Netherlands Set the Pace for A1GP Finale London, Great Britain -- The final weekend of 2008/09 A1GP World Cup of Motorsport began at Brands Hatch in Kent today with A1 Team Netherlands' Jeroen Bleekemolen setting the pace with a 1m 12.700s, over...
Netherlands Set the Pace for A1GP Finale
London, Great Britain -- The final weekend of 2008/09 A1GP World Cup of Motorsport began at Brands Hatch in Kent today with A1 Team Netherlands' Jeroen Bleekemolen setting the pace with a 1m 12.700s, over two seconds faster than the official A1GP lap record. Earlier in the day France's Nicolas Prost topped the rookie session.
This weekend is set to be the fastest A1GP Brands Hatch ever, following a blistering pace set today around the 2.3-mile Grand Prix circuit with Bleekemolen heading the field after practice.
USA's John Hildebrand Jr set the early pace before the session was halted by a red flag after Mexico's Salvador Duran was stranded out on track after going off at Sheen curve. For the first time in his A1GP career Hildebrand's weekend doesn't end after the rookie session, with the 21-year-old being promoted to the team's lead race driver this weekend.
When the session restarted, Bleekemolen jumped to the top of the timing page and beat his own time to remain quickest at the end of the day, over two seconds faster than the official A1GP lap record set two years ago by Great Britain's Robbie Kerr.
The session continued with further casualties, including Italy's Vitantonio Liuzzi ending his session in the barrier at Stirlings bend and Brazil's Felipe Guimaraes going off at Surtees.
Ireland's Adam Carroll kept his title hopes on track to end the day second fastest with a time of 1m 13.201s, while championship rivals Switzerland ended the day tenth with Neel Jani 1.291-seconds adrift of the Netherlands.
"We tried a lot of options and in the end we found our direction," said Jani. "We had to change more than we have done before. There was so much traffic that when I was on a quick lap I often had to lift off. I was really unlucky today with the yellow flags, and I think is one of our more difficult sessions this season.
"It took us a long time to get to where we wanted today," said Carroll. "At the start we had traffic, traffic, traffic. I couldn't get a clear lap in so I fell behind on what we wanted to do. I then had to fight to sort out a few problems with the balance, but we were able to make the right changes and improve all the way.
"It is a pretty difficult track and the last thing I wanted to do today was damage the car. It's a good start and we're going in the right direction, I just want to keep it that way."
A1 Team Portugal, the final team still with a hope of clinching the title this weekend, was sixth quickest but after the chequered flag came out Filipe Albuquerque ran wide stopping just short of the barrier at Sheen curve.
Prost, competing in what was his final rookie session, set a time of 1:13.683 in the morning, which was 0.149 seconds quicker than the Swiss driver Alexandre Imperatori.
Hildebrand was impressive for the USA, with the third fastest time. The Netherlands' Dennis Retera was fourth, ahead of title chasing Ireland, with Niall Quinn behind the wheel.
The session was largely trouble free, however Monaco's Hubertus Bahlsen brought out a brief red flag after spinning the Monaco car at the exit of Druids Hairpin.
Only 11 teams competed in the session, with the rest out in the afternoon's free practice, when the lead drivers were allowed to join the action.
"This morning was good," said Prost, who was quickest this morning. "This afternoon was ok but there is quite a big gap so we have to work on it."
"We need to be out in front as it's going to be tough in the middle of the pack but we will see tomorrow."
Bleekemolen, who was quickest overall today for the Netherlands said: "We went out and straight away we were on the pace. We made some small changes and improved the car. I had some traffic on my quickest lap so it was an amazing result.
"A1GP is really popular in Holland so quite a few fans will be coming, already you can see orange flags and people dressed in orange.
"It's great to see; there are going to be a lot of people here cheering for Great Britain and Ireland but we are going to be strong in that area too.
Great Britain's' rookie driver Aaron Steele commented: "I got the call up very late last Friday, so it didn't give me much time to prepare for what's turned out to be quite an eye opener. I just had to do the best job I could with the limited time I've had to prepare.
"I found the car very physical but surprisingly driveable and more forgiving than I thought it would be. It inspires your confidence, is quick and I really enjoyed it."
Great Britain's Dan Clarke said: "It got pretty busy out there with different flags and you have to slow down and respect the fact that there are marshals out on the track. Quite early on I attacked the circuit. There are a lot of fast corners and the aerodynamics on this car are really good so it feels awesome to be driving around here.
"We were running in the top ten for most the session which felt good as it is a big improvement on the other two race weekends I have done.
"It's the Brands Hatch weekend, however, and it's time for the British boys to run at the front. The fans have been used to that in previous years, but I am not letting myself get carried away. Reality is that this is only my third time in the A1GP car. I've been able to learn a lot this week, but Sunday is when the fans will want to see the results and that's what we are working towards."
A1 Team Brazil has also announced an official charity for the team-- the Jaguar Conservation Fund.
The partnership, which will continue into the 2009/10 season, aims at promoting awareness of the jaguar and its plight as an endangered species in Brazil.
The JCF's mission is "to promote the conservation of the jaguar, its natural prey and habitat throughout the species geographical range, as well as its peaceful coexistence with man."
The Brazilian charity (known locally as the Projeto Onca-Pintada) will appear on the car this weekend at Brands Hatch and throughout next season, and the team will sport a fluffy jaguar in the pit lane as its mascot. More on the charity can be found on www.jaguar.org.br.