This year was the season Laurens Vanthoor stamped his claim fully for the title of best GT racer in the world, but his dominant end of season points tally tells far from the full story.
The victory was more down to Vanthoor’s brilliant late season rally than a full year of consistency. In fact if you head back to June you’d find the Belgian way off the blistering pace being set by Bentley’s surprise package.
But that was where it all started to go right for WRT. At the Spa 24 hours they were able to rejig their teams, swapping Cesar Ramos and Marc Basseng out of the #1 car and drafting in Rene Rast and Marcus Winklelhock for their home enduro.
The final two rounds of the Blancpain Endurance Series are incredibly important to the championship. Between them they pay out more points than the first three rounds combined, get them right and you’re championship is looking healthy.
With the help of his temporary team mates Vanthoor beat off a strong challenge from Marc VDS to claim victory at Spa and was never out of the top two for the extra points at six and 12 hours.
That victory, and the hit of 43 points, pushed Vanthoor right into contention, but he still needed a result in Germany to close the deal.
And a result he got, Vanthoor climed into the car with two hours left of the race, and, seemingly through his own sheer will, pushed the R8 to the front of the field on a drying track and walked away from all opposition.
It was stunning drive from Vanthoor, one that cemented his place as deserving Blancpain Champion, but he was far from the only hero in 2014.
The season began way back in April on a sunny day in Monza, a day when really only two things stood out.
Firstly the almost worrying pace of ART’s brand new fleet of MP4-12Cs, such was the brilliance of Gregouire Demoustier, Alvaro Parente and Alex Premat you began to worry what the rest of the season would look like.
Secondly the calamitous performance of Vadim Kogay in the #333 GT Corse by Rinaldi 458, a performance so memorable he got his own YouTube tribute. Sadly Vadim’s season would end in an horrific crash at Spa a few months later which saw him spend time in hospital.
Back on the track and Vanthoor had only managed fourth, behind the second ART McLaren and a plucky effort from the #26 Sainteloc R8 in the hands of Grégory Guilvert, Edward Sandström and veteran racer Stephane Ortelli, the black and white Audi just able to snatch away ART’s hopes of a 1-2 by a second.
As the crews moved on to the Silverstone sun in May all eyes were on ART to wrap up a second straight victory. Premat, Demoustier and Parente had looked sure to take a second consecutive pole position, only for it to be snatched away in the final seconds.
Amazingly their place at the head of the field was taken by the unheralded Pro-Am Porsche 997 GT3 of Eric Dermont and Franck Perera, although their challenge at the front would barely make it beyond a few corners.
Come raceday the ART cars seemed again to be the class of the field, Andy Soucek, Kevin Estre and Kevin Korjus this time taking the #99 car to the head of the field.
But that would have been to count out the extraordinary newcomer to the series in 2014 – M-Sport’s Bentley Continental GT3.
A mixture of the rumbling Conti’s amazing speed and a fuming crew of Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane, fired up by a controversial early penalty.
First Meyrick and then Kane sliced their way through the field after being left way out of contention by the drive-through before a late safety car gave them their chance.
Kane dispatched four cars in a row before monstering past Soucek and waltzing away for a stunning victory in only the car’s second Blancpain race.
Behind them the #98’s promising weekend came to nought. Passed by their team mates and then Kane, Alex Premat cemented their woes by spinning at Luffield and bringing the McLaren home in a lowly seventh.
Finishing the podium Vanthoor hauled his R8 up to third after poor stints from Ramos and Basseng had left them struggling in 10th place, perhaps the first sign of what was to come from the Belgian.
France was the next target for the Endurance Series, an into-the-night race at Paul Ricard to be precise and another demonstration of the strength of the Continental GT3.
The #98 retook it’s position at the head of the field in qualifying after the Silverstone blip. Premat jettisoned following his Silverstone slip Demoustier and Parente would be partnered by Toyota Le Mans racer Nico Lapierre, while Bentley struggled, managing only seventh on one-lap pace.
But Smith punched the big white machine into a fight for fourth by the end of the first lap and was in second by the time Meyrick stepped in. The change didn’t unsettle the Bentley, and Meyrick hauled in an eight second gap to the shocked McLaren to take the lead with the race barely past half distance.
