McLaren GT Factory Drivers Rob Bell, Côme Ledogar, Shane van Gisbergen and Alvaro Parente claimed victories in Europe and North America as the 650S GT3 enjoyed a strong weekend. The race-focused version of Super Series model secured a dramatic win at the opening round of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup in Monza, Italy, a double podium in the Pirelli World Challenge at Barber Motorsports Park in the USA and pole position and a win at the first weekend of the International GT Open championship in Estoril, Portugal.
In the all-Factory Driver line-up #58 McLaren 650S GT3 of customer team Garage 59, Bell started the three-hour race P16 alongside the all-McLaren GT Academy Driver trio of Alex Fontana, Struan Moore and Andrew Watson in P15. The experienced Brit quickly fought through the pack, climbing as high as P3 during his stint, before a quick pit stop by the team vaulted the car into the lead with Ledogar aboard. Frenchman Ledogar – making his competitive debut as a Factory Driver with McLaren GT – drove faultlessly through traffic and retained the lead against one of the most competitive GT grids, before van Gisbergen took over for one of the most exciting and closest finishes the championship has ever seen.
During the final stint of the race, the rapid van Gisbergen defended the lead as he negotiated back-markers around the historic 3.6-mile Italian circuit. As the chequered flag fell after 96 hard-fought laps and three hours of racing, the New Zealand-born driver brought the #58 650S GT3 home to secure the top step of the podium with a winning margin of just 0.341s, and score the team its first win in the Championship.
In the United States, fellow Factory Driver Alvaro Parente enjoyed a successful weekend at the wheel of the 650S GT3. Parente, driving for customer team K-PAX Racing, won Round 6 of the Pirelli World Challenge, and finished second the following morning in Round 7 at the challenging Barber Motorsports Park circuit in Alabama. The results place Parente firmly in the running for the Drivers’ Title.
A third win for the 650S GT3 was secured at the opening weekend of the International GT Open, as customer team Garage 59 enjoyed further success in the second race at Estoril in Portugal. Kevin Estre and Alexander West secured pole position in the #88 650S GT3, and the French-Swedish pair looked set for a convincing victory until a misjudged overtake by a competitor ended the charge on the final lap. Charging to the line, the #59 650S GT3 of Michael Benham and Duncan Tappy reacted quickly to the incident with the British pair taking the lead in another dramatic race finish.
Commenting on the result at Monza, McLaren GT Factory Driver Côme Ledogar explained: ’It is a dream come true to win on my debut for McLaren as a Factory Driver, and even more so at a place as special as Monza. Garage 59 did a fantastic job all weekend and didn’t put a foot wrong through the race. The work by the pitcrew which saw us jump the leaders was a key moment for us, so credit must go to them. I’m also really thankful for the job my teammates did during the race – Rob (Bell) made a great start, fighting through the pack, and Shane put on a stunning display of defensive driving at the end. The car was perfect and in my stint I just had to keep it clean. I can’t wait to visit Silverstone next month and continue our title challenge.’
An incident filled race weekend at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium saw McLaren GT factory driver Alvaro Parente and teammate Miguel Ramos extend the lead of the International GT Open championship with a double podium finish for customer team Teo Martin Motorsport. Changeable conditions midway through the first race caught out the team’s sister car, driven by fellow McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell and McLaren GT Young Driver Andrew Watson, but the pairing showed strong pace throughout the weekend, securing pole position and a solid top five finish in the second race.
Qualifying for the first race of the weekend saw Rob Bell qualify the #59 650S GT3 on the front row of the grid, closely followed by championship regulars Parente and Ramos in P3. From the start, Bell took control of the race, maintaining the lead until he pitted to hand over to Young Driver Andrew Watson. On rejoining the circuit with slick tyres, the young Ulsterman was caught out by a sudden downpour through the notorious Eau Rouge. Despite his best efforts, Watson was unable to prevent the car sliding off the track into the barriers, bringing his charge to an early end. A well-managed stint by Parente’s teammate Ramos, saw the Portuguese factory driver take over for the second stint and he wasted no time in chasing down the leaders.
With time running down, Parente showed his class in the tricky conditions, closing the gap on each lap, and was quickly up into a podium position. At the end of the 27 lap race, Parente brought the #2 650S GT3 home in P2, just 1.421s behind the race winner. This result crucially maintained the championship lead for Parente and Ramos by a single point.
The grid for race 2 of the weekend was set during a damp session on Saturday, ahead of the first race, and it was a closely-fought battle over the front row positions by Watson and Parente. The two McLaren drivers traded fastest times during the session as a dry line started to appear around the 7.004km circuit. In the dying seconds, Watson returned to the track taking a gamble on slick tyres, and moved himself back up to top the timesheets on his championship debut.
The race itself saw Bell and Ramos take the start for Teo Martin Motorsport, with the pair holding position. As the pit-window opened, the McLaren duo pitted for routine driver changes with both cars running strongly. Parente returned to the track and moved into the lead with Watson close behind in P2. As the chequered flag fell, Parente took the race win and was followed over the line by Watson in the #59 650S GT3. However, a post-race investigation penalised the young driver with 40 seconds added to the youngster’s race time, dropping to P5.
Alvaro Parente, Factory Driver, McLaren GT
“Another strong weekend for the 650S GT3 and Teo Martin Motorsport, and great to come away with an extended lead in the championship. The car ran faultlessly in both races, and we showed strong pace in the challenging conditions to secure two strong results. Spa is such a fantastic circuit to race on, and the 650S GT3 really comes into its own around here. It feels so stable and composed, and the team continues to do a great job to ensure we are in a strong position in the championship with two rounds to go.”
Andrew Watson, Young Driver, McLaren GT
“Overall, it was a great weekend, but it definitely had its challenges, and its highs and lows. However, the main thing I will take away is just how much I learnt – working closely with Rob [Bell] and pulling on his experiences of a race weekend, and seeing how a different team operates in a championship of this level. The retirement from Race 1 was a real disappointment, but to put the car on pole position on my championship debut, and then bring the car home in the top five was a great end to the weekend. I would like to thank Teo Martin and the whole team for the opportunity, and now looking forward to the next round of the Avon Tyres British GT championship.”
Andrew Kirkaldy, Managing Director, McLaren GT
“Congratulations to Teo Martin Motorsport on a strong weekend overall. A front row and three podium finishes, including the race win for Alvaro [Parente] to extend his lead with Miguel Ramos in championship, and pole position and a top five for Rob [Bell} and Andrew [Watson] is a great result. Especially when you think this is still the debut season for the car. Andrew was unlucky with how his race ended, being caught out by the sudden rain storm – but then that unpredictability is why we love Spa!”