After their emphatic victory last night in Bahrain, Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Team Project 1 find themselves tied for the lead in the FIA WEC’s GTE Am class heading into the second half of the season. Saturday’s result has shaken up the standings in Am, with Project 1’s best performance coming just before a run of four races to finish the season that features the three circuits that Keating and company should be strongest at.
Keating’s performance, which Bleekemolen dubbed “heroic” after the race, helped power the 2018/19 class championship-winning team to its first win of the current season, and leaves the No. 57 trio tied for the lead in the title race with the No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari crew ahead of Lone Star Le Mans next February.
Most FIA WEC races feature a standout drive or two, often from a gentlemen driver who finds a way to consistently produce lap times comparable to pros. While Keating has little to prove after years of setting the benchmark for Bronze drivers in IMSA, yesterday was special nonetheless.
He drove for almost three hours at the start of the race, longer than the minimum time for Bronze drivers. His lap times were so strong — even into the third hour of his ironman stint — that the team was able to save a pit stop, while the other teams brought their cars in for an additional stop as soon as possible to sub out their Bronze drivers. Remarkably, with the Pro drivers in the category nipping at his heels towards the end of his run, Keating was only overtaken twice, by AMR factory driver Ross Gunn and long-time Gulf Racing Porsche driver Ben Barker.
“We worked so much on our strategy for the race,” Keating told RACER. “We were trying to figure out what was the best way to spend the least amount of time in the pits. And, you know, we thought the tire degradation would be much worse than it was. We had planned for lots of pit stops and lots of tires. But that all went out the window. The tire deg for our car wasn’t as bad as we expected it to be. When Ross Gunn got through I thought, ‘Here we go!’ But I managed to keep my pace up.”
This left his longtime driving partner Bleekemolen and fellow Dutchman Larry ten Voorde (in his second WEC start) to finish the job. They built on Keating’s performance and towards the end proved untouchable. During the eight hours, the No. 57 Porsche led 185 of 233 laps.
While a perfect night for Project 1, it was a disastrous one for British team TF Sport, which headed into the weekend leading the class standings after wins at Fuji and Shanghai. Its quest for three straight wins faltered when its Aston Martin Vantage AMR suffered a gearbox failure. That dropped the team and its drivers to fourth in the standings, 15 points adrift of the leaders and behind the other Aston Martin in the class, the No. 98. The No. 57 Project 1 crew, meanwhile, having scored just one point at Silverstone after a mechanical failure forced them to start the opener a lap down, are now real contenders.
“I don’t want to wish anything bad on anybody. But the 90 (TF Sport) car had a huge lead on us (in the points), and today they had the bad luck,” Keating noted. “To be able to win in one of the longer races where you get more points, it all kind of jumbled everything up and turned into a great day for us. I had hoped that we would do well here and make up some ground in the championship. I did not expect to leave here tied for the lead.”
Next up on the calendar is Circuit of The Americas, which has replaced the canceled round in Brazil at the end of February. The circuit in Austin is one that Keating and Bleekemolen have had many successes at in the past, most recently winning the 24H Series COTA 24 Hours a few weeks ago. For the race in Keating’s home state of Texas, Felipe Fraga will rejoin the team after ten Voorde played substitute perfectly for the past two races.
The big unknown will be the new track surface, which is currently being worked on. Whether it will throw out the form book remains to be seen but local knowledge certainly can’t hurt. Sebring follows the unexpected trip to Austin, for another race at a circuit that Keating and Bleekemolen should be strong at after years of competing there in IMSA.
The series then returns to Europe for the decisive rounds: Spa, where Keating has no experience at, and Le Mans, at which Keating, Bleekemolen and Fraga will be desperate to win after losing a class victory this year with their customer Ford GT to a post-race penalty.
There’s still 44 hours of racing left in the 2019/20 season, so it goes without saying that a lot can happen. Right now though, GTE Am features a four-way title battle that looks set to provide entertainment for the rest of the campaign.