Aston Martin Vantage GT3 squad Oman Racing made a successful start to the new Blancpain Endurance Cup season at a rain-hit Monza in Italy on Sunday with a top three podium finish in the Pro-Am class during an unpredictable and challenging first race of 2019.
Performing sensationally in very difficult wet conditions during qualifying, Ahmad Al Harthy, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluc combined to deliver a thoroughly dominant Pro-Am pole position to spark genuine hopes of a bid for class victory.
Muscat racer Al Harthy took the first stint of the three-hour race and maintained the Pro-Am lead throughout his run, but during the second hour – when Yoluc was at the wheel of the Aston – two luckless punctures in quick succession destroyed the team’s realistic push for the win.
Battling back well from the two enforced and unscheduled pit-stops, Yoluc and then Eastwood completed the race strongly to secure third place in class and deliver very important points for, what will undoubtedly be this year, the extremely close and competitive championship fight. Additionally, the podium marks the first for Aston Martin’s latest Vantage GT3 in Blancpain.
“Finishing on the podium in the first race of the season is fantastic and P3 is a solid result, especially with everything that happened with the double puncture – that’s something we’ve never even heard of before”, said Al Harthy, “It’s great to be back on the Blancpain podium, great for me personally and everyone at Oman Racing, and I have to say a huge thank you to all our amazing sponsors.”
As predicted, final qualifying for the opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Cup season was impacted by rain – significantly so. All three of the sessions were interrupted by multiple red flag stoppages, and consequent delays, but through it all Oman Racing’s trio were impressive.
Yoluc took the opening 15 minute session, on an extremely wet and slippery track, and produced a best time of 2m11.435 seconds to conclude the run second in Pro-Am. In session two, Al Harthy got behind the wheel and was the dominant Pro-Am runner with a superb time of 2m08.393 seconds in very challenging conditions to go fastest in class well over four seconds clear of his closest rival.
In the third and final run, the quickest of the morning with a drier line beginning to appear, Eastwood also circulated quickest in Pro-Am with a lap of 2m04.703 seconds and the average of all three drivers’ times ensured class pole position by 2.6 seconds and 10 overall places on the grid.
With the wet weather remaining for the afternoon’s race, officials chose to start the encounter behind the Safety Car and Al Harthy put together a very good opening stint in the National Bank of Oman, Oman Ministry of Sports Affairs, Omantel and Barr Al Jissah liveried Aston Martin.
After two laps the action proper got underway and the Omani performed well, ensuring he stayed out of trouble in the thick of the overall midfield action. Following a Full Course Yellow cautionary period at the half-hour mark, preceding the deployment of the Safety Car, when racing got back underway Al Harthy had around 20 minutes left of his stint.
Pushing on, he eventually pitted from the Pro-Am lead on lap 26 to hand over to Yoluc who rejoined the race third in class. Dramatically, less than a quarter of an hour into his run, the Turkish racer sustained a left-rear puncture to badly impact chances of a podium and then, incredibly, a second puncture meant another pit visit in quick succession.
More drama soon followed, albeit not involving the Oman Racing entry, with a costly tangle between the top two Pro-Am cars resulting in retirement for both. Elevating Yoluc back into third in class, albeit a couple of laps down, he handed over to Eastwood with 65 minutes remaining.
With no realistic opportunity to gain ground after all of the earlier difficulties, the Northern Irishman still pushed as hard as he could and eventually took the chequered flag third in Pro-Am to seal some extremely hard-fought, and well deserved, round one silverware.
“We were over the moon with our pole position, the conditions were very tricky in qualifying but all three of us did a great job in the car with some great team work”, said Al Harthy, “We’re delighted with the performance of the Aston in the wet this weekend, big thank you to the TF Sport guys for their work – everything we did in practice with the set-up definitely paid off.
“In the race the conditions were very difficult, I was hardly able to see anything but I managed to keep us in the class lead and pull a gap to P2 until the Safety Car appeared. I still pitted from the lead but when Salih took over we couldn’t believe the bad luck he had. The luck came back to us though later on, and Charlie brought the car home well to the finish. Now we aim to take this forward!”
Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit in the UK hosts round two of the Blancpain Endurance Cup season over the weekend 11th/12th May.