March 6th and 7th saw a two-day official test session for the cars of the FIA GT Championship and the FIA European Touring Car Championship take place at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. These two days of intensive testing for the teams also included a press conference to officially launch the 2003 season of the LG Super Racing Weekend and a Media Day, with an hour of laps around the circuit for members of the press, on board a variety of cars. These included a Wieth Racing Ferrari 550 Maranello, an Alda Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, a Seat Leon Supercup, Clio V6 Trophy and Clio Cup cars, as well as the spectacular Formula Renault 2000 two-seater, driven by Renault Formula One Test driver Franck Montagny, who also did some demonstration laps on board the new Formula Renault V6 single-seater.
Alfa Romeo Autodelta drivers Nicola Larini and Gabriele Tarquini set the pace in the FIA ETCC official test days. Sixteen drivers took part in the test, at the wheel of ten cars, with five different Manufacturers represented. Tarquini emerged as the fastest driver on day one, setting a time of 1:54.77, but his team-mate Larini improved on his time on Friday, going down to 1:54.41. The BMW drivers were not much slower, with Jorg Muller fastest at the wheel of the German car in 1:54.80. Although the ART Engineering Volvo S60 and the PRO Motorsport Honda Civic were forced an early stop due to technical problems, Rickard Rydell and Andre Couto were able to set encouraging times. Jordi Gene and Frank Diefenbacher continued to develop the new SEAT Toledo Cupra.
THE ALFA 156 GTA STILL THE FASTEST CAR
Alfa Romeo is not yet ready to vacate the FIA ETCC throne. The Italian car appears to still be the fastest in the field, as proved by the times set by Nicola Larini and Gabriele Tarquini in Barcelona. The latter was the only driver capable of breaking the 1:55 barrier on Thursday, being clocked at 1:54.77. The day after, in the early morning, Larini improved that time to an excellent 1:54.41, which remained the fastest time over the two days. He then went off into the gravel trap at the exit of the final corner, damaging the new front splitter; this also resulted in a blown engine as some gravel became lodged in the driving belt. The Autodelta crew replaced both the splitter and the engine, but the 156 Gta's performance appeared to have been affected in some way, as when Tarquini took the wheel in the afternoon, his best time was 1:56.69, while the team's third man Roberto Colciago could only achieve a disappointing 1:57.08, exactly one second slower than the time he had set on day one. The Autodelta Alfa Romeo 156 Gta was running its definitive 2003 configuration.
BMW DRIVERS CHASE THE ALFA MEN
A number of BMW drivers are already chasing the Alfa Romeo men. Jorg and Dirk Muller, at the wheel of their Schnitzer-built 320i cars, set the pace. The former was timed at 1:55.00 on Thursday, then improved to 1:54.80 on Friday before an incident with a Porsche 996 GT3-R put him off the track. Dirk's fastest time was 1:55.21 on the first day, but a blown engine prevented him from improving on day two (1:56.37). Antonio Garcia proved his skill and his knowledge of the track, being consistently fast in a Ravaglia Motorsport car; the young Spaniard clocked a good 1:55.81 on Thursday and was able to cut a further half-a-second on Friday, going down to 1:55.32. His team-mate Fabrizio Giovanardi's fastest time was 1:55.61 on Thursday; on the second day the reigning FIA ETCC champion could not improve on a time of 1:55.96 due to a blown engine. At RBM Andy Priaulx continued his apprenticeship; the Briton set his best time on day one (1:56.49), while his times remained higher on Friday (1:57.28). Finally, Tom Coronel and Duncan Huisman took turns at the wheel of the Carly Motors car. On Thursday Coronel was timed at 1:55.78, on Friday Huisman set his fastest lap at 1:56.02. The Mullers, Giovanardi and Priaulx were testing 2003 cars, while Garcia, Coronel and Huisman were still at the wheel of 2002 cars.
SEAT TOLEDO REDUCES THE GAP
Jordi Gene and Frank Diefenbacher worked very hard to develop the new SEAT Toledo Cupra, which was in the traditional SEAT Sport yellow-and-grey livery for the first time. After the disappointing test in Monza, the Spanish car showed considerable progress, cutting its gap to the Alfa and BMW cars by more than half. On day one, Gene set his fastest lap with a time of 1:57.70. Most of the second day was spent experimenting with new set-up solutions.
