It's a week since the San Luis race at the incredible Potrero De Los Funes track in Argentina, the final race of the 2010 World GT1 Championship. After two full days of travelling home and, seemingly, five days of recovering from the travelling, I'm finding that I already miss the sound of screaming race engines. The hectic danger of the pits. The stresses of finding my way round new tracks. The lens cleaning. Living out of a suitcase. Even the track-side catering. A cold and damp London just isn't cutting it, and the tan my arms and face picked up from South America (I have the stereotype Englishman's tan: white torso, brown limbs) is a constant reminder of warmer climes, simpler living. Excitement. Next year's racing season can't start soon enough.
Was Potrero De Los Funes really a race track? Or some game designer's crazed dream perhaps? Maybe it's a rally stage (it certainly seemed like it at times)? Or some kind of Disney resort for petrolheads? It seemed like a strange place to hold a GT race when we first arrived, but the place soon made perfect sense. Where else can you almost reach out and touch the cars as they howl past? All it ever takes is a racing car to put things in context.
We had extremes of weather over the weekend: from baking sun to biblical downpours and frazzling electrical storms, but that just added to the whole flavour of the weekend and the challenges for the drivers. Michael Krumm, #23's driver: "This is the most fun – but most dangerous – track I've ever driven!"
Unforgiving concrete walls and the last race of the season didn't seem like the recipe for two hours of trouble-free GT racing, but the predicted carnage thankfully didn't take place. Then again, just because you kept it off the walls didn't mean you returned a pristine car to the garage: the weather and the fact the track is so rarely used left cars looking like they'd been sand-blasted by the end. This track left scars.
The Potrero De Los Funes track actually is the product of someone's crazed dream: though rather than a game designer it was actually the governor of San Luis province who decided to take a peaceful, popular haven for tourists and carve out a semi-permanent race-track right through the middle. Or, more accurately, around the outside: the track winds its way around a volcanic-lake-come-reservoir and for the 363 days when there isn't racing is simply the perimeter road round the lake and the way to to get to numerous 'cabanas' and hotels in the area.
It's a combination of Bathurst and Monaco, Nurburgring and Mille Miglia; classic road-racing circuit mixed with street track atmosphere and concrete walls. But with a stunning backdrop of mountains without equal.
It's a long lap – almost four miles – which took even the GT1 cars over two and a quarter minutes to get round. The start had the perfect storm funnel-effect of a wide, fast right kink into a much narrower left, followed quickly by a tighter right. That would cause problems in both races.
The next challenge is the switchback right/left chicane of turns five and six: bypassed by regular non-race traffic it's the first time you see the viciousness of the two-tier kerbs that line the circuit. Tooth-like serrations are back-up by a second line of rounded concrete on the inside, but with chicanes there's infrequently the option to take things easy if you don't want to lose time. Bang through the first apex!
Bang through the second apex!
Then out onto the run-off and flat to the floor for the following long run to turn nine. This is probably the best place for spectators, where you get right up close to the action, all happening within an arm's length. Ear plugs are a must. Oh, and a barbecue.
The interlocking concrete-and-fence blocks line the entire track, cutting off access to the local shops, houses, restaurants… there's a handy pharmacy on the drop down from turn eight, in case a driver is feeling a bit peaky. It's just so incongruous you can't help but laugh. It's a joyous place, though I do wonder how the locals really feel about it.
The straight rises up to the apex of turn nine, again with the beautiful mountain canvas in the background. Drivers get none of this of course, low down and cocooned in narrow carbon apertures. The track was first used in 1987, with the start-line on this side of the lake: tragically a couple of spectators were killed on the inaugural running and, until 2008 and the rebuilding of the track, that had been the only race at Potrero De Los Funes.
A lot of the track is overlooked by ridges: a little bit of climbing away from the ever-present fences (thankfully some photographers' holes were freshly cut this weekend, making our job a little easier) gave more elevated views and would be lined with spectators come race day.
The next section from turn nine to 14 is punctuated by another super-slow chicane, but skirts right along the lake-front. The chicane is new: only added in 2008, along with a re-profiled final turn.
As they skyline at turn 13 and begin the steep drop towards 14, you again get the surreal view of a hotel straight in front. Race going badly? Just turn left instead of right, check in and check right out of the race…
Turn 14: fast, fast, fast. There are virtually no areas which aren't accessible to spectators, so even with photographers' holes you have to rely on the friendly crowd to help you out and make some space. And when they do, and you're presented with a Lamborghini almost wrenching the camera out of your hands as it flashes by, well – heaven, truly.
Right down at the bottom of the hill is another tight sequence of corners, which signals the start of the ascent back up to the finish. Every evening we'd be driving down here and turning left, out towards our cabanas. It wasn't quite the same.
From here the track gets insanely narrow: no run-off at all through the uphill turns 15-20, just garish orange walls inviting loose rear ends. A short final blast before the right of turn 22, a flick through the left of 23 and off for another lap.
