I'm standing behind the worryingly small strip of Armco barrier on the inside of the first corner at the Paul Ricard circuit in France, waiting for the start of the FIA GT1 Qualifying Race. A clutch of other photographers are spaced out along this stretch, preparing their cameras, checking settings, getting ready – like infantry about to repel an assault. We don't stand a chance.
First there's a distant rumble in the distance. You can hear the sound of the French commentator over the PA system, his voice rising in pitch as the rumble gets louder and threatens to drown him out. The rumble deepens and a mid-pitch howl is added to the mix: now the lights of the cars come into view: you have mere seconds before they're upon you: an unstoppable horde of 23 howling banshees, snapping at each other in their efforts to get to the first corner in front.
All you can do is press the shutter and hope they don't get you first. But it's hopeless. You're flattened, steamrollered and left breathless as they scream past.
There's nothing like the rolling start for a race. GT1, GT3, prototypes, even NASCAR. If you can be near the start – preferably at the first corner and the nearer the track the better – then the visceral experience just can't be beaten. The GT1 cars might be the monsters, but the GT3s are no baby brothers: 30-odd of them blasting past just 10 feet from you creates a wall of air that knocks you off your feet.
Those who survive stream through and out to the far end of the circuit.
Those who don't are picked up by the roving flatbed trucks and stretchered back to the paddock to the waiting crews.
As usual there were two races each for the GT1 and GT3 series: Saturday saw the first GT3 race and the Qualifying Race for GT1 – points only go to the top three finishers in GT1, but the result sets the grid for the full-points Championship Race on Sunday.
GT3's Race 1 turned into another Corvette benefit: this time it was the turn of the #101 Callaway Corvette of Daniel Keilwitz and Christian Hohenadel to win, closely followed by Mike Parisy and Joakim Lambotte in their Graff Racing Z06R. The start was amazing: Paul Ricard has a flat-roofed pit-lane building where you get a great view of the whole start straight. The GT3 cars fanned out four-wide as the lights went green! It'll be interesting to see what Patrick Soderlund says about the start, as it looked pretty wild!
But behind the Corvettes was the real excitement. A train of four cars squabbled over the final podium position for the second half of the race: the #11 Muelhner Porsche 911 led the #61 Prospeed Porsche and both of the Team Need For Speed BMW Z4s. These four circulated nose to tail, and there was a great dice between the two BMWs which had the crowd on their feet: Claudia Huertgen in #77 was trying desperately to keep #76 behind despite Edward Sandstrom trying everything he could to get past. At one stage Edward was right alongside after getting a great exit out of the final corner, but was squeezed into the pit-wall: a pretty hard move from his team-mate! But eventually Edward made a move stick and near the end the Prospeed car made a lunge for third but failed: both BMWs got through to take fourth and fifth at the chequer. A fantastic result for Team NFS!
EUROPEAN GT3 CHAMPIONSHIP RACE SEVEN RESULT
1: #101 Callaway Competition Corvette Z06R (Daniel Keilwitz/Christian Hohenadel) 25 Laps
2: #16 Graff Racing Corvette Z06R (Joakim Lambotte/Mike Parisy) +6.652s
3: #11 Muelhner Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3R (Gilles Vannelet/Antoine Leclerc) +19.092s
4: #76 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 GT3 (Patrick Söderlund/Edward Sandström) +19.611s
5: #77 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 GT3 (Csaba Walter/Claudia Hürtgen) +20.156s
In the GT1 Qualifying Race it was the Maserati MC12 of Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini who took the win and pole position for the next day's main race; they pairing would go on to dominate the whole weekend.
After watching the initial frantic charge into the first corner I moved up to the far end of the circuit. Here you can see the cars come towards you before snaking right, left and right again in front of you, and then away and into the distance down the impressive Mistral straight. Peter Dumbreck and Michael Krumm had qualified third in the Sumo Power Nissan GT-R and had a strong start but then began to fall back. They'd started on old tyres and suffered horribly as a result, but were hoping that the new set of rubber they'd saved would serve them well in the main race.
The Lamborghinis were very much on form in qualifying at Ricard: the long straights suiting the grunt from the flaming V12s and they had qualified second, sixth, seventh and 13th. The highest place car, Reiter's #24, was the only one to hold on at the front though: Dutch veteran Peter Kox backed up co-driver Christopher Haase's strong opening stint to hold onto second.
Both All-Inkl Murcielagos had bad starts and bad luck in the race: both fell back and only finished 16th and 17th.
#22 of Jamie Campbell-Walter and Warren Hughes had qualified only two places behind their team-mates, and took the #23 car near the start as Peter slipped backwards. After taking over the wheel from JCW, Warren was a man on a mission and passed the third-placed #12 Corvette of Mike Hezemans and Xavier Maassen with just a couple of laps to go. Another Sumo Power podium!
