It’s year two of the FIA GT1 World Championship. In 2011 some things are the same, but some things very different from last season. Once again I was out in the Middle East for the opening round of the series at the ultra-modern Yas Marina circuit, and Nissan, Aston Martin, Ford, Lamborghini and Corvette were again represented. But in the run up to the new season there’s been a shake-up of some of the teams and a lot of the drivers. The biggest shock was the disappearance of Maserati, multiple title winners, but less of a surprise was the emergence of a four-car super-team running the howling GT-R. Team boss James Rumsey has expanded his operation to take over the pair of cars previously running under the Swiss Racing Banner, and now has four Nissans to play with. That’s not a bad situation to be in.
Sumo Power continue in the same livery as last year, but now have the black and red JRM cars sitting alongside them, doubling their opportunity – and expectations – to do well. The gap between last season and this was even more condensed than usual because of the races in South America right at the end of 2010: the cars only got back to their bases back in Europe early this year after spending a month on a container ship in the Atlantic. Since then, JRM and Sumo Power tested prospective drivers at Zolder in Belgium (also where the second round of the series will be held), rebuilt all four cars, recruited about 20 new personnel – and then got on a plane to Abu Dhabi. It was quite an incredible feat of logistics to even be here!
Walking into the JRM pit, there were plenty of familiar faces: most of last year’s Sumo Power team have moved across to JRM and it was great to see the continuity. I also really like the black liveries on the JRM GT-Rs!
This means a lot of new faces in the Sumo Power garage: all four racer engineers are also new to the team. All the Sumo Power and JRM personnel arrived at the track the weekend before the race. This meant plenty of time to get set up and run in an official FIA test at the Yas Marina track before getting set for the two-day race weekend.
As someone who has appalling mechanical aptitude (and has, I’m embarrassed to say, blown up at least two cars by not bothering to put oil in them) it always amazes me how quickly professional mechanics adapt to new cars – especially ones as complex as GT1s. Although Sumo Power have got a core of Nissan experts, for some of the newcomers this is actually their first job in top-line professional motorsport.
You wouldn’t know it. The old hands guide the new, and all four garages were full of mechanics calmly going about their tasks, setting up their charges. Everyone helps everyone else: you can see that there’s good integration between the two teams – as long as the cars aren’t out on track, where it’s every team for itself.
Data Engineer Adam is always excited about having his picture taken, and usually throws some shapes on demand. I think that’s what he’s doing.
Nissan themselves are more overtly involved this year: not just with stickers but with personnel as well. The company have really stepped up their racing involvement, and will also be at Le Mans this year with an open-top LMP racer.
From the outside there’s very little that’s changed on the GT1 Nissans – just some small front aero additions. But there’s been a lot of work on the mechanicals in the closed season. And the good news is that they still sound deafening: like a TIE Fighter crossed with a main battle tank.
An important addition to the liveries on the GT-Rs were the Support Japan stickers with the Japanese Red Cross URL on. The ongoing relief effort is massively important to support.
Out in the pits were the gantries for the wheel-guns: the portable air-tanks the team used last year have been banned this year, so everyone is forced to use guns on trailing pipes back into big tanks in the garages.
There are more tyres available to the teams this year, as the allocations have gone up: but that just means more wheels piled up in the garages and more work for the tyre specialists. There’s a constant round of cleaning, pressure adjustments and shaving off old rubber with heat-guns.
The new driver line-up across the four cars is stunning, and has some nice national symmetry.
For JRM, German Michael Krumm is now driving with ex-Porsche and Audi factory driver Lucas Luhr in #23. Scot Peter Dumbreck teams up with ex-factory Porsche driver Richard Westbrook in #22.
Westbrook (left) was fresh back from racing at Sebring the previous weekend in a GT2 Corvette – he finished fourth in the 12 hour enduro in Florida, then jumped on a plane straight to the Middle East!
Two Brazilian pilots have moved across from other GT1 teams to race Sumo Power’s #20: Enrique Bernoldi from Vitaphone Maserati and Ricardo Zonta from Reiter Lamborghini. Both drove in Formula 1, Bernoldi for Arrows and Zonta for BAR, Toyota and Jordan. Zonta has previous with GT racing as well: prior to his F1 stint he won the FIA GT Championship back in 1998, in a Mercedes CLK GTR.
