ETCC: Barcelona: Season opener preview

The 2003 season of the LG Super Racing Weekend series will get underway next weekend, at the Circuit de Catalunya, a relatively new circuit in the coastal city of Barcelona, Spain. This will be the first time the Series has visited the modern, ...

The 2003 season of the LG Super Racing Weekend series will get underway next weekend, at the Circuit de Catalunya, a relatively new circuit in the coastal city of Barcelona, Spain. This will be the first time the Series has visited the modern, challenging circuit, although teams and drivers had an opportunity to test there earlier this month. The FIA GT Championship -- with a full and varied grid of Chrysler Viper, Ferrari, Lister, Porsche and Saleen cars -- the FIA European Touring Car Championship -- with Manufacturers Alfa Romeo, BMW and Seat, as well as teams representing Honda and Volvo -- and the brand-new Formula Renault V6 Eurocup, with its field of future champions, are the headlining events, with support races including the Renault Sport Clio Trophy, the Renault Sport Clio Elf International Cup and the Trofeo Maserati.

The action gets underway early for this first event, with the Formula Renault V6 cars testing on Wednesday and Thursday, while the cars from the FIA European Touring Car Championship will be in action on Thursday, with two 90-minute official test sessions, at 12:00 and 16:00.

The third season of the revived FIA European Touring Car Championship, and the second season with the Super 2000 specification cars, will get underway on Saturday April 5th, at the Circuit of Catalunya. Alfa Romeo and BMW will be back to continue the battle started last season, with new Manufacturer SEAT joining in, with two cars. Volvo and Honda will also be represented with privately-entered teams. Twenty-one drivers are due to take part in the first two rounds of the increasingly competitive and exciting Championship, which will take place on Sunday April 6th, with live coverage on Eurosport.

ALFA ROMEO READY TO DEFEND ITS RECORD

Practically undefeated since the revival of the FIA ETCC in 2001, Alfa Romeo is now facing its toughest season so far. The Italian Manufacturer may have lost its reigning Champion, Fabrizio Giovanardi, but can still rely on a very strong team. Nordauto, the winner of both the 2001 FIA European Super Touring Championship and the 2002 FIA European Touring Car Championship has been renamed Autodelta, reviving one of the most glorious names in motorsport. The team directed by Monica Sipsz is entering three Alfa Romeo 156 Gta cars for a remarkable trio: Nicola Larini, Gabriele Tarquini and Roberto Colciago.

This will be 39-year old Larini's sixth season with the team and he hopes to succeed Giovanardi as its leader; in 2001 he was runner-up in the Super Touring Championship and last year he was classified third in the drivers' Championship. "This has to be my season," he said. "I hope nothing will happen to spoil it. I have been chasing the European title for three years and I have come so close to it. So I am looking forward to the first meeting and the whole season, because I want to get the most out of my car and myself." Tarquini (41) is returning to the FIA ETCC and to Alfa Romeo after a year's sabbatical; a former British Touring Car Champion, he finished as runner-up in the 2001 FIA European Super Touring Championship for Honda. "I am not hiding my ambitions," Tarquini explained. "I want to be a top contender and to fight for the title. We have spent the winter developing the car and I guess we are in a good position, but we still have to gauge exactly how strong BMW is. I'm sure they will make our life hard." Double Swedish Touring Car champion for Audi, Colciago (35) is in his first season with Alfa Romeo. The three drivers have a total of 16 race wins in the Championship between them.

The Alfa Romeo 156 Gta, winner of 13 races out of 20 in the 2002 ETCC, has been extensively modified by N.technology, the FIAT Group's racing department. New 6-speed sequential gearbox, aerodynamics package and brakes, plus modified suspension and engine should further enhance the Italian cars' performance.

BMW LAUNCHES MASSIVE ATTACK ON THE EUROPEAN CROWN

After a 2002 season, during which the BMW teams and drivers had to fight to recover lost ground, due to a delayed decision to take part in the championship, the German Manufacturer's programme is now shifting up a gear. The BMW 320i has undergone drastic changes, including a new engine and body restyling. However, BMW Motorsport decided to keep the 5-speed H-pattern gearbox in order to benefit from a 30-kg reduction in the car's weight. BMW's line-up is the strongest in the field, with three teams backed by the factory or importers, as well as a very competitive fourth team, Carly Motors.

The two BMW Team Deutschland cars lead the BMW pack. They are run by Schnitzer Motorsport, which has a long-standing, direct link to BMW Motorsport, as do its drivers, Jorg and Dirk Muller. Jorg (33), was very successful in single-seaters, GTs and Sportscars before joining the FIA ETCC in 2002, in which he was classified second with four race-wins. Dirk (27), proved to be competitive during his first ETCC season, claiming three wins and finishing fourth in the championship. "I want to become champion," Dirk said, "This is quite clear. I was pretty unlucky in the second part of last season. I was often forced out of the race and I wasn't really happy about it. But that's motor sport. This year it will be totally different, Jorg and I want to decide between ourselves who is going to be the new champion."