It was surprising to see Corvette veteran and American Le Mans Series star Oliver Gavin towards the back: although he's teamed up with a much slower driver it seems like he hasn't been able to get the car working the way he wants and was well off the #11 sister 'Vette – they finished fourth whereas #12 was back in 19th at the end.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP RACE SEVEN RESULT
1: #1 Vitaphone Racing Maserati MC12 (Michael Bartels/Andrea Bertolini) 27 Laps
2: #24 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Peter Kox/Christopher Haase) +5.569s
3: #22 Sumo Power GT Nissan GT-R (Warren Hughes/Jamie Campbell-Walter) +7.798s
4: #11 Mad Croc Chevrolet Corvette C6.R (Xavier Maassen/Mike Hezemans) +10.639s
5: #2 Vitaphone Racing Maserati MC12 (Miguel Ramos/Enrique Bernoldi) +12.821s
Sunday's GT3 second race was a carbon copy of Saturday – at least at the front. Corvettes one and two and in the same order: #101 from #16, although this time the gap was only just over a second.
The #25 Argo Lamborghini was in different hands this weekend and although they didn't have the same highs they also didn't have the same lows… Ninth in race one and then a fifth in the second race wasn't a bad result.
Once again most of the Audis seemed to circulate as one, but were again very much stuck in the midfield. Ninth in the second race for the #33 Black Falcon R8 was as good as it got.
It was a real shame that there aren't spectator viewing areas at the chicane on the Mistral Straight: the cars bang over the exit kerb here and have their own competition as to who could get the most air.
The British-run Ferraris also had another poor weekend: the bright red Ferraris looked amazing against the blue and red background and weren't afraid to attack the kerbs, but just didn't have the speed here at Ricard.
For me the winner in the gettin' air competition was the #33 Audi: consistently launching off that exit kerb. It might not be the fastest way through but it looked the best!
EUROPEAN GT3 CHAMPIONSHIP RACE EIGHT RESULT
1: #101 Callaway Competition Corvette Z06R (Daniel Keilwitz/Christian Hohenadel) 25 laps
2: #16 Graff Racing Corvette Z06R (Joakim Lambotte/Mike Parisy) +1.42s
3: #61 Prospeed Competition Porsche 911 GT3R (Paul van Splunteren/Marco Holzer) +1.883s
4: #77 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 GT3 (Csaba Walter/Claudia Hürtgen) +23.884s
5: #25 Argo Racing Lamborghini Gallardo LP560 (Niels Lagrange/José Luis Cunill) +24.037s
It's a truism that you can't win the race at the start, but you can definitely lose it. The #24 Reiter Lamborghini was looking to go one better in Sunday's race: he grabbed the lead right at the start of the race but grabbed it just that little bit too soon. The car was penalised for a jumped start and fell to 18th by the end.
Similarly, Warren Hughes in #22 had made a great start but drifted wide down the start straight: he crossed the blue dividing line and was also handed a drive-through penalty, seemingly killing any chance of a good result.
This time it was the turn of #23 to be going forwards whilst the other car went backwards: they more than made up for their disappointment in the Qualifying Race and both drivers revelled in GT-Rs handling.
The Lamborghinis were angrily spitting flame as normal; I'd had a word with the engineer of the All-Inkl team on the grid and asked for a richer fuel mixture to get more flame. It looks like he delivered. Thanks Geoff!
The Phoenix/Carsport team is still running just one car at the moment: the #14 car was completely burnt out at the Silverstone race, but they hope to have a second car running soon.
From ninth at the start to second at the flag for #23, just seven seconds off the #1 Maserati.
Thomas Mutsch and Romain Grosjean in the #5 Matech Ford GT finished seventh, but still retain second in the championship.
#22 might have been down, but they weren't out: JCW put in an incredible drive from right at the back to finish eighth. Lap after lap he'd been overtaking another car. The fireworks at the finish had been matched by his drive! But 50 seconds up the road the #1 Vitaphone Maserati crossed the line first for a second win and 15 point lead in the drivers championship.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP RACE EIGHT RESULT
1: #1 Vitaphone Racing Maserati MC12 (Michael Bartels/Andrea Bertolini) 28 Laps
2: #23 Sumo Power GT Nissan GT-R (Michael Krumm/Peter Dumbreck) +7.057s
3: #33 Triple H Team Hegersport Maserati MC12 (Altfrid Heger/Alex Margaritis) +24.633s
4: #40 Marc VDS Racing Ford GT (Bas Leinders/Maxime Martin) +26.209s
5: #13 Phoenix Racing Carsport Chevrolet Corvette C6.R (Marc Hennerici/Andrea Piccini) +29.670s