The weather decided to play in parallel across the hemispheres last weekend. As the drifters in D1 show-boated around Odaiba (and even the American Le Mans Series regulars initially paddled in the rain at Long Beach in California), so the GT racers in the Blancpain Endurance Series prepared themselves for a race around the lake that was Monza.
The conditions were truly horrible in Italy: that the best part of 40 cars finished within five minutes of each other after the three hours of racing is a testament to the skills of the drivers – and that so many cars made it to the end at all is nothing short of a miracle!
Prior to the race on Sunday afternoon, Rod and I had paid our respects to Monza’s banking. With one of its great arcs bisecting the GP circuit you can’t help but see it around you as you navigate the interior of the current track, but this was our first chance to come face-to-face with the banking itself. Or, backside-to-concrete in my case, after failing in delicately trying to shuffle backwards up the sheer, slippery wall of concrete. It’s a bruise I now cherish, of course.
This trip out into the parkland made it clear just how big the oval is in area, but also gave us a good opportunity to check out some potential shot locations for the race. Parabolica would prove to be an appropriate spot to record just how bad visibility was for the first couple of hours…
Monza was our first chance to meet up with the WRT team in person, who are running with prominent Speedhunters stickers this year. The team is run by Belgian ex-driver Vincent Vosse, who himself had a strong pedigree as a racer before deciding to hang up his helmet (in the full-time sense at least) to set up the WRT team with his partners René Verbist and Yves Weerts.
He was a Viper specialist and a factory Oreca driver in the late ’90s, and it turned out that he’d driven all three of the Viper chassis that competed in the previous day’s Blancpain Revival Series.
Looking around, you would never think that this was a team founded as recently as September 2009. Everything oozes professionalism – but also racing passion and enthusiasm. In the teams’ hospitality unit, racing videos played on a loop; mechanics tired from long stints working on the cars and dropping by to grab a quick bite to eat could be caught with fork in mid-air as they were momentarily distracted by some Group B rallycar doing impossible jumps on the TV screen on the wall. Racers, all.
With the morning’s support races out of the way, the pit-lane became utterly packed as the teams flooded out of the garages and wrestled cars out and onto the pit apron in preparation for the grid formation procedure.
To the outsider it appeared utterly chaotic. The cars were staggered through the pit-lane in herringbone formation, which was the only way to vaguely fit them in at the same time.
WRT hung back as long as they could before sending the cars out as the pit-lane emptied around them and the rain steadily fell.
I’m usually pretty happy in a hot pit-lane, but this one was just downright disconcerting. I ended up in a huddle with a couple of other photographers, with us forming an impromptu all-round-defence in a tiny gap between garages as mechanics ran around us, cars were pushed out and rotated and pit gear prepared. It wasn’t the place to hang about.
It must have been difficult for the officials as well: I think they were happy just to have the deluge of cars out of the pits and on their way to the grid.
Though out on the grid it was miserable. Drivers sat in their cars, watching and waiting. Keeping dry – and focussed – was their priority.
Mechanics and engineers had no choice but to stand around in the pouring rain, just in case there was something last minute required. With no tyre-warmers allowed, the rubber on the cars stiffened in the cold and the pressures dropped… The opening laps would be horrendous.
It was interesting to compare the GT-R on the adjacent starting slot to the #2 WRT Audi, which was back on the 19th row of the grid due to its accident in qualifying. They might have similar black, white and red aesthetics, but the GT-R has a good foot of extra vertical height going on! There was an awfully long way to the front of the grid from here – and yet still plenty of cars behind!
As cars arrived and were jacked up, the mechanics went to work with final prep – though in these conditions there seemed to be a lot less going on than normal. Except shivering. Checking tyre pressures seemed to be the main task – there were certainly none of the usual array of laptops on display. But still cars kept arriving, trundling down the middle lane to find their berth on the long formation grid.
