BMW Z4s retained the top two spots in the European FIA GT3 Championship after the pair of races in the Kingdom Of Navarra in north-eastern Spain – but only in the face of increasingly tough competition from the hordes of rival GT3 cars snapping at their heels. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin – and now even Audi and Mercedes have the pace to get on terms up front. The Z4s have a target on them, and everyone is aiming.
Things were hot in general in Spain: the temperature outside was in the 30s going on 40° for most of the weekend, making everyone head for the nearest shade. But it was the GT3 teams in the tents who were really suffering: the temperature measured a stifling 48° under the Team Need For Speed/Schubert awning. Difficult working conditions for all the GT3 crews.
Moving all their gear into the shade of the pitlane during track sessions was a least a brief respite for the teams. By the way, the Falken stickers on the fenders of the #7 Team NFS BMW Z4 were a hangover from the previous weekend’s Nurburgring race, where Falken were a race sponsor.
Drivers were struggling out of cars at the end of sessions, looking shattered and dripping sweat. Luckily the FIA representatives maintained good appearances at all times.
The best thing about this weekend? The crowd. After last year’s one mule and his dog turn-out, the paddock was positively heaving. Better promotion likely helped, but there’s also the increased number of events at this track – only a year old remember – in 2011. Fly posters were all over the place, and looking a lot more weathered by the sun: a good sign that they’d been there for a while and had more eyes on them.
The FIA GT events always round up the local car clubs to put on a show in the paddock: this was a moveable feast over the weekend, with cars coming and going during the day, but there was always a good collection on display.
This curvaceous redhead was deservedly drawing a lot of attention, even amongst the other Ferrari metal on show. The side intakes for the rear radiators along with its chiselled nose help make the Testarossa one of Ferrari’s iconic cars. Also, it might not be the convertible, but seeing this car always makes me think of hours in the arcades playing Out Run. I was going to say wasted hours, but they really weren’t…
This Corvette got several double-takes: from a distance it looked reasonably standard, but up close the enormously widened body was rather clearer to see.
The rear was especially flared, enclosing big, deep-set rims. I think this is the C5 eXtreme kit, with 9″x19″ wheels on the front and 13″x20″ on the rears. That’s a lot more rubber being put down on the road…
As usual, plenty of R35s turned up to support the GT1 efforts, this one looking quite subtly lowered – but it might have just been where it was parked!
There was a good number of MINIs parked about as well. I’m still not sure how I feel about them: I liked the original MINI (as opposed to ‘real’ Mini) and the Cooper, but they seem to be getting bigger with each new generation…
That said, these little buzzboxes make great looking racers, especially when they’re running round madly in packs out on track. Good – and more importantly relatively cheap – racing fun.
All the cars were being run centrally out of a big marquee, as so many one-make series are.
But given the choice, I’d have one of these: maybe no more true to the original than the MINI, but I think the looks and handling of the Abarth 500 win it for me.
Back to the GT3 racing… Edward Sandstrom would be taking the first stint in the #6 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4. There’s always a long build-up in these bigger races: no driving straight out of the paddock and into a formation lap like the MINIs. Cars form up on the grid half an hour before the race; drivers then have half an hour to kill. There’s only so much data you can chew, questions you can ask your engineers and competition you can eye up. Sometimes you just get the thousand yard stare.
Saturday afternoon: Race 1 for GT3. 36° ambient, a scorching 47° track temperature and an all-Italian front row: Ferrari from Lamborghini. But not for long; not even one corner. The Reiter Gallardo blasted over the line and took the lead by the first corner: a lead it would hold all the way to the flag, despite the best efforts of Abdulaziz Al Faisal, who had taken over #6 from Edward.
Csaba Walter in the #7 sister Team NFS BMW had pitted early in order to try and hike them up the order, but despite being in her usual attacking form Claudia Hurtgen just couldn’t improve their position in the hot temperatures.
It was great to see the two Heico-run Mercs (#44, #45) come in fourth and fifth, but a shame that the pair of Gravity/Charouz (#11, #12) and Graff (#3, #4) SLSs finish well back after spins on track and drive-through penalties. Graff would make amends in race 2, but Gravity/Charouz are still seemingly in need of a change in fortune…
The end battle? Well, literally a battle royale: Prince Albert Von Thurn And Taxis in the Gallardo versus Prince Abdulaziz Al Faisal in the BMW, with the Gallardo pilot coming out on top.
