Round two of the World GT1 Championship. 24 cars and all the teams have somehow made it out of the desert using planes, trains and automobiles, escaping Abu Dhabi and then spreading out across Europe. There couldn't be a bigger contrast: especially as Silverstone, the home of the British F1 Grand Prix, is in the middle of a major facelift. From space-warp flashing lights and stark white corridors to banks of mud, heavy drilling equipment and, well, some trees.
Sumo Power – and this intrepid Speedhunter – have survived the epic journey back from Yas Marina, which included all the above methods of transport and more. And 40 hours, More on that in another story. Spirits were low after Abu Dhabi for Sumo and the sister SRT team, both Nissan GT-R teams heavily penalised with ballast after some controversial Balance Of Performance testing in Abu Dhabi. Of course, the idea is great: no one wants one marque to run away with victories, but the result is predictably unpalatable to all those except the victors.
This weekend also sees the start of the European GT3 and GT4 Championships. Speedhunters have arrived in force at Silverstone. We're taking no prisoners. We're here to shoot on sight. First victim is of course the Team Need For Speed BMW Z4, being driven by Patrick Söderlund and Edward Sandström.
The start of the European leg of the FIA GT series also sees an extension of the race weekend to three days. Although this has made life a little less pressurised for the GT teams, for us it means non-stop action; the three GT classes have been joined by the British F3 open-wheeler series this weekend; their sessions are the only ones that give the Speedhunters crew some respite.
There have been the inevitable changes in Balance Of Performance for this race: more on that further down. The good news is that in Pre-Qualifying the 24 cars were separated by less than three seconds around a two-minute lap: that's got to be good news.
The Speedhunters team were arriving from all points of the compass: Rod 'Tao Of The R'ching' Chong and Rachel 'Enigma' Kelly from Canada; Will 'Wedge' Roegge, Linhbergh 'Linhbergh' Nguyen and Vaughn 'Bhuna' Gittin Jr from the US; John 'All In The Lens' Brooks and myself from London; and a variety of other associate Speedhunters from over Europe. Here's Vaughn with Edward Sandström.
Every angle is covered. And I mean, every angle. There are a lot of cameras being thrown around. It's all getting a bit personal.
Silverstone is another British circuit that used to be an airfield: its crossed runways formed the circuit's original X-shaped layout in the '50s, before the perimeter road was adopted and modified over time. The most recent changes are major: plenty of the original – and much-loved – outer track have been ripped up for the work on the new layout. The biggest change is the new 'arrowhead' part of Silverstone: this cuts an upward swathe into the bottom portion of the track (removing the much-loved Bridge section, unfortunately) and adding quite some length to the track. We'll have a look up there tomorrow.
Thankfully, although a GP track like Silverstone is big the practice sessions are relatively long, which gave a bit of time to both acclimatise to our new surroundings and also to take more time poking around the cars.
Brooks and I carried out an army-style recce of the new-look section, spying out good points for the next couple of days. Drivers walked or cycled round the track to check out the changes, so they'd be ready when they got behind the wheel.
As usual the pits is a constant buzz: the GT1 teams get the big F1 garages, with the GT3 and GT4 teams out back in the paddock. Strangely, there's actually more space in the garages here than at the newly-built Yas Marina track. Team cars are so far apart it's like they've fallen out with each other.
Different teams mean different approaches to garage set-up. The colour and glitz of the Matech team for instance.
And then the strangely surgical and yet slightly voyeuristic ceiling mirrors for the Maserati teams.
Some garages are relatively plain and functional. This being Europe it's the first race where trucks come into play: garages are in general a bit more Spartan, as spares are kept in the trucks, most teams have catering and hospitality units and the drivers have their own spaces out in the trailers.
