Brabham & Aussie Ferrari Enter Bahrain GT Festival

Melbourne-based Coopers Racing team has entered its exotic Ferrari 550 GT Maranello in the inaugural GT Festival Bahrain, to be run on November 24- 26, on the Arabian Gulf kingdom's new grand prix circuit.

The Coopers Racing 550 GT is the ex-Rafanelli 'Olive Garden' car campaigned in the American Le Mans Series in 2003 and 2003

The 610 horsepower (455 kW), V12 Ferrari will be raced by Australian sportscar star, David Brabham, and Australian-based Dane, Allan Simonsen, in three, 35-minute qualifying races and a one-hour endurance final with a driver change.

The small Coopers Racing team's ambitious plan to take on some of the world's best funded and technically advanced sportscar teams is the first step in a limited assault on the FIA GT championship in 2005. The team hopes to tackle four S. E. Asian rounds and the famous Spa 24-Hours in Belgium.

Team owner, Melbourne businessman and Ferrari aficionado Tony Raftis, said he was inspired to take up FIA GT series promoter, Stephane Ratel's, Bahrain invitation after Coopers Racing pulled out of Australia's ailing Nations Cup category for sportscars, and the planned Bathurst 24-Hours race was cancelled.

"We decided to enter our 550 GT in the GT Festival Bahrain to see how high the (competition) bar is; it's a toe in the international GT water, so to speak, because we have high hopes of competing in selected rounds of the FIA GT Championship in 2005," Raftis said.

"It's also a bit of a reward for the guys in the team. We pulled out of Nations Cup earlier in the year after the Ferrari was handed what we thought were unfair parity adjustments, and started preparing the car for the Bathurst 24-Hours, which unfortunately fell through.

"When we heard about the Bahrain race from Stephane Ratel, we decided it was a great opportunity to benchmark our small team against the best in the world.

"If we go well in Bahrain and we can secure the right amount of backing from sponsors like our Bahrain sponsors, Coopers Brewery, Beta Tools and Lavazza, then we'll tackle four FIA GT rounds and Spa. Coopers, in particular, have been great.

"We're really lucky to have David Brabham on board; he's one of the world's best sportscar drivers with tremendous experience on racetracks all over the world, and he has raced a 550 GT before. David was also very instrumental in securing the gun Michelin tyres we'll need to take on the top teams, and they don't give them out to just any team. And, of course, he's an Aussie.

"And Allan is a very quick young guy who is really making a name for himself in Australia and is personally backed by Coopers; I think they will make a very potent combination.

"Bahrain will be a tall order, but if we finish in the top 10 I'll be over the moon."

David Brabham is rated by many as one of the world's great sportscar racers and included in his long list of achievements, is a second place in last year's Le Mans 24-Hours in a Bentley. He is very familiar with the super- quick Ferrari.

"This is a brand new race and I felt it would be kinda fun to do; a bunch of Aussies having a bash in the desert," Brabham said at Bathurst, where he was racing a V8 Supercar. The other funny thing is, I will be racing with another Dane, Allan Simonsen; I spent a lot of my American Le Mans Series (ALMS) career sharing a car with Jan Magnussen and we had a lot of success.

"Ferrari 550s have been good to me, I was second in the ALMS last year in a Prodrive-developed 550 and won three races, even though I didn't join the series until after Le Mans (24-Hours). It's a good car; once you get used to that type of (road-based) car they are really good to drive and they feel much more like a racecar than a road car.

"It's got a fair bit of power and the longer the straight the better as it doesn't have a lot of low-down torque, but once you get going it certainly has some horses. In Bahrain, the car will be running to Le Mans rules so it will be around 300kgs lighter than what it ran in Nations Cup in Australia.

"It's quite a stiff car, and has a lot of downforce, so the aerodynamics are quite sensitive, particularly at the front. They don't move around much compared to a V8 Supercar, which has very little downforce. They are tricky to get the aero set up just right but the chassis is relatively easy to dial in. It has similar power to a V8 Supercar but weighs a lot less, so it has a better power-to-weight ratio.

"It'll be a big ask to take on some of the world's biggest sportscar teams but I think we'll give it a real good shake."

Rising star Simonsen raced the 550 in Australian Nation's Cup earlier this year and won on debut at the Clipsal 500 event on the former Adelaide GP circuit. The chance to race with Brabham was a bonus for the 26-year-old, who gave the car its final shakedown before it was shipped to Bahrain.

"The 550 has a massive amount of downforce so it handles very much like a single-seater; it's a fantastic car to drive. The cornering speeds and G forces are really high so it's a very physical car to drive; it's hard to compare it to anything other than a single-seater.

"The shakedown at Phillip Island ran really well. The car was quick straight away and we lapped in the 1:30sec range, which is about three seconds faster than the V8 Supercar record. It's the best Ferrari in Australia and I'm privileged to be driving it alongside David Brabham, who has so much experience in these types of cars.

"The car is very fast but we're under no illusions about how tough our job will be in Bahrain. We'll be racing against the best GT teams in world, which have huge budgets and race 20 times a year. But we'll go there and do the best job we can and I think we'll be up there.

"The track itself looks amazing; it was designed by the people who built the new Shanghai track and it's big, wide and fast and I've been practicing on my Playstation. It's going to be a massive race."

Major sponsor, Coopers Brewery Ltd, is the largest producer of home brewing kits in the world, and 36 per cent of the South Australian company's production is exported to almost 30 countries, the three biggest markets being Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia.

Marketing Director, Glen Cooper, said backing the team's foray into the international racing arena made sense to Coopers.

"This amazing Ferrari gave Coopers fabulous return at the Clipsal 500 this year; it was just fantastic and people are still talking about it," Cooper said.

"While we don't sell our beer in Bahrain, the television coverage will go to many countries that Coopers sells beer and, in particular, home-brew products to, so there was a cost-effective means to get onto American and European TV.

"Having the Coopers' brand on an Australian car, with a kangaroo on the front of it, that's taking on the best GT cars in the world, driven by David Brabham and Allan Simonsen, who we sponsor as a driver, was an opportunity too good to pass up."

-cr-