Ed Fahey, GT Correspondent
The Moscow Raceway, Russia’s first purpose built racing circuit hosted its first FIA World Championship Event, with the Qualifying Race of the FIA GT1 World Championship. A low number of 11 GT1 cars meant the GT3 European grid was combined giving 23 cars in total. The GT3 cars were running timed pitstop regulations, so would not figure too much in the GT1 race.
A cold and damp track had the entire field starting on wet tyres and after 2 Safety Car laps, the field was unleashed. Fillip Salaquarda in the #3 AF Corse Ferrari F458 who had started 3rd, made a brave attempt to try and pass both Hexis McLarens at the first corner to grab the lead, but this was not a well thought out plan as he only succeeded in running wide, taking the #2 McLaren of Gregoire Demoustier with him, although the #1 McLaren of Stef Dusseldorp held onto the lead. The #33 WRT Audi R8 of Oliver Jarvis benefitted from the 1st corner antics of Salaquarda, slotting in right behind Dusseldorp for the rest of lap one, with the #32 WRT Audi R8 of Laurens Vanthoor in 3rd place.
A weakness of the McLaren is gaining heat into its tyres and this weakness allowed both Audis to get ahead by the end of the first lap, but not before Salaquarda and Demoustier tangled again at Turn 12, the main chicane of the circuit. Another car on the move despite its poor qualifying position was the #37 All-Inkl.com/Munnich Motorsport Mercedes SLS of Marc Basseng and Markus Winklehock, into 4th place, but sliding backwards was the current points championship leaders, the #18 Vita4One BMW Z4 of Michael Bartels and Yelmer Buurman, Bartels already sliding into the clutches of the GT3 pack.
Eight minutes in and Basseng took 3rd from Dusseldorp, the Dutchman creating a queue of cars behind him as the McLaren was still struggling to get heat into its tyres, while in the GT3 race Aleksander Skryabin in the #177 Esta Motorsports Ferrari F458 pushed Max Nilsson in the #102 Heico Gravity-Charouz Mercedes SLS off at the chicane and into retirement. Nicky Pastorelli in the #38 All-Inkl.com/Munnich Motorsport Mercedes SLS made an effort to break from the queue behind Dusseldorp going into T15 at the end of the long back straight, but did not reckon on Francesco Castellacci in the #4 AF Corse Ferrari F458 also making the same move, the Ferrari taking the Mercedes for 4th position.
Up at the front Jarvis was being reeled In by Vanthoor, but both drivers were still being cautious of the greasy track, but Castellacci and Pastorelli were both caught out by the leading GT3 car, the #101 Heico Gravity-Charouz Mercedes SLS out braking both of them into T1, but Pastorelli took the opportunity to pull off a successful move on Castellacci to regain 4th. Mathias Lauda in the #17 Vita4One BMW Z4 slowly moving in on Castellacci. The leading Audi pair with a 5 second cushion over 3rd placed Basseng, as the pitstop window opened, with Vanthoor once again wanting to pass his team mate, with late braking and flashing headlights, feeling he was faster and should be ahead.
The first car to pit was Salaquarda and then Bartels, both cars opting for slick tyres and then a poorly timed release by Vita4One saw the Ferrari and BMW side by side in the pits, but Yelmer Buurman now in the BMW relented and let Toni Vilander’s Ferrari go. Vanthoor briefly took the lead from Jarvis, but Jarvis got it back just before Vanthoor pitted, but a slow tyre change on the left rear certainly didn’t help Stephane Ortelli who took over from Vanthoor, the #32 Audi staying on wet tyres.
Changing to slicks proved to be a mistake for Burrman and Vilander, both cars being totally off the pace, the cold air temperature at the track meaning the dry line was exceptionally slow to appear, despite there being no rain during the race. Frank Stippler now in the wet tyre shod #33 Audi lost the lead to his team mate at T15, the end of the long back straight for the lead, but fought back again taking the lead back in the same spot 1 lap later, but then lost it to Ortelli again at T1. Markus Winklehock now in the #38 Mercedes had held onto 3rd place but was rapidly reeling in the Audi pair, while behind him, his team mate Thomas Jaeger in the #37 Mercedes was being caught by a charging Fred Makowiecki for 4th place. The #2 McLaren now being driven by Alvaro Parente was also on a recovery charge, taking the #17 Vita4One BMW Z4 of Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof for 7th at the final corner, then the #4 Ferrari of Enzo Ide for 6th just after T1.
As the race reached the final 15 minutes, Winklehock was on Stippler’s rear bumper and finally forced the Audi into a mistake, offline just before the chicane allowing the Mercedes through, not long after Makowiecki made his move on Jaeger at T1, the McLaren’s wet weather handling making a crucial difference. Makowiecki was now on a charge as he was soon with a struggling Stippler, who was sliding about in a desperate effort to stay ahead of the McLaren, using his Audi to block at every opportunity and held onto 3rd place at the chequered flag, but only just, Makowiecki being 1/5 of a second behind, Ortelli winning, 9.5 seconds ahead of Winklehock. Hexis team boss Phillipe Dumas and Frank Stippler were seen exchanging words after the race, perhaps Dumas felt Stippler was excessively blocking the McLaren, but given it was for position, no further action was taken. 5th place went to Jaeger in the second All-Inkl Mercedes with Alvaro Parente in the second Hexis McLaren keeping 6th position
Despite being on slick tyres and 1 lap down from the leaders, Toni Vilander took advantage of a drying track towards the raced, lapping in the 1.37’s, which compares to 1.45 laptime being set by the front runners, so this should produce a more exciting championship race later today.