Last weekend's World GT1 Championship races at Brno were once again supported by the European FIA GT3 series: four rounds of the six-round GT3 series will be on the GT1 package. For Patrick Soderlund and Edward Sandström, driving the Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 Coupé, it's been a frantic month with five races over four weekends. The opening two GT3 races at Silverstone netted a ninth place in the second race after a challenging weekend – and the reward of points in their first GT3 meeting. This was followed just two weeks later by the fearsome Nurburgring 24 Hours – and an incredible fourth place overall finish out of 197 starters!
An extra Ferrari 430 for the British Chad team has made the number of competitors a round 30, but one car I was looking forward to seeing was the Marc VDS Ford Mustang: it was sidelined with problems at Silverstone, but was looking like it would be out on track at Brno.
By their own admission, Patrick and Edward are still learning the Z4, which is at an early stage in its development. Along with the striking look of the car, another unique feature is the sound: the thumping V8 makes the car easy to pick out in the pack. Major engine and aero updates due for next month's round at the Jarama circuit in Spain, which should give the car even more drivability and speed.
Brno would prove to be another weekend of highs and lows for Team NFS: from a smokey ending the pits in one session to smokin' out on track in the races.
On Wednesday the first trucks started pulling into the GT3 paddock, on the inside of the first turns at Brno. On Thursday things really started to pick up and the bare concrete of the paddock quickly filled up as the remaining trucks pulled in. At least for the GT1 teams they have fully kitted out garages to live in for the weekend: but for the teams in the paddock, everything has to be shipped in on the trucks. When the two Schubert/Team NFS trucks were standing there side by side on the barren concrete, it was clear just how much work has to be done to set up all the tents and equipment for the weekend.
Being stuck out in the paddock means a lot of driving around the access roads just to get to the track: not only that, but the teams also have to trek down to the main GT1 pit-lane just before each session with all their pit-wall kit, wheels, tyre-changing kit and spares. It's a tight squeeze, as the GT3 squads are crammed into a narrow lane right up against the GT1 garages.
Pit-lanes are dangerous enough when the garages are in use; even more so with the support series personnel trying to work there as well: here's one team member having to run out of the way as a Prospeed Porsche 997 accelerates out of its pit box.
And even when you're in a car you're not safe: probably the most dangerous part of any track is the pit-lane exit where it joins the main track. Especially on tracks like this, where the start-line is on a long straight before a corner and the pit exits before the braking area, there's a mad dash as cars put down the rubber to get up to speed of the cars closing in on the outside.
The first Free Practice session for GT3 was a good opportunity to check out the most scenic part of Brno; the downhill complex of turns seven to nine. The natural amphitheatre and grass banking gives an excellent view for spectators, who would be here in respectable numbers come race day.
The entry to the complex is fast and easy to get wrong. It comes straight after the long downhill run from turn five to turn six; turn seven is a deceptively tight arching right that heads downhill on the exit. The road narrows and the gravel sucks you in: the beautiful Team S-Berg BMW Alpina B6 went careering through the gravel just as I arrived. The first of many visitors that weekend. The big BMW looked much better when it was on the track than off it!
A red flag flew with only 10 minutes of the hour-long session to go: the #32 Black Falcon Audi R8 LMS had collided with the similar #4 Rosberg machine, heavily damaging a barrier and meaning the session was brought to a premature halt. There was no PA or race radio at Brno, so I didn't know what had happened at the time: I was happily sitting on a bank overlooking turn six. I enjoy these moments, when the track falls silent and a little bit of nature flows back in. With no GT3 cars reappearing, and no sign of the following Lamborghini Super Trofeo cars after 15 minutes I realised it really was time to make my way back up the hill. Thankfully there was an efficient shuttle bus service operating at Brno on both the inner and outer perimeter tracks: I hopped in one and got my first view of the back-half of the track and the run back up to the pits: it was amazingly steep!
Friday afternoon, and it was time for the second Free Practice session: track conditions were very different from the morning: this time the drivers would face a drying track after the very wet preceding GT1 practice. The GT3 cars were held in the assembly area by the pit-lane exit: once the green light came on to signal the start of the session, the cars would carry out an exploratory lap before looping back into the pits for a check over and, often, a tyre change.
Patrick Soderlund took #76 out first: but only managed eight laps before I noticed the Z4 trailing smoke into turn one. Sure enough, he pitted immediately – a small fire was visible under the car as it came to a stop and smoke was filling the cockpit. With Patrick quickly out of the car, the crew and fire marshals descended to take care of the situation. Despite the amount of smoke the fire wasn't serious and was easily put out, but the BMW would sit out the remainder of the session.
Back out on track, the newly-liveried Team NFS sister car was solidly in the midfield, around two seconds off the fastest time set by the #16 Corvette – a 2:02.225s.
The British Chad Ferrari team were happy with the pace of their lead 430: #87 set the second fastest time, just a tenth off the leader.
But it was the #16 Graff Racing Corvette at the head of the time-sheets, with the #1 Hexis Aston Martin DBRS9 in third. Close behind was a trio of Corvettes: their grunt must be helping them up the hill and it was looking like the 'Vette squads would be the ones to watch. Strangely, compared to the rumbling GT1 and even GT2 Corvettes, the GT3 machinery made a very different sound: none of the bass note of its bigger sisters, but more a low whistle: almost as though you were hearing the aero work rather than the engine. A bit like a diesel, dare I say it. I know. Heresy.
Back at the trucks, the Schubert boys got on with fixing #76: it turned out that a loose oil filler had caused the problem, so it was more a clean-up job than a major repair, thankfully. The car would be on song for the next day's racing.
Into Saturday and it was time for qualifying at 9am. GT3 qualifying is split into two 20 minute session, with a 10-minute break in the middle. The lower-ranked driver is put out in the first session, which sets the grid for the first race, then the second driver takes over and sets the position for the second race. Patrick was out in the car for the first part, but on old tyres with an hour and a half of running time already on them – the team had thought that the rain would come, and they didn't want to waste a new set. Despite the tyres, Patrick finished the session in 21st with a lap-time of 2:04.380s – #76's fastest lap of the weekend, which was encouraging for the race. At least they would now have a brand new sticker set for that.
During the 10-minute interval teams got to work preparing the cars for the second session. This is the Muelhner Motorsport squad's pair of Porsche 911 GT3Rs.
10 minutes passed quickly, the lights turned green and the cars were all rumbling up the pit-lane on their limiters.
The Team NFS engineers held Edward Sandstrom in his box for about eight minutes, not giving him a lot of time to get the job done but relying on his experience to nail it straight away and to save on tyre usage. With five laps under his belt, Edward managed a respectable 16th fastest with a 2:02.174s lap.
At the chequer, the #24 Argo Racing Lamborghini ended up on pole for race 1 with a 2:00.186s lap, followed by the #9 BMW Alpina and then the ever-present trio of Corvettes – led by #101, followed up by #16 and #17. For the second race, the #87 Chad Ferrari would be on pole (1:59.910s) – the first pole for a Ferrari 430 in GT3 – followed by, of course, a Corvette (#101) but then the #16 car sandwiched between the #1 Hexis Aston and #14 Ford GT for a bit of variety. The first race was only hours away!