Weather: Cool and sunny
The FIA GT Championship makes its first visit to Watkins Glen this weekend for the second half of its US double header. The race, round nine of this year's FIA GT Championship, marks the return of world championship sportscar racing to the New York State venue after an absence of nearly 20 years. The renowned 3.37-mile New York State track proved an immediate hit with the visiting drivers from Europe in today's free practice sessions. Chrysler Viper driver Olivier Beretta, current leader of the FIA GT Championship with Karl Wendlinger, said : "The track is fantastic. It's totally different to what we are used to in Europe."
Vincent Vosse, who finished third at Homestead in the lead Chamberlain Chrysler, compared the track to the legendary Spa-Francorchamps in his native Belgium. "It's as good as Spa or even better," he said. "It's a fabulous circuit and very challenging. Out of the esses you're pulling sixth gear - that's 160mph."
Jean-Philippe Belloc, who shares the second ORECA Viper with American David Donohue, was also marvelling at the use of sixth gear for a change. "It's the first time I can remember using sixth gear since Le Mans - and in a corner too," said the Frenchman.
Konrad Porsche driver Mike Hezemans said he could not recall a faster circuit apart from Le Mans. Lap speeds are already over 110mph. "Even the chicane is fourth gear," he said. Hezemans is aiming to emulate his father Toine, who won the Watkins Glen Six Hours in 1978 driving a Loos Porsche 935. "I don't remember much about it," said Toine, who is at the Glen this weekend, "except that the driver's door fell off with an hour to go. In those days, they let you drive on when that kind of thing happened." Jürgen Barth, who works for the organisation of the FIA GT Championship, was also competing that day. He finished fifth in a Dick Barbour-entered Porsche.
The FIA GT Championship entry has swelled to 21 cars for Watkins Glen. Nine American entries, competing in an invitational class, bolster the 12 cars that have made the trip from Europe. Leading the American entry is the Schumacher Racing Porsche 911 GT2, which claimed class honours at Homestead last weekend. The Reiser-Callas team has brought along one of its Porsche 911 RSRs for team owner Joel Reiser and former Porsche factory driver David Murry. Andy Pilgrim, 1997 Professional SportsCar GT Champion, drives a GT3-spec Chevrolet Corvette for the Specter Werkes team of Jeff Nowicki. Pilgrim is more usually seen driving a factory Corvette C5-R, but the manufacturer decided to lend the services of the expatriate Briton to Nowicki's privateer team for the weekend.
Jacobs Motorsport has entered two Ford Mustang Cobra Rs in the event. Team boss Michael Jacobs was originally planning to run a French-built Courage-Chevrolet C41 sports-prototype in the United States Road Racing Championship round originally scheduled for this meeting. "Everyone was psyched up to do the event, so we decided to race anyway," he said. "The Mustang may not be the best choice for the FIA GT series, but it's what we've got."
The SSZ Stradales marque from Northern Wisconsin makes its FIA GT Championship debut this weekend. One of the Nissan-powered tubeframe cars has been entered by the Racing Technologies team. The car is being repaired overnight after Mark Knepper crashed in today's second free practice session. The oldest car in the FIA GT field is Glen Seward's Chevy Corvette C4. This car has a long and varied motorsport pedigree dating back to the mid-1980s. "We're out to have a good time," he said.
There are a number of line-up changes among the FIA GT Championship regulars. Emmanuel Clerico, who anchored the Belmondo team's victory at Homestead last weekend, is on duty in the Lamborghini Supertrophy at Barcelona this weekend. His place is taken by Viper regular Luca Drudi, who came on the recommendation of the ORECA team, for which he finished second in the Hockenheim FIA GT round in June. Drudi has yet to drive the car after team mate Paul Belmondo went off in the opening session when the right-front hub failed. The car was not badly damaged. Rael remains with the Belmondo team, but is joined this weekend by Steven Pfeffer, a racing school instructor at Watkins Glen.
Porsche expert Michel Ligonnet has his first run in a Chrysler Viper after splitting with the Freisinger team. "The Viper is a very forgiving car; it makes you feel comfortable," said the Frenchman, who shares the lead Chamberlain entry with Vincent Vosse and Xavier Pompidou. "I like the engine especially - it feels so responsive when you are used to turbo lag with a Porsche."
The German Konrad team's second Porsche 911 GT2 has one new driver. Diez Villarroel, who drives with the team in the Spanish GT series, teams up with American Charlie Slater. The car missed the second session after a fiery engine failure in the opening period of free practice. Engine problems also meant the number eight Haberthur Porsche of Patrick Vuillaume and Luca Cappellari missed today's practice sessions. The car will run tomorrow and both drivers were given dispensation to learn the track in the Swiss team's second car.
Free Practice Sessions
Fastest over today's three hours of free practice was Belloc. His best time of 1m48.442s s in the second session shaded team mate Beretta's best from the opening period by just over two tenths. "We had some problems today, but the end of the session the car was very good," said Belloc. Beretta was sixth tenths off his first session best in the second period after a spin into the gravel. "It was my mistake," he said.
Third fastest overall and best Porsche was the Freisinger 911 GT2 driven by Wolfgang Kaufmann and Bob Wollek. "I'm happy with my time," said Kaufmann, who set a best time of 1m50.407s. "But I'm not happy that we've got not chance to beat the Vipers. This is definitely a Viper track."
For this round of the FIA GT Championship, the following handicap weights will be applied :
- Chrysler Viper GTS-R No.° 1 : +100 kg - Chrysler Viper GTS-R No.° 2 : +70 kg - Chrysler Viper GTS-R No.° 18 : + 60 kg - Chrysler Viper GTS-R No.° 21 : + 25 kg - Porsche 911 GT2 No.° 15 : +25 kg - Porsche 911 GT2 No.° 6 : + 15 kg - Chrysler Viper GTS-R No.° 19 : + 10 kg