Silverstone qualifying report Report by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite Weather: dry, sunny but rather windy. The sun shone, people were pleasant and civilized, and access to the Paddock was free of obstructions and, for that ...
Silverstone qualifying report
Report by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite
Weather: dry, sunny but rather windy.
The sun shone, people were pleasant and civilized, and access to the Paddock was free of obstructions and, for that matter, of charges. This was Silverstone on a fine May weekend, three weeks after the great GP swamp debacle, and we were all here for the first of the two European rounds of the 2000 ALMS championship, now known as the European Le Mans Series. People were seen to be enjoying themselves; drivers had both the time and the inclination to stop and chat; there was barely a business suit in sight. How very refreshing. As if the relaxed atmosphere and the prospect of some of the world's very best drivers actually being allowed to race each other wasn't enough to put a smile on your face, there was the sound of the cars, especially the Panozes (Panozae? Paniz? Who the hell knows?) and the Vipers. And all this could be yours for less than the price of a ticket to a British Touring Car Championship meeting! 11,000 people felt they'd be mad to miss it. If these cars come back next year, you should be there! Anyway, after all this excitement, things got serious when qualifying got under way on Friday afternoon with separate sessions for the combined GTs and GTSs, and the Prototypes. The main problem for everyone was likely to be time, with each group being allowed two fifteen-minute sessions to set a time. This seemed a little brief if you also needed to learn the circuit and find a good set-up for the race. It was just as well that many of these drivers, at least in the Prototypes, are familiar with the layout of most of Silverstone, many of them having starred in British Formula Ford and Formula Three in previous years (mostly 1989 it seems, but not exclusively so).
GTSs & GTs:
To take the GT and GTS cars first, as they were out first, it very quickly became obvious that the Vipers would be the cars to beat in the GTS category. It was simply a question of whether the leading pair would be David Donohue and Tommy Archer or Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger. In the event the advantage finally went to the Europeans, by almost half a second, which goes to show that local knowledge can be useful. Certainly Beretta must have found it so when setting his time. Both men have driven Silverstone before and it is likely that this helped in their quest for a fast lap, with Beretta's time proving sufficient to guarantee that the GTS class pole would go to them. Mind you, there really wasn't a lot of competition, as demonstrated by the fact that the third placed car, the Porsche 911 of Zak Brown, Vic Rice and Hubert Haupt, was nearly two seconds a lap slower. Of course Zak was never exactly fast round here in the past in his F3 days... Even so, they were much faster than the next of the Vipers, that of Walter Brun and Toni Seiler, which was fifth in class, quite a way behind the Wolfgang Kaufmann and Stephan Ortelli Porsche. In 6th and 7th was another pair of Porsches, with Franz Conrad and Jürgen von Gartzen just getting the better of Maxwell Beaverbrook and Geoff Lister (this pair having been unable to set a time in the first - and faster - session). The final place in this group fell to the last of the Vipers with Michael Culver and Horst Felbermayr Jr. in charge. With only 8 cars in the category and over five seconds separating them, it was unlikely that the greatest interest of the race would come from this category. If the gap between first and last in the GTS class was large, that in the GT class was frankly unbelievable with 14 seconds covering the 13 cars. To put this into perspective however, the last placed car, driven by the unlikely sounding Canadian pairing of Kye Wankum and Greg Doff, was 8 seconds behind the car in front of it. However, there were two distinctly class acts at the front in the Dick Barbour cars, with Dirk Müller and Lucas Lühr just snatching the class pole from Sascha Maassen and Bob Wollek. The latter pairing could hardly offer more in the way of sheer speed (from Maassen) and sheer guile and experience (from Wollek) and only just lost out to their team-mates by a mere fraction of a second.
The early pace setters, Bruno Lambert and Randy Pobst, were forced to settle for third, ahead of the Luca Riccitelli, Hans-Jörg Höfer and Dieter Quester car. This was an interesting development too, since Dieter Quester may well be even older than Bob Wollek! Certainly we can remember him racing in the seventies, though when he actually started is lost in the mists of time as far as anyone can tell...
With almost everyone running in Porsche 911s, it was probably no surprise that the times in this group were so close, though what was a bit of a surprise was the presence of the No. 70 car, with Johnny Mowlem and David Murry sharing the driving, so far down the order in 8th. Mowlem knows this circuit well and is immensely talented so he probably should have been in a better position than this. As it turned out, ahead of them were Christophe Bouchut and Michel Ligonnet, Shane Lewis and Cort Wagner and also the first non-Porsche, the BMW of yet another very experienced driver, Hans Stuck, partnered by Boris Said and Johannes van Overbeek. In 9th were Tony Burgess and Michel Neugarten, who had spent quite a bit of their time trying to get a gearbox problem sorted out, followed closely by the only other BMW in the field, with Brian Cunningham (who certainly knows his way round Silverstone), Peter Cunningham and Niclas Jonsson in charge.
The last two cars to set times on or near the pace were driven by the American pairing of Bob Nagel and Mike Fitzgerald and the Australian duo, Rohan Skea and Doc Bundy. They were followed home by the distant (and very slow) Canadians.
