Caythorpe’s Shaun Balfe and Rob Bell clinched the Pro Am class title in the International GT Open Championship at Catalunya in the best possible way, with podium celebrations after taking third place in the first of the weekend’s two races.
Bell was eighth overall in the first qualifying session, but the Balfe Motorsport McLaren 650S GT3 was second quickest in the Pro Am class, behind the Mercedes of fellow Brit Tom Onslow-Cole and Valentin Pierburg.
“With the top 16 covered by less than a second, it was a bit too close for me. It went according to plan for us though,” said Bell.
In Saturday’s opening race, Bell had already made a couple of places on the opening lap, before settling into a duel for sixth with Thomas Biagi’s Lamborghini. They shared a number of exchanges before Bell gained the upperhand.
“It was a good start for me, but a real mess. I could have been greedy and tried for more places. Biagi and I both went off on someone’s oil, which is why we swapped so much,” he explained.
He held on to second in class before pitting, with Balfe settling into eighth overall as he rejoined.
Gradually, Pierburg’s class-leading Mercedes came closer to a challenge from Balfe, but both had the Ferrari 488 of Andrea Caldarelli closing on them too with 28 laps completed.
A lap later, Caldarelli had taken them both, which put Balfe back to third in class, but right on Pierburg’s tail. There was panic, however, when the Mercedes driver almost stopped, leaving Balfe nowhere to go and bringing fellow McLaren driver Com Ledogar into the frame too.
Balfe was suddenly fourth as Ledogar got by, but barely inches separated him from Pierburg and third again, which would clinch the Pro Am title.
“There were so many scary moments in that race, with cars in trouble all around me and I was just hoping for the best. I was right with Pierburg and then he just came across the final chicane and almost hit Com.
“I then got by and was side by side with Com around the final turn. I was thinking I don’t need this, last corner, last lap,” said Balfe.
But third in class and 10th overall was enough to take the Pro Am title, going one better than last year’s finishing position.
Balfe also started the second race and spent virtually all of his stint chasing the Ferrari of Sergei Borisov for 15th overall. “I picked off some early places after the safety car, but was just stuck behind Borisov,” he explained.
When Bell rejoined, he too was stuck behind the same car, with Rinat Salikhov now at the wheel. “They were just too quick in the wrong places for us and not in the right ones. A good finish though,” said Bell after claiming third in class from 11th overall.
Balfe concluded: “The championship title was a real team effort, though, all the crew and the family, not just me and Rob.”