The 2014 Blancpain Sprint Series arrived in Baku to much flag waving and a newly laid out street circuit. The practice sessions would be the first time for cars on what is for the most part a busy dual carriageway through the city centre. With the track improving continuously as the normal street grime was removed, faster times would be expected, but then it rained, and a drying track would keep things interesting through Qualifying.
FP1 got underway on a cold and cloudy but dry morning. The session went smoothly for all except Chris Van Der Drift who introduced the #16 Boutsen Ginion McLaren to the tyres at Turn 8, and for those few struggling with braking set-ups going straight on at the 90 degree left-handed Turn 7. Van der Drift was able to continue, having only sustained slight front-left damage, and at session end it was Alex Zanardi prevailing in the #33 ROAL Motorsport BMW, setting the quickest time for the new layout at 1’32.098. The Italian, who was at or near the front for most of the session, beat title contender Hari Proczyk’s #28 Grasser Racing Lamborghini by 0.237 of a second, and Laurens Vanthoor’s #1 WRT Audi into third. #4 WRT Audi driver Mateusz Lisowski was quickest in Silver Cup, as befits a Championship leader, and #177 GT Russian driver Marko Asmer set the fastest time in Pro-Am Trophy.
FP2 was wet after a light but steady rain had fallen on the circuit in between sessions. Notably cautious in the rooster tail spray over the initial laps, the lap times began to fall as the rain eased and a dry line emerged. As with the first session it was Alex Zanardi setting the pace in the #33 ROAL Motorsport BMW, a 1:39.935 the best of his 25 laps. But closing out the session, Laurens Vanthoor in the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi managed to beat Zanardi’s time by 0.741s. The #28 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini with Jeroen Bleekemolen at the wheel was third, a full second behind Vanthoor’s time but two seconds faster than the #84 HTP Mercedes of the two Max’s, Buhk and Götz, that Bleekemolen trails in the Championship battle. In Silver Cup, Vincent Abril put the #4 WRT Audi at the top of the class timing sheet again and Alessandro Latif in the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi dealt with the rain best of all in Pro-Am.
Qualifying Stéphane Ortelli took pole position in the #9 WRT Audi in the second half of the final session in the fading early evening light, beating Laurens Vanthoor to the punch by a whiskery 0.038 seconds to give Belgian Audi Club Team WRT the front row to themselves. With Jeroen Bleekemolen and Hari Proczyk in third, due to Bleekemolen having been badly baulked on his final flying lap, and Championship leader Max Götz only able to make it to P7 the Qualifying Race, it presents an ideal opportunity for the Grasser Lamborghini drivers to close the gap for the title.
The four hour gap between Free Practice and Qualifying allowed the track to dry out and, with the help of the GT1 Maserati MC12 VIP passengers and some historic F1 demonstration laps taking place in the gap, a clear dry line emerged sufficient for the teams to move back onto slick tyres. However; straying even slightly off-line could mean trouble, the damp and slippery tarmac did for three cars that all hit the wall at Turn 13 after the final chicane.
Maximilian Götz and Jens Klingman posted the best of the early times, Klingman in P1 with a 1:34.655 before the first of the red flags was waved for the Silver Cup leader Vincent Abril in the #4 WRT Audi. Abril took too much curb at the final chicane, strayed onto the greasy stuff and hit the wall hard at turn 13. The damage was severe to the right hand side of the car, removing completely the rear wheel and forcing the right front back and into the cockpit. Initially, it looked as if that would be the weekend for Abril and co-driver Lisowski but the mechanics worked through the night to make the repairs in order that the Silver Cup title be fought for with Fumanelli and Colombo in the #34 ROAL BMW.
In the gap the track continued to dry thanks to the sea breeze and with the session restarted the lap times fell accordingly but the same corner presented the same issue for Marc Basseng in the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi as it had for Abril earlier.
I took too much curb and it unsettled the car. The right side of the car is too heavily damaged to repair.
The second session times are combined with the first to see which of the cars will make up the 50% of the grid that progress to the Q3 shoot-out for Pole Position. The pick of the bunch was a 1:30.850 by Andy Soucek in the #107 Beechdean AMR Vantage, six tenths better than the best of the weekend up to that point. A third red flag waved after Benji Hetherington scraped the wall, Turn 13 causing the issue, again, this time for the #63 Fortec Mercedes SLS. 14 Pro cars made the cut for Q3 – including five of the invitees, Beechdean AMR, Boutsen-Ginion McLaren, Prosperia ABT Audi, and the Trackspeed and Schütz Porsches, along with a solitary Silver Cup ROAL BMW.
10 minutes of hectic action usually sums up the third session that decides pole position and Baku was no different. A McLaren was the first to put down a marker, Alvaro Parente in the #61 Bhaitech car, and another to cause a surprise. After Laurens Vanthoor topped Parente for Audi, it was the surprise package of fellow Belgian Frederic Vervisch in the #16 Boutsen Ginion McLaren in provisional pole position. An improvement by Vanthoor reclaimed P1 and with others jockeying for the back rows it looked like another pole for WRT. Two last ditch flying laps looked possible contenders, Bleekemolen was edging down toward the 1:30.0’s but hit traffic and Stephane Ortelli pulled a ‘dream lap’ out of the bag to top his old team-mate and put the #9 Audi on Pole. A front row 1-2 for Belgian Audi Club Team WRT.
Third quickest was the No. 28 Grasser Racing Lamborghini of a clearly disgruntled Jeroen Bleekemolen. After his Q2 efforts toward a really quick time were spoiled by ABS failure, all fixed for Q3, Bleekemolen had a slowing car to frustrate him on his final flying lap.
I was blocked by a Boutsen McLaren in my second fast lap. My weekend is screwed. I think a 1:30 or 1:29.9 would have been possible.
Frédéric Vervisch found eight tenths over Q2 to place the #16 Boutsen Ginion McLaren fourth on the grid +0.186s behind pole. The next best McLaren was Alvaro Parente in twelfth over a second off pole. Despite posting the quickest time in Q2 and improving upon it by over half a second, Beechdean AMR’s Andy Soucek could only manage fifth and behind him came Dominik Baumann, first of the BMW’s, completing the first three rows.
Championship leader Götz qualified the #84 HTP Mercedes in seventh, one place outside the point scoring positions, but still he held a 27 point advantage over the Grasser Racing Lamborghini of Bleekemolen and Proczyk with 38 still to play for.