Once that was done and radios checked, all teams could do was huddle under what umbrellas there were and wait for the minutes to count down to the 2:15pm start. Further up the track on the fifth row of the grid was a particularly large gaggle of people around Valentino Rossi’s #46 Kessel Racing Ferrari. The team were having a hell of a time negotiating the throng to get their final checks done and to make sure that Valentino was comfortable and ready.
As a matter of standard practice, the tyre trolleys were loaded with spare wets and slicks. The latter really were just ticking a procedural box… There’s optimism, and then there are slicks.
Things were looking a lot clearer for the #1 WRT Audi a hundred yards further up the grid from its sister #2. They could at least see the pole-sitting Ferrari, and would only have half a dozen cars in front of them come the start.
This was the ideal view, from the #71 Kessel Racing Ferrari 458 Italia on pole, of the straight run down to Variante Rettifilo. For me it was time to join the jog for all the photographers down to the first corner. As usual everyone’s stride got faster as the seconds ticked away towards the start and the sound of engines beginning to fire up behind us echoed around the grandstands.
And then… anticlimax. As the final horn sounded on the grid, the Audi pace car stormed off towards the chicane, followed by the hordes of race cars. And then the pace car reappeared with the snake of 56 starters behind it. And again. And again.
Even at safety car speeds the track was treacherous, especially coming off the slow chicanes. I stuck around at Rettifilo, waiting for the race to get underway…
Rod was positioned up on Parabolica for the start: things looked even worse from up there, with a direct line of sight down the back straight into… nothingness. Mist and spray covered the straight, hanging in the air as car after car carved through the streams of water.
Parabolica itself looked like a skating rink. The corner is all about waiting to get the power down in the dry, but in the wet it looked like just getting round in one piece vaguely on-line was a victory!
It wasn’t just the teams and drivers who were having to endure the conditions: so did the hardy Monza spectators, huddled in clumps on Monza’s dripping grandstands and listening in to the hugely enthusiastic commentator on the track’s PA system.
Eventually the safety car peeled in – after over three quarters of an hour of crawling round, which can’t have helped brake and tyre temperatures, though at least the fuel saved would help a lot of team’s strategies.
Everyone was let loose, and it was time to go to work. For a relative rookie to GT racing Rossi looked mighty in the wet, much the delight of the commentator!
It would have been easy to stay at the Variante Rettifilo all race, just for the spectacular views of the cars splashing round and the entertainment provided by the cars slithering through the right/left of that first chicane.
The cars just kept coming through: within 15 minutes of the race starting properly the cars began to stretch out, filling the whole track with tight battles. The big pillow-shaped kerbs at Rettifilo and tight entrance to the corner meant that every lap someone would bail out of a move, leaving the pack he was fighting to take the apex whilst they dived through the gap in the barriers to rejoin further down.
Rain might be bad for camera gear, but it’s amazingly enjoyable to photograph in these kind of conditions, strangely enough. Normally cars aim for the outer exit kerb here, but with the rain you couldn’t afford to even touch them – you’d be spun round in an instant.
Putting the power down out of the first chicane, the cars would then accelerate into the mist and around the Curva Grande, which is exactly that. The radius is enormous – it seems to go on for ever! Then you’re straight into the braking zone for the second chicane at Variante Della Roggia. Another quick left-right and you’re on the short blast to the Lesmos.
The closest you can get to the cars is up at the top end of the track at Lesmo 1. Unfortunately it’s completely fenced off, but I was still able to enjoy soaking up five minutes of being right on top of the cars as they power-understeered through the apex.
Being out around the track can be a solitary experience: especially in long races you can quickly lose track of who is where, what driver is in and what the time is! As soon as the pit-stops kick off, it becomes educated guesswork to try and work out what the positions are – that’s one of the reasons why the American Le Mans position lights system is such a great idea.
The different marques were nicely mixed up in the race: the top five were all different. Vita4One’s Pro Cup-class BMW Z4 finished down in 12th – but their sister car, the #57 Ferrari 458, won the Pro-Am Cup and finished sixth overall.
