The final European GT meeting of the year at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya drew a bumper grid of 21 GT cars, but it made little difference to the outcome of the International GT Open championship. Second in race one behind Kevin Estre and Peter Terting’s Attempto Porsche gave Team Lazarus pair Thomas Biagi and Fabrizio Crestani the title with a race to spare, before 2014 champion Daniel Zampieri put the gloss on a strong return to the series with a stylish race two win. Here’s what we learned.
1. Get your head around the handicaps
The key to understanding anything that happens in GT Open is the convoluted handicap system. Introduced to keep the racing close, it succeeded in producing no fewer than 11 different winners this year, but at the cost of making the action rather difficult for the casual fan to follow – let alone for the author!
It works in a similar way to one hour races in the British GT championship, where the winners from the previous round have a 15s pitstop handicap added to the minimum pitstop time (70s in race one, 65s in race two). Runners-up get an extra 10 seconds and third, an extra five seconds – so far, so ordinary.
However unlike most series, where the success penalty is either relinquished if a team finishes outside the top three or is carried over to the next race if they repeat the feat, GT Open handicaps can be accumulated over a number of races. For example, if a team finishes third in consecutive races, it would earn two lots of five second penalties, translating into a 10 second handicap. Two second places in a row result in a 20 second handicap, and so on.
Then, for every finish outside the top three, accumulated success handicaps are reduced by the highest value owned. For example, having earned a 25s handicap for race two at Silverstone (having won race two at Paul Ricard and followed it up with second in the Silverstone opener), Thomas Biagi and Fabrizio Crestani then finished fourth and had 15s shaved off for the Red Bull Ring.
To complicate matters further, GT Open also utilises fixed driver handicaps to facilitate all Pro-Pro pairings alongside the Pro-Ams that are the series’ lifeblood. As a Platinum-Gold line-up, Porsche factory driver Kevin Estre and GT4 Europe champion Peter Terting carried a mandatory 15s handicap and therefore would have to sit stationary in the pits for 85s. However, this was still a full 10s less than Biagi and Crestani, who had accumulated a handicap of 25s with two second places and a third in the previous three races and would therefore have to spend 95s in the pits.
Still with me? Good, because this discrepancy was crucial in determining the outcome of race one. Crestani led away from pole and pulled out a three second gap to Estre, but after the stops, Terting found himself in the lead with seven seconds in hand over Michael Benham’s Garage 59 McLaren, which team-mate Duncan Tappy had pitted from third. Although Biagi was swiftly able to pass Benham, he couldn’t get close to Terting as the German swept to a 3.7s victory on his first GT3 appearance since a partial GT Masters campaign in 2009.
— kevin estre (@kevinestre) November 5, 2016
It mattered little in the context of the title race however; with the Teo Martin BMW of closest challengers Gustavo Yacaman and Fernando Monje down in 13th after a nightmare pitstop, second was easily enough for Biagi and Crestani to wrap up the title one day early.
2. Consistency key for Lazarus
The handicap system is supposed to make it difficult for teams to string a run of results together, but it appears nobody told Biagi and Crestani.
It should be acknowledged that as a Gold-Silver ranked pair, two-time FIA GT champion Biagi and sometime GP2 racer Crestani probably merited a mandatory handicap in the same vein as Estre and Terting, or Craig Dolby and Tomas Enge when they appeared at Silverstone, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Lazarus Lamborghini was the stand-out car all season long. However, their unrivalled record of eight podium finishes from 14 races is made all the more impressive when considering that five of those were achieved despite a success handicap.
Biagi and Crestani only won once all season (it would have been twice, had Crestani not botched a final lap move on Alex West at Estoril), but their knack of stringing results together despite the success penalties meant that hardly mattered.
— Circuit BCN-CAT (@Circuitcat_eng) November 5, 2016
Barcelona was a masterclass in this regard. As good as their run to second was in race one with a 25s handicap, their drive from 14th to fourth in the shorter race two, overcoming a 30s handicap in doing so, was even better. Sure, they were helped out by two Safety Cars which kept the pack bunched together, but at no point did they panic or try to force the issue as many of their rivals were guilty of doing.
Chief among them was Yacaman, whose ill-fated bid to take the lead around the outside of Marco Antonelli at the final restart ended in contact that would cost him second in points to Shaun Balfe. Aptly, Crestani was also able to profit, climbing past Balfe – aware that his main rival was now out – and Alexey Moiseev on the final lap, ensuring that Lazarus’ record of finishing in the top eight in every race this year remained intact.
3. Zampieri back on form
Daniel Zampieri’s victory in the 2013 Blancpain Endurance season opener with Kessel Racing now seems a very long time ago. After prevailing in a close three-way battle to win the GT Open title in 2014 with Roman Mavlanov, Zampieri was outshone by unheralded Finn Patrick Kujala in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe last season.
A return to the Blancpain GT Series with the Attempto Racing Lamborghini squad for 2016 wasn’t the glorious comeback he would have hoped for – managing only a trio of tenths and catching the eye for all the wrong reasons at the Misano season-opener, where the Italian held up the leaders and stubbornly refused to be lapped.
