One weekend, two tracks and four reasons to celebrate

The penultimate round of the 2017 VLN championship has resulted in a fine second-place finish overall for Team BLACK FALCON, which along with another pair of class podiums from their Porsches has brought the team’s tally to 17 podium finishes during the season so far. The four-hour race around the Nürburgring Nordschleife comprised 164 entries, and treacherous conditions caused heavy attrition early in the race, but all four Team BLACK FALCONcrews put in impressive performances, braving the elements and avoiding all the incidents to score their excellent finishing positions. The team’s development Mercedes-AMG GT4 took a different path over the weekend: after competing in two rounds of the VLN, Team BLACK FALCON took the car across the border to the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium for a 12-hour endurance race, where it finished second in class and brought home yet another trophy for the team.

In VLN8, the lead Team BLACK FALCON car was the #7 Mercedes-AMG GT3 entered in the SP9 class, which starred team veterans Abdulaziz Turki Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia), Hubert Haupt (Germany) and Yelmer Buurman (Netherlands). The trio of BLACK FALCON Team TMD Friction Porsches included two 911s and a Cayman. The #61 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup was driven by Jürgen Bleul (Germany), ‘Takis’ (Switzerland) and Carsten Knechtges (Germany) in the SP7 category; the #420 Porsche 991 Carrera featured Alexander Akimenkov (Russian Federation), Axel König (Germany) and Vasilii Selivanov (Russian Federation); in V5, the #448 Porsche Cayman driver roster comprised Alexander Böhm (Germany), Christoph Hoffman (Germany), Fidel Leib (Germany) and Charles Oakes (Luxembourg).

Saturday morning at the Nürburgring dawned dull and bleak for Qualifying, with parts of the track still wet from overnight rain. Although low cloud hung over the Nordschleife all morning, the rain thankfully held off for the 90-minute session. Having set seven flying laps, the best time for #7 placed them 10th on the grid, their lap set at an average speed of 179.357kph; #61 qualified an excellent 19th overall, right on the tail of the faster GT3s and fourth in SP7. Continuing the team’s strong showing in V6, the crew of #420 placed their Porsche second in the class, 69th overall. The one issue for the team was when the #448 Cayman had a minor incident that caused light damage and interrupted their qualifying run. The Porsche returned to the garage and the ever-efficient Team BLACK FALCON mechanics got to work, repairing the damage in good time before the grid formation procedure began. However, having completed a minimal number of laps, their best time placed them only 143rd overall and 12th in V5.

With the brief turn-around between Qualifying and the race completed, the four Team BLACK FALCON cars were lined up in the grid spots for their respective starting waves: #7 and #61 in the lead group, #420 and #448 in the second. Yelmer was behind the wheel of #7 for the mass rolling start, in the midst of the leading pack as the huge grid of GT3s and Porsche Cup cars charged down to the tight first corner for the midday start. ‘Takis’ took #61 safely through the opening loop of the Grand Prix track, battling with the other Cup racers. A couple of minutes behind, Alexander and Fidel brought #420 and #448 across the line in the second wave of starters.

The race had barely got into its stride when the first of many incidents broke up the flow of the race. A trio of BMWs were involved in a heavy crash at Aremberg, causing extensive damage to the barriers that would neutralise that area and take well over an hour to repair. Soon after, an accident at Tiergarten created another yellow-flag sector, highlighting the tricky surfaces around the Nordschleife. However, Yelmer was revelling in the conditions, up to sixth as the first hour drew to a close before diving into the pits for an early stop. #420 was up to 61st, tucked into a tight three-way battle for the lead of V6, while #448 had made good progress up to 90th overall. At this stage the TV cameras showed that windscreen wipers had begun to swipe on cars around the far side of the Nordschleife as some light rain fell; this became heavier as the second hour wore on, eventually covering the majority of the track and causing a quandary for teams over tyre choice. But with #7 now under the control of Hubert, the Mercedes was still absolutely flying and circulating in third, closing in on the leaders. #61 had fallen back slightly in the opening stint, but began its fightback during hour two and was third in SP7 in the second hour.

High winds caused a vortex of clouds to swirl over the Nürburgring. The rain ebbed and flowed, hitting different areas of the track at different times and creating unpredictable conditions – which was the main reason for the large number of spins and incidents out on track. Several GT3s were eliminated, aiding Team BLACK FALCON’s cause, but the underlying pace of #7’s drivers was the main reason for their rise through the order. As the halfway point of the race closed in, #7 had got right onto the tail of the leading Audi, at one stage within a half-second, before conditions worsened again. #420 were up to second in V6, fighting to get on terms with the class leader. Through the third hour the track gradually dried out and lap times tumbled. Having briefly dropped a place to third during the pit-stops, #7 battled back into second and resumed its chase of the leader, chipping away at the gap on every lap. The inexorable progress of #7 paid off as the race went on: Hubert got to within just four seconds of the lead with half an hour to go, waiting to the very last moment to dive into the pits on lap 22 and hand over the car to Abdulaziz to bring the car home.

There was a final accident near the end of the race in the Wipperman sector which triggered another yellow-flag slow zone, and an even later pit-stop from the leader unfortunately pushed out the gap to #7 to almost a minute. Despite Abdulaziz’s best efforts, putting in lap-times that were faster than the car ahead, the distance to the leader was insurmountable in the small amount of time remaining in the race and he had to settle for an excellent second-place overall. #61 held their podium position to the end of the race, crossing the line in 21st overall and second in SP7. A GPS malfunction cost the crew of #420: they were classified as 53rd overall and third in V6, but would have finished second in class were it not for the unscheduled pit-stop that was required to fix the issue. #448 recovered from their lowly starting position to complete the race in 82nd, ninth in V5.

Over in Belgium, Saud Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia), Alexander Toril (Spain), Miguel Toril (Spain) and Adam Christodoulou (United Kingdom) qualified third overall for the 12H Spa-Francorchamps in their SP3-GT4 #2 Mercedes-AMG Test Team Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT4. The two-part race, which commenced with three hours of racing on Saturday before finishing with the final nine hours on Sunday, was hit by continuous rain which made conditions incredibly challenging for the drivers and their Mercedes-AMG GT4 development vehicle. The team finished the first race in second overall, and then on Sunday fought their way to the front. At one stage they led the race with several laps advantage, but an accident on Sunday afternoon cost the team their lead because they had to pit and repair the car, and serve the time penalty that the collision drew. However, the team did not let this unexpected incident set them back, and despite the difficult weather conditions, the excellent performance of the Mercedes-AMG GT4 ensured that drivers would consistently set fast lap times. By the end of the grueling race, the quartet had worked their way up to the eighth place in the overall classification and second place in the SP3-GT4 class. The four drivers were deservedly celebrated on the podium –the team’s second champagne shower of a successful weekend.

There’s just one more race left in the 2017 VLN season, which will take place in two weeks time on the 21st October. That event will be followed by the team crossing the Atlantic to compete in the 24H COTA USA at the Circuit Of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

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