Sunshine, heat, blistering tyres, and a stripey circuit make for a compelling reason for Drive Cult to visit the south of France for Round 5 of the GT Open series.
After decidedly mixed conditions in most of the rounds so far this year (the exception being the summery weather at the Nürburgring), it was a welcome joy to arrive in Marseille to blue skies and sunshine.
With the shock news of the SRO announcing the cancellation of the FIA GT1 and GT3 championships from 2013 onwards, and then the ACO announcing cancellation of the ELMS, it was reassuring to see 22 cars lining up for free practice in the GT Open. 10 of the entered cars are in the GT2-spec Super GT class, with the remaining 12 being in the GT3-spec GTS class.
Since the Kessel #11 Ferrari took victory in Race 1 last weekend and the Villois Aston #12 won Race 2, the championship is wide open. Manthey's #8 Porsche has a four point lead from Villois Aston, with IMSA's #16 Porsche a further 2 points back.
Also of note in Super GT is that Villois Racing #11 have 15 seconds of 'success penalty' to be taken during the pitstop in Race 1, with Manthey Racing #8 and AF Corse #4 each having to take a 10-second penalty, and Scuderia Villorba #2 and V8 Racing #17 each having 5 seconds to serve.
The success penalty is the form of equalisation in the GT Open formula - the cars run unrestricted in their fastest configuration, but successful teams have to spend extra time in the pit lane during driver changes in order to equalise the field. 15 seconds are awarded for a win, 10 for second place, and 5 for a third. Similarly, finishing 4th will remove 5 seconds, 5th 10 seconds, and 6th or below a maximum of 15 seconds penalty.
In GTS, with some teams dominating the championship so far, the penalties have accumulated for some cars; the #44 Kessel Ferrari and #54 Autorlando Porsche each have 30 seconds of penalty time to serve, and the #55 Autorlando Porsche has a 5-second penalty.
Across free practice though, it was the #17 V8 Racing Corvette C6R which thundered its way around to take the quickest time of 2:06.436 - nearly a quicker second than anyone else managed across both practice sessions.
Tyre wear continues to be a concern throughout the series, with the Ferraris and Porsches suffering in particular. The front-engined Corvettes and the Aston seem better able to cope, perhaps due to less mass over the rear tyres. The times from practice are therefore probably not totally representative, as some teams elected to do long runs to concentrate on race setup and tyre preservation.
For the first qualifying session I elected to head to Courbe de Signes to catch the cars coming under the blue gantry with the mountains in the background, hopeful that with it being early, I'd be able to take some shots without much distortion due to heat haze.
Continuing their form from Brands Hatch, the #12 Villois Aston Martin piloted by Malucelli took pole by six tenths of a second, with Bruni qualifying second in the #AF Corse Ferrari. Montermini put the #2 Scuderia Villorba Ferrari third on the grid, ahead of the #17 V8 Racing Corvette steered to 4th by Ramos.
Manthey won the dubious honour of being the fastest Porsche, but only managed 5th on the grid, some 1.6 seconds back from Malucelli's Aston.
- #12 Villois Racing - Aston Martin Vantage - 2:04.976
- #4 AF Corse - Ferrari 458 GT - 2:05.588
- #2 Scuderia Villorba- Ferrari 458 GT - 2:06.357
- #17 V8 Racing Bv - Chevrolet Corvette C6R - 2:06.469
- #8 Manthey Racing - Porsche GT3 RSR - 2:06.594
- #11 Kessel Racing - Ferrari 458 GT - 2:06.994
- #16 Imsa Performance Matmut - Porsche GT3 RSR - 2:07.082
- #54 Autorlando Sport - Porsche GT3 R (Pole GTS) - 2:08.145
- #55 Autorlando Sport - Porsche GT3 R (2nd GTS) - 2:08.416
- #60 Ombra Racing - Ferrari 458 GT3 (3rd GTS) - 2:08.785
For qualifying 2, track temperatures were hotter than the morning session but still seven degrees down on Wednesday evening when the teams arrived, which is encouraging for those teams suffering tyre concerns.
Barba - the other pilot in the #12 Villois Aston Martin - continued where his team mate left off, taking pole again, though not able to match Malucelli's blistering time from the first qualifying session. However, his time of 2:05.704 was still a coupe of tenths clear of the rest.
Giammaria in the #17 V8 Racing Corvette completed the front row, with Tandy taking 3rd in the #8 Manthey Porsche. Juan Manuel López put the Scuderia Villorba Ferrari 4th, and Mapelli continued the strong run for Autorlando Porsche #54, matching his teammates task of qualifying on pole for GTS, and 5th overall.
