M-Sport Team Bentley scored the biggest victory of the marque’s GT3 program to date at the Bathurst 12 Hour. The No. 7 Continental GT3 of Jordan Pepper, Jules Gounon and Maxime Soulet outlasted the competition, survived a late puncture, endured the heat and crossed the line moments before the heavens opened to win the Australian event after five years of trying.
In what was an incredibly tense finish, the weather front moved in and circled the circuit, but the predicted heavy rain held off until moments after the checkered flag fell. Yet the threat meant that multiple teams, all on differing strategies, tried to hold on as long as they could hoping that a late shower would hand them a lifeline.
But rain didn’t come, only gale-force winds, and the No. 7 took a comfortable victory over 30 seconds clear of the chasing pack.
It had been no easy day though, as the team was forced to work for it. The M-Sport mechanics had earned their paychecks before the race even started, as both the team’s Continental GT3s suffered major issues; the chassis which eventually won underwent an engine change pre-race.
Having taken control just before the halfway mark, the No. 7 led for much of the second half of the race, before two key moments made for a nail-biting run to the flag.
The first was a gamble in strategy by the No. 999 GruppeM Mercedes AMG GT3, which emerged as Bentley’s biggest rival towards the end. The team double-stinted its tires after the fourth and final safety car of the race to gain track position and take the lead at the penultimate round of stops.
This created a chase for the lead between Rafaelle Marciello and Gounon, the Frenchman reeling in the leading AMG over the course of a stint, reducing the deficit from 17 seconds to just a couple of car lengths before they pitted for the final time.
The final pit stop was a hectic one, the No. 7 suffering a blowout on the Conrod Straight at full speed forcing it in early.
Fortunately, Gounon was able to steer the car back to the pits without further damage for quick tire change. Despite losing around seven seconds, the Bentley still emerged in the lead, ahead of the No. 999 after its final stop.
From there Gounon pushed all the way to the flag, scoring a hugely popular win with the local fans, and an incredibly important one for the M-Sport program. M-Sport becomes the first British team to win the 12 Hour, and Bentley becomes the first British-flagged marque to win the race as a result.
“I can’t believe it, Jordan, Jules, all three of us did an amazing job, we pushed the whole way through, and we had luck with us as the rain has started now!” Soulet said after the race.
“Unreal,” added Gounon after stepping out the car. “I was seeing the thunder and I was like, ‘Please not now!’ The car has been unreal all race long. M-Sport has done an amazing job. Bathurst 12 Hour — I can’t believe it. This is huge, we’ve had huge potential with this car but we’ve only had bad luck until now.”
The drama didn’t stop there, as in the final laps the No. 999 suffered a puncture of its own on the Conrod Straight, forcing Marciello into the pits. This dropped him to third, right behind the delayed No. 60 59Racing McLaren, which was in the midst of a stunning recovery driver after two penalties.
Marciello forced his was back to second at the final corner, but it would be for nothing. Not only was GruppeM and its trio of Marciello, Max Buhk and Felipe Fraga robbed a chance of victory by the puncture and Gounon’s unbeatable pace at the end, but a penalty right after the flag for not switching the car’s engine off at the emergency stop at the end cost the team further. A 30-second time penalty dropped the car off the podium and back to sixth.
This penalty promoted the 59Racing McLaren of Alvaro Parente, Ben Barnicoat and Tom Blomqvist to second place. It was a hard-fought podium for the trio, who had a lucky escape when Barnicoat ran over debris at high speed in the seventh hour, and came back after suffering two penalties, one for speeding in pit lane, the other for ignoring blue flags.
The No. 888 entry from Triple Eight Mercedes eventually was named the best of the 2020-spec AMG GT3 finishers and classified third. The new Mercedes was strong throughout, with both speed and reliability. Here, errors and poor luck with punctures that cost the German brand its first win at Mount Panorama since 2013.
Finishing the day fourth was the No. 911 pole-sitting Absolute Racing Porsche, which spent much of the race recovering from a puncture and penalty for a pit infringement. Matthieu Jaminet, Matt Campbell and Patrick Pilet had the pace to win this one, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The No. 77 Craft-Bamboo Black Falcon Mercedes completed the top five after a spirited drive late in the race by an aggressive Maro Engel was hampered by a puncture in the final hour which cost the crew a sure third-place finish.
As ever at Bathurst, there are efforts with much hype surrounding them that either underperform or have a day to forget. Three marques in particular come to mind when reflecting on this one.
The first is Audi. Its three-pronged Pro class attack with Team Valvoline had a disastrous day. The No. 22 had a huge off in the opening hours avoiding the No. 2 sister car at McPhillamy Park. Dries Vanthoor would then be forced to pit and retire the No. 2 later due to a rev sensor failure. The third Valvoline Audi, the No. 222, finished, but down in 18th after a costly puncture.
Aston Martin customer team R-Motorsport had a rough day too. The No. 62 Vantage didn’t make the start after a huge accident for Marvin Marvin Kirchhofer on Saturday. Its hopes therefore rested on the No. 76 Castrol-liveried model driven by Rick Kelly, Scott Dixon and Jake Dennis, but that fell to the back of the back at the start due to an electrical issue and later spent time in the garage repairing a damaged splitter.
The final mention goes to BMW. Walkenhorst didn’t have strength in numbers, as it was forced to withdraw a car before this race because it didn’t get shipped to the circuit in time. Then in the race it didn’t have luck on its side either. Its M6 GT3 hit a kangaroo early in the race and retired after subsequent overheating issues. This was far from the dream double-win fortnight the Bavarian brand hoped for after winning the GTLM class at the Rolex 24 At Daytona last weekend…
Beyond the Pro class there was little to get excited about. The No. 59 59Racing 720S GT3 made it a near-perfect result for McLaren, winning the Silver class after hours of trading places with the No. 46 Black Falcon Mercedes.
Grove Racing won the Pro-Am class with its new Porsche 911 GT3 R, which meant Stephen Grove took a record-equaling fifth class win in the event.
Outside of the GT3 ranks, the No. 91 Racer Industries MARC II won the Invitational category by over 100 laps and the JET Battery Services BMW M4 took a dominant win in the two-car GT4 class.
Up front, though, this was a real thriller of a race with countless changes of lead throughout that kept the huge crowd trackside and at home guessing until the very end. It was a significant result, too, with Bentley scoring its biggest victory in motorsport since it won the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours.