Zhuhai Gears Up For FIA GT Championship Round
Zhuhai International Circuit (ZIC) is gearing up to host a round of the prestigious FIA GT Championship from November 12 to 14, 2004. The three- hour race will be part of a full weekend of racing and spectator activities at the 4.3km track which is the heart of motorsport in China's Pearl River Delta.
Just across the border from Macau and only 90 minutes from Hong Kong by ferry, ZIC has the capacity to house over 80,000 spectators and the November race weekend is the highlight of its busy racing year.
The FIA GT Championship has been Europe's major sportscar series since its inception in 1997 and a round in China for the first time since 1999 is part of its return to a world stage. The race on the Zhuhai International Circuit is one of two rounds outside Europe in 2004, and that number could double for next season.
The championship is fought out by real GT racers derived from road-going sportscars, such as the Ferrari 550 Maranello, its successor, the 575M, and from America, the truck-engined Chrysler Viper and the Saleen supercar. These cars compete for outright honours in the GT category, while a secondary class, known as N-GT, is the domain of Porsche's eternal 911 and the Ferrari 360 Modena.
The GT contenders retain the silhouette and the chassis and engine of the street vehicle, but everything else is either modified or made from scratch. For example, no one part of the suspension on the Ferrari 550 Maranello, which has been developed for competition by the famed Prodrive Engineering race and rally conglomerate in the UK, are carried over from the road car. These cars produce in the region 600bhp and have the capability to nudge 200mph (320km/h) on the longest straights.
The N-GT cars are less heavily modified - Porsche's 911 GT3-RSR is effectively made on the production line. They are aerodynamically less sophisticated, run on narrow wheels and tyres, and their engines push out in the region of 460bhp.
Ferraris have dominated the grid in this year's FIA GT Championship. Three of the Prodrive-built 550 Maranellos are entered by the BMS Scuderia Italia team, a player in Formula 1 from 1988 to 1993, while five examples of the 575, which carries the GTC moniker in racing trim, have competed in the series. Two are entered by the Italian GPC Squadra Corse team, which was set up for this season, and three by the French-based JMB Racing organisation.
Scuderia Italia has already retained the teams' and drivers' titles it first won last season. Italians Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari claimed the drivers' crown with two rounds left to run after a sequence of mid- season victories, which included a victory the blue-riband Spa 24 Hours round. Matteo Bobbi, champion in 2003, and Swiss Gabriele Gardel are also race winners this season.
The 575GTC has been developed at the behest of the Ferrari factory by the Italian N-technology organisation better known for masterminding Alfa Romeo's touring car success over the past decade. The car made a winning debut at Estoril last year and notched up its first victory of this season at Donington Park in June. That win came courtesy of former grand prix racer Karl Wendlinger and Brazilian Jaime Melo Jr. Wendlinger is now partnered by another driver from Brazil, former Minardi F1 racer Tarso Marques.
The GPC Squadra Corse team has been a consistent points scorer with its pair of 575GTCs. Former grand prix racers Emanuele Naspetti and Gianni Morbidelli, a sometime Ferrari driver, share one car, while Fabio Babini and Philipp Peter drive the other. The team's best result to date is second place at the Spa 24 Hours, when another ex-F1 man came on board in the form of Mika Salo.
The Saleen S7R was allowed into the FIA GT Championship at the start of last season and became a race winner this year. The Konard Motorsport team has been at the forefront of the Saleen attack since the beginning and has now picked up three victories together with former DTM touring car stars Uwe Alzen and Michael Bartels, who compete under the banner of AB Performance Racing. A second car is driven by Walter Lechner Jr, who has three pole positions to his name, Toni Seiler and team owner Franz Konrad. The British RML squad (formerly Ray Mallock Limited) also runs a pair of Saleens, while the Graham Nash Motorsport squad competes with a solo car.
The Chrysler or Dodge Viper GTS-R was once the dominant force in FIA GTs - with the French ORECA team it won the last fixture at Zhuhai. The Dutch Zwaan's Racing team is now the leading entrant of car that began its competition career back in 1996.
Two teams dominate the N-GT division. The Freisinger Motorsport squad, which has claimed the title for the past two years, from Germany is Porsche's representative in the series, while GPC runs a Ferrari 360GTC with strong factory support. Freisinger has won races with both its front- line driver pairings. Germans Sascha Maassen, 1994 Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix winner, and Lucas Luhr have been brought into the Freisinger attack this year and join former Le Mans 24 Hours winner Stephane Ortelli and Frenchman Emmanuel Collard. The team also runs a third car for the all-Russian crew of Alexei Vasiliev and Nikolai Fomenko.
GPC has often had the fastest car this year, but has failed to translate that pace into the kind of form required to challenge the Freisinger drivers for the championship. Christian Pescatori leads the GPC driver line- up and has shared the team's solo 360GTC with a series of team mates.
Series organiser, Stephane Ratel has informed ZIC that the Maserati MC12 (run by AF Corse) and the Lamborghini Murcielago R-GT (run by DAMS) will make the trip to China. The Maserati won the Oschersleben round in Germany, while the Lamborghini took third place in Valencia, Spain.
The high-profile race is the second FIA championship event to be held in China this year after the first Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix in September, and the weekend will include a host of support races including events for sports, saloon and production cars, and the Super Star Formula Campus Challenge Race for up-and-coming single seater drivers.
Further information and updates can be found on the ZIC official website at www.zic.com.cn. FIA GT Championship information is at www.fiagt.com