The two World GT1 Championship races at Navarra in Spain bookended either end of the day, fitting in as they did around the Superleague Formula races taking place around noon. The previous day rain had been forecast and teams were to be seen worrying around piles of cut tyres, wondering how heavy the rain would be if it did come. With the Qualifying Race due to kick-off at 10am early morning warm-up had been scheduled for 8am, so it was an early start for everyone.
But when I pulled into the track at 7.15am, the pit-lane was still empty: the lights were on, but no one was apparently home. And the lights needed to be on: there was absolutely no sign of the sun!
The sky was properly dark; with no warning of holding a night session it was decided to delay the warm-up until 8.30am. I was thinking that still seemed rather optimistic, though I was hoping to see the cars powering round in the dark, Abu Dhabi-style.
However, come about 8.20 the first shafts of sun broke through on the horizon. Warm-up was on! The teams slowly emerged from their garages, wheeling their charges out onto the pit apron and turning over the engines to start warming them against the morning chill.
But just because car came out of the garages it didn't mean they actually ventured out on the track: only 14 cars went out during the half-hour session and of those just nine put in a flying lap. Where was everyone?!
It was a bit frustrating from a selfish snapper's point of view! A combination of sunrise (or sunset) plus racing cars is pretty much a perfect situation, but as I stood stamping my feet around the outside of the fifth corner I was facing a pretty empty track. Lovely light, but where were the cars?! Finally, after almost 10 minutes a couple of drivers ventured out. The #2 Vitaphone Maserati put in just three laps – and still managed to run a car wide, a precursor to their modus operandi for the rest of the day…
Sumo Power had worked hard on the #23 GT-R overnight, trying to rectify the handling imbalance that had stranded the car in the bottom half of the field during qualifying. They needed to bed in the new set-up; both drivers seemed a lot more comfortable.
The #4 Swiss Racing GT-R was one of the few cars to be pounding round for the majority of the session, but their continuing poor performance means that that every lap is precious.
As the sun blazed through the cloud, the Mad Croc Corvette finished the short session with a couple of bedding-in laps before ducking back into the pits. Session over – but with the delay they'd only be 15 minutes before cars started trundling out of the pits to take up their positions on the grid, hence the dearth of running.
So, with no time to relax it was time for the Qualifying Race. Once again I watched a half-empty media shuttle take off for the first corner before its scheduled time – a source of constant frustration for me over the weekend! Well, it's one way to keep fit, as I half-ran, half-stumbled to the first corner. The dust started flying well before the fast first kink – pole-sitter Frank Kechele in the #25 Lamborghini broke clear, with the #34 Triple-H Maserati right behind him.
Behind the leading group, the usual chaos broke out in the mid-field. Talking to Peter Dumbreck in the cab on the way to the airport after the race, there's a real feeling of discontent amongst the professionals with driving standards. They feel like they're pretty much guaranteed a fraught race if qualifying goes badly and they end up in the more 'enthusiastic' mid-field.
It just shows how important qualifying is, but we've seen big leads thrown away by problems or bad pit-stops. Not this time: Kechele streaked away at the beginning of the race, building up a huge lead over #34.
True to form, #23 suffered a battering at the start after clipping a car under heavy braking: they had a race-long battle with the #9 Hexis Aston Martin but then slowed coming out of the last corner with just two minutes to go. As if the damage wasn't enough, #23 had run out of fuel!
Thankfully for Sumo Power, #22 kept up the fight at the front: from seventh at the start they dropped back slightly but came right back at the leading cars after the driver changes: Jamie Campbell-Walter brought the GT-R home in fifth. This shot shows very clearly the difference in the heights of the various cars: the Nissan pilots can see right over the roofs of the low-line Lamborghinis and Ford GTs!
The #2 Vitaphone Maserati had spun at the second in the dash to get round the hairpin. Trying to recover, a series of rash overtakes and contact with other cars led to a pair of drive-through penalties for the MC12. Despite showing flashes of speed all season, #2's driver line-up just doesn't have the consistency – or patience – of the championship-leading pair in #1.
The pair of SRT Nissans circulated together, but at the wrong end of the field. Both would at least finish, but a lap down on the winning Murcielago.
I was busy enjoying the battle for third position: four cars were nose-to-tail for the last 15 minutes of the race, led by the much-improved Ford GTs. Actually a bit too much – I had to quickly grab a lift from a photographer with a quad bike to get back to the pits for the finish!
Triple-H run their MC12 under the Vitaphone team umbrella – it's a barely concealed four-car team – and their pit-stops are always exemplary. Slick pit-work put #34 right on the tail of the leading Murcielago after the stops, but #25, with Ricardo Zonta at the wheel, just hit the gas and stretched out a lead again.
