Following two rounds supporting their GT1 big brothers at Silverstone in the UK and Brno in the Czech Republic, the European GT3 series went solo this weekend at the Jarama track in Spain. Patrick Soderlund and co-driver Edward Sandström would be looking to pull themselves out of the mid-field and up to the sharp end of the ultra-competitive GT3 field. The team had arrived in Spain early to test at the Motorland Aragon track a couple of hundred kilometres away in the north-east of the country: it's a popular place for teams to shake down cars. Sun and Spain? What's not to like? The main purpose was to test new components and – more importantly – a new BMW powerplant. A new 4.4-litre V8 replaces the original 4L unit: it still sounds unique and fantastic out on track.
I flew into Madrid early on Friday morning: once I'd got the hire car started (turn the key, yes, but hold down the clutch? That's a new one to me) it was an easy trip north on the motorway to the track. Or I was told it was easy: the Spanish motorway feeder roads and roundabouts were more complex than the spiral arms of the galaxy, so it took a couple of missed junctions before making it. I blame the GPS, which has never been the same since Silverstone. When I finally did get in I made for the GT3 paddock and the Team Need For Speed trucks. The Z4s were still sporting dirt from their test – they'd literally been shipped straight here – and the Schubert mechanics were swarming over the cars and prepping them for the weekend. The first thing I noticed was that the sister car to #76 has adopted the same paint scheme as the Soderlund/Sandström Z4, but with a yellow twist. The second thing I noticed was that the track internet connection was rubbish: I'd be fighting it all weekend…
The GT3 teams were once again denied the pit-lane garages: that fell to the headlining Superleague Formula series: powerful single-seaters sponsored by international football clubs such as Liverpool FC and AC Milan. The cars look good and sound incredible – like F1 screamers – but the series uses a peculiar mix of football analogies… It's a bit of a strange concept. So the GT3 teams were in a paddock on the inside of the first turns: quite a drive to get to the pit-lane. It was nice and quiet on Friday…
…unlike the next day when the pit-lane became a narrow funnel of barely organised chaos.
There was no track action on the Friday, just scrutineering and a driver briefing, which gave me a chance to join the various groups of drivers and teams strolling, cycling and driving round the track. Walking on a racing track has a strange feeling. It doesn't seem right. It just feels… dangerous. However, ensuring I always kept people behind me, it was a great way to get a feeling for the track, which I hadn't visited before. I particularly like the jaunty construction of the classic race control tower.
Saturday morning's first Free Practice hour kicked off the GT3 sessions for the weekend. Edward took the first stint and headed out on track from the busy marshalling area. The session was a bit stop start and interrupted by two red flags: the longest one caused by the Callaway Corvette Z06s running into the gravel at turn 9, which stopped the session until the marshals had recovered it.
The Audi R8 LMS squads have been given a performance break after being nowhere in Brno: it's obviously helped them here as four R8s ended up in the top seven, with the #4 Rosberg entry on top with a 1:34.255s lap. Next up was an inevitable Corvette: Brno double winners Mike Parisy and Joakim Lambotte in #16 were second, just 0.048s behind the Audi. The #25 Argo Lamborghini Gallardo was just two tenths back: only one Gallardo has been brought to Spain, and (Prince, no less) Albert von Thurn Und Taxis has swapped to the #25 car for this weekend.
There was good news for Team Need For Speed: #76 was eighth fastest overall with a 1:34.670s. This was set on Edward's fifth lap, and neither driver improved on that during the session. Times were all very close: the top 14 cars were covered by a second! Good news for the racing.
Jarama is owned and run by the Real Automóvil Club de España and was designed by the same man behind other classic tracks such as Japan's Suzuka and Zandvoort in Holland. It was built in 1967 just north of Madrid as Spain's first purpose-built circuit. Jarama held nine F1 races, the final being the classic 1981 race when Canadian legend Gilles Villeneuve held off four cars to take victory with just over a second covering all five cars – one of the the closest ever F1 finishes.
The 3.85km-long circuit is narrow, very twisty and has lots of gradient and camber. It certainly suits the GT3 cars a lot better than the previous two big GP-style tracks, which seemed to swallow up the GT3s.
Jarama features one relatively short straight, which runs parallel to a motorway! It's strange seeing trucks trundling along just the other side of the catch fence.
Most of the corners feature names of past driving legends or tracks: the shallow left kink of Nuvolari leads into the first corner proper, the right-hand hairpin of Fangio. Then it's a short straight to the fast right blast of Varzi.
The cars look pretty loose through here, as they try to hook the inside kerb to carry speed through to the next section.
Next up is a technical section with plenty of spectator grandstands: the banked Le Mans left-hander leads into the horribly slow right of Farina. Here the cars almost seem to park up, they're going so slowly. The corner is cambered and in a depression, so each car that went through was accompanied by the painful sound of rubbing splitters and underbodies.
Edward reported oversteer on the entrance and exit of the corner: you could see most cars giving it a dab of oppo as they put the power down.
The Pegaso corner reminds me of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca – only going up instead of down!
After they crest the hill they run through the flat Ascari kink.
