Audi Sport Team WRT has claimed a dominant victory in Sunday’s Suzuka 10 Hours, keeping the German manufacturer’s Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli title hopes alive.
Kelvin van der Linde took the No. 25 Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo to a 40.367-second win over the No. 999 GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Raffaele Marciello in the hard-fought 48th Summer Endurance Race that ended in a fireworks display.
The Belgian squad held control of the race from the second round of pit stops when Vanthoor emerged ahead of the pole-sitting No. 42 Team Schnitzer BMW M6 GT3, which led early in the hands of Martin Tomczyk.
Vanthoor stretched out a 10-plus second lead prior to the first of two Full Course Yellow-turned safety car periods, which put several GT3 contenders on alternate pit strategies.
Despite seeing their gap neutralized, Vanthoor, Vervisch and van der Linde kept the Nogaro Blue-liveried Audi out front.
An Audi 1-2 finish appeared to be in the cards until the final round of stops when a refueling issue for the No. 125 Absolute Racing entry saw the Chinese team lose more than 1 minute in the pits.
Christopher Haase was relegated to a seventh place result.
It promoted the IGTC championship-leading GruppeM team to second with Maxi Buhk taking sole control of the points lead with the runner-up result, in the car he shared with Marciello and Maro Engel.
Audi, meanwhile, claimed its first win of the season and maiden long-distance endurance victory in Suzuka.
The No. 912 Absolute Racing Porsche of Matt Campbell, Dennis Olsen and Dirk Werner completed the podium in third, benefitting from the timing of the second yellow in Hour 6 that essentially reset the split strategies.
Mercedes-AMG ended up with the biggest points haul, with the No. 77 Craft-Bamboo Racing entry of Maxi Goetz, Luca Stolz and Yelmer Buurman coming home fourth, ahead of the Schnitzer BMW in fifth.
A drive-through penalty at the halfway mark for not meeting the 84-second minimum pit stop time dropped the BMW to sixth and was unable to recover.
Tsugio Matsuda wowed the Japanese fans by making a late-race pass on the No. 107 M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 of Jordan Pepper to place his No. 35 KCMG Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 in sixth.
The Super GT star held off a hard-charging Haase in a dramatic final few laps to finish as the best-placed Japanese car.
Pepper, meanwhile, faded to eighth in the No. 107 Bentley.
BMWs ran 1-2 in the opening hour until an out-of-control Nissan took out the No. 34 Walkenhorst Motorsport entry of Christian Krognes in the second hour.
Another pre-race favorite, the No. 27 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, was taken out of contention after getting hit by a spinning Honda NSX GT3 Evo in Hour 3, prior to a heavy accident at 130R by Nick Cassidy some three hours later.
KCMG’s hopes were reduced in the fifth hour with a left-front wheel issue for its No. 018 Nissan, which initially cost the car nearly 20 minutes prior to further delays.
The No. 108 Bentley also made multiple trips to the garage, triggered by a broken right-rear toe-link in the fourth hour.
The all-factory-crewed No. 88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo, meanwhile, was an early retirement with the Japanese crew electing to park the car after receiving a penalty.
SunEnergy1, Strakka Among Class Winners
The No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes of Kenny Habul, Nico Bastian and Mikael Grenier picked up Silver Cup honors with a 12th place overall finish in a near-flawless run for the Black Falcon-run squad.
Pro-Am class honors, however, was less straightforward, with Strakka Racing bouncing back from a right-rear puncture to take the class win with Christina Nielsen, Dominik Baumann and Adrian Henry D’Silva.
Nielsen spun out from the class lead with three hours to go due to the issue, handing the top spot to the No. 188 Garage 59 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 until the Mercedes re-took the top spot in the closing hours.
The No. 112 Sato-SS Sports Mercedes, meanwhile, picked up Am class honors, finishing 25th overall.
RESULTS: Suzuka 10H