Gene's times remained higher (with a best time of 1:58.82), while Diefenbacher had his first real drive in the car and improved from the 2:00.20 he set on Thursday, to a promising 1:58.07. "We still have to work very hard. Next week we'll be testing in Nogaro with a new engine that should help us to gain a further six or seven tenths. But our main concern remains the rear suspension; it is very difficult to find the right set-up for the Toledo's beam axle scheme. And this obviously means that we'll have to wait a bit before being in a position to threaten Alfa Romeo and BMW supremacy in the Championship," declared Gene.
RYDELL PLEASED WITH THE VOLVO
ART Engineering ran the Volvo S60 for the first time. The Italian team tested only one of the Prodrive-built Swedish cars, still in the same configuration as during the final round of the 2002 Championship in Estoril. Rickard Rydell drove for most of the time, setting a very good time of 1:56.07 on Thursday. The day after he was timed at 1:58.39, before a gearbox failure stopped him. Both the Swedish driver and team-principal Paolo Alessandrini were very pleased by the best time.
"I only had five laps on new tyres otherwise I think I could have lapped in the mid 1:55s," said Rydell. Sandro Sardelli, the team's second driver, only completed a couple of laps in the car, setting a time of 2:01.96. Over the next days ART Engineering will update the two cars, fitting the latest engine step, the Hewland six-speed sequential gearbox and several suspension changes.
COUTO IMPRESSES IN THE HONDA
Unidentified electric problems drastically shortened the testing for the PRO Motorsport Honda Civic Type-R. During the first day Macanese single-seater star Andre Couto had his first drive in the Japanese car. After the Scottish team -- assisted by JAS Motorsport technicians -- solved a gearbox problem, Couto set an impressive time of 1:56.26. "We were quite satisfied, considering that it was my only attempt with a perfectly working car," Couto said. Later in the day, Charles Hall had only one flying lap and was timed at 2:02.57, which was a good effort as he had never driven a Touring Car before and he did not know the Catalunya racetrack. PRO Motorsport had planned to give both drivers more time in the car on Friday, but the Honda engine refused to start and the team gave up after many attempts to identify the electric bug. Like the Volvo, the Civic had not yet been modified since the end of last season.
FIA ETCC TEST DAYS
1. Larini (Alfa) 1:54.41
2. Tarquini (Alfa) 1:54.77
3. J. Muller (BMW) 1:54.80
4. D. Muller (BMW) 1:55.21
5. Garcia (BMW) 1:55.32
6. Giovanardi (BMW) 1:55.61
7. Coronel (BMW) 1:55.78
8. Huisman (BMW) 1:56.02
9. Rydell (Volvo) 1:56.07
10. Colciago (Alfa) 1:56.08
11. Couto (Honda) 1:56.26
12. Priaulx (BMW) 1:56.49
13. Gene (SEAT) 1:57.70
14. Diefenbacher (SEAT) 1:58.07
15. Sardelli (Volvo) 2:01.26
16. Hall (Honda) 2:02.57
Fourteen cars took part in the Barcelona test days on March 6th and 7th 2003. With sunny, dry weather, the teams were able to conduct two full days of testing around the circuit, which will also host the first round of the season in a month's time. Four different makes were represented in the GT category, with Larbre Competition's Chrysler Viper GTS-R, Creation Autosportif's Lister Storm, BMS Scuderia Italia and Wieth Racing's Ferrari 550 Maranello cars and Graham Nash Motorsport's Saleen S7-Rs in action. In the N-GT class, Freisinger Motorsport, Eurotech and Polish team Alda Motorsport ran Porsche 996 GT3-R cars, while Team Maranello Concessionaires and MENX were testing their Ferrari 360 Modena cars.
LARBRE COMPETITION HAPPY WITH PROGRESS
Reigning FIA GT Teams Champion Larbre Competition took to the track at Barcelona, to test the Chrysler Viper GTS-R, which has been updated with the latest modifications from Oreca, including changed suspension triangles, and modifications to the front of the car. "The test went very well," Christophe Bouchut said afterwards. "Our best time was around 1:42.5, which I believe was the same as the fastest time from the Ferrari 550 Maranello cars. However, their drivers were new to the car, and overall, I believe the Ferrari will still be faster. However, our advantage is that the car is reliable, especially for the 24-hour race at Spa, and we can depend on it to get to the end of every race. I really believe we will have a good car for this season." The team has not yet announced a co-driver for triple champion Bouchut.