Portago is a deceptively slow, tightening right-hander. Lots of cars can go in…
…But they don't always come out the other side, as the Hexis Aston Martin DBRS9 demonstrated. This car was in a for a busy weekend, apparently trying to visit as many gravel traps as possible.
The cars then start the drop back down: first of all the steep downhill S-curve of Bugatti, then a short sprint uphill to the Monza and Túnel rights back onto the main straight. Cars swoop down onto the straight from the final turn. The second Free Practice session was again broken up by red flags: the first for a collision at the first turn just seven minutes in, and then the second about half an hour in. Once again, being stuck out in the boonies at a track without a radio or PA means it's difficult to know what's going on. You have to look at what cars appear (or don't, more to the point) when the green flags fly. The missing car? Unfortunately it was our #76 BMW Z4…
After putting in just five laps Edward had put the #76 into the barriers after pushing too hard through the fast downhill section at Bugatti. He had still set a time fastest enough for 13th, but the car was trashed and had to be hauled onto a flat-bed truck to be taken back to the waiting crew. Times had been much slowed in this session: almost a second off the first practice – perhaps to do with the track heating up around midday. The #14 Ford GT topped the time sheets with a 1.35:215s – this time Corvettes were back in menacing force: #16, #18 and #101 were 3rd, 4th and 6th. The BMW Alpina carried forward its good form from Brno with second fastest time, whereas the Lamborghini had a gearbox issue and didn't make it out on track at all.
First job for Team Need For Speed was to strip off the damaged bodywork and hose out the sand and stones. Then the real work could begin, finding out what mechanical damage had been caused. It looked like the steering would be a bit NASCAR: ie, fine for left turns only…
Edward looked understandably sheepish as they inspected the damage. Time would be limited, as they only had a couple of hours to get the car back into shape: compromises would have to be made and the repairs prioritised.
You broke it, you fix it… The drivers were given the job of swapping over parts that could be salvaged from the damaged nose to a new nose section.
Into Qualifying, and the opening 20 minutes to set the grid for the first race. Unfortunately there was no sign of the #76: lead #77 driver Claudia Huertgen confirmed that the car hadn't been repaired in time and wasn't coming out. This meant Patrick would be starting rom the back of field for Sunday's first race.
All the cars piled out of the pits as quickly as possible, trying to find space for their qualifying lap. The Anglo-American United Autosports team run a pair of Audi R8 LMS: the best of the Audi liveries I reckon. Go Stars And Stripes! (And the Union Flag…).
The Porsches were showing decent speed here, as was the big BMW Alpina. But up front at the end of the 20 minutes was an ecstatic Albert von Thurn und Taxis in the #25 Argo Lamborghini: a stunning lap lifted him clear of the field and into his first ever pole position.
EUROPEAN GT3 ROUND THREE QUALIFYING ONE RESULT
1: #25 Argo Racing Lamborghini Gallardo LP560 (Albert von Thurn und Taxis/Giorgio Sanna) 1:33.443s
2: #101 Callaway Competition Corvette Z06R (Daniel Keilwitz/Christian Hohenadel) +0..250s
3: #9 Team S-Berg Racing BMW Alpina B6 GT3 (Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof/Martin Mätzke) +0.414s
4: #61 Prospeed Competition Porsche 911 GT3R (Paul van Splunteren/Marco Holzer) +0.515s
5: #6 Sainteloc-Phoenix Audi R8 LMS (Stephane Lemeret/Greg Franchi) +0.680s
Into the 20-minute segment to set the grid for the second race and the phoenix had risen! The Team NFS crew had worked wonders with the battered Z4, and Edward appeared at the end of pit-lane ready to take to the track.
After good results despite some erratic races the British-run Chad Racing Ferraris were stuck in the midfield: but at this track there are plenty of opportunities for passing and places where it's easy to make a mistake.
Fresh from a podium at Le Mans in a GT2 Porsche, Prospeed's Marco Holzer took the pole for Race 2. There was disappointment for the Marc VDS team and their growling Ford Mustang: after qualifying an impressive third on the track the car lost its place post-scrutineering: a roll-bar homologation issue relegated it to the back of the grid. Despite having to drive against the damaged car, Edward put in a 1:34.013s: good enough for 12th place, and faster than his practice times! Maybe they've found an interesting (but destructive) new way to find a good set-up…
EUROPEAN GT3 ROUND THREE QUALIFYING TWO RESULT
1: #61 Prospeed Competition Porsche 911 GT3R (Paul van Splunteren/Marco Holzer) 1:33.213s
2: #16 Graff Racing Corvette Z06.R (Joakim Lambotte/Mike Parisy) +0.053s
3: #77 Team Need For Speed/Schubert Motorsport BMW Z4 Coupé (Claudia Huertgen/Csaba Walter) +0.251s
4: #1 Hexis AMR Aston Martin DBRS9 (Manuel Rodrigues/Frederic Makowiecki) +0.334s
5: #4 Team Rosberg Audi R8 LMS (Paolo Bonifacio/Michael Ammermueller) +0.339s
It's great to see that, as in GT1, performance balancing actually now seems to be working after the initial gripes and quite obvious lack of performance balancing at the first two rounds: in both session there were different manufacturers in the top five positions.