ETCC: Spa: Rounds 13, 14 preview

For the LG Super Racing Weekend, summer is synonymous with Spa; once again, the last week of July will see the teams and drivers head to the Ardennes in Belgium for one of the highlights of the racing season. Not only is the track one of those...

For the LG Super Racing Weekend, summer is synonymous with Spa; once again, the last week of July will see the teams and drivers head to the Ardennes in Belgium for one of the highlights of the racing season. Not only is the track one of those most frequently cited as a favourite by drivers, but the event, which normally attracts around 100,000 spectators, is the longest of the year, starting on Wednesday with parades and festivities, and lasting until Sunday at 4 pm, the end of the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, the seventh round of the FIA GT Championship. This will be the fourth running of the 24-hour classic as part of the FIA GT Championship, and the third time that the LG Super Racing Weekend series has visited the spectacular circuit.

Spa will be a historic moment for the FIA European Touring Car Championship, which was recently granted 'World Championship' status for 2005. The usual teams and drivers will be joined by the cars of the German DMSB Produktionswagen Meisterschaft, which has also adopted the Super 2000 technical regulations. With an estimated 37 cars on the grid, two thrilling races are sure to take place. Andy Priaulx, currently leading the Championship for BMW Team Great Britain, has the added bonus of driving a car prepared in Belgium, as his BMW 320i, like that of BMW Team Belgium-Luxembourg's Kurt Mollekens, are run by Bart Mampaey's RBM. The thirteenth and fourteenth rounds of the FIA European Touring Car Championship, and the 6th and 7th rounds of the DMSB Championship will be run on Saturday July 31st, with Qualifying on the Friday.

Last year, Alfa Romeo and BMW shared the honours at Spa, when Autodelta's Gabriele Tarquini and BMW Team Great Britain's Andy Priaulx took one win apiece after two action-packed, exciting races, full of overtaking manoeuvres.

A LAP OF DONINGTON WITH KURT MOLLEKENS

Kurt Mollekens, aged 31, from Belgium is facing a busy weekend at Spa ! As well as competing in his home round of the FIA ETCC with BMW Team Belgium-Luxembourg, he will be part of the BMW Motorsport line-up for the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa. Kurt's varied career as driver and team-manager includes a win in the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort in 1996, a win in the 24 Hours of Spa in 2000 with Peugeot and two class wins in 1997 and 2003. He competed in the FIA GT Championship in 2001 and 2002, and made his FIA ETCC debut this year, his best result to date fifth at Donington.

"Most people know Spa with two highlights : Eau Rouge / the Raidillon, and Blanchimont, one of the few very quick corners left on the Formula One circuit. Even for us, in the FIA GT or ETCC, it is still great to be able to drive on such a circuit. There have been some changes this year, at the Bus Stop chicane, and passing will therefore be more difficult. But for a driver, the challenge is still good, and it will still be great fun to drive. The tarmac has also been changed on half the circuit, which makes it more grippy and more physical to drive. You might lose one or two seconds in the Bus Stop, but you gain almost the same from the new tarmac, so I would estimate that the lap times will be similar. Spa is a circuit where you have to be both clean and courageous. It's a very complete circuit, which is why it is loved by so many drivers. It's definitely among the best out there."

The FIA European Touring Car Championship arrives in Spa, for the 13th and 14th rounds of the season, with the BMW drivers eager to pull away in the title fight.

After winning the second race in Donington, BMW Team Great Britain's Andy Priaulx has taken the lead of the Championship for the first time. He is closely chased by the two BMW Team Deutschland drivers Dirk and Jorg Muller (4 and 7 points behind respectively), with AutoDelta Alfa Romeo aces, reigning champion Gabriele Tarquini and Fabrizio Giovanardi, in fourth and fifth positions, still within striking distance. However, the 11-point gap between the two Italians, might force AutoDelta team manager Monica Sipsz to concentrate all the efforts on Tarquini.

