Bahrain International Circuit played host to the opening round of Porsche Sprint Challenge Middle East Season 11, with 13 drivers from nine different countries taking part in three races across the weekend. Serving as the official support race to the FIA World Endurance Championship, the opening round was one of the most exhilarating in the Championship’s history.
Qualifying for Race 1 took place under the floodlights on Thursday evening, with Leon Kohler, returning for a second season, laying down the fastest time with a lap of 2:02.2 to start Race 1 on pole position ahead of newcomer Julien Hanses of Germany in second. Berkay Besler, a driver who knows all about winning in Sakhir following a dominant display during Round 6 of Season 10, started in third.
The race was anything but straightforward for Kohler, with the young German stalling at lights out, finding himself at the back of the grid within seconds of the start and allowing Besler of Turkey into the lead with debutant Julien Hanses moving into third.
A fierce battle between Besler in P1 and Hanses in P2 ensued, with the young German applying pressure to the Turkish driver at every possibly opportunity. Finally, on lap 11, Hanses capitalised on the smallest of openings going into turn two, neatly manoeuvring past Besler into first position to take the lead with one lap to go.
The race was full of none stop action, with the whole grid hard at work for 12 laps, defending positions and overtaking in the same breath. But the story of Race 1 was all about Leon Kohler, who, from the back of the grid, used every bit of racing nous and skill to manoeuvre his way from P14 up to P2 with some incredible driving. The young German managed to overtake Besler on the last lap before narrowly missing out on first place with a nail-biting, bumper to bumper finish between him and Hanses, with just 0.004 seconds separating the two.
Race 1 finished with a German 1/2, with Hanses in first place and Kohler in second. Besler finished in third with J.B. Simmenauer in fourth and another debutant, Richard Wagner, in fifth.
Race winner and international newcomer, Julien Hanses, said: “Race 1 was an incredible race. To achieve a win in my first ever GT event was amazing and something I will never forget. It was one of the most exhilarating races I’ve been involved in and I must give a huge amount of respect to Leon and Berkay who pushed me right to the end. I’m looking forward to working hard between now and the next round in Dubai and hopefully I can continue to improve and have some strong finishes in Round 2.”
Race 2 got underway on Friday evening in front of a large local crowd who were delighted to see the Team Bahrain contingent of Ali and Jaber Al Khalifa take to the grid for the second race of the season. Starting on pole position was Leon Kohler after clocking a qualifying time of 2:02.4. Completing the front row was South African Saul Hack with a time of 2:03.8, while Besler started in third and Jesse Van Kuijk of the Netherlands in fourth.
After a dominating performance, Kohler took the chequered flag and in doing so his first win of the Championship, an impressive seven seconds ahead of Saul Hack in second. The young South African drove flawlessly, applying pressure to the German throughout, with a P2 finish his strongest result to date. In third place was Berkay Besler, with Julien Hanses just missing out on a podium spot to finish fourth. Another impressive display from Jesse Van Kuijk saw him finish fifth, with J.B. Simmenauer in sixth.
Following his first ever podium finish, Hack said: “It’s a dream come true and a long time coming. I’m absolutely delighted to pick up my first podium finish in the championship and I’m hoping it’s the first of many this season. Leon drove an incredible race and his pace was really good; I tried to push as hard as I could to catch him but unfortunately he pulled away. I’ll take a lot of positives from the race as we head into the winter break and I’ll look to come back even stronger in Round 2.”
The line-up for Race 3 was decided by a reverse grid, with the starting places set in reverse order of the top six finishers of Race 2. This saw J.B. Simmenauer start in pole position, with Jesse Van Kuijk in second and Julien Hanses in third. Besler was fourth, Saul Hack started in fifth while winner of the second race, Leon Kohler, was in sixth.
The refreshed format made for a thrilling race, with the top six trading blows from the first lap to the last. J.B. Simmenauer failed to hold off a rampant Besler on lap 3, with the young Turk showing why he’s widely considered one of the best drivers in the championship with a brilliant overtake on the inside of turn three, pushing him up to first place where he would remain for the rest of the race.
It was a fierce battle for second, with Kohler and Hack testing each other’s nerves throughout. The young German eventually held off the South African to take his second P2 finish of the weekend and in doing so topping the Championship standings after Round 1.
The race finished with Besler in first, Kohler in second and Hack in third. Richard Wagner finished fourth with Sweden’s Christoffer Bergstroem in fifth – his highest ever finish in a Porsche GT3 Championship.
At the end of a captivating opening round which sees three of the 14 race season complete, Leon Kohler (71pts) has a lead of four points in the overall standings, with Berkay Besler in second (67 points) and Saul Hack (58 points) in third.
Following the end of Round 1, Championship leader Leon Kohler said: “I’m very happy with how this weekend has gone and it feels great to finish with a win and two P2 finishes. Race 3 was one of the best races I’ve been involved in; Saul Hack drove a brilliant race and pushed me all the way to the end. I’ll go away now to re-group ahead of the second round and will hopefully come back even stronger.”
The Porsche Sprint Challenge Middle East will take a short winter break before returning to the Dubai Autodrome in late January, followed by Yas Marina Circuit the following weekend, with the final rounds deciding the winner back in Bahrain in March. The season will conclude as an official support race to the 2020 Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, the only regional racing series to do so.
Source. Hill+Knowlton Strategies
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