- #12 Villois Racing - Aston Martin Vantage - 2:05.704
- #17 V8 Racing Bv - Chevrolet Corvette C6R - 2:05.897
- #8 Manthey Racing - Porsche GT3 RSR - 2:06.494
- #2 Scuderia Villorba - Ferrari 458 GT - 2:06.759
- #54 Autorlando Sport - Porsche GT3 R (Pole GTS) - 2:06.880
- #76 Reiter Engineering - Lamborghini LP600 (2nd GTS) - 2:06.946
- #4 AF Corse - Ferrari 458 GT - 2:06.956
- #7 AT Racing Team - Ferrari 458 GT - 2:07.549
- #44 Kessel Racing - Ferrari 458 GT3 (3rd GTS) - 2:07.810
- #11 Kessel Racing - Ferrari 458 GT - 2:08.521
As the flag dropped and the first race at Paul Ricard got under way, it was as if Ginni Bruni had read my comments, as he muscled past the #12 Villois Aston in the #4 Ferrari. He was highly motiviated for the win, and the car underneath him was quick enough to do so, too. Within a couple of laps, he had the gap out to about 5 seconds, which he then continued to maintain throughout his stint.
The #17 V8 Racing Corvette passed Montermini in the #2 Scuderia Villorba Ferrari to move up to 3rd, with the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari running 5th. Just behind, Pilet in the #16 IMSA Porsche passed Holzer in the #8 Manthey Porsche for 6th position.
The talk amongst the paddock was that the Porsches were eating tyres, and for the two quickest 911s to be runningly only 6th and 7th at the start is a major concern for the German manufacturer, especially after the successes earlier in the year.
After the round of pit stops, Barba took over the #12 Villois Aston Martin from Malucelli, and Leo took charge of the #4 AF Corse. With the pitstop time handicaps being applied to both leading cars (15 seconds for #12, 10 for #4) meaning Leo initially had an almost 10-second lead over Barba, it began to feel that the #4 car could have its first win since the Nürburgring.
However as the laps counted down Barba edged ever closer, and snatched the lead with a few laps to go. The #17 Corvette and the #2 Ferrari had a lonely race by comparison, neither having the pace to catch the cars in front, but conversely were quick enough to avoid being caught by cars running behind them.
This meant that the next real battle was between the cars in positions 5, 6 and 7. Broniszewski in the Kessel Racing Ferrari #11 had the upper hand to begin, but Narac in the #8 IMSA Porsche harassed the Ferrari until finally finding a way past to 5th place. Tandy, who had to take a 10-second time handicap in the pitstops for previous success in the Manthey Porche, closed up on this squabbling pair, setting his fastest lap on lap 24, just 8 laps from the end which put a question mark over those who believe that the Porsche teams can't manage their tyres. It seemed that Manthey chose to run cautiously early on and this caution delivered a relative dividend, with a 5th place finish achieved by passing both the #11 Ferrari and the #8 Porsche in the closing minutes.
Further back, the most exciting drive came from the #76 Reiter Lamborghini after the pit stop and driver change. Peter Kox inherited the car in plumb last place from Nico Pronk, and set about attacking the race track with vigour. Kox lapped consistently half a dozen seconds per lap quicker than his teammate, and while being 2 minutes back meant there was no hope of catching the leaders, there were plenty of cars around for him to overtake. His quickest race lap of 2:09.477, indicated the car has the pace for at least a top 7 finish, and his consistent efforts led him to finish 13th overall and 5th in GTS class. With another lap this could have easily been 4th in class, as he finished just two seconds behind the #56 AF Corse Ferrari.
Autorlando Sport continue their strong performance run in GTS, with their #55 car driven by Beretta/Puglisi taking P1 in class, and number 54 of Mapelli/Hamilton taking P2, despite the 30-second pit stop handicap! Kessel Racing #44 of Zampiere/Dalle Stelle completed the podium in GTS.
- #12 Villois Racing - Aston Martin Vantage
- #4 AF Corse - Ferrari 458 GT
- #17 V8 Racing Bv - Chevrolet Corvette C6R
- #2 Scuderia Villorba - Ferrari 458 GT
- #8 Manthey Racing - Porsche GT3 RSR
- #16 Imsa Performance Matmut - Porsche GT3 RSR
- #11 Kessel Racing - Ferrari 458 GT
- #55 Autorlando Sport - Porsche GT3 R (Winner GTS)
- #54 Autorlando Sport - Porsche GT3 R (2nd GTS)
- #44 Kessel Racing - Ferrari 458 GT3 (3rd GTS)