In this delicately balanced situation, SEAT, the third Manufacturer officially entered in the Championship, might act as arbiter. The Toledo Cupra cars have made huge steps forward in terms of speed and results, and are now consistently fighting for the top positions in both qualifying and the races; Rickard Rydell, Jordi Gene and Frank Diefenbacher hold the cards to steal important points from the Alfa Romeo and BMW drivers - especially as penalty weights will handicap the first four of the classification: Priaulx (40 kg), Dirk Muller (30 kg), Jorg Muller (10 kg) and Tarquini (20 kg).

Besides the on-track expectations, the FIA ETCC's meeting in Spa is an exceptional event for two more reasons. It is the first meeting to be held since the FIA World Motor Sport Council promoted the series to World Championship status for 2005, alongside the Formula One and the Rally World Championships, and the series will see its largest field ever, thanks to the addition of the cars from the German DMSB Produktionswagen Meisterschaft, which has adopted the Super 2000 technical rules this year.

BMW: A BELGIAN TEAM ON TOP

Although it is carrying the colours of BMW Great Britain, Andy Priaulx's car is actually run by a Belgian team: Bart Mampaey's RBM. Emerging as the most effective driver in the field, with four race wins from the last four meetings, Priaulx is now leading the Drivers' Championship. An undertaking in which he received a valuable help from his team-mate Kurt Mollekens, who joined him in the car backed by BMW Belgium-Luxembourg.

"So far I've been working to improve my feeling with the car and my performances in such a competitive field. But considering my progress and Andy's results in Spa last year, I'm quite confident. I hope to qualify in the top-six, within two-three tenths of Andy. If I can keep the pace of the other BMW drivers -- Andy, the Mullers, Garcia -- then I'm happy. I think even a podium in the second race is possible," Mollekens said.

ALFA ROMEO: THOMPSON IS BACK

After his dominant win in the first race at Donington Park, James Thompson will be back in Spa to reinforce the AutoDelta team. Once again there will be four works Alfa Romeo 156 Super 2000 cars facing the BMW army, in the attempt to remedy a situation which currently sees the red cars' drivers trailing their rivals of the German make. Thompson's addition might prove crucial to boost the hopes of Gabriele Tarquini and Fabrizio Giovanardi in the title fight, as the Briton will work together with young Brazilian Augusto Farfus to support his team mates. The Belgian weekend will be a busy one for Thompson, who will fly back to England on Saturday after the races to marry his long-time girl friend Vicki. Three private flights -- two in a helicopter and one in a private jet plane -- have been arranged to take him from Belgium to Yorkshire in time for the wedding.

SEAT: AIMING FOR MORE PODIUM RESULTS

The SEAT Sport team has finally closed the gap on Alfa Romeo and BMW. At the wheel of their Toledo Cupra cars, the three drivers of the Spanish Manufacturer -- Jordi Gene, Rickard Rydell and Frank Diefenbacher -- have claimed two pole positions and three podium results in recent meetings. The time is ripe for SEAT to win its first ETCC race.

"Last year in Spa we were 2.5 seconds off the pace, but now we are much more confident," says Gene. "I don't think we can obtain our first win there, but there's no reason that we should not fight for the points and the podium." This week Diefenbacher, Gene and Rydell had a one-day test each at Almeria, working on the car's set up with hot temperatures.

PEUGEOT: SARDELLI JOINS MAGNUSSEN

Sandro Sardelli will join Jan Magnussen at the wheel of the second Peugeot Sport Engineering's car for the rest of the season. The Italian driver has signed the contract after he completed a couple of tests in the Peugeot 307 Gti, at Hockenheim and Mantorp Park.

"I'm very much looking forward to it," says Sardelli. "Spa is a track where I've always been quick, although I think it's not the best one for the car. As far as I've seen, the 307 is very easy to drive and give its best in the twisty circuits. It should be very good in Oschersleben."

