It was more ‘Brawl Ricard 6 Hours’ than Paul Ricard 6 Hours for GT Sport Motul Team RJN Nissan, but another tenacious performance from Matt Parry and team-mates Lucas Ordonez and Alex Buncombe was finally rewarded with their first points of the 2018 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup campaign in the south of France.
The trio’s #23 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 was on the receiving end of no fewer than three spin-inducing contacts in the course of the mini-marathon event, and also survived a couple of minor delays in pit-lane, to take the flag in seventh position.
However, with the two cars immediately ahead of them having on-track misdemeanours converted to post-race time penalties, Parry and co were elevated to fifth on the final result sheet, securing a hat-trick of such results for the RJN Nissan combination at Ricard over the past three years.
Buoyed by promising, if ultimately unrewarded, outings at both Monza and Silverstone to open the season, the entire GT Sport Motul Team RJN Nissan team headed to Paul Ricard with confidence, and made steady progress through practice and pre-qualifying to confirm that the #23 was solidly in the top third of the 51-strong field at the French venue.
Saturday morning’s qualifying session then showed how well-matched its driver combination was, with Parry, Buncombe and Ordonez again lapping within tenths of a second of each other, just as they had done at Silverstone. However, the close nature of the Blancpain GT Series field once more ensured that the #23 Nissan would start in the lower reaches of the top 20, despite its averaged lap time being less than a second off pole position.
“Qualifying was a little disappointing as we knew we had the pace to be higher up the order,” Parry admitted.
“Unfortunately, both Alex and I caught traffic in the final sector which added vital tenths to our lap time, but Lucas did a great job of finding a clear lap and maximising the potential of the car in the third session, and we knew that we had a long race ahead of us in which we could make up places.”
With no repeat of the misfortune that befell the #23 in previous rounds, Ordonez was able to take the green light from 19th and quickly had the Nissan moving up the order, cracking the top ten inside half an hour.
However, just as the Spaniard was establishing himself as a threat to those chasing points in the early going, a touch from behind sent the Nissan spinning into the run-off at the final corner, undoing all his hard work and dropping the red machine back to 17th.
The first shoots of a recovery had appeared by the time Ordonez handed over to Buncombe at the end of the first hour and, despite several full course cautions, the Briton twice took the Nissan back up the order and into the scoring positions, handing back to Ordonez with the #23 firmly in the battle for the top ten.
Meanwhile, having seen his team-mates occupy the cockpit for the first four hours of the race, Parry knew that he would be behind the wheel for the final two stints, with the hot afternoon sun already replaced by the night-time dark by the time he stepped into pit-lane to replace Ordonez.
Although a problem tightening his seatbelts at the handover further delayed the Welshman’s appearance, he appeared unfazed as he continued the good work established over the opening 110 laps – only for the second unwanted contact of the race to spin the #23 around and down the order once more.
Although progress from 17th was always likely given the pace of the Nissan, the RJN team had another ace up its sleeve, having held back its ‘joker’ pit-stop – where crews are not constrained by a minimum time limit – until the closing stages. With Parry already making up ground and close to returning to the point-scoring places despite another enforced spin at turn five, the strategy paid off, confirming the Nissan in seventh spot on the road for the run to the flag.
The drama wasn’t over there, however, for Parry lost power steering in the final five laps, preventing him from chasing down the group ahead and leaving him with a tense finish as he held off a train of cars in his wake.
His dogged determination was rewarded, however, not only by making it to the chequered flag but by then learning of the penalties being applied to two of the cars immediately ahead of the Nissan, promoting it to an eventual – and hard-earned – fifth place.
“There was enough going on in that race to fill a book!” Parry claimed, “The Blancpain GT Series is extremely hard-fought and that showed tonight, with close racing through the field and the winner only being determined on the final lap.
“We knew that the Nissan had better pace than our qualifying position showed and, right from the start, we were able to make up positions. Lucas could have made it into the top five had he not been turned around, but both he and Alex were able to keep the #23 in with a shout of points for the first four hours.
Unfortunately, there were two more incidents after I took over, both of which cost time and positions, so it was great to come away with my first points in the series. The last few laps were quite tense as I was hanging on to my position after the power steering went, but car was amazing throughout.
“Fifth is a great result for the team, but there is definitely a sense that it could have been even better, possibly even a podium, had we had a clean run. However, after what we have already shown at Monza and Silverstone, this performance will give the team a lot of optimism as we head to the Spa 24 Hours next month.”
Round four of the 2018 Blancpain GT Championship Endurance Cup, the Total 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, takes place at the iconic Belgian circuit over the weekend of 26-29 July, with extensive live and highlights coverage on the Eurosport and Motorsport TV channels in the UK and www.nismo.tv online.