The shadows are lengthening for the FIA European GT3 Championship, as the series draws to a close for 2011 with a pair of races at the legendary Zandvoort track in the Netherlands. Last month at the Slovakiaring Mercedes-Benz became the latest marque to win (with victories in both races in fact) and joined Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche as race winners this year. It shows just how close the racing has been – as usual – in GT3.
So the focus now changes to the matter of the FIA European titles up for grabs at season end. Perhaps not surprisingly, because of the effective equality between cars and frantic racing there are still some twenty drivers in contention for the drivers’ title and seven teams chasing the teams’ championship. It’s likely to come down to who crosses the line first in the last lap of the last race…
The AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia of Francesco Castellacci and Federico Leo starts the weekend on 97 points, 14 clear of their nearest competitor. The new-for-2011 458 got up to speed almost immediately at the start of the season: the #50 crew scored a podium in the second race of the opening round and won the first race at the following event. However, each of the two races here in Zandvoort has 25 points on offer, so that 14 points is no guarantee of success. One mistake, and it could all be over – though the same applies for all twenty drivers.
This is why Graff Racing have split up their second-placed driver pairing, to give each a shot at the crown: Philippe Giauque moves over to the #4 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG this weekend.
The #9 Aston Martin crew in third has had a rather anonymous year really, in the last season we’re likely to see the DBRS9 – and hear its glorious six-litre V12. They haven’t won a race, but instead have banged in consistent results to keep themselves in with a shot at the championship.
Zandvoort is going to be a tough proposition for the big GT cars: it’s narrow and very fast, and has virtually no run-off at a lot of corners. As the Speedhunters team arrived the day before track action starts, we could use the opportunity to take a run round the permitter road – our BMW’s satnav even picked up the actual race track layout! Handy.
Miki Taka is over with us here in the Netherlands, scouting locations for shoots over the weekend. The track is surrounded by sand dunes, which make for great spectator banks – but treacherous conditions on track if it gets windy.
With the sea literally just 100 metres away (the main straight at Zandvoort runs parallel with the shore) that’s not unusual here – the dunes have a light covering of grass, but the sand gets everywhere. However, most drivers agree they’d rather sand than rain…
BMW are by far the most successful brand this year, with both Faster Racing and Team Need For Speed’s pairs of Z4 Coupés in the top 10 – which is why they are also head and shoulders above the others in the teams’ battle. It’s a great result when you look at the swathes of new Mercedes and Ferraris that joined the series in 2011.
Team Need For Speed’s Edward Sandstrom and Abdulaziz Al Faisal have been training hard for this weekend’s races: Abdulaziz (along with several other drivers) took part in a Mini Challenge race at the track last week, plus there was also a day’s GT testing.
The pair had been running as high as second in the championship around mid-season, but have fallen back slightly over the past couple of races as the Ferrari and Mercedes teams have stretched their legs. Schubert Motorsport have been busy since their great result with Team Need For Speed at the Spa 24 Hours – they also just won another 24-hour race, this time in Barcelona. That’s two victories and a second from the three round-the-clock races they’ve competed in this year. Impressive stuff.
Their team-mates in #7, Csaba Walter and Claudia Hurtgen, are just a point behind #6 after their strong weekend in Slavakia. They also had a new BMW prototype on display in front of their Z4…
After Team NFS’s great start, the Faster Racing BMWs started to overhaul them – their Michelin tyres proving more suited to managing the low-down grunt of the Z4’s V8 over the hour-long races than Team NFS’ Dunlops. Now both teams are on the same rubber, so it’ll be a straight contest at this final pair of races.
The Dutch Faster Racing team are joined by other talent from the Netherlands for this event, with Aevitae Bleekemolen Racing’s Porsche 911 bolstering the already strong GT3 field (and making seven local drivers in total). On top of that, Reiter are running a third Gallardo this weekend on behalf of Team Cine Cascade and Brits Scuderia Vittoria return with their 458.
There’s also been this extra SLS hanging around the paddock – normally it competes in the German ADAC series, but it’s been sitting outside the Dutch Porsche team’s awning. Perhaps they forgot it was in the truck when they set off? Or might try and sneak it out on-track?!