ATF was obviously ecstatic: it wasn’t a win, but he’d kept the pressure on the Lamborghini throughout his half-hour in the Z4 – it was a great drive.
Access around the track is pretty good for spectators and photographers alike: the only issue being the strangely large number of red zones: prohibited areas. However, plentiful roving media shuttles carrying chilled water made it easier to forgive the restrictions.
Race 2 on Sunday saw thing cool down a bit, with the race starting at an agreeable 10.15am. 25° ambient, 29° on track. For the race on Saturday, pit-lane marshals with green high-vis jackets had staked out the starting rows: thankfully on Sunday the FIA GT grid girls were back in action.
One reason for the drop in temperature was overnight rain across the area: although there was no standing water the race was declared technically wet (there was also a small chance of another shower), and the rolling start took place behind the safety car. There was a lot of sighing by the photographers behind the barriers at turn 1: we like mass rolling starts! Two slow laps later and with a dry line rapidly appearing, the cars were finally released and the race proper could begin.
The two Faster Racing BMWs had been first and second on the grid, and at first they maintained an easy lead over the chasing Sainteloc Audi R8, MTECH Ferrari 458 and LMP Racing Aston Martin DBRS9. But then the championship leading #35 car spun – and as they rejoined they clattered into the #1 Prospeed Porsche RSR. The resulting drive-through penalty dropped them even further down the field and seemingly out of contention for the day.
Up till now the #33 Belgian Audi Club R8 LMS had quietly got on with its weekend: 5th in both free practice session, 8th in Q1, 5th in Q2, sixth in the Race 1. Lead driver Greg Franchi had brought the #33 R8 up to third by stops, behind the #15 Sainteloc Audi and leading #36 BMW.
ATF had been involved in a big midfield scrap: it’s hectic back there, and often just a case of survival until the pitstops.
The Graff Mercedes SLSs sported opposing end damage from Saturday: the #4 with a bare carbon nose and the #3 with a similar rear. But the weight saved from the lack of paint and sponsors obviously helped: like Heico the day before they managed to get both cars into the points. #3’s Mike Parisy and Phillipe Giauque took third and the #4 car fifth at the flag.
Young Belgian driver Enzo Ide (what a great name – I think we can safely assume his career was mapped out from a young age by his parents!) had taken over #33 at the stops, soon overtook the #15 Audi and then closed on leading #36 BMW – taking it on the very last lap. This was the second win for the 20-year-old and his co-driver this year, and it’s catapulted them up the championship standings.
As ever, Edward had put in a monster come-back in #6, but he’d got as high as eighth before realising something was seriously wrong… First the steering rack came loose, making going through corners a loose concept at best – though he only dropped two places by the flag – and then, just as he crossed the line the engine dumped its oil and seized. #6 returned to the pits on the end of a tow rope, but theoretically eighth.
However, he was one of three drivers penalised after the race for an ‘avoidable collision’ with other cars. Along with the #4 Graff Merc and #24 Reiter Lamborghini, Edward received a 30 second penalty: this dropped him to 13th! Worse for Team NFS, the three penalties promoted the championship leading #35 Faster Racing BMW to ninth, gaining back some valuable points over Edward and ATF, who still lie second in the championship.
2011 FIA European GT3 Championship after Round 3
1: #35 Faster Racing BMW Z4 (Jeroen den Boer/Hoevert Vos) 67 points
2: #6 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 (Abdulaziz Al Faisal/Edward Sandstrom) 63
3: #33 Belgian Audi Club R8 LMS (Enzo Ide/Gregory Franchi) 60
4: #50 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia (Francesco Castellacci/Federico Leo) 49
5: #9 LMP Motorsport Aston Martin DBRS9 (Maxime Martin/Gael Lesoudier) 49
The sign over the exit tunnel at the track summed it up: this race was over, but the long road of the championship is still ahead! We’ll be down at the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France in just over a week’s time to see how the GT3 get on at this iconic circuit. Plenty of time to catch up with last weekend’s racing on the GT3 webstream!