This week saw the first official test of the 2013 Blancpain Endurance and FIA GT series at Paul Ricard. Not only was it a chance for teams and drivers to get valuable groundwork in for the season ahead, it’s also an opportunity for many to get a first look at the hands that’ll be played in the game of ‘motorsport poker’. On top of this, the FIA uses the test to assess the various makes and models that’ll play a role in the forthcoming Championships, and apply ‘balance of performance’ adjustments, in an attempt to make the pace equal amongst competitors. Racing.GT was there to see how the brace of shakedown days played out.
Top of the timings on day two, and continuing to lead from the opening Tuesday was the Boutsen-Ginion McLaren. On the first day of the test, the MP4-12C set a 1:58.130, which was improved to a 1:57.502 by mid-morning Wednesday.
“It was my first time in GT, and it went very well with the team. I have not driven for almost two years, it is amazing, I am really happy to be here.” Frederic Vervisch who topped the timings this week said. “Yesterday (Tuesday) it was my teammate (Arno) Santamato who did the best time and today it is me. I watched him drive yesterday, as he is very good, so it helped me as it is my first time in GT. And today I am doing the best time so it is better than I hoped so far.”
The No.11 ART Grand Prix McLaren had only been able to post a 1:59.633 on the Tuesday, but by the end of the second day, the French team had found a turn of speed to reach second on the leader-board with a time of 1:57.805. “So far it is all good for us. We have found some good consistency with the car despite struggling to find clear lap with 62 cars here.” Duncan Tappy, driver of the No.11 ART McLaren explained at the end of the Paul Ricard test. “We are getting good data and good understanding with the updates on the car and the new Pirelli tyres. Working with Andy (Soucek) is great. We know each other from Superleague Formula and work well together. It has all been positive so far and it is great to be back in the cockpit of the ART Grand Prix McLaren.”
Although the GT Academy RJN Nissan had been ‘lurking with intent’ just outside of the top-ten on day one, the Nissan GTR was showing it’s true pace by the close of the official Blancpain Endurance Series and FIA GT test. The Alex Buncombe, Peter Pyzera, Lucas Ordonez, Steve Doherty, Wolfgang Riep and Mark Shulzhitskiy Nismo, not only secured third on the timings, but also came in as the fastest FIA GT entry at the test. In fact, the RJN car was so fast, it beat the official McLaren ‘balance of performance’ entry and the next best FIA GT entry of Sebastian Loeb Racing’s MP4-12C by nearly a second, who ended the two-day test in sixteenth and eighteenth respectively.
Showing a consistent pace throughout the sessions was the SMG Challenge Porsche 997 GT, that set a best time of 1:58.008 on Wednesday, beating their top lap from the previous day by three-tenths, enough to place them fourth. The first Ferrari to appear on the lap timings sheet was the 458 Italia of Esta Motorsports. Making an improvement of six-tenths from day one of testing, the team posted a 1:58.676, to finish the Paul Ricard sessions in fifth.
Sixth overall was the No.33 Pro GT by Almeras Porsche GT3R, which was one of the only cars on the roster to set their best time on day one of the test, with a 1:58.191. The pair of Marc VDS Racing Team BMWs finished in seventh and ninth respectively, with the No.3 Z4 setting a 1:58.218 and the No.4 car a further three-tenths back. Splitting the BMWs in eighth position, was the Haribo Racing Blancpain entered Porsche 911 GT, that earned it’s spot with a 1:58.265 on the second day. Rounding out the top-ten, Kessel Racing’s No.71 Ferrari 458 Italia was just over a second off the leaders pace, with a 1:58.540, that was achieved on the opening day of testing.
As mentioned earlier, the RJN Nissan, that was sporting several aero upgrades, was the top placing FIA GT spec car, appearing in an amazing third position in the standings with a 1:57.983. The other FIA GT testers were unable to match the Nismo’s pace. Closest was Loeb in eighteenth with a 1:58.890, whilst the Rodrive Ford GT posted a 1:59.293 to end the test days in twenty-eighth. The No.1 Belgium Audi Club Team WRT R8 LMS secured twenty-ninth overall on 1:59.384, and the same marque of Phoenix Racing was the next FIA GT entry on the list in thirty-second, with a 1:59.591. Failing to break the two-minute barrier, the Sofrev Autosport Promotion Ferrari and pair of HTP Gravity Racing Mercedes SLS finished the Paul Ricard test in positions forty-two, forty-nine and fifty, respectively.
Particularly telling of the two days testing at the Paul Ricard circuit was the performance of the new Pirelli tyre for 2013. Over the course of the sessions, several red flags brought proceedings to a halt. A couple of these were for major incidents, including session ending incidents for the No.18 Black Falcon SLS Mercedes and Team Ukraine Ferrari, that resulted in their cars collecting enough damage to end their tests (although Team Ukraine were able to muster a spare 458 Italia to continue on the second day). For the Black Falcon Team, the incident took the sheen off a positive week, that has seen them seal the deal on a new driver to their line up.
“My deal with Black Falcon is now confirmed and the testing here is very useful to get to know the team ahead of Monza.” Adam Christodoulou explained during the two-day test of the Blancpain entry. “I drove the McLaren last year and also have some experience with a Ferrari, so it is going to be interesting to find the limits of the Mercedes this season. Unfortunately our running was cut short after an incident with our #18 car yesterday but we have got some useful laps in today (Wednesday). The team are obviously well proven so along with Steve (Jans) and Klaas (Hummel) we aim to challenge for the Pro-Am title this year.”
However, the majority of stoppages came from entrants picking up punctures around the 3.6 miles of Paul Ricard. The likes of the No.33 Pro GT Alemras Porsche, No.71 Kessell Racing Ferrari, No.91 Rodrive Ford GT, Preci-Spark Mercedes and the Estan Motorsport 458 Italia, all succumbed to punctures on Pirelli’s new rubber.
With two days of testing at Paul Ricard now complete, the FIA will make a decision on it’s ‘balance of performance’ adjustments, which will affect all cars in the series it sanctions. Then the first laps of the racing season will get underway, with the Blancpain Endurance Series taking to Monza on April 14th, whilst the British GTs’ will head to Oulton Park this coming Easter weekend, at the same time as the FIA GT series kicks off at Nogaro in France.