Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
Team WRT opened their FIA GT1 World Championship campaign with a 1-2 sweep in today's opening round of the series at Nogaro, France. Young Belgian Laurens Vanthoor and experienced Monagesque Stephane Ortelli produced a calculating performance in difficult and damp conditions to take the win.
They did not hold the initiative all through the race, however. Starting from seventh on the grid, Reiter Engineering's Tomas Enge was a man on the move in the early laps, finding masses of grip on the slick track while others struggled. Having made up a couple of places at the start, he swiftly dispensed with the two WRT Audis and Filip Salaquarda, whose AF Corse Ferrari was scrabbling for grip on the damp track. Enge then built up a commanding nine-second lead ahead of the mandatory pit stops, where he would hand over to experienced but non-professional German Albert von Thurn und Taxis.
Meanwhile, Salaquarda had continued to go backwards, yielding places to Vanthoor in the lead WRT Audi, Oliver Jarvis in the second car and a hard-charging Alvaro Parente, who was looking to make up for a disappointing qualifying performance by the Hexis McLaren team. The second Hexis car was already out of the running after young Dutchman Stef Dusseldorp embarrassingly crashed while driving to the grid in the car he shares with Fred Makiowecki.
Enge's healthly lead saw Reiter retain first place after the pitstop cycle, but gentleman driver Thurn und Taxis was now being chased by massively experienced Le Mans winner Ortelli, who had taken over the lead WRT Audi from Vanthoor. A typically rapid pitstop from Hexis saw them briefly hold second after the stops, but Gregoire Demoustier could only hold off the charging Ortelli for a handful of corners, and would later surrender third place to the second WRT car, now with Audi R8 GT3 development driver Frank Stippler at the wheel.
From then on, it was simply a case of both Ortelli and Stippler reeling Thurn und Taxis in and making two fairly straightforward overtakes to secure first and second. Although the German prince couldn't match the Audi drivers' pace, to his credit he never looked like throwing the car off the road and held off pressure from eventual fourth-place finisher Demoustier in the closing laps to secure a podium finish for himself and Tomas Enge. The only threat to Ortelli's win was a possible pitlane infringement, but the stewards decided to take no further action.
The first AF Corse Ferrari 458 came home fifth: even after rapid Finnish GT ace Toni Vilander took over from Salaquarda at the stops, he was unable to make any impression in a car that was clearly not working well in the wet. Sixth and seventh went to the pair of All-Inkl/Munnich Motorsport Mercedes SLSs.