MOTOR RACING: Ancaster’s Balfe helps team to tremendous result in Portuguese season opener

Shaun and Rob's McLaren in the thick of the action at Estoril.

Shaun and Rob's McLaren in the thick of the action at Estoril.

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Ancaster racer Shaun Balfe and team-mate Rob Bell made a tremendous start to their 2017 International GT Open campaign, with a second and a fourth place finish in the opening rounds at Estoril in Portugal last weekend.

Balfe was runner-up in last season’s championship, but was well aware of the increase in competition.

Portuguese pitstop.

Portuguese pitstop.

Bell set the qualifying time for race one. “We kept a new set of tyres for his session, so sacrificed some of our free practice time and he got pole position on his second set,” Balfe explained.

He led with the Balfe Motorsport McLaren 650S GT3 from the start, with fellow McLaren-contracted driver Come Ledogar in pursuit. But when his rival made a mistake, the lead increased from 0.670sec to 4.309sec, but gradually reduced again as the pit stop window approached.

Balfe rejoined in second behind Alexander West in the Ledogar car and gradually closed the gap to 0.689sec, but both were being caught by Philip Frommeweiler’s Lexus GT3.

With the lead trio almost nose to tail, the pressure on West was building. “Frommenweiler got me into turn one as we started lap 36 but then West went wide at the next corner and I was back into second and stayed there for the remaining five laps. It was just brilliant and was beyond any of our pre-race expectations and we had some tough pros up against us,” he added.

Shaun Balfe and Rob Bells on the podium at Estoril.

Shaun Balfe and Rob Bells on the podium at Estoril.

It was Balfe’s turn to qualify the car for Sunday’s race, but early morning rain had left the track still wet for the start of the session.

After qualifying 18th, Balfe said: “At the start we needed wets but as it started to dry we were too late to change to slicks and spent the last part of the session in a four or five car train. There was no time left and no gaps and it cost us a few places.

“Starting so far down, I needed to get my elbows out a bit and just go for it. I took a couple of knocks on the first lap and got into a good battle with Postiglione’s Lamborghini.”

From 15th on the opening lap, he was up a place by lap five, but it wasn’t until the eighth lap that he finally got ahead of Postiglione.

From 13th he had closed in on Bouveng’s BMW, from where the pitstop window opened and it was time to handover to Bell for the final stint of the weekend.

Once the stops had been completed, Bell was in 11th and right with race one winner Costa. The charge continued and within four laps he was up to sixth.

Ramos/Jensen’s Ferrari was the next scalp to be claimed before he started to close on ex-Grand Prix driver Vitantonio Liuzzi.

A brake problem then claimed Liuzzi and, with three laps remaining, Bell claimed fourth for the team.

“I think with the two results we over achieved massively. We had wiped the slate clean after last year’s success but now we can see we have the pace again and much greater confidence to succeed,” Balfe concluded.

The next round of the championship is at Spa Francorchamps on May 27/28.