Reigning FIA European Touring Car champion Fabrizio Giovanardi and Spain's rising star Antonio Garcia are racing together for BMW Team Italy-Spain. Their cars are prepared and run by Ravaglia Motorsport, which is managed by the former Touring Car ace Roberto Ravaglia. Giovanardi (36) left Alfa Romeo after a successful eight-year cooperation that resulted in six consecutive major Touring Car titles, from 1997 to 2002. "This is a brand new challenge for me," Giovanardi admitted. "I feel more motivated than ever. It is perfectly clear that BMW is aiming for the European title and I want to be the one who brings it home to them!" Garcia (22) switched to Touring Car competition after emerging as a talented young driver in single-seater categories and the FIA GT Championship.

Rising British Touring Car star Andy Priaulx has joined the Belgium-based RBM Team for his first campaign in the FIA ETCC; his car is backed by BMW Great Britain. In previous seasons Priaulx (28) proved to be a versatile racer and finally emerged as a race winner in last year's British Touring Car Championship.

Dutch team Carly Motors has been one of the most successful BMW teams on the international Touring Car scene. Carly's own cars won no fewer than five Dutch Touring Car championships and the last three editions of the famous Macau Guia Race. The drivers, also from the Netherlands, are Tom Coronel (31 on Saturday April 5th), a versatile man who has shone both in single-seaters and tin-tops, and Duncan Huisman (32), one of the best Touring Car specialists around.

FIRST FIA ETCC SEASON FOR SEAT SPORT

The third Manufacturer to be officially entered in the 2003 FIA European Touring Car Championship, SEAT joins Alfa Romeo and BMW with high expectations. The Spanish brand is making its return to international motorsport with two Toledo Cupra cars, developed by its own racing department. Still in the beginning of its technical development, the ETCC Toledo appears to have a good engine, coupled with the Hewland 6-speed sequential gearbox; on the other hand, the suspension has proved difficult to balance, due to the rear beam axle strut.

The drivers signed for the programme are Jordi Gene from Catalunya and Frank Diefenbacher from Germany. A former Spanish Touring Car champion in 1996 with Audi, Gene (32) took part in the 2002 FIA ETCC at the wheel of a Ravaglia Motorsport BMW 320i; he was classified eighth in the Drivers Championship, with a third place in Donington Park. In his first Touring Car season, Diefenbacher (21) is the youngest driver in the 2003 FIA ETCC; he has proved to be a good driver in the German F3 championship, where he finished third in 2001 and fourth in 2002.

"We are all working very hard to arrive at the first meeting in a position to make a good impression. We started testing very late, but since then we tried to recover, visiting different racetracks practically every week. The car has improved a lot since the beginning, but there is still much to be done. It's a shame that Barcelona, our home race, is coming now, because we want to be competitive in front of the Spanish motorsport fans. And currently we don't have much of a chance to do so. I'm afraid that we will have to wait for the second part of the season to show SEAT's real potential," Gene declared.

The team tested in Valencia on Tuesday and Wednesday. "We have tested yet new solutions and the car did another step forward, but now the whole team is rushing to have both our race cars ready in time for Barcelona," said Diefenbacher.

RYDELL MIGHT SPOIL THE MANUFACTURERS' PLANS

Despite Volvo Motorsport's decision to stop its FIA ETCC works programme, Rickard Rydell is back in the championship, and will be driving a Prodrive-built Volvo S60, now run by Italian team ART Engineering. Rydell's car and that of his new team-mate Sandro Sardelli, are the same machines that competed in the 2002 FIA ETCC, which have been leased to the team by Volvo Motorsport. Founded by Paolo and Alessandro Alessandrini, ART Engineering boasts an impressive CV in rallying, including the 1991 European Championship and an overall win in the 1995 Rally of Italy counting for the World Championship, both with Piero Liatti at the wheel of Subaru cars.

Rydell (35), who has been racing for Volvo since 1994, was classified fifth in the 2002 ETCC at the wheel of a Prodrive S60, with eight podium results. The Swedish driver finds himself in a strange position: racing for an independent team, but with a lot of potential. He might cause some surprises, spoiling the plans of the teams backed by the Manufacturers. "I've been very impressed by the team. They have worked hard to update the cars, and it's clear by watching them, that they know exactly what to do. ART Engineering has established an excellent cooperation with Volvo Motorsport, where the engines are built and developed, and I'm confident this could lead us to some unexpected results. The cars have been updated a lot since last year. With the new 6-speed sequential gearbox, a more powerful engine and a few changes to the suspension, I guess the S60 can be competitive. It's a shame we did not have much testing, but the car was already good last year and lacked just some power," stated Rydell.

