Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
Michael Bartels and Yelmer Buurman moved a step closer to claiming the 2012 FIA GT1 World Championship with a dominant victory at today's Qualifying Race on the Slovakia Ring, ahead of their Vita4One team-mates Mathias Lauda and Niki Mayr-Melnhof in second. This was the championship's second visit of the year to the Eastern European circuit, after planned rounds in China were cancelled.
The BMW Z4 duo had taken pole position in the morning qualifying session, and Bartels held his place off the grid, just ahead of championship rival Markus Winkelhock in the #38 All-Inkl Mercedes SLS. Lauda started the race third, and he, too, maintained position off the grid. Fourth-place starter Laurens Vanthoor in the WRT Audi R8 was less fortunate, however: he had been shuffled down to eighth by the time the field had cleared the first corner.
Instead, it was Vanthoor's team-mate Oliver Jarvis in the sister Audi who ran fourth in the opening stages, before a left-rear puncture put paid to his chances and forced retirement. Vanthoor set about recovering his lost positions, and was back up to fifth, behind Thomas Jager's All-Inkl Mercedes, after 15 minutes or so of racing. Up front, Winkelhock occasionally looked like he might pounce on Bartel for the lead, but the top five held station throughout the opening stint until the mandatory pit window opened. The first and second-place cars pitted on the same lap, had almost identical stops, and rejoined in the order they came in.
It was a different story in third and fourth, though. Lauda was on a charge and stayed out on track until the very end of the pitstop window. His car looked poised to challenge for second as he came in to hand over to co-driver Niki Mayr-Melnhof. But a slow getaway instead saw the BMW fall behind the #37 Mercedes, now being driven by Nicky Pastorelli in third place. Mayr-Melnhof was not to be deterred, however – not only did he repass Pastorelli for third during his stint, he also caught and passed second-place Marc Basseng, who had taken over the #38 Mercedes from Winkelhock, and was almost on the tail of Buurman in the leading BMW by the time the chequered flag came down.
A slow stop from the WRT team as Laurens Vanthoor handed the R8 over to Stephane Ortelli denied the pair a chance to fight for victory, and they eventually came home fifth behind the BMW and Mercedes duos. Drivers of other brands entered in the GT1 World Championship barely got a look in during this qualifying race: the ever-reliable Peter Kox raced the #25 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo to sixth, ahead of the seventh-place Ferrari 458 of Toni Vilander, who had an entertaining battle with HEXIS McLaren's Fred Makowiecki in the closing stages of the race. The Frenchman finished just ahead of his McLaren team-mate Gregoire Demoustier in ninth, while Enzo Ide in the second AF Corse Ferrari rounded out the top 10 finishers.