The Navarra track sits in the most north-eastern province of Spain, nestled up against the valleys leading up to the southern slopes of the Pyrenees mountain range. It's the second visit here for FIA GT1, who raced here last October, but the first for FIA GT3 – and the third round of this year's six-round championship.
It's also just a week after the epic Nurburgring 24 Hours: several of the FIA GT3 teams rocked up in the Eifel mountains to tackle the legendary race, including Team Need For Speed, Reiter with a Lamborghini Gallardo and Heico with a Mercedes SLS-AMG. For those teams, it was a case of packing up trucks in Germany and getting straight on the motorway down through France to get to Navarra in time. This was on top of the Le Mans 24 Hours being just two weeks previous to that – and then there's the Spa 24 Hours at the end of this month! June and July are hectic periods for the teams and a bountiful time for the drivers, many of whom get to jump in more different cars in these six or seven weeks than for the rest of the regular racing season.
Spain usually means blue skies and scorching temperatures: the only threat was of an impending storm on Sunday for the second race, but for Friday and Saturday the sun shone and the stunt pilots practiced their moves for a display during the race weekend. Terrifyingly impressive.
FIA GT3 is looking more attractive by the race: an extra Ferrari joined the grid in Spain, making five new 458 Italias this year (to add to the half-dozen Mercs) and 25 cars in total. More cars are on the horizon: some already announced, like the McLaren MP4-12C, some still to be officially revealed. We'll have more news on that soon…
GT3 uses a performance balancing system to keep the racing close: the Audis have been struggling a bit on raw pace, so have been given larger air restrictors.
As mentioned in previous stories, there's been massive work by the Schubert team to get the two Team Need For Speed BMW Z4s ready for this weekend. When I arrived at the track the cars were just going through final set-up and assembly checks, rear wing and wheels off, fluids being topped up and engine undergoing final checks. As if things weren't conspiring to put the team on the back foot anyway, after the enormous crashes during the 'Ring race, the success of the Michelin-shod Faster Racing BMWs meant that Team NFS had also been hit with a 20kg penalty: if one car goes too fast in the eyes of the GT3 officials, all the cars of that marque are hit with ballast or restrictors.
Conversely, Ford, Lamborghini and Mercedes all lost 35kg in Spain – the Gallardo in particular would benefit.
Free Practice 1: the temperature was 30°, the track a scorching 50°. It was great to see the Audi R8s stretching their legs a bit with the larger restrictors: Sainteloc's #15 crew pulled their R8 up to the front of that session.
Behind them the #50 AF Corse 458 was second, followed by the #3 Graff Racing Mercedes SLS. The SLS is such a great-sounding car: deep and rumbling – though it could sound even better, as we heard when they ran with different exhausts in the Dubai 24 Hours in January. Edward Sandstrom and Abdulaziz Al Faisal in the #6 Team Need For Speed BMW cheered up the Schubert crew no end by posting the fourth fastest time. Deserved reward for their hard work.
Free Practice 2: 30° average again, and the track temperature had tumbled to 34° – laps were a second faster and looking like breaking the 1m40s barrier. In GT1 the All-Inkl Lamborginis were dominating the time-sheets, and the #24 Reiter Gallardo was doing likewise in GT3.
Again the #50 AF Corse Ferrari and #3 Graff SLS were second and third; but with the lower temperatures #6 was back in 14th.
Claudia Hurtgen and Csaba Walter in the #7 sister Z4 were seemingly just not getting it dialled in over the weekend: they could only manage 12th in both sessions.
The GT3 teams were back to working out of awnings stretched from the trucks in the Navarra paddock: better than the crammed chaos of the Nurburgring, but a step down after the luxury of Silverstone's new pit garages. Before every session, the GT3 teams would push their cars out to the narrow forming-up area near an entrance at the top end of the pit-lane. The Mercs' gullwing doors were proving more than useful in keeping air circulating around the heat-soaked cars; other teams' mechanics had to be on door-fanning duty.