For a prep day, it was good to see the odd piece of exotica in the car park, like this California.
The Belgian Audi Club joined the European championship this year after a successful toe in the water in 2010 – they’ve managed to nail the set-up of the R8 LMS where other have seemingly failed (no doubt helped by some strong factory support) and their two wins have helped make up for bad results in a couple of the other races. Like Graff Racing they’ve split up their drivers and each will drive with a new partner at Zandvoort to maximise the team’s chances of scoring points.
Unpacking on the day before a race is always a busy one: cars are almost the last thing on teams’ minds as they unpack all their kit. Only when the trucks are unloaded and the equipment set up does the attention actually turn to the cars.
Then the rebuilds commence. Most cars are completely stripped back, lifed parts changed, set-ups prepared, brakes replaced and wheels balanced. There are a lot of spanners involved.
Drivers can at least provide moral support, whilst discussing the weekend’s prospects amongst themselves.
Relegated to the end of the paddock are Zandvoort’s regular rides: race-school 911s and BMW 1 series.
There’s a packed programme in store, with the GT3s joined by the European and Dutch GT4 series.
Then there are also Maxda MX5s, the Formido Swift Cup, the Dutch Radical championship and the Toerwagen Diesel Cup on the race card. There’s going to constant action out on track!
The Radicals should be stunningly quick around here – I’m looking forward to catching at least one of their sessions.
The paddock was also dotted with other random racing cars, like this European Touring Car Cup Mitsubishi Carisma.
Just down from the Mitsubishi was this fully carbonised Radical and a GT4 Aston.
The passenger seat would be quite a place to see the rises and dips of Zandvoort from; the driver seat an even better one…
Slovakia (round five of six) proved to be a pivotal weekend: good results for several cars previously languishing in the middle order (like the win for Heico’s #44 SLS) combined with average-to-poor results for the leaders is what has led to such a tight finale to the season.
Another double-winner is the #24 Reiter Gallardo: they really should have been right up there, but bad luck (and some bad decisions…) mean their only chance is a pair of wins this weekend and no one above them scoring. Realistically, the #44, #24 and #36 cars’ points are on a par with Jenson Button’s pre-Japan championship hopes in Formula 1… But the maths is still possible!
So, this weekend amongst the sand dunes of Zandvoort we’ll see six Mercedes SLS battle six Audi R8s versus five Ferraris against four BMWs, three Porsches, three Lamborghinis and pairs of Ford GTs and Astons. It’s going to be a hell of a fight. If you’re able to get to Zandvoort, make sure you do – if not, then pick up the web stream of the races on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll be posting the link up for that nearer the time.
2011 FIA European GT3 Drivers’ Championship after Round 5
1: #50 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia (Francesco Castellacci/Federico Leo) 97 points
2: #3 Graff Racing Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG (Philippe Giauque/Mike Parisy) 83
3: #9 LMP Motorsport Aston Martin DBRS9 (Maxime Martin/Gael Lesoudier) 81
4: #35 Faster Racing BMW Z4 (Jeroen den Boer/Hoevert Vos) 79
5: #33 Belgian Audi Club R8 LMS (Enzo Ide/Gregory Franchi) 75
6: #6 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 (Edward Sandstrom/Abdulaziz Al Faisal) 75
7: #7 Team Need For Speed BMW Z4 (Csaba Walter/Claudia Huertgen) 74
8: #44 Heico Motorsport Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG (Brice Bosi/Dominik Baumann) 67
9: #24 Reiter Lamborghini Gallardo (Albert von Thurn und Taxis/Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof) 62
10: #36 Faster Racing BMW Z4 Nick Catsburg/Harrie Kolen) 50
2011 FIA European GT3 Teams’ Championship after Round 5
1: Team Need For Speed By Schubert 158 points
2: Faster Racing by DB Motorsport 137
3: Graff Racing 118
4: AF Corse 115
5: Heico Motorsport 114
6: Belgian Audi Club Team WRT 88
7: Team LMP Motorsport 83