Originally round eight of the 2010 GT1 World Championship was due to take place on a street circuit in Durban, South Africa, but trouble with track homologation and logistics meant it was cancelled back in September. Replacing the beach-front track is this brand new facility in north-eastern Spain, the Circuito De Navarra, which is one of a dozen Formula 1-grade tracks that have sprung up in Spain over the last decade, all chasing the F1 testing dollar.
This will be the last race of the European leg of the series before we head off for the final two rounds in South America: a fly-away double-header that starts in Brazil and then Argentina. Not only is Navarra the last European race, but it's the last chance the teams have to prep their cars for the long sea-freight voyage to Brazil: come Tuesday, cars, spares and equipment needs to be safely packed up in sea containers. It puts extra pressure on the weekend: no one wants to put a broken car on a boat… Ah. Stand up Stefan Mucke, and come to the front of the class with a very good explanation.
With one Phoenix Corvette already scratched, unfortunately this weekend we've lost another C6.R: the #11 Mad Croc car won't be taking part because of a problem sourcing a fuel tank. So, we have solo entries from each Corvette team this weekend – and #12 is usually the slowest car out there with its amateur owner/driver. The lack of spares for the venerable 'Vettes is really beginning to bite now.
Nissan have brought a display stand to this event to back up their support of the series as the supplier of the course and safety cars: a GT-R and 370Z flanked the merch stand and PS3 race simulator pods.
The Navarra track sits in gently rolling countryside: mid-Autumn means low sun and hazy skies. It was dry when the teams arrived but there was a winter chill in the air.
Sumo Power have come straight here from a test at the airfield track of Nogaro, the other side of the Pyrenees in France. Ice in the morning was their biggest problem, and it's not exactly warm here in Spain at 8am on a Saturday morning.
The weekend kicked off with an event on Friday at the kart track right next to the main straight at Navarra, involving drivers from most of the teams plus ex-F1 driver Johnny Herbert, who's been helping commentate on the series. Both of Sumo Power's #23 car drivers, Michael Krumm and Peter Dumbreck, took part – but neither could wear their race suits as they were at the cleaners! Michael reverted to his factory Nissan suit; Peter to jeans and a Sumo Power jacket.
Navarra is a bit of an unknown quantity: the local town of Los Arcos is only five minutes away but its sleepy medieval centre doesn't necessarily look ready for cutting-edge GT1 cars. However, the word was out. The town was covered in fly-posters and a good crowd expected on race day.
Garage space is limited at Navarra as GT1 is sharing the bill with Superleague Formula, a bizarre football-themed single seater series. This means the GT teams are crammed into single garages which only just fit two cars in their cramped confines. It's a bit of a shock after the recent Grand Prix venues.
The weekend has been compressed into a two-day event to fit around Superleague. None of the GT teams are particularly happy as it makes the timings for the weekend frantic: there was only an hour between the first two GT1 sessions on Saturday for instance. I much prefer the three-day weekends as well, as they give me more time to scoot round the track and check out shots.
The Saturday morning Free Practice session was the first chance the teams had to get to grips with the Navarra track: data was scarce, though you got the feeling that various engineers had managed to track down some kind of baseline traces from various 'contacts'. Pretty much the whole grid dashed out of the pits as soon as the lights turned green for the start of the session, led by the Sumo Power NIssan GT-Rs.
The first corner is actually a very fast right kink: individual cars seemed on the edge, so it will be interesting to see how 22 cars squeeze through on race day. The first corner proper, a hairpin, is another couple of hundred yards further on after another right kink.
Apart from the red race-control tower, the other dominating feature is this spectator hill, on the insides of turns five and six. Hardy spectators perched atop it, soaking up the great views over the track.
The track hasn't used that much of what little local gradient there was: the first half of the track seems to have been cut through a small rise – which at least gives quite dramatic backdrops. There's a bit of a bleak Martian landscape about the place as it's so new.
The biggest casualty of Free Practice was the #8 Young Driver Aston Martin: a heavy impact had torn the right-rear corner off the car and the team would be struggling to repair the extensive damage for Sunday's races, let alone before the cars had to be packed up for shipping.
