After a stellar 2013 this year this was supposed to be the season Max Buhk stamped his authority on GT3, but instead it was the turn of his team-mate Maximillian Gotz to climb into the limelight.
The unification of SRO’s European GT3 based series brought the former GT Sprint series under the Blancpain banner, and with it the chance of a joint GT3 title.
Buhk and Götz again lined up in HTP’s 2013 Endurance title-winning #84 SLS, ready to take on reigning champions Laurens Vanthoor and Stephane Ortelli at their own game.
But to their surprise the main challenge came not from Audi’s big guns, now separated into different cars and different teams.
Instead Grasser racing, who had run Hari Proczyk and Dominik Baumann to runner-up spot in Pro-Am in 2013 sprang to the fore, energised by the inspired signing of Jeroen Bleekelmolen.
The Austrian crew put up a spirited fight, grabbing their first ever overall victory in just the second round and adding three more through the season.
In fact it was only Götz’s supreme consistency that clinched him the title over Bleekemolen and Proczyk. The #84 car only slipped out of the points scoring positions in a near-disastrous final round at Baku.
The season began way back in April at a sodden Nogaro. The twisty, hairpin filled track revealing how the rest of the season would pan out from the word go.
The first qualifying race of the season ended in controversy as Proczyk, who had led the first three-quarters of his first ever outing in Pro Cup, was left in the gravel by a questionable punt from Enzo Ide, which went unpunished.
Vanthoor’s title defence also started disastrously in the main race, as Cesar Ramos dove for the pits just before the field crossed the start line, Buhk and Götz got their challenge off to a flyer.
Initially trapped behind Sergio Jiminez’s slow BMW Z4 along with the rest of the field, Buhk was one of only two of the following cars able to power by.
That left Götz with a stroll to the finish, as only Gregory Guilvert was able to dispatch the Z4 before the pit window opened.
While Stephane Ortelli did his best to bring the #3 G-Drive R8 into contention Götz was able to stroke the SLS home for a his debut victory.
Proczyck and Bleekemolen meanwhile put on a stirling drive to bring the hampered Gallardo up to sixth from the back of the grid while Vanthoor and Ramos never made it back out of the pits.
The teams then headed across the channel to England for the second round at Brands Hatch with the Grasser boys determined to make amends for their problems in France.
The #28 grabbed victories in both the qualifying and championship race to catapult themselves into the burgeoning title race.
The qualifying victory came after the inspired, but ultimately sensible, decision to leave Bleekemolen out on track until the very last moment of the pit window while Vanthoor, who had led the opening exchanges, headed in.
Bleekemolen’s blistering pace handed Proczyck the lead, and, ultimately, the victory. as Alex Zanardi’s stranded BMW brought the safety car out the moment the Lamborghini hit the pit lane,
Vanthoor and the #84 were left stranded out on the neutralised track as Grasser got their stop out-of-the-way and Proczyck held off Buhk to claim pole.
The main race was much more simple, Grasser reversing their tactics to bring Proczyck in as soon as possible and again maximise Bleekemolen’s seat time.
The Dutchman, aided by a slow stop from HTP, was able to stretch out a commanding gap at the head of the field over Gotz, who in turn was well clear of the #0 Z4 of Sergio Jimenez and Caca Bueno.
The #28 would make it three victories in a row in qualifying for the following round at Zandvoort but all three championship contending cars would be thrown into the shadows by performances elsewhere.
Rene Rast, now racing in the second WRT Audi produced a stunning victory in the main race that was thrown into chaos by a heavy downpour.
The German came to the fore after the sudden rain shower drenched the Dutch tarmac and sent the cars scurrying for the pits.
When he exited having taken the car from Enxo Ide, Rast set about hunting down the leaders, slicing his way through the field before pressuring Max Buhk into his first major mistake of the season.
Buhk sent the SLS spinning wide under the challenge of the R8, dropping down the field afterwards and eventually crossing the line fourth.
But the race was far from over. Rast stormed away at the head of the field, seemingly uncatchable in the difficult conditions.
That was until the track began to dry, when series newcomer’s Schubert sprang to life in their Z4.
In the hands of Domink Baumann, last year’s Pro-Am runner-up, the BMW sprang forward, dispatching the struggling Buhk before carving his way through the lead Rast had built up.
Rast just held on under immense pressure from Baumann to hand WRT their first Sprint Series victory of 2014.
Baumann, and team-mate Thomas Jäger, carried their momentum into the fourth round of the season in Slovakia, where they would again come from behind to force a dramatic finish.
The pair didn’t even finish the qualifying race, which was won in straightforward fashion by Vanthoor and Ramos ahead of the #28.
But a humongous shunt at the start of the championship race put paid to Grasser’s hopes of taking the championship lead. Three cars ended their day in the first corner gravel with more suffering damage after Cesar Ramos flung his R8 into the first corner in an attempt to make up for a poor start.
A handful of corners later Niki Mayr-Melnhof had crashed heavily into the barriers and Alex Zanardi had pulled into the pits.
That left the #84 to lead again, with Nico Verdonck, sitting in for Max Buhk, who had been banned by his home racing federation after an alleged incident at a GT Open event, leading the pack.
But with just 14 cars left the Schubert BMW in the hands of Jager was up to fifth by the end of the first lap and off after the leaders.
After the pit window played out Götz lead in what had now become an unhappy SLS, ahead of the #0 in the hands of Sergio Jimenez and then Baumann.
