Pole-sitter Bertrand Baguette led a lively opening stint of the Kyalami 9 Hour for Honda Racing as several early battles played out further back in the field.
Baguette resisted a challenge from Bentley’s Jordan Pepper to take control in the early stages of the Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli title decider.
The Belgian’s defensive moves on the opening lap paid off when he was given the opportunity to lead a single-file restart from a near-immediate safety car caused by Alex Buncombe’s M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 rotating and stopping across the track, after contact with Markus Winkelhock’s Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo.
Buncombe continued on the lead lap whilst Winkelhock, who is Audi’s main IGTC drivers’ title hopeful, lost four laps after taking his WRT car back to the garage for repairs.
Baguette then kept Pepper behind him throughout the rest of the stint with Augusto Farfus running third in the No. 34 Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M6 GT3.
Farfus’ BMW teammate Martin Tomczyk made a strong start, jumping past Porsche’s Patrick Pilet and Audi’s Patric Niederhauser to climb from sixth to fourth.
The top-four remained in those positions throughout the first hour, while the places behind them changed frequently.
IGTC points leader Earl Bamber launched a surge into a top-five for Dinamic Motorsport, the New Zealander first overtaking WRT’s Frederic Vervisch before passing Niederhauser who lost momentum when Pilet made a smart move on the Audi driver into Mineshaft.
The Porsche 911 GT3 Rs, which received a 10 kg weight break in a pre-race Balance of Performance tweak, then switched around with Bamber rising into fifth past Pilet.
Bamber had a great drive out of the Clubhouse left-hander which enabled him to stick an overtake around the outside of the GPX Racing Porsche at The Esses.
This move aided Niederhauser, who saw an opening to plant his Audi Sport Car Collection car ahead of Pilet while Vervisch also came into the battle.
Bamber then caught up with Tomczyk’s BMW and was right on the tail of the Walkenhorst man when a second safety car period occurred nearing the end of the first hour.
A Full Course Yellow intervention was called when Car Collection Motorsport Audi driver Martin Lechman ended up in the gravel, prompting the field to pit before the safety car came out to arrange the restart.
Baguette handed over to Renger van der Zande while Pepper swapped out for Jules Gounon, with the Honda still leading M-Sport’s No. 7 Bentley heading into hour two.