FAST TIMES FOR FREISINGER
All four Freisinger Motorsport drivers for the 2003 season were in action in Barcelona. While 2002 N-GT Drivers Champion Stephane Ortelli will be driving with fellow race-winner Marc Lieb, the second car will be shared by Belgian Bert Longin and Swiss newcomer Gabriele Gardel. "This has been my first opportunity to test this season," Longin explained. After a number of successful seasons in Belgium, and a number of races for Freisinger in the FIA GT last year, he will be contesting all rounds of the Championship this year, marking his first full international season. "I think that along with Gardel, we can form a good team, and we should be fast from the beginning. This morning, Ortelli set a time of around 1:47, with the Veloqx Ferrari lapping in 1:48, and we were 1:49. I am sure we will be more competitive than last year, and it will also be easier, as we will drive together all season, and so you can build up a relationship. I already felt a big difference returning to Freisinger, as I felt immediately at home. I really like the team -- everyone works really well but also has fun."
His new team-mate, Gabriele Gardel, who was born in Italy but lives in Switzerland and races with a Swiss licence, is an experienced single-seater driver, but this will be his first season in GT racing. "I've been a professional driver for 10 years, mainly in Formula 3 and Formula 3000, but this is only my second time in a Porsche," he explained. "But so far I really like it : the people and the atmosphere, and the team is fantastic. I hope that Bert and I will have a good season."
FIRST FIA GT RUN FOR SALEEN S7-R
The Saleen S7-R, which should receive its homologation in time to take part in the 2003 season of the FIA GT Championship, ran amongst the regular FIA GT Championship cars for the first time in Barcelona. Graham Nash Motorsport had both cars on the track, with Brazilian driver Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton from Britain in one car, while the second was in the hands of two Portuguese drivers, Pedro Chaves and FIA GT regular Ni Amorin, with Miguel Ramos from Spain. The days proved extremely successful for the team, as Erdos unofficially set the fastest time, with a lap of 1:41.70.
"We had some very good testing, and we are very pleased with our performance," team owner Graham Nash said afterwards. "And it was nice to meet some of the people that have helped us to run in the FIA GT Championship."
MENX RUN NEW FERRARI 360 MODENA
Czech drivers Tomas Enge and Robert Pergl were both driving the new MENX Ferrari 360 Modena in Barcelona. "This was our first time with the car, as it is brand new and the team only received it two weeks ago," Enge explained. "My team-mate did not know the circuit, so we wanted to teach him as much as possible. He did 60 laps on the first day, while I did 15. On the second day, we did some more set-up work on the car, and we were quite successful and very pleased with our times. Pergl did a very good job, especially as he is not a professional driver. He has been driving in the Ferrari Challenge over the past two seasons, and finished a close second in the Central European region last year. The Barcelona circuit is very hard to learn, and very hard on tyres, but he did very well, which should be good for the first race. We were really happy with the whole day; we had some minor electrical problems, but they were solved overnight."
Due to other commitments, Enge will not be with the team for the first round in Barcelona. "I will be replaced by Jaroslav Janis," he explained. "I hope to be there for Magny Cours. I believe I can help the team, as I know the FIA GT Championship from having driven in occasional rounds in the past two seasons, and therefore I can give them some useful information. We were not fastest out there today, but we were very pleased with the progress we made, and hope to get nearer to the front later on." Like Enge and Pergl, 19-year old Czech driver Janis was among the Coca Cola Racing drivers in 2001, and has also competed in single-seater competition, running in the Euro Formula 3000 series last year.
EUROTECH IN ACTION IN BARCELONA
British team Eurotech, which plans to enter two Porsche 996 GT3-R cars in the 2003 season of the FIA GT Championship, had both cars on the track at Barcelona. "This is an excellent opportunity for us, as we have never been to Barcelona before -- we could really use a test like this at all the circuits !" Mark Sumpter said. "We did the Donington round last season, but the cars have been totally rebuilt since then, and we have been working on some of the new parts today. We are picking up half seconds, currently lapping around 1:51, but our target is to get to the low 1:49 laps. We think we can go under the 1:50 barrier, but we are not aiming to challenge Ortelli with a 1:47 !" Sumpter will be driving with team owner and former Lister driver Mike Jordan, a race winner in the FIA GT Championship in 2001, while the second car will be driven by David and Godfrey Jones. "We are not expecting to come to win, as we know that we have to serve our apprenticeship," Mark continued. "But the team is working really hard and we hope for some good results."