From their they never looked back and Kane was able to stroke the Bentley home after jumping in with just over an hour to go.
The #98 would reel the Bentley back in but it was never more than Kane keeping them at arms length as the pair crossed the line 50 seconds clear of the third placed HTP Motorsport SLS of Luca Wolf, Sergei Afanasiev and Stef Dusseldorp.
The star of the race was probably a stunning drive from Nicki Catsberg in the TDS Racing Z4, hauling the car into the lead after two hours to give amateur Henri Hassid a fighting chance at a podium before they settled for fourth place.
And Vanthoor? The #1 could not muster higher than 13th, a lap down on the podium places and seemingly dooming the Belgian’s title challenge.
But in the end his lowest point could even have been the spark to ignite the championship challenge as the nightmare in southern France inspired the WRT switcharoo at Spa.
Audi entered the season’s biggest race hoping to finish an historic hat-trick of twice-round-the-clock enduros after clinching both Le Mans and Nurburgring 24 hours earlier in the season.
Vanthoor, ably assisted by Winkelhock and Rast, was only ever challenged one off Marc VDS entry of Lucas Luhr, Marcus Palttala and Dirk Werner, as the ART cars both exited the race and Bentley spent too much time in the pits.
Their only real challenge came when Bas Leinders, overseeing his Marc VDS crews, threw the dice and didn’t chance tyres at a late pit stop after they thought chances of victor had gone due to braking issues.
But Rast, in the #1 for the final stint, set about breaking down the 20 second gap to Werner in the #77 before passing him and scampering off into the distance.
Sadly the race will be remembered more for a series of monster shunts that eliminated huge swathes of the competition through the race and lead to several safety car periods and one red.
First Vyacheslav Maleev crashed the #100 SMP/Russian Bears 458 heavily into Eau Rouge which required marshals to replace the tyre barriers.
Then, just seconds after going green, Tim Mullen’s Von Ryan McLaren hit the wall at the first left-hand kink at Blanchimont, his safety car having only left the track at Stavelot. Again a lengthy clean up was required and Mullen was taken to hospital, thankfully only as a precaution.
Finally the race directors flew the red after Marcus Mahy and the aforementioned Kogay came together just before the race hit quarter distance.
Both drivers spent time in hospital and Mahy wouldn’t return home for another nine weeks after spending over a month in intensive care.
As teams all moved on to the a sodden Nurburgring the title race was now in the balance, Vanthoor back in the hunt and his competitors struggling. He would again be paired with Cesar Ramos as earlier in the season and in the Sprint Series, but they were joined by young German racer Christopher Mies.
It would be Mies who put the WRT group on pole for the 1000km race, setting a blistering pace nearly a second clear of one-off Audi #888 entry for Rahel Frey, Didier Cuche and Nico Muller.
But the WRT #1 car didn’t have it all it’s own way during the double-length season finisher as an absorbing finale swung between three different manufacturers as time ebbed away.
In absolutely appalling conditions the #98 McLaren refound its feet, leading the the opening stint of the race from Mies and the distant #85 HTP Mercedes.
The race would be turned on its head during the second hour by Al Buncombe, whose astonishing pace pushed the Team RJN Nissan not only to the head of field, but off into a 20 second lead.
Sadly his extraordinary pace could not be matched by a set of rookie team mates and the Nissan faded into the background as the race played out. The two HTP Mercedes and the #19 Black Falcon SLS then took up the leading mantle, the #98 starting to struggle more and more as the race went on.
Ramos, in the #1 after Mies, struggled to keep the car in contention, dropping down off the podium before Vanthoor could get in the car for a monster 2-hour stint.
When Vanthoor entered the fray the gap to the #19 was heading past a lap and it looked a race between the trio of Mercs in front.
But, in the drying conditions, the Belgian took the R8, and the race, by the throat, setting a stream of extraordinary lap times to catch, pass and leave his competition in the dust, or spray.
And that was that, Vanthoor a deserving champion. His only real challenge had been the boy from Crewe, but the big Continental GT3 struggled dramatically in the wet conditions and the M-Sport car could finish no higher than seventh.
Next year there will be more Bentleys as HTP ditch their fleet of trusty SLSs, and it will be fascinating to see if they can take the fight back to WRT in 2015.