Stephane Ratel declared the entry list for the 2013 World Challenge FIA GT Series finale around the streets of Baku as “the best GT sprint grid since the days of the FIA GT1 World Championship”. He was “bang on with his assessment”, wrote Autosport at the time.
Rally legend Sebastien Loeb and ex-F1 driver Ricardo Zonta counted among the high-profile names for the second GT event held on the Azerbaijani capital’s streets, following a non-championship City Challenge Baku event held on a less-ambitious layout the previous year that had attracted 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and fellow ex-F1 racer Jos Verstappen to share a Vitaphone-run BMW Z4 GT3. Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Rene Rast were among those bound for international success in the coming years.
For its 2013 one-off outing, the Boutsen Ginion Racing squad founded by Olivier Laine – brother-in-law of three-time F1 race winner Thierry Boutsen – had played its part in packing the grid with talent. One of its McLaren MP4-12C GT3s was shared between Alexander Sims and Stef Dusseldorp, the latter having combined with Fred Makowiecki to win the previous year’s Baku event in a Hexis-run McLaren. The other consisted of a Belgian hotshot double act.
To partner Frederic Vervisch, the team called up new McLaren junior Stoffel Vandoorne to make his closed-cockpit debut. Aged 21, the young charger bound for F1 had just scored four wins to finish runner-up in the Formula Renault 3.5 standings to champion Kevin Magnussen.
The duo lined up 11th for the main race but were soon pinged by the stewards after Vervisch straight-lined the first of four chicanes. That earned a drivethrough, but the car had led in the opening half of the one-hour event courtesy of its unfairly-gained advantage.
Baku 2013 start
Photo by: SRO-VIMAGES/Fabre
Further problems arose when the radio, then the power steering, failed. The alternator cable had snapped and killed power to such an extent that eventual victor Stephane Ortelli ended up pushing the McLaren down the pitlane in his Audi R8 to not lose too much time.
With Vervisch out only 11 laps into the one-hour contest, Vandoorne’s GT chance had to be savoured with the run in the preceding qualifying race. Little wonder he tells Autosport: “It wasn’t a great experience because the car failed while we were leading. A shame.”
Down on seat time, Vandoorne’s biggest takeaway remains his experience of swapping a single-seater for a race car that, owing to Balance of Performance measures, was a whopping 126bhp down on its road-going 12C counterpart.
“It was quite weird because at the time I was racing in World Series and it was my first experience in GT cars,” says Vandoorne, now a sportscar regular in LMP2 alongside his commitments with Mercedes as a Formula E driver and F1 reserve. “I just remember the whole movement of the car, you feel the car rolling a lot. The braking as well, the car was moving a lot. It was quite strange.”
Perhaps that’s why Vandoorne rates his long term prospects of returning to GTs as a “maybe”.
Stoffel Vandoorne, Mercedes-Benz EQ
Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images