A return to GT Open therefore seemed the ideal way for Zampieri to put himself back on the map and remind everybody of the talent that once convinced Ferrari to include him on their junior driver scheme. He duly wasted no time doing so in race one – taking over from Antonelli Motorsport team boss Marco Antonelli in eighth, the 26-year-old proceeded to pass Pieter Schothorst, Jerome Policand, Salih Yoluc and Benham for an eventual fourth place.
Zampieri continued his form into qualifying for race two, pipping the TF Sport Aston of Jon Barnes to pole in drying conditions. British GT race-winner Barnes managed to get the jump at the green, but Zampieri was having none of it and swept around the outside at turn one.
The appearance of the Safety Car after Come Ledogar punted Terting into the gravel threatened to undo all his hard work by allowing Phil Keen’s Balfe Motorsport McLaren to close, but Zampieri was peerless at the restart and stretched out a six second margin by the pitstops. Despite the contact with Yacaman, Antonelli was able to hold on to the finish under pressure from Miguel Ramos and Jody Fannin to give his co-driver a deserving victory.
— Circuit BCN-CAT (@Circuitcat_eng) November 6, 2016
He’s still got a plenty to prove at this level, but Zampieri will be one to watch with interest next year.
4. Contrasting fortunes for guesting Brits
On Friday, Mark Farmer told Racing.GT that he planned for their GT Open guest outing to be a “fun weekend”, but there wasn’t much of that to be had in Barcelona as he and Jon Barnes encountered more than their fair share of bad luck. After suffering from a multitude of mechanical problems in Thursday testing, a gearbox failure in qualifying consigned them to the back of the grid for race one. The race brought more misfortune as radiator damage forced their retirement, but Sunday offered promise as Barnes only missed out on pole by five hundredths of a second.
However, after exchanging the lead with Zampieri on the run to the first corner, Barnes wasn’t given much of a chance to build a rhythm when he was assaulted by Christian Krognes’ Lamborghini at the hairpin. Rejoining plumb last, the irate Barnes charged through the field and handed over to Farmer in seventh, but lost more time in the pits with a sticking wheelnut that denied Farmer a chance of improving their positon.
Among the chief beneficiaries of the TF pair’s rotten luck was the Solaris Motorsport Aston Martin of Francesco Sini and Jody Fannin, although his weekend didn’t get off to the best of starts when Fannin was required to wear his helmet onto the plane, and then had his best qualifying time deleted for improving under yellows.
On his first appearance in the championship since winning at Silverstone with Darren Turner in 2014, Fannin described race one as “the most frustrating stint of my life”, having spent the duration staring at the rear of Ramos’ BMW. After Sini spun away third under pressure from Marco Cioci, Fannin would have another chance to reacquaint himself on Sunday as the pair scrapped with Moiseev over third in the closing stages.
After both cleared the Russian, their private battle for third soon became a battle for second when Yacaman pulled off. Though he would have to give best to the BMW again, Fannin was still pleased with his weekend’s work.
— Solaris Motorsport (@SolarisMsport) November 6, 2016
“We made some significant changes to the car overnight, which made a big difference,” he said. “I overtook the Ferrari for P4, but the BMW was difficult to follow through the last corner so I couldn’t get close enough to make a move into turn one.
“It was a frustrating end to the race as I was quicker everywhere else, but it’s a great result and we definitely would’ve taken it coming into the weekend. It’s never easy to enter a competitive championship such as this at the final round and get on the podium.”
5. McLaren build them strong
Motorsport is dangerous. Duncan Tappy knows that full well of course, but here the 32-year-old was given a lesson in just how suddenly the unexpected can hit you square in the passenger door.
Having missed Monza after a testing shunt, Tappy and Michael Benham were eager to make up for lost time and ran strongly on Saturday, eventually taking the flag in fifth after slipping behind Keen and Zampieri in the closing stages.
Benham unsurprisingly found the drying conditions tricky going on Sunday morning and qualified 17th, but kept himself out of trouble during the opening stint and handed over to Tappy at the earliest opportunity, well within range of the top ten.
With fresh tyres underneath him, Tappy set the fastest lap of the race and soon charged onto the tail of the battle for sixth between Balfe and the AKKA-ASP Mercedes of Jean-Luc Beaubelique. When the Frenchman ran wide at turn five, Tappy took his chance and was beginning to size up Balfe when suddenly Beaubelique lost control and turned sharp right at the end of the pit-straight.
The Mercedes cannoned off the inside wall and slid across the grass at unabated speed, before crunching into Tappy’s McLaren as he turned into the corner.
Fortunately the Brit emerged from the accident with his sense of humour intact, but his 650S GT3 was a mess and will need a new tub to be race-ready again.
Luckily I’ve only walked away with bruising and a chipped tooth. 😆😆. Massive credit to the @McLaren_GT car for taking such a big hit. 🙏🏼
— Duncan Tappy (@duncantappy) November 6, 2016
“The impact was huge, I remember all of it,” Tappy told Racing.GT. “It came as a massive surprise, obviously I had no idea it was coming.
“I think if it wasn’t for the immense strength of the McLaren carbon tub, things may have been different. It was such a shame as we were flying, having just set the fastest lap and we were moving forward quickly. I would have been past Balfe that lap, so I don’t see why I wouldn’t have been past Moiseev soon after.”
It was a sad way for the year to end – but a welcome reminder of just how far safety of modern GT cars has come in recent years.