Round seven, and the FIA GT competitors have returned to the A1-Ring Austria, set amongst some of the most spectacular scenery visited by the Championship. Nestled amid the mountains, the track is 4.319 km long, with some impressive corners and changes of elevation. "You can see why Formula One has so many problems at the first corner," N-GT championship leader Patrice Goueslard said. "It's uphill, and really tight."
Weather Friday dawned grey and wet, with sunshine and showers forecast for the whole weekend, and the possibility of heavy rain in the afternoon. After a wet first session, the rain had stopped in time for the second free practice.
26 cars are entered for this seventh round of the FIA GT, including 16 GT cars and 10 N-GTs. Although neither the Marcos Mantara LM600 nor the Ferrari Maranello or Modenas are present, the field has been strengthened by the arrival of two Lamborghini GTs. The #23 is driven by Gunther Kronseder and Jo Jobst, while the #24 will be shared by Bernhard Muller and Michael Trunk, who were regular FIA GT competitors in 1997 and 1998 at the wheel of their Krauss Motorsport Porsche 911 GT2. The GT field also sees the return of the MMI Chrysler Viper GTS-R, driven by French FFSA GT regulars François Lafon and Jean-Pierre Jarier.
Two major international drivers are in Austria this weekend, with Tom Coronel making his FIA GT debut at the wheel of the #25 Carsport Holland, while Stephane Ortelli, GT2 pole-setter here in 1998, is driving in the N-GT class, sharing the #51 Pennzoil Quaker State G-Force Porsche 996 GT3-R with Robert Nearn. Michel Neugarten has left the team, stating that the current development of the Dunlop tyres does not allow him to compete for the N-GT title with those drivers on Michelins, and he thus prefers to keep his budget for 2001.
A grand total of seven Austrian drivers will be taking part in Sunday's 500 km race. In the GT class they include the father and son team of Horst Felbermayr Sr and Jr, returning to the #1 Chamberlain Motorsport Chrysler Viper GTS-R, FIA GT regular Franz Konrad on home territory with his #5 Konrad Motorsport Porsche 911 GT2, Manfred Jurasz at the wheel of the #27 Orlando Porsche 911 GT2 while 21-year old local star Gottfried Armin Grasser makes his endurance debut alongside Wolfgang Kaufmann in the #3 Freisinger Porsche. In the N-GT class, two Austrians will drive for the RWS/Red Bull team, with Dieter Quester making a return to the FIA GT at the wheel of the #77 Porsche 996 GT3-R, while Hans-Jorg Hofer drives the #79 car.
Coronel's FIA GT debut Tom Coronel, one of the Netherland's most popular and successful drivers, is making his FIA GT debut at the A1-Ring, filling in for David Hart alongside Mike Hezemans in the #25 Carsport Holland Chrysler Viper GTS-R. Japanese F3 champion in 1997, he won the Formula Nippon Championship last year, as well as finishing fifth in the Japanese GT series. This year he raced at Le Mans under the Racing for Holland banner, with Jan Lammers and Peter Kox. "It's my first time in a Viper, and my first time in Austria, but with Mike Hezemans, and the Dutch team, it shouldn't be so difficult. And the Chief Mechanic was my mechanic back in 1992 when I won the Dutch Touring Car Championship in a BMW !" Tom is hopeful for this weekend, which also sees the Marlboro Masters take place at Zandvoort. "It has traditionally been a good weekend for me -- I won in 1996 at Sugo, I won the Masters itself in 1997, and in 1998 and 1999, I won GT races at Fuji."
Ortelli's back ! Stephane Ortelli has been one of the stars of the FIA GT Championship throughout its existence, with podium finishes in both GT1 and GT2 classes as well as some wonderful pole-position clinching laps. This weekend, the 1998 Le Mans winner is making a one-off appearance in the N-GT class, replacing Michel Neugarten at G-Force. "I started endurance racing with Robert Nearn back in '95 and '96, and he's a good friend, so it's good to be here to drive with him again and to help him in the championship," Stephane said. This is the first time he has driven the Porsche 996 GT3-R. "But it's very close to the Porsche Supercup, so I should be able to adapt quickly. And I know the track well -- I was here just three weeks ago. The N-GT class is very close and competitive and it should be a good race -- to finish second would be perfect, although a win would be fantastic."