On the first day of racing, Free Practice had been busy, and there was a big spread of times across the field as drivers learned the track. The #25 Reiter Lamborghini was up front come the end of the 80 minutes, despite losing its bonnet panel early on. Maybe the lack of stickers on the temporary replacement saved a couple of precious grammes…
Pre-Qualifying was next up, following on from another outing by the local TC2000 series. I wish I'd had more time to watch these cars – they were hordes of the things! But the sky was turning grey and the light fading…
No sooner had the TC2000s scuttled back into their tents than comedy levels of rain hit. For over an hour the rain lashed down; no cars were going to come out in this. However, these 80 minutes provided probably my most enjoyable moment of the entire season: more about that in my season summary story! Suffice to say that I learned to ride a scooter, confirmed that Argentinian steak is second only to Argentinian hospitality and also that Malbec is very, very drinkable.
When I did wobble back to the pits, the rain had subsided and it had been decided that the GT1s would go out for a shortened 45 minute session. Take a look at this Vitaphone Maserati, out just as the session started. The track conditions were absolutely crazy: the rain had washed dirt and sand onto the track, but the hot sun quickly dried it to a fine powder. The cars threw up rooster-tails of sand as they passed the pits and skated into the first corner. Rally cars would have been more appropriate; of course, times were slow and hardly any team put in a serious number of laps – in fact, some actually went out on wet tyres just to satisfy the regulations that three laps must be turned in Pre-Qualifying!
Qualifying itself was a bit of an anti-climax: the wrong Young Driver Aston Martin was up front as far as championship excitement was concerned. The #8 car with local hero José Maria Lopez was on pole; #7, the only car with a shot at overhauling the #1 Vitaphone MC12, didn't even make it out of the first segment of qualifying and lined up 17th. Behind them was the #22 Sumo Power Nissan GT-R of Warren Hughes and Jamie Campbell-Walter: hopes of a strong end to the season were fading for #22. At least the #23 car of Michael Krumm and Peter Dumbreck managed eighth – and were then promoted to seventh after an engine change penalty for the #40 Marc VDS Ford GT dropped it five places. Astons looked like the car to have though: the Hexis pair lined up second and fifth, with the #1 Vitaphone MC12 and #25 Reiter Lamborgini Murcielago as Italian interlopers in-between.
Really disappointing was the way the Corvette teams were ending the season: I love these rumbling monsters. Phoenix has only fielded one car since Silverstone back in May, and here neither Mad Croc Corvette would race: #12 was damaged in Free Practice and #11 withdrawn due to a problem with its drivers of the cash variety. This double withdrawal also lost them their priority entry for next year, putting both Corvette teams in the danger zone. The problem is that this is an unsupported car – GM aren't interested and spares are short, so this could well be the last time we see the mighty C6.R out in GT1.
There was quite a different feel on grid here: very much an end-of-term atmosphere. The slight downhill grid allowed mechanics to have an easy time of getting their tyre trolleys in position: Matech were even riding their's like a roller-skate! A couple of their guys were also wearing Santa hats… The crowd seemed a little bemused by all the jollity.
After some quick negotiating the bridge over the main straight had been opened to photographers, so we got a great view as the pack came towards us, five-wide at times, with first the #23 Sumo Power Nissan pushed out to the wall on the right and then the Phoenix Corvette to the left. The Aston trio at the front seemed to have it sewn up – but no! All three came together into the first turn, putting #8 out on the spot and spinning #10 down the order. Somehow the Frederic Makowiecki/Yann Clairay #9 Hexis DBR9 scrabbled back onto the track – and then managed to stretch out a lead that they wouldn't lose.
The Ford GTs ran strongly, with the #6 Matech Ford up to second from ninth, Thomas Mutsch in the #5 sister car in fourth from 10th and the #40 Marc VDS Ford GT (signed on the wing by its crew) up to eight from 12th.
The championship leaders seemed to be in trouble early on: Andrea Bertolini in #1 had contact with the #24 Reiter Lamborgini after the Murcielago had locked up into a braking zone – #1 was spun to the back of the field and #24 was out on the spot – cue safety car. Everything would now depend on the #7 crew making progress. Up front, whilst the #6 Matech GT stopped with electrical problems, Michael Krumm was challenging the #38 All-Inkl Lamborghini for third.
The first drivers to pit were in for a shock though: the pits were lethal – massively slippery with the sand on the ground, and car after car braked for their spots and just skated straight on. I decided that shooting them from behind was a much safer option.
Peter Dumbreck was up to third after the stops and looked on for a podium (I was about to make a mad dash for the finish to catch the podium) but he slid off in his efforts to overtake the Hexis Aston for second after #10 ran wide. It was so slippery off-line that this mistake lost him three places and he dropped back to sixth. But just behind them was the #3 SRT Nissan of Henri Moser and Karl Wendlinger – they've been well overdue a good result, so it was excellent to see both Nissan teams get cars into the points.
