02 May, 2017
McLaren factory driver, Rob Bell, sharing the #22 Balfe Motorsport McLaren 650S GT3 with Shaun Balfe in the ProAm Class of the International GT Open, set the pace in the first event of the series at Estoril this weekend, taking pole for the first race and fastest lap in both races. A second place finish overall in the first race, was backed up with fourth place in the second race to put the duo second in the overall championship, three points behind the leaders. In the ProAm Class Rob and Shaun took first and second place, to top the Class leaderboard.
The weekend started with excellent form for the team, with the McLaren 650S GT3 setting the pace in the test sessions ahead of the free practice sessions. Rob carried the momentum through to qualifying setting an unbeatable pole time, five tenths quicker than the second fastest car.
The GT Open qualifying regulations ensure each driver qualifies the car for a race each, with that driver taking the start. With three classes, ProPro, ProAm and Am, drivers of varying experience are pitted against each other in qualifying and in the races. Balance of Performance rules to level the playing field between the different manufacturers and success time penalties for podium finishers are also factors that help produce great sportscar racing.
Rob, having qualified the car, took the start of the first race and retained his lead from pole, while Blancpain Endurance Series teammate and adversary in this championship, Come Ledogar, stole second place. Rob drove superbly to draw out a three second lead over Come by the end of his stint and pitted from the lead, handing over to Shaun for the second part of the race. Pipped in the pits by a faster stop from the rival Garage 59 crew, Shaun was back out on track in second place. The top three jockeyed for position in a closely fought battle, with Shaun pushed back to third for a few laps before he regained the place to cross the line a well-deserved second.
It was a rainy start to the second race qualifying session for Shaun and after running on wet tyres for most of the session, the rain stopped and the field went to slick tyres for the last 10 minutes. Shaun coped well with the conditions, but with a full grid on track he was hampered by traffic on his flying laps, finally posting 18th fastest time.
Shaun took the start for the one-hour race, staying out of trouble at the start and moving forward over the course of his stint to hand over to Rob from 13th place. Rob was quickly out on track and putting the power down. He was lying fifth with ten minutes remaining then inherited fourth place in the final laps, to cross the line in this position. As the second ProAm car to finish it was another Class podium for Balfe Motorsport and put the team into the Class Championship lead.
Rob said of Estoril, “This Series produces some great racing and we had a very solid opening weekend. It was great to be standing on the podium for both races of the season; that really gives you a confidence boost for the season ahead. I was also really chuffed to have posted fastest laps in both races, just proving how quick the McLaren can be, against some very strong competition, even with success time penalty. It’s been great working with Balfe Motorsport and I look forward to re-joining them again at the end of May.”
The second event of the seven race International GT Open takes place at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium from 27th – 28th May. Rob returns to the track next weekend for the second round of the Blancpain Sprint Series, behind held at Brands Hatch circuit in Kent.