Stephen Errity, GT correspondent
The BMW Z4 scored its first win in the GT1 World Championship at Zolder on Saturday, in the hands of Michael Bartels and Yelmer Buurman of Vita4One Racing. In classic GT1 style, a hectic one-hour qualifying race saw close fights for all the podium positions right up to the chequered flag.
The German-Dutch duo had qualified in sixth place, but a series of dramatic developments saw the cars ahead of them shuffled back. First to fall was second-place qualifier Peter Kox, who broke formation during the rolling start and crossed the start line ahead of polesitter Oliver Jarvis. Taking the lead down the pit straight, he built up a reasonable cushion before being called in for a drive-through penalty, which he served shortly before taking his scheduled pit stop. Co-driver Darryl O'Young was left to bring the car home in eighth.
Behind Kox, it was all kicking off, as second-place Jarvis, third-place Basseng and fourth-place Enge ran in a close train around the circuit. The race started on a wet track, but the heavy shower that came down after qualifying had stopped, so the surface was drying out. In these variable conditions, Buurman was immediately on the move in the early stages, passing Mike Parisy's Porsche to take the sixth place he lost off the grid, and then overtaking Nicky Pastorelli's All-Inkl.com Mercedes SLS when the latter ran wide in the tricky conditions. Tomas Enge in the other Reiter Lamborghini was next to fall, dropping to fifth.
Buurman's charge continued and he began hassling Marc Basseng in the other All-Inkl.com Mercedes for third. The pair ran nose-to-tail for several laps in one of the most entertaining battles of the race. Behind them, Mike Parisy had taken fifth from Nicky Pastorelli, while erstwhile fifth-place man Enge retired with gearbox problems. Buurman started to struggle as a dry line emerged, and the third place he'd gained after Kox's penalty now looked under threat from a fast Parisy in fourth. Yet there were still dark clouds hovering close to the circuit and the pitstop window was rapidly approaching. Big decisions had to be made on the pit wall, which would ultimately decide the outcome of the race.
Jarvis, now in the lead in the #33 WRT Audi after Kox's penalty, requested a switch to dry tyres, but a radio problem (possibly caused by the dense trees around Zolder) meant he was not heard, and when Frank Stippler took over the car, it was given a new set of wets instead. The conseqences when he joined the track were severe: several places, as well as any chance of a win, disappeared almost immediately. The same fate befell the #32 WRT Audi of Laurens Vanthoor/Stephane Ortelli, and although both cars pitted again for slicks, their races were ruined and they would finish down in 11th and 12th.
Following WRT's disaster, Markus Winkelhock was now leading the race on dry tyres, having taken over the #6 Mercedes from Basseng. Buurman had handed over his BMW to Vita4One team boss Bartels. Third after the stops was Thomas Jaeger, Pastorelli's co-driver in the second Mercedes – and now the fastest man on the track as he closed up on the Z4. But more drama was to come: Winkelhock's car suddenly slowed with mechanical trouble, leaving Bartels and Jaeger through to battle for the lead. The gap between them was never more than a few tenths of a second for the rest of the race, but Jaeger was unable to find a way through around Zolder's tight twists and turns.
Fred Makowiecki had been enduring another torrid weekend with the Hexis Racing McLaren MP4-12C, right up to the pitstops, when typically slick work from last year's GT1 champion team pushed him up to fifth behind Matt Halliday. Their battle for fourth became a fight for the last podium spot once Winkelhock hit trouble, but Halliday just about held on from a very determined 'Mako' at the last chicane. Nikolaus Meyr-Melnhof and Mathias Lauda completed a promising day for the Vita4One BMW team by bringing their Z4 home fifth overall, while Winkelhock's car limped over the line in a disappointing sixth, before coming to a halt shortly after the finish line.