GOLLIN TRIES HIS NEW FERRARI
Fabrizio Gollin, one of the revelations of the 2002 season, tried out a BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari 550 Maranello for the first time at Barcelona. Last season, he shared a Carsport Holland Chrysler Viper GTS-R with Luca Capellari, and the two Italians will be reunited this season. "It is a fantastic car -- very fast and very nice to drive," Gollin said. "For me, it is actually easier to driver than the Viper, but partly because of that, it is much more difficult to know where the limit is. We are really hoping to go one better this season and win a race, after two podiums last year. My best time yesterday was 1:42..6, but we were mainly concentrating on tyre testing, checking a lot of different compounds from Michelin." Capellari also tested the car. "It is beautiful, and very good to drive," he commented.
SNOWDON AND VERDON-ROE TEST CREATION AUTOSPORTIF LISTER STORM
New team Creation Autosportif ran their electric blue Lister Storm during the test days, with both Bobby Verdon Roe and Peter Snowdon driving the car. "It is not going too badly," FIA GT newcomer Snowdon explained. "The car is gorgeous. As for me, I have to listen to Bobby, who is definitely my mentor at the moment. I know it will take time for me to get up to speed, so I am leaning on Bobby." Peter has had an extremely successful career in historic racing, winning the Historic Touring Car Championship twice with a Lotus Cortina, as well as wins in numerous other historic races, driving cars such as Aston Martins and Group C cars. "But I have never had to think or to work so hard as now. This is really moving up a level, and I have to settle in. As for Bobby, he was very much at home in the Lister Storm after over a season with Lister Storm Racing, and is looking forward to the season ahead.
TEAM MARANELLO CONCESSIONAIRES PLEASED WITH PROGRESS
Team Maranello Concessionaires was pleased with the progress made during the two-day Barcelona test. All four drivers, Jamie Davies, Tim Mullen, Kelvin Burt and Darren Turner, were present and shared the testing duties, continuing the development in the lead-up to the first race. "We are extremely pleased with our progress in Barcelona," team manager Rod Benoist commented. "We achieved a lot of productive on-track time, and the drivers and team are really itching to go racing." The team, racing as Veloqx Motorsport, made an impressive debut in the final two rounds of the 2002 season, with a podium finish in Estoril. "Stephane Ratel highlighted in Tuesday's press conference that 2003 is likely to be the most competitive FIA GT season ever, and we are really looking forward to a tight and tough battle right from the outset. We are also quietly confident and fully expect to challenge for wins from day one," said commercial director John Newman. The team will have its official launch on March 19th.
WIETH RACING CONTINUE TESTING
The Wieth Racing Ferrari 550 Maranello was in action during the two test days, including giving journalists guest laps on the Thursday. "It was great fun, and I think they all really enjoyed it," said German driver Wolfgang Kaufmann, who was at the wheel. The team made steady progress over the first day and during Friday morning. "We have been trying a new suspension system," Niko Wieth explained. "Our best time so far was 1:47, but our gearbox is too short for this circuit. But the car is getting steadily better." However, shortly afterwards, Austrian driver Gottfried Grasser crashed heavily, bringing their test session to a close. Grasser last drove in the FIA GT Championship at the A1 Ring in 2000, when he and Kaufmann, at the wheel of a Freisinger Motorsport Porsche 911 GT2, finished in third place.
ALDA MOTORSPORT TEST NEW CAR
After a winter spent testing in a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, Polish drivers Andrzej Dziurka and Wojciech Dobrzanski were out in the team's new Porsche 996 GT3-R in Barcelona - although they used their test car to take part in the Media Day, giving laps to numerous journalists who had turned up for the launch of the 2003 season. After an extremely busy winter, the team is looking forward to its first race in the N-GT category, having previously run in the GT class in a Porsche 911 GT2.
JMB RACING ANNOUNCES 2003 PLANS
JMB Racing, a front-runner in the N-GT category last season, and winner of the 2001 N-GT Championship, announced its plans for the 2003 season earlier this week. In parallel to the N-GT program, with two Ferrari 360 Modena cars, the French team intends to enter two Ferrari 550 Maranello cars in the GT class. These cars will be replaced by two Ferrari 575 Maranello cars in the second half of the seasons. All the cars will be using Pirelli tyres; the drivers will be announced shortly.