It’s never easy being the new kid at school, but the Macau rookies in the FIA GT World Cup field will find the going harder than usual. James Newbold explains.
The FIA GT World Cup in Macau is a race where circuit knowledge is more prized than at any other point in the GT calendar year. More reminiscent of something you’d find on Gran Turismo than in real life, the 6.2 km Guia Circuit is revered around the world as the ultimate test of skill and nerve, and for good reason too.
With its potent mix of long straights, blind sweepers and unforgiving concrete walls, Macau affords no room for error and has zero respect for reputation. Add into the equation the precious little practice time for drivers to get dialled in – the GT World Cup shares the bill with Formula 3, touring cars and bikes (!) – and newcomers are thrust into a sink-or-swim environment where there is no place to hide.
With this in mind, Nick Catsburg is forthright in admitting that he’s not expecting to blow everybody out of the water on his first visit. The Dutchman conquered the Spa 24 Hours in 2015, but recognises that Macau poses an altogether different challenge.
“In all fairness, I have to say that I’m not going there with the thought in my mind that I’m going to shake things up and that I’m going to fight for the win – obviously I will try, but I don’t think it’s realistic,” he told Racing.GT.
“We will not have a lot of practice time, so I think I will be playing catch-up in the beginning. I will give it my best, but I think the guys that have been there for years now, first in Formula 3, then in GTs will definitely have the upper hand, and I just have to see how high I can get.”
Mirko Bortolotti is in a similar boat. Like Catsburg, the Lamborghini factory driver will be tackling the circuit for the first time, after a deal to contest the F3 race in 2008 fell through. Eight years on, Bortolotti is elated to finally get his chance, but whilst the Italian may be in top form heading into the weekend after taking a first Blancpain victory at the Nürburgring, he knows that will count for nothing at Macau.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) September 20, 2016
“Obviously going to Macau with that win and with a positive end to the season, it’s definitely a good thing and hopefully we can carry that momentum into Macau, but the track plays a big role in the FIA GT World Cup, so we have to be realistic and keep our feet on the ground,” said Bortolotti, who will join GT Asia champions FFF Racing.
“You always go to a race with the aim to successful, to be competitive and to win, that’s clear. But Macau is special, particularly when you do it for the first time and you go there with no experience. The approach is a bit different – it’s not a regular race on a track that you really know well like all the other race tracks we have in Europe.
“From a driving point of view, you have to really try to understand how much you can push and how close you can go to the walls. Obviously when you do it for the first time, you’re at a bit of a disadvantage to the guys who race there every year.”
Naturally, there’s a lot more to it than merely learning where the circuit turns left and right. Since the circuit is opened to public traffic overnight, grip levels are famously unpredictable and can catch out even the most experienced of campaigners, as Maro Engel discovered in qualifying last year. Fortunately, Catsburg has been able to seek counsel from Macau veterans Gabriele Tarquini and Rob Huff, his team-mates at Lada in the World Touring Car Championship.
“I have spoken a lot with my WTCC team-mates because they have been there many times,” he said. “For example, Tarquini told me unlike most other street circuits, in Macau the circuit is public roads again in the evening, so every day in the morning the grip levels are really bad.
“When we go to Vila Real [Portugal] with WTCC, every day the grip level gets better and better, but in Macau, if at night all the cars and buses go on it then the grip levels will be bad – those type of tips are really worthwhile to me because otherwise you would just not know it.”
With so many random variables to take into account, simulators are only helpful up to a point. As Bortolotti points out, there’s no substitute for track-time.
“As long as I’ve not done practice I cannot really say what the situation is going to be, because running simulators and looking at on-board videos is never the same thing as actually sitting in the car and driving it yourself,” he said. “Still we can have a chance, but we first have to see how we get on with the race-track. It’s the first time for me, first time for the team and first time for the car, so let’s see what happens.
“At the end of the day I am a professional racing driver, so it’s my job to try to get used to that new situation as quickly as possible. We have two half an hour practice sessions that will be crucial for me, so hopefully we can find the secrets as quickly as possible. It’s one of the biggest races that everyone wants to drive at least once in their career, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) November 13, 2016
BMW has opted for a low-key presence in the event, with Catsburg’s ROWE Racing M6 the marque’s sole representative in what is essentially a fact-finding mission. While this puts less pressure on his shoulders, Catsburg recognises that it will make his learning curve even steeper without a team-mate to compare notes with. Fellow BMW factory driver Alexander Sims will be present in Macau, but is on F3-duties with Double-R.
“BMW is probing a bit to see how we will do, collecting data for possible future factory entries, that’s the way we should see it,” Catsburg added. “Honestly when you are with two drivers it’s always nice because you are always learning something from each other – one guy does this a little bit different, the next guy does this a little bit different and you just keep learning from each other, but now I am alone, obviously I have to do it all by myself.
“The good thing is that all the track-time is for yourself as well, and I think on a track like this, track time is key. If you go off in one of the practice sessions, you’re basically on the back foot for the rest of the weekend, so you just want to do laps, laps, laps and see what happens.”
Did you know?
Both Catsburg and Bortolotti are former champions of the now-defunct Renault Megane Trophy, which preceded the RS01 Trophy. Faced with a choice between the unfancied German F3 championship and the one-make Megane series after leaving Formula Renault, Catsburg plumped for the latter and won the title in his second season, earning himself a seat with JRM in the FIA GT1 World Championship for 2011. The rest as they say, is history.
Bortolotti landed in the Megane Trophy after winning the FIA Formula 2 title in 2011. He blitzed the field on his way to the championship in 2013 and followed it up with an impressive season in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo, which resulted in a factory drive.