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SMITH: Paul Ricard Debrief

Bentley’s Guy Smith files his latest Sportscar365 column…

Photo: Bentley

Photo: Bentley

Coming away from Paul Ricard with a strong result after a frustrating couple of races means a lot to me and the team.

Heading into the weekend, we knew that it would be a tough race – but an important one to perform well in order to get our championship back on track. Being a six-hour race, there were more points available than the shorter three-hour races.

After finishing in a strong 2nd place in class at the season opener at Monza, we then moved on to the Nürburgring 24 were we were punted out of a potential podium finish, which was hugely frustrating.

Following that that we looked set for a top-two finish at Silverstone in the second round of the Blancpain championship only to have a failed wheel nut in a pit stop drop us down to 9th place.

After those two unlucky races, we were looking to turn things around in France.

We knew from last year that the Continental GT3 really works well at Paul Ricard, were we scored our second victory – so we knew we would be in with a chance last weekend.

Steven was on qualifying duty again and did us all proud, putting the car P5 which became P4 when the Nissan was dropped back fives places for a pit infringement. The top 20 cars were covered by less than a second so it was very satisfying to be able to start up front.

I was on starting duty again and lined up just behind the Bentley Team HTP car of Vincent Abril who had done a great job in qualifying to line up in 2nd place.

We both made great starts, using the grunt that the Bentley V8 has off the line, and we powered ourselves into P1 and P2 into the first corner.

But as we came on to the long Mistral straight for the first time, the Lamborghini Huracan powered past me and then on the following lap the Nissan did the same. They both have quite a bit more straight line speed due to their Balance of Performance.

As the race settled down, the car felt great and was very consistent and I decided that I would double stint. Andy and Steven did the same for the rest of the race as we all felt so comfortable in the car.

At the end of my second hour behind the wheel I handed the car over to Andy in 4th position. He had a great stint, having a fantastic wheel to wheel battle with the Marc VDS BMW of Maxime Martin who was flying having started from the pit lane.

With two hours to go, Andy handed over to Steven and he set about chasing down the leading Nissan, having to overcome a gap that extended to 16 seconds.

As usual, Steven drove brilliantly and began to close down the gap but the Nissan was pushing hard, putting in some very fast times so it was a great battle.

The gap would change depending on how the two cars encountered traffic, but Steven was able to get even closer after the last pit stop due to excellent pit work by the Bentley crew.

With 10 minutes to go the gap had closed to 1.6 seconds and as you can imagine the whole Bentley M-Sport team were on the edge of their seats!

Steven was giving it everything, but with six minutes left and heading on to the Mistral straight, he had pretty spectacular high speed spin.

After a complete 360, he ended up pointing the right way and was able to carry on and only lost nine seconds, but it meant the challenge for the race win was over.

However, the effort was worth it as we finished in a very strong second place and pulled back a good amount of points.

All in all it was a very good weekend that means we’re now top of the Teams Championship and second in the Drivers Championship.

The next race is the 24 Hours of Spa, the most important race of the season. We will make sure we are ready and up for the fight.

Guy Smith (@TheGuySmith) is the 2003 winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and former American Le Mans Series champion, driving for the factory M-Sport Bentley squad in the Blancpain Endurance Series.

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