One driver feeling a little sore, and not because of his journey back from Abu Dhabi, was Sumo Power's Peter Dumbreck. He was one a dozen or so British racing drivers to run the London Marathon for charity last weekend – that only two days after finally getting home. 26 miles maybe was easier than driving in the heat of Abu Dhabi…
Sounds. Noise. Howls. The best thing about big GT cars is what comes out of the exhaust and the visceral assault on your senses as one of them goes past. And there is quite a noticeable difference between cars: different solutions to the same problem. Watch out for Will's film on the Silverstone event, coming soon, where you'll be able to get a real feel for the aural impact these cars have.
The Nissan GT-Rs s have a unique sound: kind of like a WW2 fighter plane. Or a Star Wars Pod Racer. A big thumping staccato beat of V8 pistons.
Equally individual are of course the Corvettes. Big V8s, low-down guttural growling monsters that rev low but push hard.
At the other end of the scale are the Aston Martin DB9s: you can here the sharp howl of their 48-valve V12 motors reverberating around Silverstone's windy environs.
The Lamborghini V12s are, surprisingly, less about noise and more about big over-rev flame-outs. That isn't to say they don't sound good though: their engine note isn't as shrill as the Astons': maybe more of a mid-pitched whine in there that makes them less tough of the ear-drums.
More throaty are the 5.3-litre Cammer V8s in the Ford GTs: maybe halfway in-between Aston and Corvette. Matech only have a single GT here after the accident involving the #6 car at Abu Dhabi.
Maseratis have a well-rounded mid- tone to their V12s.
This applies to GT3 as well: the 10 cars all have different ways of putting the power down: without any partisan bias I did love the guttural thump of the Z4 Coupé.
There are still three words which lead to team bosses throwing their hands up: Balance Of Performance. There have been more changes for Silverstone: the Corvettes are bulked out by 40kg; the Lamborghinis slim down by 10kg and get a larger restrictor; Maseratis gain 35kg and restrictors; then Aston Martin and Nissan go on a diet, losing 50kg – for Nissan that's a net loss of 20kg. It looks like the Ford GT is being used as the benchmark, as it remains unchanged.
To this untrained eye, the good thing was that in general the GT1 cars seemed a bit more equal, in general: on Silvestone's four long straights the cars seemed to slipstream each other without any one car noticeably pulling away. One exception was seeing an Aston Martin absolutely eat up a Corvette on the exit of Luffield, the final corner – this is a double apex right-hander that leads to a slingshot onto the start-finish straight.
The GT4 class had a respectable turn-out: these cars are pretty much stock, and the first step on the international GT ladder.
Each of the three GT series had two practice sessions today, giving enough time for all the teams to get their cars out and time behind the wheel for their driver pairings.
For the GT1 Prior Qualifying Pre-Qualifying Before Qualifying session (did I mention that too many sessions in GT1 have the word 'qualifying' in?) I had the opportunity to get up on the roof of the Brooklands Suite, a three-storey building overlooking the final complex of corners. This seemed like a great idea – new angles!
What it actually meant was being trapped on the roof. The wind was enormously strong up there (remember, this place used to be an airbase), and 15 minutes or so after climbing up I heard the trapdoor slam…
With the noise of the cars this time playing against me, there was no way to attract any attention. However, there are less interesting places to be, so it was another good opportunity to concentrate on a bit of detail.
Brooklands corner has always been a good place to watch the balance of the cars; in the 'old days' it was a clumsy, slow-speed left-hander after cars had to negotiate after they had come thumping round the right of Bridge and the left of Priory: as cars exited Priory they'd be scrambling for grip as they arced out of the corner down the short straight to Brooklands and then straight into the double-apex right-hander of Luffield.
In New School Silverstone, Brooklands is still slow-speed left-hander, but now comes at the end of a pretty long straight.
Glowing brake disks.
Speed. Happiness. As the session drew to an end and the vultures (they may have been starlings) started circling, I decided it really was now time to get help and get down…
Today was all about practice. Training. Getting your eye in. Finding out just where your problems might be.
Tomorrow, the action starts. Qualifying-proper in the morning, followed by the first races in the afternoon for each class. Let battle commence.