The 2016 racing season has begun here in the States and the first four rounds of the Pirelli World Challenge are already in the books. Bentley has returned for its third year with an updated Continental GT3. Also new this year is a new partner, Absolute Racing.
The team is not new to Bentley or the Bentley Continental GT3. The Chinese team had great success in GT Asia with the Continental GT3, winning the 2015 GT Asia Series Team Championship with Keiwa Sawa and Adderly Fong at the wheel.
For their new Texas-based venture, Bentley Team Absolute has brought Fong to the US and signed U.S. driver Andrew Palmer. Palmer is young, but has shown great talent behind the wheel. In 2014, Palmer became the youngest Pirelli World Challenge driver to win a race. Following that he hopped over to the TUDOR Championship where he and his co-drivers won the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans.
This is Fong’s second stint driving in the US. He has driven Formula 3, the GP3 series and won the Audi R8 LMS Cup championship in 2013. He teamed up with Sawa in the GT Asia series last year where the pair faced stiff competition, only locking up the Championship with some clutch late race driving during the final event of the series.
“We’ve won major international championships in Europe and Asia this year and it is certainly the plan to take a title in America,” said Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, Brian Gush. “Bentley Team Absolute has proven they have what it takes, so we are excited to take our relationship into another continent to take on another challenge.”
The series opened in Austin, TX at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) two weeks ago. The weekend started on the wrong foot when Fong had a big off in practice and damaged his stunning, graphite gray GT3. He would miss some practice, but the car was ready to go by Round 1 where he and Palmer would qualify 16th and 7th, respectively.
The first race of the season was a very clean one with no full course yellows. It was expected that the turbo charged Bentleys would do well at the roomy course, but they were unable to make up much ground on their competitors. For the second race at COTA, Palmer would start in P8, Fong in P15.
Fong struggled to move through the field. The commentators discussed his car’s issues and openly wondered if he hadn’t done more damage during his off than could be corrected at the race track. As it was, he finished in 15th place. Palmer had no issues moving through traffic and had worked himself up 3rd place when he was issued a penalty for “not leaving enough racing room.” Palmer finished 10th.
Reflecting on the weekend, Fong said, “It wasn’t a great weekend for me personally, but the car felt great. Bentley Team Absolute always gives us a great car to challenge with and I know that results will improve throughout the season. We must now put any disappointment behind us and focus on the next round which is just a few days away.”
Discussing the podium finish that was within his sight, Palmer said, “It’s tough to come so close to a podium and miss out, but it’s good to come out of the first race of the season in a new car and with a new team having battled it out at the sharp end of the field. I think the pace of the car was competitive and we have a really good chance going into St. Pete.”
With no down time, Bentley Team Absolute headed to St. Petersburg, FL, for the first street race of the season. The team was very optimistic coming into the event. Both cars were sorted and any pre-season jitters had been worked out. It also helped that it at this circuit that young Andrew Palmer won his first race at the age of 19.
Both Bentleys were strong all weekend. Both cars qualified well and were running on pace with the race leaders. Round 3 on Saturday featured some great racing by Ryan Eversley in his Acura TLX and Andrew Palmer, during which Eversley spun Palmer. Despite this, Palmer held on to 13th place, with Fong behind him at the finish in 15th.
Sunday’s Round 4 was cut in half by an extended full course caution due to damage to a wall by a Porsche GT Cup car. Again Fong and Palmer were competitive. With only half the racing time, Palmer moved up from 14th to 7th and was awarded the VP Racing Fuels Hard Charger Award for his efforts. Fong finished just outside the top 10 in 12th position.
“The team gave me a strong car this weekend and I really think if we would have had more green flag time in Sunday’s race we could have been on the podium,” said Palmer. “I had a lot of fun wheeling my Bentley through these concrete walls and was pumped to get the Hard Charger award. We’re coming away with two cars in one piece and some good manufacturer points, which is a positive weekend in my book.”
The race at St. Petersburg places Absolute Racing in great position for the next event at Long Beach, which is the series’ other street circuit. After four rounds, Palmer sits ninth in Driver Championship points. Absolute Racing is 5th in Team Championship points. In the Manufacturer Championship, Bentley trails far behind Cadillac and Porsche, which have dominated the first two weekends. There is much season left though! Bentley Motorsport fans can next catch the team in action at the Long Beach Grand Prix, April 15 – 17.
Bonus: Bentley put out this video recapping the COTA race weekend. Enjoy!
Photo credit: Bentley Team Absolute Racing