Ah. Sun on my face. For round seven of the GT1 World Championship we’ve moved to the furthest south-western reaches of Europe: the new Portimao circuit in the Algarve region of Portugal for the first of two GT1 races on the Iberian peninsula – there’s then a month break before the South American double-header finale at the end of November. The racing has got better and better: closer and closer (too close on some occasions) .
The Portimao track was only completed in the winter of 2008, but it’s already hosted some pretty big series: both the World Touring Cars and Le Mans Series have visited this big dipper of a track, nestled in the blunt folds of the sun-scorched landscape. The sea is just 15 minutes away. There’s a swimming pool behind the pits. It’s got a big load of racing cars. This place is pretty much perfect.
It is the track itself that attracts the big love. It’s actually relatively compact though deceptively long: the track doubles-back on itself twice, bringing a section of the six more interesting corners all within a short walk of each other. However, the distance may be short but it’s the elevation changes that get you: there are breathtaking crests…
…followed by steep climbs. Followed by crests, drops, climbs… and so it goes on! This track doesn’t just have one focal point: the whole track is a constant rollercoaster ride for car and driver. The track is a series of corkscrew twists and turns connected by short blast, always rising or falling, always challenging. Relaxing to drive this track isn’t. Challenging? Rewarding? Exciting? Yes.
The facilities are impressive: although it doesn’t boast Formula 1 aspirations (as so sadly shown by the forlorn ‘coming in 2009: F1!’ signs we saw back in Dubai at the beginning of the year) it’s quite obviously capable of handling such a big series.
The grandstand capacity is here, the pits and media centre enormous… the problem is perhaps two-fold: the track is just TOO interesting for F1, and the location? Well, it’s in the heart of the popular Algarve tourist region, but the chances of getting people of the beaches and into the grandstands might be a tough one. But for wheel to wheel racing? This is the place to come to.
What I didn’t miss: a storm on Thursday night made for a slippery start for Friday morning’s Free Practice session in GT1. Ha. Missed me this time, rain. Times were 10 seconds off the dry, but one new frontrunner was the Marc VDS Ford GT: Matech have (erratically) been up front, but this is the first time the sister team have seemingly nailed a consistent set-up. The Belgian pairing in #40 of Bas Leinders and Maxime Martin set the fastest time with a 1:44.446s tour, followed by the ever-present #1 Vitaphone Maserati and then the #23 Sumo Power Nissan GT-R of Michael Krumm and Peter Dumbreck.
In Pre-Qualifying it was the turn of Matech to head the field, with the #5 of Richard Westbrook and Thomas Mutsch on the top of the pile, now into the 1:43s. Again Sumo Power’s #23 ran strongly: fourth this time. Also, I finally found out why Pre-Qualifying is so called: it’s to do with tyres, as so much of the series is. In Free Practice sessions you can use any sets you want, even ones carried over from previous events, but as soon as Pre-Quallies kicks off you have to start using your new weekend allocation of four sets of sparkly black Michelins.
#22 just wasn’t finding the pace: 17th and 12th respectively in the two sessions was not what Jamie Campbell-Walter and Warren Hughes were hoping for. Into Qualifying and the three knock-out sessions. #22’s miserable qualifying form continued courtesy of the power steering leak: barely had the session started when the car started smoking and was forced to pit. After some frantic work by the Sumo Power crew #22 got back out for the dying minutes of the first session, but didn’t have the pace to get into the game and would be the other end of the grid from #23.
Q2, and another eight cars would lose out: this time the remaining three Astons were in the slowest batch (a Hexis Aston had already gone out in Q1).
The #7 Young Driver AMR DBR9 of Tomas Enge and Darren Turner seemed to be suffering with having to carry maximum ballast: with all the uphill sections the weight would be killing them.
All four Aston Martins might have been out, but all four Maseratis were very much in: the only hiccup being that trouble for the #33 Triple-H car meaning it didn’t get out on track in Q3.
#34 was using all the track and more to keep time with the Vitaphone cars.
Having been strong on speed in the last couple of rounds, if not strong against damage, the Lamborghini contingent seemed off the pace in the early sessions: struggling for grip despite what seemed to be a fast car.
Of course, where there’s smoke, there’s always a fiery Murcielago: both Reiter Engineering entries fell by the wayside.
But the All-Inkl Lamborghinis came good: sixth in Q1 was #37, with #38 just two places back.
But on pole by just 0.030s from the #40 Ford GT was Marc Hennerici and Alexander Margaritis in the sole remaining Phoenix Corvette. The car looked like it was running on rails around this rollercoaster track; but the top five all broke into the 1:42s so things were going to be tight at the top.
The European GT3 series is at Portimao as well, with their two races scheduled over the weekend.
Both British Chad Racing Ferrari 430 Scuderias were back in action: #87 went fastest in Free Practice, but its sister car was propping up the wrong end of the time-sheets… A lot does seem to depend on the driving squads, and there are plenty of more amateur-level drivers in GT3.
The Audi R8 LMSs were generally fast, and Black Falcon’s #33 particularly quick through all the early sessions: they managed third in qualifying with Sainteloc’s #5 R8 on pole for race 2
The good-looking United Autosports Audi R8s had their best result of the season, with second for race one and sixth for race 2 for #23.
Marc VDS’ GT3 Mustang had been relegated to door guard at their hospitality unit, and instead the team was running a pair of Ford GTs again. #99 managed second on the grid for race 2 with #98 back in 10th.
Patrick Soderlund drove the Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 Coupé to 13th for the first race; he wasn’t exactly over the moon, especially after the progress the team had been making.
Edward Sandstrom took over for the second part of qualifying to set the grid for the second race on Sunday and lined up 14th.
This is another track where the GT3 cars look at home, a bit like Jarama – though strangely it also suits the GT1s. The biggest difference isn’t speed: both classes look pretty damn fast, but it’s the sound. Only the Team NFS BMWs have anything like a throaty engine note: most other GT3s make a strange whistling noise, almost as though you’re hearing more aero than engine!
Back in the pits, the GT1 crews carried on working on their cars. I decided to have a better look at the Lamborghinis.
They seem difficult enough to get into in just mechanics overalls, let alone drivers’ helmets and HANS devices. When you see them next to another car on the track you realise just how low these things are.
It’s taken a while for Lamborghinis to prove themselves to be fast *and* reliable, but Reiter have been putting the work in and all four Murcielagos have featured at the front over the year.
Out back is this enormous exhaust unit, harnessing the power of the car’s V12 and providing the outlet for all that belching flame we love.
Inside the cockpit is an LCD screen for the rear view.
The reason is obvious: the sci-fi honeycomb rear deck provides basically no vision; the same LCD screen solution is used in the Corvettes and Ferraris. I think the rear of the cars looks rather insectoid: combined with the hellfire they throw out, the screaming V12 and low-profile lines, it’s great to have such a different looking car in the series.
The GT4 cars were out again as well here in Portimao. Unlike at the Nurburgring, here the KTM X-Bow looked like the ideal car to have. All it needs is a little sun umbrella…