The first round of the 2003 LG Super Racing Weekend series is approaching fast, and the entry lists for both the FIA GT and European Touring Car Championship are beginning to take shape. Both Championship battles should be fascinating, with new cars, new drivers and plenty of changes since the last round of 2002.
DELETRAZ AND PICCINI SIGN FOR LISTER RACING
Four-times race winners in 2003, Jean-Denis Deletraz and Andrea Piccini announced last Friday that they would be driving for British team Lister Racing for the new season of the FIA GT Championship. Deletraz has been a frequent competitor in the Championship since the first season, in 1997. Teaming up with recent F3000 graduate Andrea Piccini at the wheel of the a Ferrari 550 Maranello, the Italo-Swiss paring proceeded to challenge for the Championship, winning the Jarama, Anderstorp, Oschersleben and Estoril rounds. "It was a big shock when we heard that we would not be driving for BMS Scuderia Italia this year," Deletraz explained. "But this is an excellent opportunity for us. Laurence Pearce has been fantastic, and I would really like to thank him for everything he has done to make this happen. We have had long discussions with him, and we have a guarantee that the two cars will be identical, and that each will be free to follow their own strategy.
There will be no team orders." Deletraz and Piccini quickly proved to be a strong pairing last year. "I think Andrea and I make a good team. We know each other well, and work well together. I am glad we will be driving together again." With two strong line-ups - Jamie Campbell-Walter and FIA GT newcomer Nathan Kinch in one Storm, and Deletraz and Piccini in the other, Lister Racing will be putting in a strong challenge for the Championship title, which the British team previously won in 2000.
SUGDEN AND HANSON FOR EMKA RACING
Despite early reports that Steve O'Rourke, forced to give up racing due to health problems, would not enter his EMKA Racing Porsche 996 GT3-R in the 2003 FIA GT Championship, the car will be present on the grid in Barcelona. O'Rourke's long-time team-mate, Tim Sugden, will be at the wheel, accompanied by FIA GT newcomer James Hanson. "The deal has been agreed, I just have to actually sign the contract," Hanson explained. Hanson is no newcomer to the LG Super Racing Weekend series, having raced in the FIA European Touring Car Championship for the last two seasons, first for Edenbridge Motorsport and then for the Volvo S60 Racing Team last year. As for Sugden, he was a regular in the FIA GT Championship in 2000 and 2001, with O'Rourke in the EMKA Porsche. He finished the 2002 season with two excellent races for Veloqx Motorsport, rewarded with a third place finish in the final round at Estoril. The EMKA Porsche 996 GT3-R last took part in the Donington round last season, qualifying second in N-GT, with O'Rourke and Liddell at the wheel.
Hanson is looking forward to the change. "I think it'll be good with Tim in the car - I've known him for ten years, and I think we'll form a good partnership. I haven't driven the car yet - that should happen next week," the 25-year-old British driver explained. "I'll have to get used to longer races, but as both Tim and the team have plenty of experience, it should help me. Everyone tells me it is one of the best Porsche cars around, and it has had all the 2003 updates. I realise that the N-GT class is incredibly competitive, but I'm looking forward to it; it's something new, and it will give me a lot more to do on Sundays ! "
Steve O'Rourke will be managing his team, and is really looking forward to the season. "I am sure that Tim and James will go well. We have done an enormous amount of work on the car since the Donington round last year, and we have still not quite finished yet. We're aiming to win the Championship - that's the only reason to do it !"
ERDOS LOOKING FORWARD TO 2003
Brazilian driver Thomas Erdos - the first Brazilian to enter a full season of the FIA GT Championship since 1998 Champion Ricardo Zonta - will be sharing a Graham Nash Motorsport Saleen S7-R with FIA GT newcomer Mike Newton in 2003. "Testing went very well for us even though we did not get a great deal of time on track. However, Mike got some good laps in and we were all very happy with his progress," he said. "We left Barcelona confident that we can mount a respectable challenge for a consistent top five finish throughout the season. As for the Portuguese car (driven by Ni Amorim, Pedro Chaves and Miguel Ramos ) I am sure they will be regular podium contenders!" This will not be the first appearance for Erdos in the Championship; he drove for Marcos Racing International at the Donington round of the 1997 Championship, qualifying fifth with Christian Vann. The Brazilian won the British GT Championship for Graham Nash Motorsport last year, with British driver Ian McKellar, taking eight wins during the season.
The Saleen S7-R will be making its debut in the FIA GT Championship this season, with three cars on the grid, two from British team Graham Nash Motorsport, and one entered by German team Konrad Motorsport.