Jimenez caught Gotz, but struggled to pass the SLS until it broke free from Gotz control and slithered wide at the final corner. The Brazilian sped off into the lead while Baumann caught the #84 and proceeded to make light work of passing.
The Austrian then hunted down Jimenez like a man possessed, slicing seconds a lap out of the lead until he was sat under the Z4’s big rear wing. The #76 then waited calmly for the leading car to make a mistake, pouncing on the penultimate lap when the #0 appeared to slow.
Thankfully for Grasser it was not the day for any of the title contenders, the first corner damage took its toll on the #1 and Vanthoor limped home seventh while the #84 would slip off the podium.
With Buhk missing out on a round, and vital championship points, HTP took the decision to refocus their efforts. Splitting strategies for their two star drivers. Götz would get the chance to challenge for the Sprint Series title while at the same time supporting his team mate’s attempts to beat Vanthoor to the overall title.
A successful weekend at Portimao only strengthened the pair’s claims to their relevant crowns.
Despite sharing victories with Grasser the higher weighting of points towards the championship race saw Gotz leave the Algarve with a commanding 23 point lead over the #28 crew.
Proczyck and Bleekemolen had taken the honours in qualifying, but the Austrian racer could do nothing about a determined Götz in the opening stages of the main race. Three laps was all he managed at the head of the field before the SLS slipped by and never looked back.
This could easily be seen as a key weekend in the championship run in. While everything would be decided in Baku this was the first time the #84 had come away from a weekend when they had paired a win with another podium.
The qualifying race victory would also be the last time Bleekemolen and Proczyck stood on the top step in 2014.
The penultimate round at Zolder would also fall to the #84’s increasing momentum, but was also the moment Laurens Vanthoor and the #1 crew finally stepped into the ring as realistic championship contenders.
Perhaps overshadowed at times in the early season by team mates Rast and Ide, the champion was now free to concentrate on Sprint and overall crowns after the boost of clinching the Endurance title at the Nurburgring.
However, the final race result may have been overshadowed by a humongous shunt between Alex Zanardi and the #177 SLS car that Alexey Visilyev was lucky to walk away from.
Vasilyev was arguably at fault for the clash, which saw his car catapulted into the catch fence, shredding pieces as it tumbled down the track before eventually coming to rest on its wheels in the gravel trap.
The safety car intervened after the clash, as it did early in the race after a mistake from Rast saw the #2 WRT car eliminated after just two corners.
After that was cleared it was the one-off #95 NSC Motorsport entry of Peter Kox that took the advantage. However a problem with the car’s jacks during the pit stop saw team-mate Nick Catsburg stranded and the Gallardo out of the race.
That, and some stunning pit work from the HTP crew, perhaps exorcising the demons of some slow turnarounds earlier in the year, allowed the #84 into the lead ahead of the #28 and polesitter Vanthoor, who had dominated the qualifying race.
That left the championship in HTP’s hands as the teams headed to Baku for the final round of an eventful season.
The street circuit hosted a fitting finally to the 2014 battle, as all three contenders seemed to be able to wrap up the title at some point in the weekend.
It was Vanthoor who stood atop the podium through the weekend. No one was able to challenge his dominance through either race except for the impressive performance of Johnny Adam and Andy Soucek in Beechdean AMR’s second appearance in the Sprint series.
The Belgian completed a sweet of three victories in the last four races to not only challenge Götz for the Sprint title but also clinch the first ever Blancpain GT crown.
Götz was unable to score a single point in race one, finishing ninth after a poor race saw the #84 never close to challenging for the anything significant.
That meant the Grasser pair had a golden chance to keep the championship alive with a heavy haul of points.
All seemed to be going well for the #28 until suddenly the bonnet began to detach itself from the car. Proczyk was forced to nurse the sick car toward the line, desperately trying to keep it in the points and the championship.
But his efforts came to naught as the stewards made perhaps the most crucial call of the season – forcing the distraught Grasser crew to bring their car in as the entire bonnet began to work its way loose.
Despite setting about the car with most of Azerbaijan’s supply of duct tape and sending the car back out the forlorn team had to admit defeat as a pointless 15th place finish handed Götz the title.
That left a straight fight between Buhk and Vanthoor for the overall title in the final race, a battle that would be decided by the latter’s team mate early on.
With Buhk not yet able to enter the fray Götz was holding on to a strong position just behind Niki Mayr Melnhof’s slower Phoenix Racing R8.
Behind him the second WRT Audi was again having an impressive afternoon in the hands of Rast, storming from 25th into the top ten in barely a handful of laps.
Rast, perhaps determined to make up for his mistake at Zolder, threw the car up the inside of Götz when the big SLS was balked by Mayr-Melnhof at the first hairpin.
He looked to have pulled off the move of the race, flying up the inside of the SLS and getting the hammer down first on exit, but then disaster struck.
Rast couldn’t keep the R8’s immense power under control and the rear of the R8 swung wide, slamming into the front of the Merc and taking both of them into the wall.
While Rast was able to limp away Götz’s race was over on the spot. The visibly angry German forced to watch replays of the incident on the big screens as his team mate’s chances of the overall title vanished in an instant.
That left Vanthoor to cruise home in the lead, adding a second title to his Endurance championship and crown a stellar year.
For us the undoubted star of the season is Jeroen Bleekemolen, taking a team new to him to within a few points of the title at their first season in Pro Cup.