FIA GT1 World Championship Navarra preview

The FIA GT1 World Championship ventures to Spain for the third round of the 2012 season at Circuit de Navarra, Los Arcos – a venue dominated by Lamborghini for the past two seasons.

In 2010, the Reiter Lamborghini Murcielago of Ricardo Zonta and Frank Kechele was all-conquering taking pole and both races around the twists and turns of the 3.94-kilometre layout in northern Spain.

In 2011, Navarra belonged to the ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport team. For the first time in GT1 history, a team managed to complete the ‘perfect weekend’ as the Lamborghinis were utterly dominant – bagging pole position and two comfortable one-two finishes.

This season the Saxony-based team switches from Lamborghini to the Mercedes SLS AMG in pursuit of further glory on May 26-27.The team currently lies second in the overall standings on 49 points behind Belgian Audi Club Team WRT (66) and have threatened a breakthrough victory for Mercedes at the last two rounds. Most notably when Markus Winkelhock (Marc Basseng) in the No.38 car led the Qualifying Race and appeared to be heading for a comfortable win before his race was ended with throttle problems six minutes from the finish.

It was left to Nicky Pastorelli (NLD) and Thomas Jäger (DEU) to carry the baton in Zolder, the pair finishing second and fourth to take them to third in the drivers’ standings. Pastorelli won the Championship Race in Spain last season.

There was some soul-searching at Reiter Engineering Lamborghini after an indifferent race performance in Belgium despite Darryl O’Young (CHN) and Peter Kox (NLD) qualifying P3. Like several of their counterparts, the team was caught out on tyre strategy on the No.25 car by the wet-dry conditions.The sister car of Tomas Enge (CZE) and Albert von Thurn und Taxis (DEU) was blighted by gearbox problems. The four points they picked up for eighth place in the Championship Race was the sum total of the team’s weekend.

O’Young, a newcomer to Spain, said: “Navarra is a new circuit for me, but I have heard many good things about the track so I’m looking forward to it.“Our team continues to make great progress since the first race in France and we proved this by qualifying the car in the top three in Belgium. We hope to carry this momentum over to Spain and if we can piece everything together without mistakes, I feel a podium is very possible.”

The competition in the opening two rounds in France and Belgium was intense. Audi completed a double victory in France while BMW and Porsche rose to the challenge in round two.

The Championship win in Zolder for Mike Parisy and Matt Halliday in the Exim Bank Team China Porsche was a reward for skilled driving and expert strategy in changeable weather conditions. New Zealander Halliday is aiming to keep the momentum going in Spain. He will be among a group of GT1 first-timers. “I am looking forward to Navarra. I have never seen the circuit before but we are going there with a lot of confidence in the whole of Exim Bank Team China after our strong performance including pole, third and a race win at Zolder,” he said. “We hope we can continue our strong performance from Zolder and keep fighting for good points. “The season has been great and also tough especially at the start as the deal came together so late. I’m really happy to have the chance to drive in the GT1 series.”

After their exploits in Nogaro, a one-two finish in both races, the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT endured a troublesome weekend in Zolder.A wrong choice of tyres left the Audis R8 LMS ultra of Oliver Jarvis/ Frank Stippler and Laurens Vanthoor/Stephane Ortelli out of the points in the Qualifying Race, while in the main event, in their effort to climb up positions, the two cars made contact en route to 6th and 10th.

Nonetheless, Vanthoor and Ortelli retained their lead in the drivers’ standings with Parisy and Halliday their closest challengers heading into Navarra. Belgian Vanthoor said he was looking forward to a return to action following the break. “Finally we will be back in the car. It has been some weeks now,” he said. “I am looking forward to the weekend, it’s a new track for me so that is always exciting. From my understanding there are a lot of slow corners and only a couple of faster ones. But I will know more after Free Practice. “I hope we can get a good result and extend or at least keep our first position in the championship. But like always we have to do our best and work hard, then the result we deserve will follow. “So far the season has been very positive. Nogaro was a dream, Zolder put us back on the ground. So we know what we have to do know. I hope we can continue in this direction.”

