Stephen Errity, GT correspondent
A damp, cool and overcast Monza played host to Friday's two practice sessions for the first round of the 2012 Blancpain Endurance Series. A total of 56 cars took to the legendary Italian track to fine-tune setups and iron out teething problems ahead of Saturday's qualifying session.
The Ferrari 458 and Porsche 911 teams dominated both practice sessions, filling eight and six of the top 10 positions in practice one and two respectively. Pro-Am Cup team Black Bull Swiss Racing topped the timesheets in both sessions, with Italian gentleman driver Mario Invernizzi recording a 1:49.225 in the first run, before his professional team-mate Mirko Venturi improved to a 1:48.955 in the evening. The Kessel Racing 458 of Steffano Gattuso, Davide Rigon and Daniel Zampieri made it a Ferrari 1-2 in both sessions.
British team Mtech Racing, also running a Ferrari, is more commonly seen racing in their domestic GT series, but has made the step up to European competition in the Blancpain Series for 2012. Irishman Matt Griffin, one of the 458 GT3's development drivers, was sixth fastest in the lunchtime session, before focusing on aero balance work in the evening. He described the Ferrari as 'driveable and consistent' – and he wasn't the only Ferrari driver satisfied with his car after the day's running.
Richard Westbrook surprised no-one by being immediately on the pace in the Haribo Racing Porsche 911. He set the fourth fastest time in both sessions and declared himself totally happy with the car's setup and balance ahead of the race. This entry is well placed for a good result on Sunday, provided Westbrook's gentleman team-mates can step up to the plate. The Belgian Prospeed Competition Porsche was close behind the Haribo machine in both sessions.
The BMW Z4 teams were less happy with their lot. Marc VDS Racing's Markus Palttala and Mike Hezemans both complained of a severe lack of straight-line pace, despite running a typically low-downforce Monza setup. World Endurance Championship and GT1 racer Yelmer Buurman will now be appearing in the Blancpain Series as well this season, having been added to the Vita4one BMW line-up at the last minute. He could only take the car to 12th and 31st respectively in the two sessions, further underlining that the BMW teams are on the back foot at this track.
No less than 10 of McLaren's all-new MP4-12C GT3 car are present at Monza, and the Boutsen Ginion and ART Grand Prix cars both delivered top-ten pace in practice, courtesy of Nico Verdonck and Duncan Tappy respectively. But while the speed is there, the durability required for endurance racing success may not yet be. Le Mans-winning Australian David Brabham, also driving an MP4-12C for the American United Autosports team, admitted there were still reliability concerns hanging over the car, particularly in light of Hexis Racing's troubled GT1 World outing last weekend.
Belgian team KRK Racing was the leading Mercedes SLS AMG squad in both sessions – Denis Retera was 11th fastest at lunchtime, while veteran Austrian Karl Wendlinger went one second and one place better in the evening session.
MotoGP star Valentino Rossi was already drawing a sizeable crowd around the Kessel Racing garage, and there was no missing him on track either, thanks to a suitably flourescent livery on the #46 Ferrari 458 Italia. He looked fast and committed all the way around the track, and with the 458 Italia looking particularly suited to Monza's sweeping curves and high-speed straights, could make a real impression in Sunday's race.
As dusk fell on Monza's Royal Park, the whir of airguns could still be heard from the pitlane as teams relentlessly perfected the tyre and driver-changing techniques. A rain shower had hit the track shortly after the second practice session ended, and it seems likely that rain will intervene at some point during Saturday's qualifying or Sunday's three-hour race.