But the result meant the end of the championship challenge from #7 – no podium handed the crown to a jubilant Vitaphone team!
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND TEN @ SAN LUIS QUALIFYING RACE RESULT
1: #9 Hexis AMR (Frederic Makowiecki/Yann Clairay) 22 laps
2: #5 Matech Ford GT (Thomas Mutsch/Richard Westbrook) +13.029s
3: #40 Marc VDS Ford GT (Maxime Martin/Bas Leinders) +0.448s
4: #10 Hexis AMR (Clivio Piccione/Jonathan Hirschi) +8.728s
5: #25 Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago 670 R-SV (Frank Kechele/Sergio Jiminez) +3.990s
Into the final Championship Race of the year, and the Hexis #9 Aston Martin DBR9 led from start to finish – no one was able to get close enough to challenge. The #5 Matech Ford, #10 Hexis Aston and #25 Reiter Lamborghini at least had their own race-long battle, which was excellent to watch from the fences.
Thomas Mutsch and Richard Westbrook again finished runners-up: this gave Mutsch a boost to finish second in the Drivers' Championship, and the first and third result for Hexis moved them into second in the Teams Championship – a great result for both.
The #10 Hexis Aston didn't have it easy: they had to push hard all the way as they were under so much pressure from the #25 Reiter car: they crossed the line just half a second apart!
This shot gives you a good idea of the atmosphere at the track: fans hanging off the fences, banners proudly displayed (mostly for the TC2000 teams and drivers!) with people's houses right by the track.TC2000 might have been the draw, but the crowd seemed to really enjoy the GT1 racing as well. Maybe they'll be more GT1 banners next year?!
After a promising start it turned out to be a horrible race for Sumo Power. #23 had been leading the two Triple-H Maseratis but then spun and dropped right back, eventually retiring on lap 18 with a power steering pump failure. #22 also retired just four laps later with another gearbox failure – its third problem of the weekend. I've got another story I'll be putting up in a few days showing the late-night effort the Sumo Power mechanics put in to prep the cars.
WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND TEN @ SAN LUIS CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULT
1: #9 Hexis AMR (Frederic Makowiecki/Yann Clairay) 22 laps
2: #5 Matech Ford GT (Thomas Mutsch/Richard Westbrook) +13.616s
4: #10 Hexis AMR (Clivio Piccione/Jonathan Hirschi) +9.543s
3: #25 Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago 670 R-SV (Frank Kechele/Sergio Jiminez) +0.464s
5: #8 Young Driver AMR (José Marie Lopez/Stefan Mucke) +3.260s
So, there were celebrations both on and off the podium: as the Hexis crew went wild singing La Marseillaise, Vitaphone got on with demolishing a major percentage of Argentina's champagne stock in the crowd below. At the end of the year eight different teams – representing every manufacturer – have won a race: this has been no walkover year for any team, and the championship has been all the more enjoyable for it. It's easy to forget all the problems at the beginning of the year with the Balance Of Performance testing, but despite the frustrations that threw up I can't argue that they seemed to work.
2010 WORLD GT1 CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVERS' CLASSIFICATION
1: Andrea Bertolini/Michael Bartels (Vitaphone Maserati) 138 points – CHAMPIONS
2: Thomas Mutsch (Matech Ford) 119
3: Frederic Makowiecki (Hexis Aston Martin) 105
4: Darren Turner/Tomas Enge (Young Driver Aston Martin) 104
5: Marc Hennerici (Phoenix Corvette) 99
Other teams may have been more subdued, but this was mostly because the inevitable packing had to be taken care of before anyone could think about enjoying the end of the season. Crates came back out and the whole performance started over again to squeeze everything into the containers ready for shipping back to Europe. Whilst Vitaphone celebrated their victory by taking over the main straight with a series of burn-outs in their two MC12s, everyone else got on with packing – by mid-evening there was only one set of tents nowhere near taken down – the Vitaphone crew… Everyone else was already packing out the local restaurants!
Sumo Power's GT-Rs were lashed down in their sea-berths for the next month, a little battered, but nothing that some composites repairs can't fix – and they'll be back next year wanting more. As I finished downloading images and getting the Flash Result story up, the team completed their loading. – we then headed off for a final meal before piling into the hire cars just after midnight for the three hour drive to Mendoza and the first leg of the long journey home. Leaving the circuit, I had managed to drop my 300mm Canon lens: thank god I left it to the last race of the season, and thank god for the rubber protection Canon put on the end of their big prime lenses! I think I've got away with it. After all, the Dubai 24 Hours is only a month away! So, it's the end of the inaugural World GT1 Championship, but the beginning of something with great potential. We will likely see some teams disappear, but there is already talk of new teams – and cars – which should keep the grids strong. The 2011 calendar has just been announced (a race in China is on the cards), and the first race in Abu Dhabi is only three months away. We'll keep an eye on what's happening in the off-season here on Speedhunters!