferrari emerged ahead of the otherwise dominant No. 1 Abu Dhabi by Black Falcon Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 and pole-sitting No. 59 McLaren 650S GT3, which combined led a majority of the second segment.
The race was primarily a strategy battle until the final 40-plus minutes, when the first and only full course caution flew for an accident involving two-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo.
Lorenzo’s No. 99 Kessel Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 came to a rest at the inside of the run to pit in with left rear wheel and suspension damage.
Then-leader Kevin Estre pitted the McLaren when the yellow flew to hand off to Alvaro Parente for the finish. It dropped the McLaren to third, but the caution negated any time penalty.
Off the restart with 31 minutes to go, Rugolo was able to clear lapped traffic much quicker than Schneider in the Mercedes or Parente in the McLaren, and opened up his lead from merely a few tenths to more than four seconds within two laps.
The Ferrari ultimately won by an unofficial 3.058-second margin of victory, which was down from Rugolo’s more than 10 second-plus margin established after the restart.
The decisive maneuver of the race, despite the late yellow, occurred earlier in the sixth hour.
Rugolo passed Schneider on Lap 290, for what was the net lead provided the race would have continued as projected based on pit strategy with Estre pitting.
The McLaren’s downfall in this segment, as in segment one, was its inability to match the fuel stint length of the Ferrari and Mercedes entries, which meant a need for the fifth and extra stop.
Meanwhile the Mercedes led a majority of the second segment in the hands of Schneider’s co-drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Khaled Al Qubaisi.
An abnormal strategy saw Bleekemolen start the segment, hand to Schneider for the second stint, and come back in for the third before handing off to Al Qubaisi for what was the challenging fourth stint for the defending champion entry.
Al Qubaisi led on Lap 257 by 22.143 seconds over Rob Bell in the McLaren. Bell immediately chopped that gap down to 0.295 of a second in just seven laps, before passing Al Qubaisi on Lap 265 and taking off for an ultimate 20-plus second lead of his own before pitting 10 laps later.
When Bell handed off to Estre, it opened the door for the Ferrari, which had hung close to the Mercedes most of the day with Rigon doing most of the damage during Al Qubaisi’s stint.
Rigon closed down the gap to Al Qubaisi by more than a minute over his stint, and assumed the lead as he handed off to Rugolo on Lap 285.
AF Corse had put itself into position by running Wyatt, the team’s gentleman driver, in the second stint.
With Black Falcon’s gentleman driver Al Qubaisi running later, the lost time to the pros would prove more difficult to overcome later on.
Still, both of the other podium finishing entries ran a solid race to complete the podium.
The second Black Falcon Mercedes (No. 2 entry driven by Abdulaziz Al Faisal, Hubert Haupt and Richard Muscat) ran a trouble-free drive to end fourth overall and best of the Pro-Am entries.
Despite Lorenzo’s final hour accident, the car he shared with Liam Talbot, Marco Zanuttini and Jacques Duyver was the top Gentleman entry in 18th overall.
Other category winners included the No. 33 MRS GT-Racing Porsche 991 GT3 Cup (Cup, 13th overall), and the No. 46 Avelon Formula Wolf GB08 (CN2, 17th overall).
RESULTS: Gulf 12 Hours