They might not be racing on the full 13-mile Green Hell of the Nordschliefe, but 23 GT1 cars still make a hell of a spectacle around the ‘mere’ three miles of the GP Strecke. Each time I’ve arrived at a GT1 event this year I’ve been more and more excited about the weekend, more in need of another GT1 fix, and this venue suits the cars down to the ground. The track is big and imposing, as expected for a Formula One track, but for all its historical similarity with Spa (just 66 miles away) the Nürburgring feels different – like it owns the landscape. Thunderous, politically incorrect, fire-breathing GT1 cars simply belong here, in an area which is a shrine to the automobile.
The bad news was that even before the racing started there were casualties: the Phoenix Corvette team had suffered a catastrophic fire back at round two in Silverstone, with their #14 car burned back to bare metal. Since then the team have only once managed to field a second car, and here at the Nürburgring they were again down to a single entry. Those Who Must Be Obeyed in GT1 are not happy: they have pounded the table and Phoenix have not only lost their preferred entry status for 2011 but will also lose all the team points scored so far – luckily for lead driver Marc Hennerici he retains his driver points. It’s a real shame: I’ve always loved the ground-shaking ‘Vettes, but with no factory support and fewer and fewer intact chassis left, it may well be that we’re seeing the last hurrah for the C6.R.
Another loser is Romain Grosjean: the ex-F1 driver has been dropped by the Matech Ford team as part of a wholesale shake-up and returned to single-seaters. The all-girl line-up in #6 is no more, but the new Matech driver roster is looking pretty impressive: the only survivor from the start of the season, German driver Thomas Mutsch, is now joined by three top-line pilots: Swiss A1GP champ Neel Jani, Porsche Cup champion Briton Richard Westbrook and Nicolas Prost, son of French F1 legend Alain. Mutsch is still within striking distance of the championship leaders, Vitaphone Maserati’s Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels. Points this weekend are as vital as ever, for Vitaphone to try and build up their points cushion and for the chasing pack to try and close back up. First, second or third: who will be coming out on top at the ‘Ring?
As I talked about in the first Nürburgring story, the biggest factor here is the weather. Throw in 46 drivers of varying backgrounds and abilities but who all are terribly keen on beating every other car on the grid, and trouble is bound to happen. Sumo Power driver Jamie Campbell-Walter talked about driving standards – or a lack thereof – in his blog from Spa, and they’d be a factor here as well.
In wet conditions a driver’s ability makes an even bigger difference: although cranking on the downforce at the rear of the car and softer set-ups go some way to helping, once the grip has gone the man with his hands on the wheel and foot on the gas will be the deciding factor. So with the added variable of the weather, things were likely to turn nasty in the Qualifying Race – and quickly.
So it came to pass. Once the GT-R course car had completed its reconnaissance tour the GT1s took off on their exploratory lap behind the safety car. I took up position on the inside of the first corner: the cars filed past, burbling and weaving as they tried to put heat into the tyres. Their noise gradually subsided as they moved towards the far end of the track, then rose and fell again as they passed by the high point on the return leg back to the start. Then there was quiet. The German commentator on the PA started going into overdrive but it was just his voice you could hear at first: then the 23 cars burst into view! I’ve said it before, but there is nothing like the rolling start of a GT race for a demonstration of ultimate automotive ferocity. Most of the time catch-fencing is the photographer’s enemy. Here, I rather wished there had been some in front of me as the banshee pack fired into the first corner, showering me with tyre debris, engines at full revs and spreading out as wide as the track. And more, as Peter Dumbreck in the #23 Sumo Power Nissan GT-R was pushed out into the pit-lane exit and then onto the grass.
These situations can have pros and cons: the pro for Peter here was making up five places. The con was then arriving at the corner far too late to make his regular braking point as he forced his way back onto the tarmac: the GT-R hit the back of Tomas Enge’s pole-position #7 Aston Martin and spun to a stop in the middle of the track. In front of me was tyre smoke and shrieks as cars scattered to avoid the Nissan but the #9 Hexis Aston made contact and the #34 Triple-H Maserati also rolled to a halt… Dumbreck made it back to the pits but retired because of the damage. One lap, scratch three cars.
As the lead #7 Young Driver Aston pulled out a gap the chasing cars circulated nose to tail: the tight opening loop of the track seemed to bunch everyone up and the slow-speed corners meant you could look in all directions and see battles going on!
Jamie Campbell-Walter in #22 had started 19th but as usual was all scything through the field: he was up to 13th by the third lap and and chasing down a flaming Lamborghini.
17 laps in and the first drops of rain arrived: a lap before the window for pit-stops closed and after most teams had already stopped! Two laps later it was a deluge and the decision had to be taken on whether to stay out or tough it out. Most cars pitted again for wet tyres; Bertolini in the lead Maserati opted to stay out, as did Warren Hughes, who’d taken over the #22 GT-R.
It was the wrong decision: the rain got even heavier and the slick-shod cars were absolutely killed by those on wets: Bertolini went from holding a 19 second lead to finish 10th at the chequer, and Warren dropped back to 16th. Every lap I’d see the GT-R eaten up by another car as it plummeted down the order.
Up front, Darren Turner in #07 sailed on, sporting damage from the hit of #23, to win by an easy 10 second margin.