Annoyingly, the track was pretty much deserted for the following 80 minutes of Pre-Qualifying: it was so soon after the previous running that most teams didn't feel the need to put in more than a handful of laps. Time to check out the scenery. Nice hills!
The Lamborghini were consistently fast: both Reiter cars were right up front. Now they just need some luck and to lose the targets that seem to be painted on them during races. It's the fire, for sure.
Also going well was the lead #40 Marc VDS Ford GT, carrying on the upward curve of results they've had over the last couple of rounds.
The track's twisty sections weren't expected to suit the Nissan GT-Rs, but both cars were in the top ten. There are two long straights here, but also a string of slow, first- and second-gear turns where the cars struggle to put the power down.
It's a real shame that the #13 Phoenix Corvette's form has dropped off: things started off so promisingly with the win in Abu Dhabi. It's likely that only having one car is hurting them, as with data from two cars a good set-up is often that much easier to find.
Qualifying kicked off the afternoon, and it's always a good opportunity to stalk the pit-lane. With two cars not taking part and the #8 Aston still too damaged, only the slowest five cars would be eliminated at the end of the first 20 minutes. Unfortunately, once again it was the #4 SRT Nissan that bit the bullet.
It's a real shame: they've got good driver line-ups but just don't seem to be able to match the performance of the Sumo Power GT-Rs. #3 made it through, but was then slowest in the second segment.
That said, things weren't looking good for Sumo's #23 either: driver Michael Krumm looked on as co-driver Peter Dumbreck handled Q1.
Peter just couldn't get to grips with the car's set-up. As Q1 ended #23 was only 17th and out of contention. Overnight the team would find and rectify a problem with the car.
16 cars went out for the 20 minutes of Q2: eight would be left at the end. This time it was the #9 Hexis Aston in the slowest group: French drivers Frederic Makowiecki and Yann Clairay looked pretty crest-fallen as the Aston joined the line of cars standing abandoned in the pit-lane.
Drivers alternate qualifying segments, so whoever's not driving is consigned to watching the data screens in the pit garage or on the pit-wall. Here's Young Driver Aston Martin driver Darren Turner waiting for Tomas Enge to complete his runs – Enge set fastest time in Q2.
Normally I'd expect the #1 Vitaphone MC12 to be leading the Maserati charge, but recently it's been the #34 Triple-H car setting the pace. #1 is definitely suffering from success ballast as it makes the run for the championship.
The pit crews quickly turned round the cars for the final 10 minute charge for pole.
Warren Hughes in #22 set third fastest time five minutes in, but dropped back to seventh at the end.
Cars are only allowed to use two engines during the whole season, but the #10 Hexis Aston had been forced to switch to a third unit, triggering a five-place grid drop for the Championship Race. This meant qualifying well was even more important – and they did make it to the final eight.
Crews handle the stops during qualifying like race runs: it's good practice anyway, but also because there's only ten minutes there's no time to lose!
Ex-F1 driver Ricardo Zonta was taking the wheel of the #25 Lamborghini for Q3: he had that 1000-yard stare that all drivers have before going out on track.
The crewman waved him out, and Zonta blasted out onto the track for his run.
The top four cars would finish within just three-tenths of each other! The #40 Marc VDs Ford lined up fourth.
Next up was the #6 Matech Ford GT in third.
Second was the #34 Triple-H MC12.
But two-tenths clear and on pole was #25!
It's a debut GT1 pole for Ricardo Zonta and Frank Kechele – and the first for Lamborghini. Their team-mates in #24 are in sixth, so things are looking good for Lamborghini! Now we just have to hope that the forecast rains stay away tomorrow. We are, after all, in a plain. In Spain.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND EIGHT @ NAVARRA QUALIFYING RESULT
1: #25 Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago 670 R-SV (Ricardo Zonta/Frank Kechele) 1:36.118s
2: #34 Triple-H Maserati MC12 (Alessandro Pier Guidi/Nico Verdonck) +0.211s
3: #6 Matech Ford GT (Neel Jani/Nicolas Amindo) +0.289s
4: #40 Marc VDS Ford GT (Maxime Martin/Bas Leinders) +0.292s
5: #7 Young Driver AMR (Tomas Enge/Darren Turner) +0.366s