The final sessions on the first day of the new World GT1 Championship comprised pre-qualifying and night qualifying: the latter an open session for a race that would set the grid for the main event the following evening. However, the session came to a premature end after cars had completed only half a dozen laps or so, with the terrible news of an accident involving Natacha Gachnang. Her Matech Ford GT had suffered apparent brake failure at the end of the long main straight and had hit the barrier head-on at pretty much unabated speed.
I had only just got out to the Yas Hotel when the red flags flew (or, red LED signs flashed to be more accurate). At first even the marshal's posts didn't know exactly what had happened, but eventually the news filtered through and the session was called off. There were actually two victims though: Gachnang's Ford was caught on film by one of the TV camera crew – all too literally, as the car plunged into the barriers under his position: the signal cut as Rob Hurdman and his camera were knocked to the ground by the impact.
Gachnang suffered a broken leg and was airlifted out in the circuit's medical chopper, whilst Hurdman suffered a broken nose along with cuts and bruises. Both were lucky: check out the YouTube link of the crash. The GT1 cars pull over 170mph down the back straight, towards Yas Marina's other unusual feature along with the pit-lane exit: the run-off area at the end of the straight that goes underneath a grandstand. But even the extended run-off wasn't enough to scrub off much speed…
Qualifying was cancelled; the race director deciding that the barriers couldn't be safely repaired that night. The track fell silent for the day – a sad end to a promising first qualifying and the series' first night running.
Earlier in the day, the blue skies had begun to to darken around 3pm and a haze closed in. It looked like maybe even some rain was on the way… But it actually turned into a mini dust storm that engulfed the circuit. Soon it was gone, leaving just a trail of fine dust over everything. The finish-line crew continued to prepare for the afternoon: the start-line is actually the other end of the grid, further down the straight.
Nissan have provided cars for World GT1, and the medical and course vehicles were all Nissans, but Yas Marina's own GT-Rs were also out. After seeing so much of the GT1 R35s, the stock road-going version looks pretty tame – and so high off the ground! It's not helped by the paint scheme in this case.
The 80-minute pre-qualifying session drew near.
Teams prepared their schedules: here are Sumo Power drivers Peter Dumbreck and Michael Krumm talking tactics with chief engineer Nigel Stepney.
When a session starts, cars are wheeled out on trolleys into the pit-lane: there's so little lock on race-cars that it would take a 20-point turn just to get them facing the right way. The cars go up on their air jacks and wait to be sent out by the team.
Race radios may be reliable now, but you can't beat having a man with a lollipop in your face.
Burning up tyres is a real issue: the sets of Michelins issued at the beginning of the weekend have to last the whole event, so some teams elected to run very few laps in the build-up – Sumo Power included.
Once to the end of the pit-lane on the limiter, it's full attack down and through the tunnel and out to the exit.
Every session means more chance to practice pit-stops.
Cars would regularly trundle down the pit-lane after turning a few laps, giving each driver the chance to check out the conditions.
Yas Marina features an epic 21 turns over 5.5km. it's got a decent amount of variation over its length, with the longer, fast sweeps down to the far end of the circuit followed by two long straights (the second is really a very long curve) and then the final complex around the Yas Hotel. This section might be basic in configuration: a tight right with a vicious raised central kerb…
…followed by a short blast along the side of the hotel…
…to a tight left under the hotel space bridge…
…and then a second 90-degree left running down the front of the hotel. Here the cars would run as wide as they could to gather speed for the final few sweepers before the finish.
But each corner is tight and narrow, has either rising or falling apexes and usually high inner kerbs. The corner on the entrance to the complex constantly caught drivers out, either by going too wide and losing time down the next straight – leaving an overtaking opportunity – or by missing their braking point and locking up, as per the #17 Hexis Aston with the French pairing of Dumas and Makowiecki example here.
The local UAE Touring Car Championship was the only support to the GT1s at Yas Marina, and they headed out for their own qualifying once the GTs were back in their garages. The series is an eclectic mix of Hondas, BMWs, SEATs and even Suzukis!
As the sun began to set the GT1 reams once again pushed their cars out onto the apron. Moving the cars by hand is pretty tedious, hence why teams are never that excited by having to arrange cars for photographers. Sorry guys…
All the teams are twinned with their manufacturer sister squad: Swiss Racing Team were right at the far end of the pits with Sumo Power next door. Going back up the pits were Aston (Young Driver and AMR), Lamborghini (All-Inkl and Reiter), Ford (Marc VDS and Matech), Chevrolet (Mad Croc and Phoenix/Carsport and finally Maserati (Triple H and Vitaphone).
There is, it has to be said, a lot of qualifying going on in GT1 this year: pre-qualifying, qualifying and then a qualifying race. The former is really just an 80-minute open session; the middle one is run like F1, with three sub-sessions of 20 minutes and the eight slowest cars removed at the end of each, which sets the grid for the hour-long qualifying race. This only gets points for the top three positions, but sets the grid for the hour-long actual race proper. Keeping up? I'm not sure I am.
One thing I am sure of is that I do love those Murcielagos!
The rumble of the Corvettes is always impressive. When you're wearing ear-plugs in the pit-lane you can feel them before you see them. Which is quite handy really.
As the cars began to put qualifying laps in it was time to get over to the hotel again and spot some vantage point to shoot cars and sparkly architecture.
However, there are actually very few holes in the fencing so I thought I take a look round the hotel itself. This one was a dead end…
So I tried going up instead. The 9th floor balcony is closed during the race, which is a real shame as it directly overlooks the track and would make an awesome vantage point. During racing, all the room balcony doors are locked as well for safety. I took a quick look at the top floor bar instead. Up here it was easier to see how the roof is actually constructed: it's actually away from the main face of the hotel, sitting over the top of it. No time to stop for a cocktail unfortunately.
There was limited opportunity here through the lattice, but it still made for interesting viewing. But the track seemed rather silent.
Back down at ground level, the red LEDs were flashing: after 20 minutes of waiting for the qualifying to be restarted the Gachnang crash news came through via the marshals' posts. Back in the garages the drivers were visibly shaken by the crash.The FIA decided to use the laps that had been run in the completed first sub-section of qualifying to set the grid: this meant the #13 Phoenix/Carsport Chevy of Zuber and Hennerici on pole, followed by the #17 Aston and #2 Maserati MC12 of Bernoldi and Ramos.
With the cars back in the garages the teams began to make their way to their hotels, through the opulent paddock area. But as with Sumo Power being slapped with 30kg of ballast after the Balance Of Performance testing, Corvette's qualifying joy was short-lived: all four Chevys were given 10-place grid penalties for the main race following problems with ballast placement. Even a win in the qualifying race would now mean starting only 10th…