The Reiter Lamborghinis finished strongly, but the speed of the Aston was looking pretty ominous…
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP NÜRBURGRING QUALIFYING RACE RESULT
1: #7 Young Driver AMR Aston Martin DBR9 (Tomas Enge/Darren Turner) 28 laps
2: #13 Phoenix Racing Corvette C6.R (Marc Hennerici/Alexander Margaritis) +10.356s
3: #24 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Peter Kox/Christopher Haase) +20.342s
4: #25 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Frank Kechele/Ricardo Zonta) +32.077s
5: #10 Hexis Aston Martin DBR9 (Clivio Piccione/Jonathan Hirschi) +36.317s
In the pits that evening the Sumo Power crew were busy taking stock of the damage to the nose of #23. Luckily it seemed to be mostly cosmetic, though it meant yet more carbon in the bin.
However! One person’s loss is another’s gain: some trackside marshals by turn five were gleefully holding their souvenir fragment of GT-R bodywork.
As darkness fell the teams started to wind down for the evening. Precious loads of wet tyres were stacked up in awnings between trucks out the back of the garages.
And in the distance? What’s this? A lovely sunset over the paddock? Could we be in for a sunny day tomorrow for the championship race?
For the grid formation, it was dry – shockingly. It had, finally, been the GT3 series’ turn to get some rain during their preceding race, so the poor girls propping up the GT1 car numbers at least didn’t get soaked.
After the grid always comes the least enjoyable bit for a photographer: the run to the first corner. Risking the direct route, at any moment you expect to be at best shouted at by marshals or at worst mown down by the safety car as it takes off…
Luckily my timing was good for once: time for the Championship Race. Turner on the lead Aston made a good start and held the lead: behind him two cars came together: the #33 Maserati and #41 Marc VDS Ford. Just the beginning of the demolition derby to come.
The #33 Triple-H MC12 was looking pretty secondhand after the incident: its bonnet was threatening to come loose in a rather alarming way for the rest of the race. And yes, the eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted intrepid fellow Speedhunter John Brooks behind the Armco opposite…
Whilst the #24 Reiter Lamborghini tried to keep in contact with the lead pair, behind him things were getting a little bit frantic.
The #10 Hexis Aston dived down the inside of the #5 Matech Ford GT on lap 7 after a couple of abortive previous attempts: the #25 Reiter car tried to follow and tipped the Ford GT into a spin, knocking the bonnet panel off the Lamborghini and damaging #5. I rather liked the fact that the Lamborghini seemed to have a lot of space in the front: maybe for shopping, or spare parts.
The #38 All-Inkl car was flailing bodywork and then trying to also set it on fire. Whoever fabricates Lamborghini carbon body panels is going to make a lot of money this week.
Michael Krumm in #23 sported damage on what had been his newly-repaired nose from a spin further back in the pack. I could almost hear the sighs of the Sumo Power crew from out on track.
#22 was having better luck: Warren had made up four places in the first lap alone – all without being crashed into! Amazing! Wazza pushed on and made it to ninth by lap 7, battling with the SRT Nissan.
Conditions were still slippery though, especially in the twisty arena section containing the first five turns. Turn one seemed to be particularly tricky: the track really drops away on the inside apex and the outside kerb is tall and vicious. Sliding out wide over the kerb would snap the car sideways. The #40 Marc VDS Ford GT was later shown a black and white flag for disrespecting track limits, but on this occasion it definitely wasn’t deliberate…
The exit of turn five is really important, as the exit speed determines your slingshot down the following straight and onto the more open part of the track. Marks out of 10 for the #9 Hexis Aston for shaving the tyres? I’d say five.
That’s more like it! 10 out of 10 for the #37 All-Inkl car.
JCW took over the wheel of #22 on lap 14 and took eighth position on lap 19 – he couldn’t catch the cars in front, but had his hands full with the #34 Maserati on his tail for the rest of the race. He’d cross the line only 0.264s ahead! Dumbreck took over #23 and despite some light rain at least made up some more places: they would finish 15th.
Further back the battered Lamborginis soldiered on in varying states of disrepair…
…until on lap 27 the #38 All-Inkl car finally gave up, snapped right under braking into turn one and hit the barriers, ripping away the right hand side to add to the existing left-hand damage. It was a sorry sigh after the race, abandoned on the inside of the first turn.
But up front for the whole 30 laps was the #7 Aston, coming home for a second victory in one weekend! Tomas Enge and Darren Turner scored a hat-full of points here, brining back into championship contention, but as usual the wily Vitaphone #1 crew banged in points finishes, showing that consistency is once again the key. We’ll be down to 23 cars for the rest of the season; they say it only takes two cars to make a race, so 23 really isn’t such a bad count… I’ve got one more story to come from the Nurburgring – then the next round is at the new Portimao circuit in Portugal. A little bit of Autumn sun is called for, please.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP NÜRBURGRING CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULT
1: #7 Young Driver AMR Aston Martin DBR9 (Tomas Enge/Darren Turner) 30 laps
2: #24 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini LP670 R-SV (Peter Kox/Christopher Haase) +9.547s
3: #13 Phoenix Racing Corvette C6.R (Marc Hennerici/Alexander Margaritis) +13.018s
4: #10 Hexis Aston Martin DBR9 (Clivio Piccione/Jonathan Hirschi) +14.182s
5: #8 Young Driver AMR Aston Martin DBR9 (Christopher Nygaard/Stefan Mücke) +15.109s
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVER’S CLASSIFICATION AFTER SIX ROUNDS
1: Andrea Bertolini/Michael Bartels (Vitaphone Maserati) 91 points
2: Thomas Mutsch (Matech Ford) 77
3: Darren Turner/Tomas Enge (Young Driver Aston Martin) 65
4: Romain Grosjean (Matech Ford) 62
5: Marc Hennerici (Phoenix Corvette) 61