Third time lucky for Lamborghini ? e KRT Lamborghini GT was entered for Thboth the Silverstone and Budapest rounds of the FIA GT Championship, Thbut has not as yet taken part in a race. "There is so much work Thinvolved in developing a new race car," said Bernhard Muller, who is Thto share the #24 with his usual team-mate Michael Trunk. "The car Thlooks promising in testing, but we'll have to see what it's like when Thwe're not just looking out of the window but competing against the Thothers."
Busy weekend for Vosse Vincent Vosse has a full weekend planned, as he is driving in both the FIA GT race and the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps in his native Belgium. Having been granted permission to miss the qualifying sessions by the Stewards of the Meeting, he did the first part of the first free practice session today before returning to Spa. "I hope to be back on Sunday morning for the warm-up. If not, Emmanuel Clerico will take my place."
First practice session : Carsport Viper fastest in the wet The session was officially declared wet, with light, persistent rain falling as the cars went out, although the weather improved gradually throughout the 90 minutes. The session was dominated by the #25 Carsport Holland and #12 Paul Belmondo Chrysler Vipers, with fastest overall time of 1:44.847 going to Mike Hezemans in the #25 Viper. However, his new team-mate, Tom Coronel, was only two tenths of a second slower. "It's a nice car to drive, you can really play with it -- I didn't expect it to be so nice ! If the conditions stay like this, the others might as well go home -- they've got no chance !" Coronel said afterwards.
The leading Paul Belmondo Racing car was just half a second off the Dutchmen's pace, with the Konrad Motorsport Porsche 911 GT2 third, ahead of the MMI Jarier/Lafon Chrysler Viper.
GT Championship leader Lister had a difficult first session, with the cars finishing in 5th and 19th places. "The car was not suited to the wet conditions." Julian Bailey explained. "We had a lot of problems, and changed a lot of things. At the end we put on the wrong tyres, and I'm sure that could have made two or three seconds difference. Basically, we've never been here, so we've got to dial the car in. And the 100 kg don't help. I tried the track on the Playstation, and it was OK there -- it's a good way to learn the corners, although my son kept beating me !"
N-GT saw another battle between the #77 RWS Red Bull and #52 Larbre Competition Porsche 996 GT3s, with Riccitelli less than two hundredths of a second faster than Bouchut at the end of the session. The #55 ART Engineering car was third, with the team confident of a good result this weekend.
The rain and lack of grip saw many cars spin off the circuit. "First I went into the gravel, and lost 40 minutes in the pits cleaning the car, and then I spun," said Horst Felbermayr Jr., placing the #1 Chamberlain Viper eighth fastest. "But it's a real Viper track, especially in the wet, and the car is very good to drive, very neutral." Christian Ried also left the track, damaging the front of the #7 Proton Competition Porsche 911 GT2, and both Freisinger Porsches had moments in the gravel. "The circuit was very dirty, with lots of gravel on the track ,but it should be OK in the second session." Wolfgang Kaufmann said.
Second practice session : Carsport Viper also fastest in the dry ! With the track drying rapidly and the rain temporarily stopped, times were much faster in the second session. The #25 Carsport Holland Chrysler Viper demoted the #12 Paul Belmondo Racing Viper to second after thirty minutes, and continued to improve on their time, finally lapping in 1:30.177. The Listers also improved, with the cars finishing third and fifth, two and a half seconds off the leading Viper's pace. The #14 and #15 Lister Storms were separated by the #11 Belmondo/Gosselin Chrysler Viper, with the #3 Freisinger car the leading Porsche in sixth. The rain started again towards the end of the 90 minutes, preventing any further improvements.
In N-GT, the #51 Ortelli/Nearn G-Force Porsche joined the fight between the #77 RWS and #52 Larbre Competition Porsche 996 GT3s, with roughly a second separating them. Riccitelli, in the #77 RWS Red Bull Porsche 996 GT3-R, set the best time, however, with a lap of 1:35.263.