The World GT1 Championship kicks off in just two weeks time, with the first round at Abu Dhabu's Formula 1 venue of Yas Marina on April 16/17. For the 12 teams taking part in this year's new, global series, every minute of the last few months has been precious – and there's been precious little time for most teams to complete their preparations. The 24-car grid is split neatly in half: the Nissan GT-R, Lamborghini Murcielago and Ford GT built to the new rules; the old-regs Chevy Corvette Z06, Aston Martin DBR9 and Maserati MC12 'grandfathered' in to complete the field until more new models are introduced. Two weeks to go: but time is about to run out. In the next few days the teams must pack up their cars and equipment and ship them to Europe for the centrally organised freight flights that will take the cars to Abu Dhabi.
Drivers are still being slotted into teams even at this late hour: some impressive names are turning up. Renault F1 refugee Romain Grosjean has turned up in a Matech Competition Ford GT, Ferrari F1 and sportscars veteran Mika Salo is in a Mad Croc Chevy, and big-name sportscar drivers can be found throughout the field. Sumo Power have also finalised the driver line-up for their Nissan GT-Rs, with the British duo of Jamie Campbell-Walter and Warren Hughes joining the existing pairing of Peter Dumbreck and Michael Krumm.
Race circuits are in demand at this time of year: everyone is trying to find track time and – preferably – some sun to roll out their cars and shake out any problems before hitting the track in anger. Following the official FIA test at Paul Ricard in France and a private test in Spain, final opportunities to test are at a premium. Sumo Power headed to Snetterton in Norfolk for a penultimate run-out and the chance to give their two new signings valuable time in the car.
Snetterton is yet another ex-Word War 2 airfield, as so many British circuits are, and the Norfolk area is littered with airfields – some very much still in use, as the scream of fighter jets in the distance attested to. As the American Le Mans series geared up for Sebring, Sumo Power enjoyed similar skies – if not the heat – at a surprisingly sunny Snetterton.
Arriving at the chilly track at 7.30am, the sun was just beginning to bathe everything in a warming, yellow glow. Having been shipped up the night before, the single car the team had brought was sitting expectantly in the large garage at the top end of Snetterton's pit lane, ready for the arriving Sumo Power and Nissan engineers to get to work.
Hurry up and wait… After a quick fire-up of the engine to warm the car up, the GT-R fell silent again as the team waited for the final key personnel to arrive. Coffee warded off the cold morning air as the engineers discussed the day's schedule.
The drivers arrived: Warren Hughes would be first up in the car. Hughes started out in single seaters in the '90s, driving Formula Fords and Formula 3s against the likes of Rubens Barrichello and Jacques Villeneuve. Despite running well in F3000 in 2000 and carrying out some F1 tests, signing with MG meant he gravitated towards touring cars and sportscars with the MG-ZS in the British Touring Car Championship and the Lola-designed MG EX257 at Le Mans in 2001. After a couple more years in the BTCC, Hughes has been mostly racing LMP2 prototypes in the Le Mans Series.
Up on its built-in air jacks, the car was attended to by the team for final systems checks and set-up adjustments. Headlights flashed, air-guns whirred and panels removed as the team prepared their charge.
Red-jacketed Nissan personnel work side by side with the British Sumo Power race team: they work together to translate the potential of the car into success on the track.
Fresh rubber was rolled up and bolted on and a slug of fuel dropped into the tank using a gravity bottle – full safety procedures were followed every time the volatile Elf race fuel was involved.
Finally everything was ready, and it was time to roll the car out onto the track for its first laps. A dozen guys ferried the car out onto the circuit, where after a few hesitant misfires the cold engine caught. Typically for a race engine, at first start it had that tractor chug and unfriendly-sounding tick-over until it began to warm and settle to a more familiar low growl.
Hughes' bright orange helmet was easy to spot in the car: for this first run I settled in to watch the GT-R at Snetterton's final chicane, Russell, at the base of the start-finish Senna Straight. With such limited time in the day, Hughes was on it from the off, hammering across the brutal entry curve before firing through the tight left and opening right onto Senna.
The team looked on from the pit-wall. Seeing how the car is behaving can be as important as watching the data screens. Second driver Jamie Campbell-Walter kept an eye on Hughes' progress. JCW had a run of success with the howling V12 Lister Storm GT1 car in both the British and FIA GT Championships between 1999 and 2004, before moving to the Creation LMP1 team in the LMS and ALMS.
After a brief five laps Hughes was on the limiter and chugging down the pit-lane to the waiting crew. The first challenge on track days in the UK is the noise limit set by the local council: last year Snetterton were served a Noise Abatement Order, which is insane when you consider the RAF and USAF are regularly carrying out low-passes with screaming jets overhead. The Snetterton track marshals wearily tell me that often they get complaints about the noise on the track when it's actually rather obviously the air force. They have bombs though, I suppose, so people are less likely to complain. Snetterton are in the process of building up large berms of earth around the track perimeter to reduce noise spread and complaints from the locals. Apparently the noise disturbs the sheep…
Back in the garage and up on jacks, the wheels came off the GT-R and the team descended to carry out more tweaks.
