Markus Palttala finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings this week as he returns to the scene of his victory in the Spa 24 Hours last year with the Marc VDS BMW Z4 GT3. In the first of a two part special feature, the Finn told Racing.GT all about his latest challenge.
Off the top of your head, can you name the newest GT3 car in production? The Mercedes-AMG GT3, Ferrari 488 GT3 and BMW M6 GT3 are all sensible choices, but should be discounted straight away. A thinking man might suggest the Lexus RC-F GT3 which has yet to make its debut in IMSA or even the new Acura NSX GT3, although the Lexus is a regular in the unhomologated SPX class of the VLN and the HPD-developed NSX has already undertaken extensive testing with Peter Kox at the wheel, ahead of a planned 2017 rollout.
Instead, the honour must go to the latest version of the Emil Frey Jaguar G3, which only had its first shakedown two weeks ago and managed a single day of testing at Paul Ricard before being handed over to SRO for a Balance of Performance test. A privately-built machine originally based on the Jaguar XK, the G3 has striking visual similarities with the model Emil Frey have campaigned in the Blancpain GT Series since 2014, but is a very different beast under the skin and features an entirely new electronic system, among other improvements.
Defending event winner Markus Palttala has been signed to lead the team at the 24 Hours of Spa alongside ex-F1 racer Christian Klien and Swiss driver Jonathan Hirschi, who joined Emil Frey at Spa in 2014 and 2015 and also served as Palttala’s team-mate in 2011 with Marc VDS. With so many unknowns hanging over the new car, nobody is expecting miracles over 24 hours, however Palttala believes the project has significant potential going forward.
“The plan originally was to race it at Paul Ricard and then to be at the Spa test, but the car was delayed by a few weeks, so I go to Spa this year without any expectations basically,” said the Finn.
— Markus Palttala (@markuspalttala) July 13, 2016
“Obviously the knowledge of the other car setup-wise is going to help us a lot and they’ve shown speed this year qualifying fifth overall at Silverstone, so I think there is a lot of potential in that project with both cars and we have two good line-ups. Based on the little running we did at Paul Ricard, I think it might be a very good car for Spa because although it’s a very big car, it’s pretty good on fast corners, and it has a powerful engine.”
“I don’t want to say you can build the car, test it for one day and then go and blow everybody away including all the factory teams. We made good progress during the day but it’s a very short preparation for such a big race. I just want to keep my expectations low and take it step by step. But they have some very cool plans and this is only the start of it.”
39-year-old Palttala remains a BMW-affiliated driver, racing for the works ROWE Racing squad at the Nürburgring 24 Hours and Turner Motorsports in the IMSA Sportscar Championship. However, with fewer spaces available for Spa, predominantly reserved for drivers who have raced in the Blancpain GT Series this year, Palttala would have to look further afield to defend his title. Fortunately, he already had an offer on the table from Emil Frey Racing, which although currently a one-off, may yet translate into more outings in future.
“When I signed with BMW for Nürburgring we definitely spoke about Spa and it was on the table until around May, but whereas for Nürburgring BMW needs 16 drivers, at Spa they only need six,” continued Palttala, who finished seventh at Lime Rock Park last weekend. “If you look at the names who are not there, it’s a lot of very good drivers, but there definitely was mutual interest to continue and we are already talking about the future with BMW.
— Turner Motorsport (@Turnermotrsport) July 22, 2016
“Emil Frey basically contacted me quite soon after Marc VDS announced the end of the GT era last year, but I had my deal in the US in place, so I couldn’t commit to a season with them. Then they came up with this plan of a second car for Spa. They will actually do Nürburgring as well, but I’m at COTA that weekend. For now it’s a one-off, but we are talking. They have big plans and it’s something very interesting for the future, let’s see how it goes.”
But while Palttala may not be coming into the event as a favourite this time around, he admits to feeling a different kind of pressure that comes with being the new face in an unfamiliar team.
“With VDS I was very relaxed, the pressure was more what every individual built themselves because we just wanted to win it,” he said. “I was in the team for six years in GTs and now a seventh in the Renaults, so you get to know everybody over the years and we all knew the Z4 because we drove it for the first time in 2011 up to last year.
“I always go to do my job whether we have a good BOP or a bad BOP, if you have a five-year-old car which is all sorted or a new car that you have to develop during the week – it doesn’t change my approach, I just do what the team wants me to do and make the best out of it. I’ve just recently met everybody for the first time and I’m looking forward to getting to know them during the week, because race week is quite intense and you have to get working with them quickly. Everybody is very chilled about it and happy to be there, it’s a new kind of challenge and I’m looking forward to it.”