Bentley Team M-Sport has won the Paul Ricard 1000km with its No. 8 Bentley Continental GT3 of Andy Soucek, Maxime Soulet and Vince Abril surviving in a race of attrition.
It marks the British manufacturer’s first Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup win since 2014.
Soulet crossed the line with a comfortable 29-second lead after six hours of racing, following a late-race failure that took its main competition out of the race.
Yelmer Buurman led the race for the opening hour from pole position in the No. 4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3 and the car was consistently up front as Adam Christodoulou and Luca Stolz cycled through stints.
The team ran a different pit strategy to the Bentley, putting its pit cycle around 30 minutes of out sync with the M-Sport crew.
Stolz made his final pit stop with 38 minutes to go but soon lost drive just laps later with a suspected gearbox failure, taking him out of second position after a strong run all race.
“They told me over the radio that the Black Falcon Mercedes could possibly double stint its tires, so it was still a bit tense for a moment,” said Soulet.
“But we all did a great job and it was an amazing race. The last five laps I was listening to everything, everybody was retiring and I was just thinking ‘not us’.”
Another team fighting for the victory was the No. 50 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Alessandro Pier Guidi, Michele Rugolo and Pasin Lathouras, but an issue with one hour remaining took the car out of contention.
Ultimately this left the SMP Racing-backed Ferrari as the only competition to Soulet in his final stint, but Davide Rigon was unable to make up much time before the checkered flag came out.
While many cars fell victim to the high temperatures and increasing darkness at the southern French circuit, only three incidents resulted in Full Course Yellows and Safety Cars, all of which occurred during the opening two hours.
These neutralizations led to many out-of-sequence pit stops, resulting in the differing strategies throughout the field.
It had been a weekend to forget for Audi but the late-race issues suffered by many of the German manufacturer’s rivals allowed the No. 1 Audi Sport Team WRT car to take the final podium position.
AKKA ASP’s Renger van der Zande secured fourth in the highest-placed Mercedes-AMG GT3, while Alex Buncombe completed the top five for Motul Team RJN Nissan.
The Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s showed impressive straight-line speed on the Mistral Straight, allowing Katsumasa Chiyo to make up many positions in the opening laps.
Of note were the Emil Frey Jaguar G3s which both ran strongly at various stages of the race, with Albert Costa leading for a while early on.
Championship leaders HTP Motorsport and Grasser Racing Team also suffered from a disappointing weekend at Paul Ricard.
The No. 84 HTP Mercedes of Maxi Buhk, Franck Perera and Jimmy Eriksson dropped out of the race in the fifth hour with an engine failure, while a one-minute stop-go penalty for Grasser’s No. 63 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 hampered the Austrian team’s chances.
Alexander Sims led at the midway point for Rowe Racing but his BMW M6 GT3 lost power on the out lap after he handed over to Maxime Martin, while Tom Blomqvist picked up a puncture in the sister car.
Strakka Racing meanwhile was only able to get one of its four McLaren 650S GT3s to the finish, and struggled for pace all weekend.
While Bentley did celebrate its win with the No. 8 car, the No. 7 car was a retirement following a loss of oil pressure in the second hour.
Soucek, Soulet and Abril take the lead in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup standings with a one-point margin on the No. 63 GRT Lamborghini crew, who still lead the overall standings ahead of Maxi Buhk and Frank Perera.
RESULTS: Paul Ricard 1000km