Of course, as with any modern racing car the driver's performance isn't just measured in lap times. Full telemetry means that the accuracy of every braking point, throttle push and gear change can be analysed by the data engineers and fed back to the driving squad.
Whilst the team were at work at the car, Hughes remained in the car, staring impassively ahead at the open garage door. Come on, I want to get back out there!
After a seemingly interminable delay the car was back out, this time fired up in the garage and driven straight out onto the track.
It was another short run, setting the pattern for the day. This time I watched from the first corner, Riches, which is a very fast right hander approached at pretty much full speed before rolling on the brake to ride the long inside apex. There's a drop-off in the tarmac before the kerb, which, combined with the old, flaking paint of the serrated kerb means you stay off the very inside of the corner. Kiss the white line, nail the power.
It's followed by a short straight and Sear corner, which leads onto the Revett Straight: the longest in the UK. The car looked super aggressive through Riches, hard on the power on the exit and nailed to the track. I was sitting on the ground to get a low angle, and the car passed by at neck-snapping speed.
And then, almost as soon as Hughes had gone out he was back up the pit-lane on the limiter.
More feedback, more adjustments…
…more waiting. It's just what happens at a test: it's all about working through a programme. Drivers at this level are used to it, and use the time to think about the track, the corners, the way the car is putting down the power. Or perhaps about lunch. Pasta or pie?
Lunch allowed the team a brief brain break, but even then they ate on the fly, still buzzing around the car.
The doors were lowered a bit to keep the sun out of the garage: a change from the cold of the morning. Spares were carried in from the support truck for the afternoon session.
The team decided on completely changing the car's set-up to test for different conditions: the changes took an age, giving me the opportunity to wander round the track and soak it all up. Snetterton was a US Airforce base during the Second World War, and its original concrete-slab runways are still obvious, criss-crossing the existing track and forming what was the back straight of the original, much longer triangular configuration used when the circuit was opened in the '60s. In another link to far-away Sebring, WW2 bombers constructed in the States were flown across from Sebring to the UK, where a number of bomber wings flew out of the then-RAF Snetterton Heath base.
Rooting around behind the barriers, it seems that every series that visits the track leaves some kind of (smashed) evidence behind. Broken wing mirrors, bits of suspension, cracked carbon, smashed fibreglass and various other post-accident debris was littered around behind the Armco, usually thrown over by marshals as they clean up the track after an incident. One thing I found was a small plastic square, with a star of holes drilled into it… It looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place it, so left it on a fence post.
An hour later when I got back to the garage I realised what it was: the cover for the rain light from the back of the GT-R! It must have flown off at speed on one of the earlier laps… Luckily only a 50p part, or so I hoped!
With time running out, Campbell-Walter took the wheel for an installation lap followed by the longest run of the day.
Although Thruxton in Hampshire is the UK's fastest track as far as average top speed is concerned, Snetterton is pretty much all full-throttle – and mostly a straight line, unlike the fearsome curves of Thruxton. It's a popular choice for testing, and many British Le Mans teams use the place.
At the end of the Revett Straight are the Esses: a rolling fast left into a virtually stop-start right hand flick. Back in 2006 it was here that now-F1 driver Bruno Senna's F3 car flipped, almost hitting the bridge before disintegrating down the right-hand Armco barrier where all the other photographers were stationed. I was rather glad to be standing on the other side of the track, both from not having to dive for cover and also being able to get shots of the crash!
There's never enough time at a test. The actual races might be short compared to a whole day of testing (only an hour long in GT1), but the testing schedules often go up in smoke once the rubber hits the tarmac. There are always more things to try out than available hours on the track, and programmes evolve and change as the day progresses. All too soon the sun began to set and the car was on its final laps of the day at the hands of Warren Hughes.
Red light, session over.
The track fell quiet, as the team assessed the day and the progress they had made.
The sunset cast beautiful light across the track, and the car was parked out in the middle of the start-finish straight for me to get some final static images.
This is the GT-R near the top end of the main start straight, one of two long straights at the track. The little red dot in the distance under the left mirror is a traditional red English telephone box, for some reason placed on the outside of the track just opposite the pits! Obviously rescued from somewhere, as there are very few left.
Warren Hughes stayed in the car, but didn't waste the teim: he was on the radio to the team for a debrief.
I love this rear 3/4 angle on the car, especially in the golden twilight.
The final work for the team was packing up the gear and the car for the long drive back to Rye. Everything had to be squeezed back into the support truck.
So, the day was over; one more test would follow at Silverstone and then that would be it. Tools down, time up. Now it's time for the racing to start. Truth will out. Will the Nissans be up the front as they hope? We'll find out in less than two weeks!