The big Viper in the Gentlemen’s Trophy performed well in the end, finishing as runner-up and just 30 seconds behind the class winner. I’m incredibly excited about seeing the new GTS-R in competition this year!
Towards the end of the race, the rain finally relented and things became rather more tolerable for the final 30 minutes or so.
However, even then the chicanes were predominantly the only places where visibility was always relatively good – the straights remained pretty much shrouded in spray. Now, where was that braking point again?…
Rod and I had been moving in counter directions, crossing over at Variante Ascari where he captured the #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 – the eventual winner – taking the #2 WRT Audi after it was blocked behind this McLaren.
The left-right-left flick of Ascari was another great place to soak up the action, especially as from there you could watch the cars hammering down that long straight to Parabolica.
Il Doctore finished in a creditable 18th with his co-driver and friend. Hopefully we’ll see him out again in future GT races.
Despite the conditions, there was relatively little attrition during the race: fighting the car itself around the track was difficult enough, so there was perhaps a little more give-and-take during close-quarter battling. Spins and off-track excursions were plentiful – but not often race-ending. Less than 10 cars of the 56 starters hit serious trouble – and the majority who did were from one unlucky manufacturer.
There were 10 McLaren MP4-12C GT3s entered, but only four made it across the line, and the highest finisher was classified in 16th.
Of the remaining six, three unfortunately crashed at the same place! But the McLaren is early in its development, so I’ve no doubt we’ll see them at the sharp end sooner rather than later.
It turned out to be a grand result for Belgian teams, who filled all the podium positions. Behind those top three, Prospeed brought their two Belgian Porsche 997s home in fifth and 10th, and the second cars for WRT and Marc VDS finished seventh and 11th.
The #75 Prospeed Porsche had been a front-runner for the majority of the race but ran out of tyres towards the end: in 20 minutes they dropped from the lead to fifth when their wets degraded.
Cars streamed over the line – mostly in one piece, but with the odd example of walking wounded. The #36 DB Racing BMW Z4 lost a wheel on the final lap (seen foreground left here), and the Nissan GT-R parked up just before the line with a little time to go so it could crawl across behind the winner – it had suffered problems in the dying moments of the race.
Laurens Vanthoor brought the #2 Audi home second after a stunning drive by all three of the car’s drivers – Edward will be describing their weekend in an upcoming driver blog, which should make great reading.
As the race cars were directed off-track there was a final hurrah on the circuit as the marshals, who had been on duty out in the pouring rain all day, at least got to saddle up and have a little blast round the track on their way to the exit point.
Champagne is great way to forget any previous hardships during the race. Marco, Edward and Laurens had made up 35 places to finish second!
Rossi also took to the podium, to be presented with a trophy celebrating the 90th anniversary of the famous Monza track. It’s incredible to think that the circuit has been open so long – and with its outer GP layout almost unchanged.
There’s quite a long break until the next round of the Blancpain Endurance Series: over a month will pass before Round 2 in the UK, so there’s a good amount of time to make good any damage inflicted here and to put in some testing. A number of the teams will be out testing or competing in other championships in the meantime; WRT will be racing in the next round of World GT1 this weekend in Belgian, at their home track of Zolder. Next up we’ll have some video highlights from the race!
Blancpain Endurance Series Round 1: Monza
1: #3 Marc VDS BMW Z4 (Palttala/Leinders/Martin) 77 laps (3h34.026s)
2: #2 WRT Audi R8 LMS (Sandstrom/Vanthoor/Bonanomi) + 17.574s
3: #13 KRK Racing Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 (Wauters/Wendlinger/Kumpen) +20.923s
1: (6th overall) #57 Vita4One Ferrari 458 Italia (Amos/Petrobelli/Bonacini) +1m40.641s
1: (37th overall) #73 Kessel Racing Ferrari 430 Scuderia (Andreasi/Paladino/Caccia) +3 laps