Most drivers let their teams get the cars into the parking scrum before walking down to take their seats. I loved the swagger of Jan Stovicek as he approached his SLS. I think I'd feel pretty good about life as well if I was about to take one out on track…
Even in hour-long races comfort is key: drivers spend hours cutting away tiny pieces of foam and taping back up their seat inserts to get that perfect fit.
Often you see track maps taped to steering wheels, but even GT wheels are now over-flowing with buttons and dials. Still, I was surprised to see just how big this track guide was in the Faster Racing BMW Z4. With how quickly drivers get to know circuits, I've never understood why they needed maps as well – even to tell their crew where they are if they have a problem… I'll have to ask Edward!
This is wild country – big nature unleashed. The track is stranded in the middle of a big swathe of agricultural land in this plain: it's the cluster of buildings you can just make out in the top right of this shot, to the left of the twisting autoroute.
There are only really two straights here in Navarra: the main start/finish straight being the longest. The first corner can be ignored: it's a flat right-hand kink, but the second uphill right leads straight into a tight right-hander which always causes problems at starts.
This leads to the highest point of the track: from here you cascade down through a fast left, past the back of the pits and paddock, before climbing up and to the left through a series of second-gear corners.
There's then the second straight: just about long enough for cars to get two or even three wide before the braking area and into a series of second-gear 90° corners. This isn't the drivers' favourite part, as it's just a series of short blasts.
The most striking feature at the track is the big spectator hill on the inside of turns five to seven. It's a great idea and has amazing views over the whole track, but realistically never that populated with fans: it's just too hot and exposed!
Early Saturday morning and the Qualifying session that would set the race for that afternoon first GT3 race: a tepid 18° and just 25° on the track. GT3 drivers are rated either gold, silver or bronze – gold being the most successful pros and bronze the gentlemen drivers; silver are the up and coming drivers. You can't run two golds, so most teams either run bronze/silver (like the two United Autosport Audis) or silver/silver, though there are half a dozen gold drivers scattered amongst the teams – these are proven race-winners in GTs or other championships.
The first 20 minute qualifying session is for bronze and silver drivers only, theoretically the slower of each car's driver pairing. #50 AF Corse went one better than its practice results and obtained pole for Race 1; the #24 Reiter Lamborghini was close behind in second.
Edward was at the wheel of #6: both he and ATF are classed as silver, so they can choose who drives in which qualifying session. Despite being the faster driver it's about tactics for the weekend – using him in the first session can get them further up the grid, meaning more chance in the race itself. This weekend it worked again, as at Silverstone: third place on the grid was the result.
The half-dozen Mercedes SLSs were packed through the midfield: these cars are still looking for ultimate pace, and just the size of them seems to sometimes be a handicap. Here, like previous races, too many times you'd here the rumbling engine stutter as the tyres lost grip exiting a corner and the screech of rubber as the car rotated… Q1 did end up with the fastest GT3 time of the weekend by the Ferrari though, with the best laps into the 1m38s – that's only a couple of seconds shy of the GT1s! It just shows that sometimes more noise doesn't mean more speed…
Qualifying for the second race, to be run on the Sunday morning: as the sun climbed higher, so did the temperature. 24° ambient, track 36° and climbing. There was a frantic rush between the two sessions, as teams rushed to get drivers swapped over and tyres changed. It was Faster Racing who locked-out the front row at the end of the 20 minutes, #36 from the championship leaders, Hoevert Vos and Jeroen Den Boer, in #35. Disappointingly for Team NFS, ATF finished down in 20th, and Claudia in 12th – neither could switch the Dunlop tyres on in the cooler morning air. However, overall more faster laps were posted, with the top 12 all in the 1m38s and 1m39s.
Overhead the stunt planes kept practising, getting lower, faster and closer to each other – and us on the ground – as the day progressed.
Me, I had one bit of entertainment to end the working day: a go-kart race for the media on the karting track just behind the main grandstand, following on from a similar race for GT1 drivers. Starting dead last, I upheld Speedhunters' honour by sweeping through for victory by the end of the 10 laps! It's obviously the power of Speedhunting…
Team Need For Speed Stories FIA GT3
Congratulations on the karting success, Mr.Moore!