The Audi of Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello was fastest at the start of the first practice session and the diminutive Scot would hold the place for most of the fifteen minutes, with the initial threat seeming to come from Stefan Johansson and Guy Smith in the Reynard 2KQ car. They were running here with intent to try the car out one last time before Le Mans and it certainly appears to be quick, though it also seems rather fragile as yet, while Audi were running last year's cars.
At BMW all was not especially wonderful although Jean-Marc Gounon and Bill Auberlen were in provisional third for some time. Meanwhile, the sister car was languishing unhappily right down the order and would end the session in 9th. Considering it was being driven by Jörg Müller and JJ Lehto this was somewhat baffling, especially to the Schnitzer team who seemed unable to figure out why their car was doing what it was doing. "The car is shit," JJ said, still grinning hugely but also obviously wondering what he and Jörg were going to have to do to squeeze a time out of their quite clearly recalcitrant ride. You only had to go out to Luffield to see what was going wrong. What to do about it was a less obvious matter.
The first BMW was followed for a time by the second of the Audis, which seemed to pop and bang alarmingly each time they crossed the start finish/line. With Frank Biela and Emmanuele Pirro in charge, this looked like a very strong combination but it was being challenged hard in the early stages by the closest the category has to a private entrant, the Riley and Scott car in the hands of Norman Simon, Marc Simo and Gunther Blieninger. Now Norman was out to impress. He didn't really have a lot of choice of course. He is on a four-race deal and, judging by the fact that he seems to average about 11 seconds a lap faster than his teammates, he has obviously been brought in to try and move the car up the order. Norman when he's really trying is either a real treat to watch or makes you want to hide behind something till it's all over. Which camp you fall into tends to depend on whether or not you have any stake in the car and its survival or not. This was stirring stuff, though it obviously wasn't going to last as the other two would also need their turns in the car. Still it was fun while it did last and if he couldn't start 5th Norman wasn't going to grumble much. He was more inclined to grouse about German TV and people who "don't even know who Shakespeare is!" While all this was going on, the Panoz cars had been sitting quietly in the pits, waiting for their moment. It soon became clear that this was it. Ultimately, neither the Audi nor the Reynard could match the pace of either the two Panoz cars or the Lola in the hands of Mimmo Schiattarella. The David Brabham/Jan Magnussen pairing, one of the strongest imaginable, was soon up to 2nd, displacing Johannson and Smith, while the BMWs had bolted into the pits for the first of a number of front wing adjustments. It was beginning to look as if they would never solve their problems despite Lehto and Müller throwing their best efforts in their driving. And then suddenly the Panozes were there. Hiroki Katoh, who was sharing with Johnny O'Connell, conjured a fastest time from somewhere and Brabham went faster too, dropping the McNish/Capello car to 3rd. And as the fifteen minutes drew to a close, the improvements started to come through thick and fast. The Panoz cars swapped places, only to both lose out to Mimmo Schiattarella who grabbed provisional pole with a time that would stand all weekend. He and his teammate Didier de Radigues looked pretty unstoppable. Of course, this meant that McNish and Capello were dropped another place to 4th. There was a definite suggestion that this was pretty much the way the grid would finish up. The second session was almost inevitably going to be slower, and so it proved. Few of the drivers actually managed any improvements in time and the only pair to improve on their first session placing was the No. 42 BMW of Lehto and Müller. They finished 5th overall, thus dropping everyone from Smith and Johansson backwards down a place. This placing was mostly due to the drivers again showing superb commitment to a car they were not especially happy with. The Lehto grin was still in place, but the tone was terse now: "The car is still shit... and we don't know why..." And then there were better things to talk about, like Midsummer in Finland, building a Summer house, chainsaw ownership and the early days of Jörg's career ... The team were still trying hard to find a solution to the problems though and finally resorted to swapping to their 1999 Le Mans aerodynamics in desperation. Müller could be found roaming the paddock clutching mysterious pieces of spoiler. "I am the designer now!" was all he would say when challenged. Whatever he did, it must have had some effect, judging by what happened in the evening. This left Johansson and Smith in 6th. The second BMW was now 7th, although an improvement might have been possible had Gounon not revolved off the track at Club corner, although he was able to get back under his own power. Just behind the BMW was the Biela, Pirro and Alboreto Audi in 8th. 9th was the Riley and Scott, with Simon less than happy at the pace being shown by the other two but prepared to do more than his share of the driving if it would lead to a result. In 10th were Christophe Tinseau and Marc Goossens, the gangly Belgian a delighted young man having got a three year deal for the first time in his life, and thus spared from having to drive less than effective F3000 cars alongside hopelessly slow but rich Russians any more. A full time drive is no more than his talent deserves and its good to see him finally get one. It helped that in theory the team were only running the Cadillacs at Silverstone as a warm up for Le Mans. Given their relative grid positions, it was probably just as well as the second car, driven by Eric Bernard and Emanuel Collard could only manage 11th.
Next up were the two Courage cars, the older car suffering gear selection problems in second qualifying. Even so, the all-French effort, with Olivier Grouillard, Emanuel Clerico and Sebastien Bourdais driving it was still able to qualify ahead of the newer model in the hands of Philippe Gache and Gary Formato. Bringing up the rear was the second Lola in the race, that of Christian Gläsel and Christian Vann.