DELAYED DEBUT FOR THE ^ÊKODA SUPERB CARS

As had been expected, the Czech ^Êkoda Autospektrum Racing Team has opted not to go to Barcelona, delaying its debut in the FIA European Touring Car Championship to the second meeting, in Magny-Cours. "We have been forced to do so, because our programme started late and our cars are not yet ready to face such strong competition. We want to start in the right way, and we hope to join the championship in Magny-Cours or at the latest in Brno," the team managing director Wolfgang Giesche declared.

^Êkoda Autospektrum Racing Team will be running two ^Êkoda Superb cars adapted to the FIA Super 2000 technical specifications. The cars were built in close cooperation with the ^Êkoda Motorsport factory and are driven by two young, talented Czech drivers: 22-year old Petr Kolař and 28-year old Ondřej Navratil. They both emerged among the best competitors in recent seasons of the ^Êkoda Octavia Cup. The team, based in the Czech Republic and directed by Otakar Zenkl, has been very successful in the ^Êkoda Octavia Cup, and also in preparing and running ^Êkoda Octavia WRC cars in the European and the Czech Rally Championships. This programme marks the Czech Manufacturer's return to the European Touring Car Championship, in which ^Êkoda won the 1981 Manufacturers Championship.

ERIC CAYROLLE REMAINS WITH SCUDERIA BIGAZZI

French Touring Car specialist Eric Cayrolle has signed for Scuderia Bigazzi, to drive the Italian team's second Alfa Romeo 156 Gta alongside ETCC newcomer Alessandro Balzan. Cayrolle (40 years old, from Pau) is a former triple French Super Touring champion and a regular FIA European Touring Car Championship competitor since 2001. He and Giovanardi are the only drivers to have taken the start in all forty ETCC rounds disputed since the championship was revived. In 2001, Cayrolle competed in the Super Touring Championship at the wheel of a Max Team BMW 320i (best result 5th), while last season he drove a Scuderia Bigazzi Alfa Romeo 156 Gta (best result 7th). "We are very pleased to have Eric with us again," team owner Paolo Bigazzi said. "He's a nice guy and a good driver. I'm sure he can be very competitive in the Independents Trophy." Cayrolle is one of the eight drivers listed to take part in the Independents Trophy. "I'm happy to stay in the ETCC," the Frenchman said, "And also to remain with Scuderia Bigazzi. Last year we worked well together and only bad luck prevented us from achieving better results. I hope that in the coming season we'll be in a position to benefit from what we have built so far."

EIGHT INDEPENDENT DRIVERS TAKE PART IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP

The number of independent drivers and teams taking part in the FIA European Touring Car Championship has increased since last year. The Alfa Romeo privateers driving for Clever Cats Team and Scuderia Bigazzi appear to be the most competitive. Paolo Ruberti (27) is back after missing the last three meetings of 2002. Ruberti was classified sixth in the 2001 Super Production Championship with a CiBiEmme BMW 320i, and 11th in 2002, with an AGS Motorsport Alfa Romeo 156 Gta. His Clever Cats team mate, Fabio Francia (22), only switched from karting to racing cars in 2000. Over the past two seasons, Francia has competed in the Italian Super Production Championship with an Alfa Romeo 147, finishing first in 2001 and second in 2002. Clever Cats is also a young team: founded in 2002 claimed the Italian Super Production title with Massimo Pigoli in its first season. Alessandro Balzan (22) and Eric Cayrolle (40) drive for Scuderia Bigazzi, which faces its third season in the revived ETCC. Balzan was an Italian and European karting champion before switching to car racing; he was a race winner in the Italian Formula Renault Campus and then moved to one-make trophies being classified second in the 2001 Renault Clio 2-litre European Cup and winning the 2002 Alfa Romeo 147 Italian Cup. Volvo is also represented by two independent drivers. Sandro Sardelli (32) is at the wheel of the second ART Engineering S60; he won the Amateurs Trophy in the 2001 FIA European Super Touring Championship at the wheel of a PRO Motorsport Nissan Primera, then took part in the 2002 FIA ETCC in a CiBiEmme Honda Civic. Jan "Flash" Nilsson (42), drivers a Flash Engineering S60; a former winner of two Swedish Touring Car titles, Nilsson is also competing for his own national crown again, after he finished as a runner-up in 2001 and 2002 in a Volvo S40. The last two independent drivers in the championship will be racing the Honda Civic Type-R cars run by the Scotland-based PRO Motorsport. Andre Couto (27), from Macau, is the first driver from outside Europe to drive full-time in the FIA ETCC; he is a man to watch, due to his excellent single-seater results, including a win in the 2000 Macau F3 Grand Prix. His team-mate is yet to be named, but the team is currently in contact with a number of British drivers.

-fia-

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Series General
Drivers Fabrizio Giovanardi , Andy Priaulx , Antonio Garcia , Dirk Müller , Frank Diefenbacher , Piero Liatti , Eric Cayrolle , Duncan Huisman , Andre Couto , Paolo Ruberti , Alessandro Balzan , Jordi Gene , Nicola Larini , Roberto Colciago , Roberto Ravaglia