What a great weekend. It’s not like I ever get to a race weekend expecting to have a bad time, but sometimes everything just clicks. Zolder was a fantastic track in a lovely part of Belgium; there was some excellent racing; I ate the odd caramel-covered waffle; and Team Need For Speed delivered amazing results in both races. Even better, there was absolutely lovely weather, despite all the predictions of Belgium in the Autumn. The sun beamed down, with hardly a cloud in the sky all weekend. Truly the sun was shining on the final round of the 2010 European GT3 Championship in every sense.
Zolder was another track, like Jarama, that suited the GT3 cars. The smaller, tighter tracks mean the GT3s run round like go-karts on steroids: they’re certainly driven that way from what I saw! There was a GT1 race here a few years back, and it was like driving trucks round a supermarket car park: they just looked too unwieldily. The more constricted nature of Zolder made the GT3s look more aggressive, more purposeful.
It’s strange to think that Zolder used to play host to the Belgian round of the Formula One circus in the ’70s and ’80s: watching the meaty cars of that era muscling their way round this track must have been amazing. Of course, Zolder is also infamous as the place where Canadian legend Gilles Villeneuve lost his life, during qualifying for the ’82 Grand Prix. But post F1 the sun hasn’t set on Zolder: the track layout has been interrupted by the addition of the four chicanes and the re-profiling of the first corner but it’s continued to host major series such as Champ Car, WTCC, FIA GT, Belcar and the 24 Hours Of Zolder.
I’m realising that it might just be that the GT1 cars overshadow the GT3s at the shared events, and I’ve been dealing the junior series a bad hand. Okay, the flaming exhausts might not match the insane flame-throwing GT1 Lamborghinis, but unless you wanted the north-east Belgian forest to be reduced to ashes it’s probably no bad thing. GT3 great, I say. And 2011 looks like being even better – more news on that later.
Here at Zolder we also had another of the slightly barmy FIA-organised photo-shoots, following on from the GT1 medieval knights down at Paul Ricard a couple of months back. This time it was to promote the three-way battle for the Teams” Championship: Callaway leading with Prospeed close behind, and the Team Need For Speed’s BMWs just in touch – but needing the leading quartet of cars to hit trouble to have any chance of taking the trophy.
The double-height pit buildings at Zolder are painted red in deference to a popular fizzy drinks brand (other fizzy drinks are available) and dominates the middle of the track: the start line runs to the right, with the return leg of the track just the other side of the buildings.
The colour from the paint casts a pinkish, warming glow over the pit-lane, in a similar way to Portimao, where the cast was blue. The sun at this time of year stays pretty low in the sky, and keeps the pit-lane in its sights from dawn to dusk.
One thing I found slightly concerning was the lack of any pit-wall protection: there are effectively three lanes in the pits, with the inner lane for the pit-stops, the middle lane for entering and exiting the pits and then the outer lane basically a not-very-safe zone for team personnel and the media. Personally, I prefer and good solid piece of barrier between me and a car, rather than a painted white line. These are racing drivers we’re talking about.
Times are obviously tough, when even the driver/owner of the United Autosports Audi team has to thumb a ride to the track.
One of the best things about the big pit building is the covered viewing platform on top for spectators, which runs its whole length. You can watch cars charging down the main straight and into turn one, quickly walk across to the other side of the balcony and then see the cars running down the back straight and into the Kleine chicance. It also provides great views straight down onto the cars below during stops.
All weekend the balcony was packed with people getting all the best views.
And there was plenty to see: down in the pit-lane it was as crammed as ever. The FIA GT3 teams might have (finally!) got garages to work in, but they were interspersed with fellow GT racers from the Belcar series.
As I was checking out the track and access points, I kept on bumping into one of the Callaway Corvette drivers, Bernhard van Oranje from the #100 car, who was obviously also taking a look at the track. First of all I spied him down by the final chicane on his bike, and then later on the viewing balcony above the pits.
It’s interesting to see how each driver approaches getting to know a track: every driver has his approach, whether it’s walking the track, watching support races or even driving race simulators. This is Patrick and Edward from the #76 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 discussing lines whilst standing on the outside of the first corner.
