Report: Preview, Algarve 2009
Antepenultimate in Algarve
The sixth round of the 2009 FIA GT Championship will see teams and drivers head south, for Portugal, and the new Algarve Circuit near Portimao.
Although this is the Championship’s first visit to Portimao, it is not the first visit to Portugal, as rounds were held at the Estoril circuit on four occasions, between 2000 and 2003. Among memorable occasions in Portugal, the 2000 race was shortened due to torrential rain – the only time that half-points have been awarded in an FIA GT race. In 2001, the season finale was held in Portugal. Rain also played a part, as a sudden downpour in the Superpole meant that an N-GT car started from pole position: Antonio Garcia in the RWS Motorsport Porsche. This is the only such occurrence in the history of the Championship, although Emmanuel Collard came close to repeating the feat in Monza last year ! In 2003, Portugal saw the maiden win for the Ferrari 575 M Maranello.
Numerous Portuguese drivers have taken part in the Championship, the most successful being Pedro Lamy, who took the GT2 title in 1998, driving a Chrysler Viper GTS-R, and who won the Driver Performance of the Year award in 2005, after helping his team-mate Gabriele Gardel to the GT1 title. In all, the former F1 driver has claimed 12 wins and 17 podiums out of 31 races – a success rate of over 50%.
In recent years, however, the most successful Portuguese driver has been Miguel Ramos. He started his FIA GT career in a Graham Nash Saleen, before moving to BMS Scuderia Italia with an Aston Martin, before moving to Vitaphone Racing Team, with whom he has claimed two victories and ten podiums.
Heading to Portugal, reigning Champions Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini are back in command of the GT1 category, after their Vitaphone Racing Team Maserati MC 12 took victory in Budapest. However, this victory will increase their success ballast to the maximum 100 kg, which could be extremely penalising on the Algarve circuit.
Their nearest rivals are Mike Hezemans and Anthony Kumpen, whose Pekaracing Corvette Z06 was victorious in the Total 24 Hours of Spa. That victory, with their team-mates Jos Menten and Kurt Mollekens, briefly put them in control of the Championship, but the 100 kg success ballast proved to be too penalising around the Hungaroring. Claiming four points for 5th, they have reduced their penalty weight to 70 kg, and should be more competitive in Portugal.
The main battle in GT1 this season has been between the Maserati MC 12, the Corvette Z06 and the Saleen S7R. The K plus K Motorsport Saleen S7 was victorious in the first round in Silverstone, allowing Karl Wendlinger and Ryan Sharp to retain the prestigious Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy. Unfortunately, the car has been less lucky since then,and it has recently been announced that it will miss the Algarve round. These three teams have shared out all five races so far, but there are others which have been equally competitive and keen to take a first victory. Among the Corvette teams, SRT, from Belgium, has scored points at each round, and was in the lead in Spa. Luc Alphand Aventures is currently third, but suffered a catastrophic truck fire after Budapest, which destroyed the nr 19 car. Sangari Team Brazil joined the Championship at Spa, and claimed its first podium at the Hungaroring. In terms of Saleen entries, Austrian team Full Speed Racing has two cars, with the leading crew of Lemeret and Hines having claimed a number of points finishes. A third Maserati will also be on the grid, entered by Vitaphone Racing Team DHL, with Pierguidi and Bobbi keen to improve on their two second-place finishes.
Marc VDS Racing Team is entering a Ford GT car, in preparation for the future 2010 GT1 World Championship; the duo of Bas Leinders and Renaud Kuppens have claimed three points finishes while working for the future.
The GT2 category is proving to be as close and competitive as ever, with battle raging between the leading Ferrari and Porsche cars. Prospeed Competition, from Belgium, and AF Corse, from Italy, have both scored 52 points this year so far – although with three wins for Prospeed, the Porsche team has a narrow lead in the Teams classification. But in the Drivers classification, AF Corse drivers and reigning Champions Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander have a two-point lead over Prospeed’s Richard Westbrook and Emmanuel Collard. Westbrook and Collard claimed a magnificent win in Budapest, despite starting at the back of the grid, overtaking the nr 50 AF Corse Ferrari on the last lap. For the Algarve, the nr 50 Ferrari will still carry the maximum success ballast of 50 kg, while the nr 60 Porsche will be on 25 kg. Could the weight make the difference ? Both teams have competitive second cars to back up their leaders, with Prospeed youngster Marco Holzer currently lying third, while AF Corse newcomer Alvaro Barba Lopez, from Spain, took his first pole in Budapest. Both stars to watch ! With three rounds remaining, this fight is likely to go down to the wire…
But with the leading cars both heavily laden with success ballast and crew handicaps, what about the other crews ? British team CRS Racing, with its two Ferrari 430 GT2 cars, is lying third in the classification, after podium finishes in Oschersleben and Spa. Trackspeed, from Britain, is a leading Porsche team, and may enter a second car in the Algarve. BMS Scuderia Italia, one of the most successful teams in the history of the Championship, moved back to Pirelli tyres at Spa, celebrating with their first podium in Hungary. Pecom Racing Team, from Argentina, finished second in Silverstone, while driver Luis Perez Companc was part of the winning AF Corse crew in Spa. Last but not least, Brixia Racing enters the nr 97 Porsche, with a crew of Luigi Lucchini, from Italy, and Martin Ragginger from Austria. After two pole positions so far this season, and a fine second place finish in Spa, the car is still looking for a maiden win.
Heading to its most southerly destination of the season, and to a brand-new circuit which promises to be fast and exciting, there is still everything to play for in the 2009 FIA GT Championship.
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