In the previous seasons, Sardelli was a regular competitor in the FIA ETCC. In 2001 he won the Independents Trophy within the Super Touring Championship, at the wheel of a PRO Motorsport Nissan Primera. Then he raced with the CiBiEmme Honda Civic in 2002 and the ART Engineering Volvo S50 in 2003.

FORD: A NEW REAR WING FOR THE FOCUS

The RS-Line Rotpunkt Sport team will rejoin the championship in Spa, after missing the previous meeting in Donington Park.

"Further to the technical problems we experienced in the first half of the season, we decided to take a break and do some testing," team manager Rainer Stiefel explained. "We had a very useful session at the Nurburgring, with Marc Duez at the wheel. He gave us some interesting advice."

Last week, the team followed very closely the test made in Spa by Ford's reference team, Hotfiel Sport. "They tested a new rear wing that we will use in Spa, however the problem here is that the Focus doesn't have enough speed on the straight," Stiefel revealed.

INDEPENDENTS: CORONEL vs TAVANO

Tom Coronel and Salvatore Tavano shared honours in the Independents Trophy at Donington. With one win and one second place each, the Carly Motors' Dutchman and the Oregon Team's Italian are now placed at the top of the classification. Coronel has still a 35-point margin ahead of Tavano, who is closely chased by JAS Motorsport's Alessandro Balzan and Proteam's Stefano D'Aste.

The meeting in Spa should also mark the return of Paulien Zwart, three months after the shunt she suffered in Magny-Cours which resulted in a broken ankle and pelvis. On Monday the Dutch lady will test her Carly Motors' BMW in Zandvoort, and if everything goes right she will take over from her father Klaas.

THE GERMANS ARE COMING

In Spa, the FIA ETCC welcomes the competitors of the German DMSB Produktionswagen Meisterschaft, on the first of their two visits to the European series (the next will be Oschersleben, on September 19th). Although the two championships will race together, the FIA ETCC competitors (on Michelin tyres) will not score points towards the DPM (on Dunlop tyres) and vice-versa. After five rounds out of 17, Marc Hennerici (Wiechers' Sport BMW 320i) leads the classification with a margin of 8 points ahead of Thomas Klenke (Hotfiel Sport Ford Focus); Claudia Hurtgen and Thomas Winkelhock (both Schubert Motors BMW 320i) are placed third and fourth, 13 and 17 points from the lead. Three other drivers -- Patrick Bernhardt (Hotfiel Sport Ford Focus), Franz Engstler (Engstler Motorsport BMW 320i) and Diego Romanini (Wiechers Sport BMW 320i) -- are a further few points adrift, but still in the title fight.

FIA ETCC NEWS IN BRIEF

HONDA: TESTS FOR JAS MOTORSPORT AND GR ASIA
Both the Honda teams spent some days testing after Donington Park. JAS Motorsport ran their Accord Euro R in Adria, with Alessandro Balzan; the test was very useful in order to adopt a new air-box that will be used in Spa. As for GR Asia, it tested a new steering at Oulton Park on Simon Harrison's and Toni Ruokonen's Civics.

IT'S WEDDING TIME FOR THE FIA ETCC DRIVERS
With James Thompson getting ready for his coming nuptials, Jan Magnussen will precede him by one week. This weekend, the Danish driver of Peugeot Sport Engineering will marry his long time girl friend Christiane.

-fia-

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Series General
Drivers Fabrizio Giovanardi , Andy Priaulx , Dirk Müller , Jan Magnussen , Tom Coronel , Jorg Muller , Claudia Hurtgen , James Thompson , Frank Diefenbacher , Augusto Farfus , Franz Engstler , Marc Hennerici , Rickard Rydell , Alessandro Balzan , Gabriele Tarquini , Jordi Gene , Kurt Mollekens , Salvatore Tavano , Stefano D'Aste , Toni Ruokonen , Marc Duez , Thomas Klenke , Diego Romanini , Patrick Bernhardt , Bart Mampaey , Paulien Zwart