Apart from the recent chicanes, the only major change to Zolder has been to the the first corner: it used to be a much sharper, almost 90-degree left about 50 yards earlier than the current incarnation. With the banking there it was difficult to imagine what it looked like previously. The pit exit is really long: it runs right round the outside of the gravel trap and actually only joins the track up by the braking zone for turn two. The other slightly bizarre thing is seeing boats sailing along in the background of turn two. The corner’s name gives it away: Kanaal. The track butts up to the Albert Canal, a centuries-old 50-yard wide industrial waterway.
There’s a good chance for slip-streaming on the run down the back straight towards the tight Kleine chicane, and it’s a place where you can get up close and personal with the cars.
On the entrance to the chicane photographers are behind a thin strip of Armco just the other side of the track. Yes, that’s my shadow in the shot… It’s a place where you try to not lean over the barrier too much especially when cars are jostling for position…
However, you can’t help but be drawn forward… cars took the chicane faster and faster as the weekend went on: the exit is all important for the drag race up the hill and into the forest.
Some handily-cut low-level holes in the fencing mean you can get right down to track-level for some shots underneath the cars as they crest the rise.
Once they get over the hill it’s like a different track: enclosed by trees, shadows cast by the low sun meaning the back half of the track is a dappled ripple of dark and light – it must be difficult for drivers’ eyes to adjust to the constantly changing light as they run down to the second chicane at Gilles Villeneuve.
The track looks desaturated and the atmosphere completely changes with the enclosing trees.
But it makes for nice backgrounds! Man, machine and nature in perfect harmony?!
After Villeneuve, the return leg of the track arcs round, goes through a fast, easy chicane (Jochen Rindt) and has a short run into the final chicane (named after legendary Belgian driver Jacky Ickx) leading onto the main straight. Looking through the constricted aperture of a viewfinder, it was disconcerting to see cars firing off the left in the background, but it was just the entrance to the pit-lane. It wasn’t that they were shooting off into the gravel trap…
Or at least, not that time. It seems that Ickx is where the majority of the action seems to happen, and it was all too easy to sit here during Free Practice and watch it all go wrong for so many drivers. Here’s the Ascari KZ1R very much facing in the wrong direction after a lazy spin that was signposted all the way from his missed braking into the first apex.
At least he made it round: Patrick in #76 had been flying before he went flying off. But, Free Practice is all about finding the limits of car and track.
It looks like Bernhard’s track recce still needed work: the #100 car was making a habit of running wide and skirting the gravel…
…before finally putting a proper effort and simply ploughing straight on a few laps later. Find the limit Exceed it! Go again!
With chicanes it’s all about minimising the time lost and getting the ideal exit. Being on full opposite lock is not the fastest way, even though it looks the best.
And then even if the exit was just about okay, cars were still then running wide and throwing up the dust as they made for the timing beam. Excellent fun!
What’s not always so excellent fun is the first time I go exploring a track when I arrive. I have a terrible habit of treading the path least trod to try and find new positions and avoid the crowds of photographers (even if they’re probably there for good reason as that’s where the good shots are, but there you go). Sometimes it works: you make your way through seemingly miles of woodland tracks, across streams and through fences and voila! The perfect new angle! But mostly, it’s this. Locked. Gates. I must start taking bolt-cutters with me…
Other times places you are actually fine to go to just don’t look inviting – or safe: such as the outside of the pit-lane exit road outside the first corner. It’s a one-way road for snappers laden down with lenses as they squeeze up the narrow path. But, again, you put the effort in and can feel the rush of airs as the cars accelerate past you. Invigorating and downright scary in equal measures.
On arriving at my hotel the previous night I’d spied a Dutch copy of Top Gear magazine: complete with the UK presenters (massively annoying and annoyingly entertaining in equal measures in my opinion). I hadn’t realised just how big that programme had got internationally. From the state of this caravan, it looks like the Top Gear team might have already visited Zolder…
So, after a day of exploring the GT3 Qualifying signalled the end to the day, and Patrick’s huge crash the end of qualifying for #76. Thankfully both he and the Audi driver involved were okay.
And as we know, the team did an amazing job to stick everything back together for the races the next day.
With the sun setting on the track it was time to jump into my hire car and head back to the hotel, just 10 minutes drive away. Sunday’s racing was worth getting up early for: I’ll have a brief recap of that next!