Audi Sport Team WRT have claimed victory in the penultimate round of 2019’s Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli campaign at the Suzuka 10 Hours this evening thanks to a dominant performance by Kelvin van der Linde, Dries Vanthoor and Frederic Vervisch.
The trio finished 40s clear of their nearest rivals after taking the lead at the start of the third hour and remaining out front – aside from pitstops – thereafter. Indeed, the #25 Audi R8 LMS GT3 led 201 of the 268 laps, or 75% of the distance, while the crew’s 40s winning margin was more than the difference between GruppeM Racing’s Mercedes-AMG in second place and M-Sport’s #107 Bentley in eighth.
GruppeM produced a similarly impressive performance at Suzuka 12 months ago but had to settle for second this time after failing to match the Audi’s pace throughout. Nevertheless, the car shared by Maxi Buhk, Raffaele Marciello and Maro Engel helped to increase Mercedes-AMG’s advantage at the top of the Manufacturers’ standings with only one round remaining. Buhk is also now alone out front in the Drivers’ Championship after finishing runner-up in Intercontinental’s classification for the third time in four races.
Absolute Racing’s Dirk Werner, Matt Campbell and Dennis Olsen returned to the podium for the first time since winning at Bathurst, although theirs and GruppeM’s final positions owed much to a refuelling issue that cost Absolute’s Audi a certain second place during its final pitstop.
BMW’s M6 looked like the car to beat during the first two hours when Team Schnitzer’s Martin Tomczyk converted pole position into the lead. He was joined at the front by Nick Catsburg who passed Van der Linde on the opening lap. However, Walkenhorst’s hopes were dashed early in the second hour when Christian Krognes’ M6 was tagged by a spinning Nissan. The damage initially appeared superficial but proved terminal soon after.
Audi first hit the front after the second round of scheduled pitstops when Schnitzer opted to re-set their stint time by driving through the pitlane during a Full Course Yellow period. A subsequent stop-go penalty for a short scheduled stop signalled the beginning of the end for BMW’s victory hopes, although the car shared by Tomczyk, Nick Yelloly and Pole Shootout hero Augusto Farfus did ultimately come home fifth.
Craft-Bamboo’s Luca Stolz, Yelmer Buurman and Maxi Goetz ensured two Mercedes-AMGs finished inside the top-four after their stealthy approach paid off. The car spent most of the race yo-yoing around the top-eight but finished just three seconds shy of the podium.
KCMG and Nissan enjoyed their strongest Intercontinental outing of the season en route to sixth, although the GT-R shared by Josh Burdon plus home favourites Katsumasa Chiyo and Tsugio Matsuda might well have finished on the rostrum on pure pace alone. The latter enjoyed a thrilling late battle with Christopher Haase who managed to pass Jordan Pepper’s Bentley in the final stint following Absolute’s refuelling issue.
An early suspension issue consigned M-Sport’s other Continental to a lonely afternoon, although Andy Soucek did collect ¥1,000,000 prize money for setting three separate fastest laps.
Honda endured a tough afternoon on home soil where its two leading contenders, Team UpGarage and Team Motul, finished 14th and 15th despite having no major dramas.
The same couldn’t be said for Ferrari whose full-season entry, HubAuto Corsa, had two separate incidents, the second of which – a heavy impact at 130R – hastened its retirement despite the damage being fixed.
The revived Kyalami 9 Hour hosts the final round of 2019’s Intercontinental GT Challenge on November 21-23.
Kelvin van der Linde, Audi Sport Team WRT: “Wow, what a crazy feeling! I have to say though, the podium afterwards is probably the best I’ve been on. Compared to, let’s say, Nurburgring 24 Hours, it’s dope! Finishing third here last year was great, but now winning? Another level! I learnt this morning that this would be Audi’s first-ever international victory in Japan, so the goal was pretty clear. It’ll be a big deal once we get back to Germany.
“Intercontinental’s cool in the way it’s a championship but that you also have a chance to win these big individual races, which no other championship really has. So we’re trying to win the big individual races because they carry a lot of credibility, and then we have to see at the end of the season where we stand in the Manufacturers’ points. But obviously we want to defend the title. I have a home race at the end of the year so I want to win in South Africa and help Audi fight for the championship.
“We’re a young line-up, so I think a lot of people would have bet on the other car with its more experienced crew. But it was a really nice weekend because we carried our momentum, and each one of Dries, Fred and myself were literally on the same level. It’s great when you build some momentum during a stint, get out the car and your team-mate carries on where you left off. It’s not always like that so I was really privileged to experience it this weekend.”