McLaren finished 1-2 in the second of Saturday's two practice sessions for the Blancpain Endurance Series season finale at Navarra in Spain, courtesy of customer teams HEXIS Racing and Gulf Racing. The British company's MP4-12Cs also put in a strong showing in the earlier first session, with Gulf third and HEXIS fourth. Elsewhere attention is focused on the battle between title-contending teams Marc VDS (BMW) and WRT (Audi) ahead of tomorrow's three-hour race.
I hope it's good for us, but the BMWs and Audis always seem to hold back a bit before qualifying, so we'll see.
“We're not really serving as 'tail gunners' here this weekend, it's more for the team title,” said Jarvis during the session. “We're going to try and win the race.” Mies in the title-contending #1 car was seventh-fastest in the first session and full of confidence. “The pressure is off us, I think,” he stated. “We've been very strong over the second half of the season, after having had bad luck at the beginning. Marc VDS are very strong, too, but I think we're the better team overall. The Audi is working reasonably well on this track, but we do need to take more risks than some of the others under braking if we want to make passes.”
The #1 car progressed from seventh-fastest in the first session to third-quickest in the second, and Mies' co-driver Stephane Ortelli added: “We didn't go so well here in the GT1 World Championship races earlier in the year, as it's mainly second-gear corners, but the car is allowed a bigger restrictor in Blancpain and the handling has been very good so far – we did a good time on used tyres.” Unlike some other drivers in the field, Ortelli professed to enjoy racing at Navarra. “It's very technical,” he explained. “It looks easy, but it's quite tricky. Sometimes it's better to have a tight track like this rather than third- and fourth-gear corners that are flat and easy for everyone.”
Over at Marc VDS BMW, team manager and title-contending driver Bas Leinders was less than impressed with WRT's approach to the season finale. “I don't think adding another car like this is really in the spirit of this championship,” he said. The #3 car he shares with fellow drivers' title contenders Maxime Martin and Markus Palttala will have to take a 10-place grid penalty after tomorrow's qualifying session, due to an incident with one of the WRT cars during the last event at the Nurburgring. But Leinders feels this is only part of the reason his team is facing a challenging race tomorrow: “We received extra ballast weight after the Spa 24 Hours, but we could compensate for that at the Nurburgring, as it's a fast, flowing circuit. But here in Navarra there's a lot of hard braking and acceleration, and whenever we brake or accelerate, we're suffering.” The team ended Saturday with some work to do, finishing only ninth quickest overall in both sessions.
Mathias Lauda, driver for fellow BMW team Vita4One, was more optimistic. “Our cars were quick here at the GT1 World round, qualifying second and third,” he said. “The BMW works very well in the hot conditions, so the podium is our goal this weekend. I much prefer driving this car in long-distance races, the GT1 sprints are too short. Spa 24 was my most enjoyable race this year – it was great to drive that track in a car with so much downforce.” From 15th quickest in the first session, Lauda's Frank Kechele was able to get the German team's car up to fourth overall, and quickest of the BMWs, in the second.
The #18 Black Falcon Mercedes SLS, which finished second overall at the last race in the Nurburgring, welcomes a new driver at this round – newly crowned GT3 European Series champion Dominik Baumann. The young Austrian is evaluating options for next season and was making the most of his time in the car. “I know this track from racing it in GT3 this year, so I'm able to help the team a bit to find a good setup,” he said. “We'll have to see for next year, but this is definitely a good team to be with – they have experienced drivers like Jeroen Bleekemolen and Sean Edwards, so I could learn a lot.” Together with third driver Cheng Cong-Fu, they improved the Mercedes' position from 25th in the first session to eight in the second.
Black Falcon were beaten to the win by the #75 Prospeed Porsche at the Nurburgring, but driver Marc Hennerici was not happy with how the 911 is handling the tight and technical Spanish circuit. “There are a lot of braking zones here where you've still got some steering lock on, and you need good downforce for that, which we don't have. Also, the straights here are not very long, so we can't really use our straight-line speed advantage over the others.” His observations were borne out by 19th and 23rd-fastest times respectively in the two sessions.
GT1 World Championship frontrunners HEXIS racing have entered a single car for this round of the Blancpain Series, with a view to entering the championship full-time in 2013. A star driver line-up of Fred Makowiecki, Stef Dusseldorp and Alvaro Parente has many tipping them for the race win tomorrow. The car was fourth-quickest in the first session and fastest in the second.
Former British F3 champion Parente sounded a note of caution, however: “I hope it's good for us, but the BMWs and Audis always seem to hold back a bit before qualifying, so we'll see.” He also commented on the slightly different Balance of Performance regulations applied to the McLaren in the Blancpain Series compared to the GT1 World Championship: “The car is stiffer, nut the ride height is higher and we also have endurance brakes and a bigger restrictor. Plus of course we're on Michelin tyres here as opposed to Pirellis in GT1.”
Tomorrow sees an hour-long, three-part qualifying session to set the grid, ahead of a three-hour race that will decide who wins the 2012 Blancpain Endurance Series drivers' and team's championships.