The seventh season of the FIA GT Championship got underway today, at the Circuit de Catalunya, near Barcelona in Spain. 37 cars are due to take part in Sunday's three-hour, 500 km race, with 18 competing in the GT category and 19 in the N-GT category. "This is going to be one of the most exciting seasons ever," Championship Promoter Stephane Ratel said during this morning's driver briefing.
Although the day started off frosty and cold, the temperature has risen steadily and bright sunshine accompanied the cars and drivers during the two 90 minute free practice sessions.
* 2001 FIA GT Champion Jean-Philippe Belloc has returned to Larbre Competition to drive the nr 1 Chrysler Viper GTS-R for this race, with his former team-mate Christophe Bouchut. "It's just for this race, but in motorsport, you never know," Belloc said.
* Belgian driver Anthony Kumpen has joined Force One, to partner his 2002 team-mate Mike Hezemans behind the wheel of the nr 5 Chrysler Viper. They shared a Carsport Holland Chrysler Viper GTS-R last season, winning the Donington round.
* Christian Pescatori is down to drive the nr 10 JMB Racing Ferrari 550 Maranello, with his 2001 N-GT Championship-winning team-mate David Terrien, and Boris Derichebourg
* At just 20 years of age, Lister driver Nathan Kinch is apparently the youngest driver in this year's Championship. He cannot, however, become the youngest race-winner, as that record is currently held by Jeroen Bleekemolen, who was 19 when he stepped onto the top step of the podium for Carsport Holland
* Due to having an arm in plaster, Stephane Ortelli will not be allowed to drive this weekend by order of the Stewards of the Meeting. He is replaced at Freisinger Motorsport by one of his 2002 team-mates, Sascha Maassen of Germany. "But I will stay here to support my team this weekend," reigning N-GT Champion Ortelli said.
* A third Russian driver is taking part in the Championship, with Rustem Teregulov, sharing the wheel of the nr 62 G Tec Porsche 996 GT3-RS, with Richard Kaye. Alexei Vasiliev and Nicolaj Fomenko, who have been with the Championship since 2000 are racing with RWS Yukos Motorsport this season.
* Additional entries for this race include the nr 63 Motor Competicion Porsche 996 GT3-RS car, driven by Luis Villalba and Francesc Gutierrez, both from Spain and the nr 64 AB Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-RS, from Italy, which will be driven by Antonio de Castro, Renato Premoli and Bruno Barbaro.
* For this race, no penalty weights will be carried. From Round 2, at Magny Cours, the top three finishers in both categories will carry weights, with 40, 30 and 20 kg in GT and 20, 15 and 10 kg in N-GT
* It should be remembered that this year sees the new points system adopted, with points going to the top eight in both categories, following the scale 10- 8 -- 6 --5 -- 4 -- 3- 2- 1. This year also sees the FIA GT Championship revert to two 45-minute qualifying sessions, with the combined time setting the starting grid for Sunday's race.
First Free Practice Session : BMS Scuderia Italia and Team Maranello Concessionaires
The first practice session was the first chance to see all the 2003 FIA GT Championship cars in action. After ninety minutes of non-stop running round the 4.73 km track, the top six in the GT category included three Lister Storms, two Ferrari 550 Maranello cars and a Chrysler Viper. In N-GT, a similar selection included five Ferrari 360 Modena cars and one Porsche 996 GT3-RS.
The best time was set by the nr 22 BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari 550 Maranello, of Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari. The two Italians, who moved to BMS this year after driving a Chrysler Viper last year, set a best time of 1:43.125, 0.424 seconds faster than the nr 14 Lister Storm of Campbell-Walter and Kinch. The second Lister, of Piccini and Deletraz, was fourth fastest, just behind the nr 1 Larbre Competition Chrysler Viper of Belloc and Bouchut. New team Creation Autosportif was fifth fastest, with the Lister Storm of Verdon-Roe and Snowdon, with the BMS Ferrari 550 Maranello of Italians Biagi and Bobbi sixth. The nr 10 JMB Racing Ferrari 550 Maranello stopped after just two laps with an engine failure, and was not able to take part in the afternoon session.
In N-GT, Team Maranello Concessionaires dominated the session, setting the two fastest times. The nr 89 Ferrari 360 Modena of Kelvin Burt and Darren Turner set the best time, 1:45.849, with the nr 88 of Davies and Mullen less than half a second slower. The nr 52 JMB Racing Ferrari Modena of Bertolini and De Simone was third fastest, ahead of the Czech MenX Ferrari of Enge and Pergl. Leading Porsche was the nr 50 Freisinger Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-RS, driven by Lieb and Maassen, in fifth place, with a best time of 1:48.419 with the brand-new car. Newcomers Autopalace were sixth fastest, with a Ferrari 360 Modena in the hands of Frenchmen Gomez and Hiesse.
The nr 54 Cirtek Motorsport Porsche only managed four laps before an engine failure for Marco Zadra.
Second Free Practice Session : Lister and Freisinger in the lead
After Ferrari cars led the first session, the other makes fought back in the afternoon free practice session, which was generally slower than the cooler morning track time. In the GT category, four different makes were represented in the top five. The nr 14 Lister Storm, of Jamie Campbell-Walter and Nathan Kinch, set the fastest time, with a lap of 1:43.334, ahead of the nr 22 BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari 550 Maranello. The nr 7 Saleen S7-R of Thomas Erdos and Mike Newton set the third time, ahead of the second BMS Ferrari and the nr 1 Larbre Competition Chrysler Viper GTS-R.
In N-GT, Freisinger Motorsport set the pace, with a lap of 1:47.637, ahead of the nr 88 Team Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 360 Modena. The nr 99 RWS Yukos Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-RS of Stephane Daoudi and Walter Lechner Jr. was third, with newcomers AutoPalace and MenX in fourth and firth places.