The Navarra round will be a home race for Spanish outfit Sunred. Milos Pavlovic who partners the Italian Matteo Cressoni in the No.10 Ford GT has been at the tail of the field after coming late to the party in 2012 but the Serbian driver sees hope on the horizon. “This will be the first race in which we think we will be competitive, so I am expecting a tough weekend but nevertheless I hope that all the work will be rewarded with a result we will be happy about,” he said. “We have had a lot of issues with the car since the beginning of the season. The team has worked hard over the last month to solve the problems and I really hope that now we will be able to fight for some points. “We were forced to use the first two events as “testing” and gather valuable data. We did so and now, after a lot of work done on the Ford GT, we are hoping to be in a much better position in Navarra.”

The 2011 teams’ champions, Hexis Racing, are working through their issues with the McLaren and are set to build on two solid top 10 finishes in the previous round including a fourth and fifth for Fred Makowiecki (FRA) and Stef Dusseldorp (NLD). “The race in Navarra will be difficult as most of the teams did a lot of testing there and the event will be over two days. Hard work where no mistakes will be allowed,” was Dusseldorp’s assessment. “Of course we always want to battle for the first place and end up on the podium, but we’ve seen after Zolder that there is still a lot to improve on the car. If we finish in the top five in both races it will be OK – a podium would make it a very good weekend. “After a difficult start in Nogaro we made a lot of progress in Zolder with scoring a double top-5 finish. The McLaren still has some challenges, but the car gets better and better every time we drive it.”

The Vita4One Racing Team BMW outfit enter the third round in buoyant mood after a strong showing in Zolder which included Qualifying Race victory for Michael Bartels (DEU) and Yelmer Buurman (NLD) in the No.18 and a fast-finishing second in the main race. The No.17 of Austrian duo Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof (AUT) and Mathias Lauda also contributed to a team booty of 28 points, a sign that the BMW Z4 will be at the sharp end next weekend.

For Team Russia, there were flashes of brilliance from Maxime Martin (Alexej Vasiliev) in the No.7 Aston Martin during the Championship Race. The Belgian led the race for a time amid the fickle weather conditions before finishing sixth.

The AF Corse Ferrari team are looking to build on third place in the Championship Race in Zolder for Filip Salaquarda (CZE) and Toni Vilander (FIN). Their stablemates, Enzo Ide (BEL) and Francesco Castellacci (ITA) came away pointless from Zolder and will seek to rediscover the form that took them to fifth place in the main event at Nogaro. Ide has made the step up from the FIA GT3 European Championship. At Navarra in 2011, he and team-mate Greg Franchi won Race One in an Audi R8 LMS so he is familiar with the circuit.
“In last year’s GT3 race, my team mate set the pole, I won Race Two so I think we have good potential and we will fight for the podium in GT1. “Hopefully we hope it will be a dry weekend (for the first time this season) so the cars and the drivers can show their real potential. “Navarra is a technical track, you need to be focused all the time and make no mistakes.”

As if to underline Navarra being a Lamborghini-friendly circuit, Race One of the FIA GT3 European Championship in 2011 was won by Mayr-Melnhof and von Thurn und Taxis, both of whom have now graduated to GT1, in a Gallardo LP560.

In Zolder, Lamborghini were also strong with a pair of second places for Hari Procyzk (AUT) and David Mengesdorf (DEU) in the rhino’s Leipert Motorsport Gallardo a good foundation on which to build for Spain.

After two rounds this season, the drivers’ points battle is keenly contested with wins and podium places being scattered among the brands to date.

The championship leaders, AF Corse’s Gaetano Ardagna Perez (VEN) and Giuseppe Ciro (ITA) loom as the men to beat following a stunning double race win at Zolder. The Ferrari duo, on 69 points hold a four-point lead over Heico Gravity-Charouz Mercedes pair Dominik Baumann (AUT) and Maximilian Buhk (DEU) with Stefano Gai (ITA) and Michael Lyons (GBR) in the second of the AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italias third on 58.

The French pair Marc Sourd and Gregory Guilvert victors in Race One on home soil in the Sainteloc Racing Audi R8 LMS are within reach on 44.

An addition to the entry list in Navarra is the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 which will be shared by Yves Weerts and Kurt Mollekens.

(Image: Gerlach Delissen)