It was a roller coaster weekend. From worry, frustration and hope to relief, Benjamin Lessennes went through all the emotions on the Circuit Paul Ricard. However, the 21 year-old Belgian succeeded in his challenge: to win the title of French FFSA GT Champion in the Silver Cup with the BMW M4 GT4 of the L'Espace Bienvenue team and Ricardo van der Ende as team-mate.
Benjamin Lessennes knows it: in motor sport, nothing is ever won in advance. Whereas the young driver from Namur and his Dutch team-mate Ricardo van der Ende had dominated the beginning of the season in the French FFSA GT Championship, an engine failure during the third meeting at the Circuit Paul Ricard had put everything into question. The duo from the L'Espace Bienvenue team rejoined the battle in Albi and took back the lead in the Silver Cup thanks to a second place and a victory.
“Out of the first ten races of the season, we had taken five victories and eight podium finishes,” recalls Benjamin. “But with this double zero, due to a mechanical failure, we had only a small five-point advantage over our closest competitors. That was not even the difference between a victory and a second place...”
As the current crisis had led to a change of calendar, it was once again at the Circuit Paul Ricard, this time in its 3.8 kilometre version, that the final of this French FFSA GT Championship 2020 was held. And after seeing the title slip from his grasp in the very last meeting of the GT4 European Series last year, Benjamin did not want to see history repeat itself. However, the start of this weekend did not bode well! “We understood from the outset that, on this short version of the track, we would not be very fast with the only BMW M4 GT4 on the grid,” he explains. “We worked furiously with the team to explore every line of attack in terms of set-up, but we conceded almost a second per lap during qualifying. We had to consider all the scenarios and take every opportunity.”
In the first race, held on Saturday night, Ricardo van der Ende made a good start and found himself in a battle with the Mercedes-AMG #2, the main rival of the Belgian-Dutch duo for the crown. “There was contact between the two at the first corner and we were given a penalty,” says Benjamin. “We knew that they would come back very strongly and that the team which would be ahead of the other in the very last race would be champion. It was not looking too good on board, because we were just not fast enough. But then the positions were reversed! They were victims of a collision with a backmarker. As a result, we took fifth place in the Silver Cup, our worst result this year, and they took sixth.”
Now with a seven-point lead, Benjamin and Ricardo approached the last 60-minute race with a mixture of serenity and an intense desire to win. “Finishing just behind them was enough for us, but not a third place if they won,” continued the Belgian. “So we had to find the right balance between attack and defence.”
After a very good first stint by Benjamin, Ricardo van der Ende came out of the pit lane right next to his rival, so much so that the two cars even touched each other in the next corner. “We were not fast over a lap, but we had good top speed on the straights,” said the young protégé of Tiago Monteiro. “And I also know that in this kind of situation, Ricardo is very good at making his experience speak for itself. He defended his position well and the Mercedes driver finally tried his luck in the chicane. There was a rather violent contact, but it was his car which was the most severely damaged. Even though our steering was bent, we just had to reach the finish to be crowned. And Ricardo did that brilliantly, finishing in third place. What a relief!”
Champion of the TCR Benelux in 2017, and then third in the GT4 European Series in 2019, Benjamin thus becomes the first Belgian French FFSA GT Champion since Didier Defourny in 2003. “Beyond the sporting aspect, I will remember this particular season as an incredible human adventure,” he concludes. “Ricardo has been a great team-mate and he has given me a great deal by sharing all of his experience with me. We have always helped each other, without trying to pull the blanket over our own eyes. And what about L'Espace Bienvenue? Its boss, André Grammatico, is a as adorable a man as he is remarkable, and in this team I found exactly what I appreciate above all else: people who never give up and for whom there is only one thing that counts: victory. This is also my approach to the sport and I think that this 2020 season will remain engraved in my memory for a long time!”