The surprise late addition to the #21 Sumo Power car was David Brabham: he’s an legendary sportscar driver with a ridiculously impressive CV including wins in all four classes of the American Le Mans series and a couple of F1 drives in the ’90s. He’s also the son of Formula One champion and F1 constructor Jack Brabham, so it must be in the genes… He was another driver who had flown straight in from Sebring. The eight drivers present a solid wall of talent for the other teams to overcome.
All the Nissans carry a national flag on the roof for the drivers: a nice touch I think.
When the first 80-minute practice session kicked off in the late morning I jumped in a media shuttle and went to the far side of the track: this is where the support race pits are, and gives some good shots as the cars hammer past on the fast straights that lead back to the Yas hotel complex. The GT-Rs were looking fast – and mean.
This year the GT1s were using a shortened version of the track, cutting out the big stadium hairpin at the bottom end of the track. From my point of view this wasn’t a big loss, as it introduced some nice skyline shots (hilarious pun!).
The cut-through section introduces a slow left followed by a sequence of corners dropping downhill – the cars then run wide on the exit as they scrabble to build up speed for the long straight ahead. It’s a great place where you can get so close up to the fence that you’re almost lifted off your feet by the pressure wave and your brain scrambled by the aural assault of the engines as they pass by. Excellent fun!
Despite it only being Free Practice there were still battles on track: even with the shorter circuit in use there are two decent straights with chicanes at the end of each one, putting a premium on traction. It was such a pleasure to be back at a GT1 event being bombarded with the intensity of these cars! Practice showed another thing that hadn’t changed: no car was dominant, and the top four was Aston, Lamborghini, Corvette and Nissan – #22 the fastest GT-R.
The cars were out again for the late afternoon pre-qualifying as the sun got low over Yas Island. This time Nissan headed up the time-sheets: #22 up top, with #20 and #23 also top ten.
The heat was intense: it pushed 40 degrees out on tracks and at least I could find some shade. Drivers had to cool themselves down however they could once they completed their stints in the cars. At least this year they had plush rooms in the team buildings at the back of the pits to retreat into later. It’s the benefit of being at an F1-level track.
Before qualifying kicked off in the dark there was the autograph session. Getting drivers to be on time for these is like herding cats: the poor Nissan PR team were running about trying to track down all eight. But finally they were all arranged and chained to the chairs – and a really good crowd turned out. The GT1 organisers have learned their lessons from previous iterations of the series, and the paddock and pit-lane walkabouts are all now free access, meaning you can get up close to the drivers and cars.
This means no VIP-only nonsense. The top prize has got to be getting all 36 drivers to sign your poster – someone’s done pretty well here.
Despite the compressed, two-day schedule rather than the normal three, there were a couple of hours between each GT1 session, filled with domestic touring car, GT and sportscar series. These went out again as the autograph session ended.
Both sets of team drivers and data engineers use this time to go through the telemetry and set-ups, looking for where improvements can be made and deciding on strategy for the evening qualifying.
Present in both team’s meetings are team boss James Rumsey and chief engineer Nigel Stepney.
Like last year, GT1 uses a variation on the F1 knock-out system for qualifying, with three sessions eliminating cars until just eight are left for a shoot-out at pole position. Q1, where five cars would lose out, saw all four GT-Rs safely through. Activity in the pits is as frenetic as during the race: with little time between sessions the cars need to be turned around quickly, with new tyres and the next driver installed. You can never practice stops too many times: these are the moments that win – or lose – races, as the next day would demonstrate.
Things got even better in Q2: Nissans fourth, seventh, eighth and ninth! Then, in the final Q3 the Sumo Power and JRM cars qualified together, blocking out sixth to ninth positions on the grid – not quite as good as they hoped for perhaps, but still in a strong position. Peter Dumbreck in #22 was again the fastest.
The Brazilian pairing in #20 were just two tenths behind, and then the other two cars close behind. The Nissan teams seemed happy with getting all four cars in the top 10 – something no one managed last year.
Back in the pits the drivers studied the times, before yet more staring at data traces and strategy discussion. Lots to think about for tomorrow, having three team-mates right beside you into the first corner probably being the most worrying. More on how the race-day went for Sumo Power and JRM in part two!