BALZAN SIGNS TO DRIVE FOR SCUDERIA BIGAZZI
Italian-based Scuderia Bigazzi will take part in the 2003 FIA European Touring Car Championship with two Alfa Romeo 156 Gta cars. The cars, which were driven by Eric Cayrolle and Luis Villamil during the 2002 season, will have benefited from some of the latest technical changes but will retain the H-pattern 5-speed gearbox. The team has signed only one driver so far, Alessandro Balzan, and is talking to others for the second seat; a decision is due to be announced next week. Balzan, 22-year-old, joins the long list of young drivers who will be taking part in the championship, which is an extremely unusual situation for Touring Car competitions, which normally have a majority of drivers in their thirties. Ten of the 22 competitors already registered for the 2003 FIA ETCC are still in their twenties, and five of them -- Frank Diefenbacher, Antonio Garcia, Fabio Francia, Petr Kolař and Balzan -- are between 21 and 22. Although next season will be the Scuderia Bigazzi's third year in the revived FIA ETCC, it will mark Balzan's Touring Car debut. A double Italian and European karting champion, Balzan was a race winner in the Italian Formula Renault Campus (sixth in 1988), the Italian Renault Megane Cup (1999) and the European Renault Clio 2-litre Cup (runner-up in 2001). Last year, he was the Italian champion of the Alfa Romeo 147 Cup.
"The logical step was to move to the Italian Super Production Championship,"," he explained, "But both my sponsor and myself were aiming for a high-level international series with good TV coverage. The FIA ETCC has these requisites and also gives me the opportunity to stay with Alfa Romeo." Balzan, who will be competing in the Independents Trophy, has a good knowledge of the racetracks visited by the championship thanks to his experience in the Clio 2-litre Cup. "I know most of them, except for Barcelona, Anderstorp and Oschersleben. This means I will be able to concentrate on learning the car. I'm aware that being a rookie, life will be hard in the Championship, but I hope I might do well and fight for the Independents Trophy."
COUTO: A STAR OF THE FUTURE?
Andre Couto from Macau will be the first non-European driver to compete in the FIA European Touring Car Championship. Couto, 27 years old, is facing an important turning point in his racing career. After a number of seasons in single-seater categories, with considerable success, he is now ready for his first year under a roof, in a PRO Motorsport Honda Civic Type-R. "The FIA ETCC cars are definitely very different from those I've driven so far," he says. "Although when I first tested the Honda in Barcelona last week, I knew what to expect thanks to my experience in the Macau Guia Race."
Last November, Couto drove a Super Production BMW 320i for Carly Motors in his home Touring Car race. Despite his lack of experience in such a form of competition, he was soon fighting FIA ETCC star Nicola Larini for second place. "It was great fight, which ended when I had a big shunt up against the wall at the Mandarin corner. At that moment, I acted as if I was driving a F3 car, but saloons can't manage that bend flat out--"
During the official FIA ETCC test in Barcelona, Couto set a promising time of 1:56.26, despite the transmission problems suffered by the Japanese car. "I did not find difficult to drive the car, though I know I have so much to learn. I was happy with the way the team worked and we were also very pleased by the best lap time, that came quite easily on my only proper run." During the season, Scotland-based PRO Motorsport will be assisted by Honda Sport's official tuner, JAS Motorsport. "I think that both, the car and myself have a lot of potential still to be exploited and therefore I'm very much looking forward to my first season against the most celebrated Touring Cars stars."
ART ENGINEERING TO DEVELOP VOLVO S60
The Volvo S60 that Rickard Rydell and Sandro Sardelli drove during the official ETCC test in Barcelona was still in the same configuration as during the final 2002 round in Estoril, except for a few suspension changes made by the Italian team. "That is only the first of the many changes we will carry out before the beginning of the season," team principal Paolo Alessandrini explained. ART Engineering will not only be running the Swedish cars, built by UK company Prodrive, but has also been appointed by the factory to design and produce all the chassis modifications. "We have established a technical cooperation with the Sweden-based Flash Engineering," said Alessandrini. "We will produce chassis parts, while they will work on the resin components. And we both will supply each other, while new engines are being built and developed by Volvo Motorsport itself." During the 2002 season, Rydell and the Volvo S60 proved to be very competitive, but something was lacking in order to beat Alfa Romeo and BMW. On many occasions, the missing factor was just luck.
"The car has a quite good basis, it needs just to be developed. We are confident that Volvo Motorsport will find the power that was missing last year; the new engine coupled with the Hewland sequential gearbox should make a big difference," Alessandrini explained. Volvo Motorsport's chief Olle Odsell commented: "We are quite optimistic. We have the feeling that our teams, ART Engineering and Flash Engineering, may do well, despite their limited resources compared to those of the works teams."