Stephen Errity, GT correspondent
Ferrari and Porsche's dominance of Monza's opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Series continued in the Saturday qualifying session, which saw a number of red flags for cars in the gravel traps or in the barriers. Pole-setter Daniel Zampieri (#71 Kessel Ferrari) spoke afterwards of how difficult it was to find a clear lap amidst the 56-car grid, and said he only set two fast laps in total during the frequently interrupted session.
Second-place qualifier Richard Westbrook (#8 Haribo Porsche) echoed these comments. “With 56 cars on track, qualifying is quite important here, even though it's a three-hour endurance race,” said the Briton. “We had to fight for a space on the out lap, so there was some fairly aggressive driving there. There was some rain falling on one corner, too, which made things even trickier. I felt there was a little bit more to come from the car, but overall I'm pretty happy with second.”
Third on the grid went to Friday's pace-setters, Black Bull Swiss Racing, courtesy of Mirko Venturi. He revealed the team had only been aiming for a top 20 grid slot and so were overjoyed with their performance. Experienced pros Olivier Pla and Marc Goosens, driving for SMG Challenge and Prospeed respectively, brought their Porsche 911s home in fifth and sixth respectively; both cars look set for a strong result tomorrow.
After a relatively anonymous showing in Friday's practice sessions, GT1 World team of the moment WRT Audi finally showed their hand, Stephane Ortelli setting a time good enough for seventh overall in the #1 car. The #2 was a lot further down the grid in 37th, however, due to Laurens Vanthoor crashing during the session. The fastest Mercedes was once again the #13 Koen Wauters/Karl Wendlinger/Anthony Kumpen car (eighth overall).
You have to look all the way down to 14th on the grid to find the first of the McLarens – the #5 Boutsen Ginion Racing machine qualified by Nico Verdonck. United Autosports' #22 all-pro McLaren was 17th, but Mark Patterson spun the sister #23 car at the start of Q1. McLaren development driver Rob Bell, who qualified his Gulf Racing machine 34th, reported: “It was a frustrating session with the red flag interruptions, but we probably got out of it as much as we could have expected. Considering how little testing we’ve had, it was okay and gives us something to build on.”
BMW teams continued to suffer from a lack of straight-line speed. Belgian squad Marc VDS Racing's #3 car was the highest-qualifying Z4 in 18th. Driver Maxime Martin said: “The lap wasn't as good as I could have managed. We tried some new things on the car in an attempt to improve, but they didn't work as planned. It's okay, because we can take that data into the race. Apart from the straight-line speed, the car is good. We are still reasonably confident. Monza isn't the track for us, but it's a three-hour race. We have a strong team and a strong line-up, so I'm not too worried.”
The Marc VDS mechanics face an evening of hard work, however, as Bert Longin crashed the sister #4 car head-on into the barriers during the first part of qualifying, leaving it 52nd overall on tomorrow's grid. The #66 Vita4One BMW, #41 Sainteloc Audi, #91 J.A.S. McLaren, #42 Sport Garage Ferrari and #73 Kessel Ferrari all found themselves in the gravel traps during an eventful session, but all escaped serious damage and should start the race tomorrow.
Finally, multiple MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi qualified a very impressive fifth in class and 10th overall in the Kessel Racing Ferrari 458 he's sharing with friend Alessio Salucci. He's been mobbed everywhere he goes at Monza and seems to be enjoying himself – could this be the start of another adventure for the charismatic Italian superstar?