Tens of thousands of miles. Eight months. Three continents. 20 races. And now there can only be one pair of winning drivers. This weekend sees the final two races of the 2010 GT1 World Championship, which is taking place in the beautiful location of San Luis province in Argentina. It couldn't be more of a contrast with the previous race at Interlagos, whose perimeter walls were straining to hold back the urban intrusion of Sao Paulo. We may be in a town again – Potrero De Los Funes to be precise – but here the perimeter is a ring of mountains. To the locals, the track is just the road that goes round the lake, it's the road you drive down to get to the shops, or to drive to San Luis – population 150,000, against Sao Paulo's millions.
However remote the location may be, it doesn't mean that there's no interest: there's intense pride in the race and a big crowd is expected to be lining the ridges ringing the track come race-day. No ledge will be too precarious. However, as usual we are in the hands of the weather: the hills that Potrero De Los Funes nestles in is a focal point for weather systems. Anything could happen above the track, which means anything could happen on it.
First things first. The track has few permanent building: just a media and admin centre plus scrutineering bays. The rest is an expanse of concrete, ready to be filled with trucks, temporary marquees, tents and all the other things a race requires. No pit garages here: the GT1 teams would be working out of tents. But to fill the tents up they needed the contents of the sea containers, which were due to finally arrive at the track on the Wednesday morning after their 1,600km odyssey. Six trucks and their loads were missing at first: including one of Sumo Power's. Thankfully the stragglers arrived, but then there was another problem: customs officers had to inspect each and every container before they would break the seal and let the teams lose on the contents.
Inside would be, hopefully, 23 GT1 racing cars, in at least the condition they went into the containers in Sao Paulo. For some, that was admittedly not great – there was no time for repairs before packing up the crates. The #7 Aston Martin would have scrapes down the side from its clash with the eventual winners in Brazil in the #2 Vitaphone Maserati. Numerous others would sport dents and cracks.
Frustrated teams at the further end of the pit-lane could do nothing whilst the first containers were being scrutinised. Surprisingly, Vitaphone were being served first… Sumo Power, about two-thirds of the way down, could do nothing but sit on the pit-wall, waiting to go into action.
The waiting was interminable. Phoenix Corvette simply laid down behind their pit-tent, right in front of the containers, waiting their turn. Come on!
I decided to profit from the break by taking a look at the TC2000 pits. Impressive. There's no question that this is a top-level championship. In fact, so top-level that the GT1s are actually the support act this weekend!
Honda, Toyota, Ford, Renault, Fiat, Chevrolet and Peugeot: all factory teams, with up to five cars per team, plus a sprinkling of privateers in Hondas and VWs. There's an impressive level of preparation and professionalism; the cars are low and wide, sound brutal and have no ABS or traction control. On track, they're going to look great.
Their aggressive stance makes WTCC cars look puny in comparison; they've been sprinkled with a mixture of V8 Supercar and DTM fairy dust so that they're flat on the ground and have sprouted enormous wheel arches and aero kits. The two-litre-powered championship has been going since 1979: it's a formula that obviously works.
Also on the bill is a Fiat one-make championship for the Linea, plus a Formula Renault 2.0 single-seater series. 30-odd Lineas were lined up in their corral. I wondered how many would be in the same pristine state come Sunday evening.
There are plenty of modem cars around, but I see new cars all the time! I like checking out older cars, like this breathed-on Fiat 128 with a nice set of spoked wheels and a dangerous-looking exhaust out back. I'd say it takes more dedication and passion to keep something like this going than a new car.
Finally, back in the GT1 paddock, the last doors started swinging open. Cars emerged blinking into the light.
With two containers per team, one accommodated the two racecars (they barely squeezed in, end-to-end, and were just about held in place by strops attached to mounts on the floors) and one with all the spares, pit equipment, tools, awnings, computers, helmets, air-guns… I doubt any secondary contains had an inch of space.
Thankfully, all the cars had stayed in place on the road-trip, though a couple of teams opened their equipment containers to find things had predictably shifted in transit.
Work could then begin: cars were wheeled out and the mechanics busied themselves in the containers to shift the contents out.
Again, it looked more like a rock gig than a normal race. Flight cases, crates and boxes littered the paddock as the teams struggled to sort out what went where.
The ferrying between the containers and tents continued into the evening. Once emptied, the containers were then filled right back up: typically one would become an office/data room and the other for use by the drivers. Both would also be saunas in the hot temperatures.
But, soon enough there was order – or a campsite version of it.
Someone mentioned in the comments of one of my previous storied about Vitaphone's Oz wheels and whether they had spares… Well, from this stack of boxes I think there might be a good chance!
Once the teams were happy with their tent layouts they could then start the regular process of prepping the cars. Snagging lists would be checked off, and damaged panels sent for repair.
Luckily there's a composites specialist who's been shipped out from Europe by the teams to take care of any carbon-fibre repairs: Claudio set up shop between two containers and waited for the business to come to him… Soon enough, there was a decent pile of body parts piled up waiting for his attention.
For damage to carbon panels, a sandwich of new material is cut and applied to the wound.
It's then applied in layers and epoxy added to cure the repair. A respray later and it's as good new.
The next day we had to take the long route round to get to the paddock: the regular road is, after all, the race track! The 15km detour was more rally stage than highway, but again proved fun in the hire car… The poor thing.
Whilst the mechanics tried to get on with prepping the cars, work started for the media and drivers: GT1 TV presenter Ben Edwards and pit-lane reporter Hailey Coxon were filming a driver change piece with Sumo Power's #22 crew of Warren Hughes and Jamie Campbell-Walter.
If only the real drivers were as accommodating for posed shots!
The pit-stops are absolutely crucial in GT1: the racing is usually so close that losing even a second at the driver change will almost certainly lose you places. The pair had three goes at it, with Hailey strapped in the car and Ben going from a standing start next to the car. Even then, they were still half as fast as the regular drivers during a hot pit-stop.
JCW and Wazza seemed to be particularly enjoying timing it! Cue some shouts back to the watching mechanics about them not complaining about their own times in future…
The GT1 TV team moved on to interviewing Tomas Enge, driver of the #7 Young Driver Aston Martin DBR9. It's a stunning pit-lane, with the mountains looming in the background.
Media playtime over, the serious work begun. #22's team went into live pit-stop practice mode.
With everyone in position, the race engineer timed several practice runs at carrying out a full service at speed: all four wheels changed and drivers swapped in around 25 seconds, with only two mechanics allowed over the line at any one time.
Sumo's media duties weren't yet over: there were a couple of team shoots for the Sumo Power and SRT teams as the sun set, first with all the personnel and then just the two cars.
The final chore wasn't such a bad one: sitting in on a lap of the track with Warren Hughes, whilst he narrated his way round: a link to the video should be up on the Sumo Power blog in a few days. After this there would be just two days of the 2010 GT1 season left: a day of practice and qualifying, and then race-day!