Spitting flame as #25 crossed the line, and with their sister car as tail-gunner (24 was four laps down after a series of drive-through penalties and then an engine shutdown), Zonta held a comfortable lead to win the Qualifying Race and its associated points – plus bag pole for the afternoon's Championship race.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND EIGHT @ NAVARRA QUALIFYING RACE RESULT
1: #25 Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago 670 R-SV (Ricardo Zonta/Frank Kechele) 37 laps
2: #34 Triple-H Maserati MC12 (Alessandro Pier Guidi/Nico Verdonck) +4.548s
3: #40 Marc VDS Ford GT (Maxime Martin/Bas Leinders) +34.111s
4: #6 Matech Ford GT (Neel Jani/Nicolas Amindo) +34.243s
5: #22 Sumo Power Nissan GT-R (Jamie Campbell-Walter/Warren Hughes) +37.406s
There was a stiff breeze blowing at the start of the Championship race late in the afternoon. The poor grid girls holding the FIA and national flags were struggling to keep upright! Dark clouds loomed overhead… Could the threatened rain be about to strike?
Damaged bodywork littered the track and cars passed by in varying states of disarray: after five laps six cars were already out; by lap eight only 13 cars were still running!
The man of the moment was Jamie Campbell-Walter in the #22 Nissan: he blazed up to second at the start and hung onto the tail of the leading #25 Reiter Lamborghini. However, the rain undid his good work: the GT-R still struggles to put down the power out of corners, and JCW was quickly caught and passed by the #9 Hexis Aston (another fast starter, up from ninth) and the #40 Marc VDS Ford.
Thankfully the rain stopped as quickly as it started, and as recovering cars chased round to the back of the pack a huge rainbow appeared. All the photographers went into a circle of confusion as they tried to decide whether to point their lenses at the incoming cars or pretty rainbow. Nature! Awwww!
GT1 might as well consist of one-car teams: it seems that no one can get consistently get both their cars home in one piece. It's always one or the other! This weekend it was the turn of the #23 Sumo Power car to get all the bad luck. The front left was ripped off in a first-lap incident, to balance the front-right damage from the morning: the impact ripped out a power steering hose and the car soon ground to a halt.
I get a Race Facts sheet after the race, which tracks the incidents, overtakes and stops during the hour-long race. The one after this race was a breathless list of facts, desperately trying to keep up with the constant on-track action. Everyone was hitting everyone else in some GT1 version of a Wild West bar brawl. The #38 All-Inkl Lamborghini had a fractious race that saw them physically taking on (and out) anyone that they got near. Their aggression earned them a 30-second penalty after the race that dropped them from fifth to ninth.
The great result from the morning wasn't followed up in the afternoon for #34: they were another forced to pit after the first lap melee and never got back into contention. Like the Vitaphone #2 in the Qualifying Race they just tried too hard to make up ground and were also handed a drive-through for avoidable contact after hitting the Matech #6 Ford GT.
In my game of count-the-number-of-crippled cars, the Phoenix Corvette upped my tally by one. The rear-right had been ripped away. How so?
The answer followed soon after. The front wing of Thomas Mutsch in the championship-contending #5 Ford GT was peeled back and flapping around. Desperate to keep going – and apparently hoping the bodywork would just fall off – he kept circulating for two laps before realising the game was up and retiring to the pits.
Just like the Qualifying Race, there was a fraught battle for position between a whole string of cars: Warren Hughes had taken over the #22 GT-R and battled up to third. The #7 Young Driver Aston Martin was on his tail – the same car that had started almost last and been up on two wheels in the second corner!
The two edged closer and closer to the #9 Hexis Aston ahead, but Yann Clairay held on to cement a great race for the Aston as the sun began to sink.
Zonta and Kechele were unstoppable: with clear air between them and their pursuers they tied up a double victory and a huge points haul.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND EIGHT @ NAVARRA CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULT
1: #25 Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago 670 R-SV (Ricardo Zonta/Frank Kechele) 37 laps
2: #9 Hexis Racing (Fred Makowiecki/Yann Clairay) +11.897s
3: #22 Sumo Power Nissan GT-R (Jamie Campbell-Walter/Warren Hughes) +12.352s
4: #7 Young Driver AMR (Tomas Enge/Darren Turner) +12.968s
5: #40 Marc VDS Ford GT (Maxime Martin/Bas Leinders) +36.026s
What did it mean for the drivers' championship? Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini managed minor points in both races despite carrying maximum success ballast. As usual their consistency paid dividends – they carry an extended points lead to the South American double-header. With 8 points for a win in the Qualifying Race and 25 in the Championship race, it's going to take a disaster for Vitaphone if the Matech or Phoenix crews are to catch up…
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVER'S CLASSIFICATION AFTER EIGHT ROUNDS
1: Andrea Bertolini/Michael Bartels (Vitaphone Maserati) 130 points
2: Thomas Mutsch (Matech Ford) 95
3: Marc Hennerici (Phoenix Corvette) 84
4: Darren Turner/Tomas Enge (Young Driver Aston Martin) 78
5: Ricardo Zonta (Reiter Lamborghini) 75