ETCC: Monza: Round one preview

Five months after a fascinating weekend of competition brought the 2003 season of the LG Super Racing Weekend to a close, the teams and drivers will be heading back to Monza, which will host the first round of the latest chapter of the ...

Five months after a fascinating weekend of competition brought the 2003 season of the LG Super Racing Weekend to a close, the teams and drivers will be heading back to Monza, which will host the first round of the latest chapter of the multi-platform series.

This year, the FIA GT Championship, FIA European Touring Car Championship and the Formula Renault V6 Eurocup will be setting off for a ten-round tour, starting at Monza, calling at Valencia, Magny-Cours, Hockenheim, Brno, Donington Park, Spa-Francorchamps, Imola, Oschersleben and finishing the season outside Europe, with a race at the brand-new Dubai Autodrome, in the United Arab Emirates. Missing Hockenheim, the Formula Renault V6 Eurocup will race within the prestigious context of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. After Dubai, the FIA GT Championship will head even further east, for a season finale in China.

Eight countries, ten prestigious circuits, three fascinating and varied Championships, joining together GT, Touring Car and Single-Seater racing in a single action-packed weekend : the 2004 LG Super Racing Weekend.

Not only the fastest circuit visited during the season, Monza has a special significance for the LG Super Racing Weekend series, as it hosted the first-ever event in this format, in 2001. Returning there in 2003, after the circuit had seen a number of alterations, the FIA European Touring Car Championship saw the wins being shared between James Thompson and Jorg Muller, with Alfa Romeo's Gabriele Tarquini claiming the title by one point from Jorg Muller, while BMW won the Manufacturers' title.

So what is Monza likely to hold for the three main series this year? With the Formula Renault Grand Race on Saturday, the 500 km FIA GT Championship race on Sunday, followed by two FIA European Touring Car 50-km sprint races run back to back, finishing off with the Formula Renault Super Sprint, the weekend is bound to be full of excitement. Other races in Monza will include the European Alfa Challenge, in the first of six races with the LG Super Racing Weekend, and the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup, which will be present during all events except for the season finale in Dubai.

The FIA European Touring Car Championship is in excellent shape at the start of the third season under Super 2000 regulations. With a 24-car field, which should rise to 28 later in the season, and six Manufacturers due to be represented (including newcomers Ford and Peugeot), the ETCC is establishing a new record for the Super 2000 category.

The FIA ETCC will be visiting Monza for the 27th time. In the past editions of the European Championship, the most famous of the Italian racetracks has only been omitted from the calendar on three occasions. These were 1963, during the first-ever edition, when the ETCC did not have an Italian round at all; 1987, when Monza hosted the opening round of the World Touring Car Championship, and in 2002, when the circuit underwent major works and the FIA ETCC went to Pergusa. After hosting last year's final event, Monza has returned to its traditional spot of opening the FIA ETCC season, as it did, with just a few exceptions, since 1964 to1988, and again in 2001.

With a new car -- the Alfa 156 S2000 -- and two new drivers out of the three-driver line-up -- with the prodigal son Fabrizio Giovanardi and Brazilian youngster Augusto Farfus joining Gabriele Tarquini -- the Alfa Romeo Autodelta team is aiming for another successful season. "As the reigning champion I have to be confident," Tarquini says. "However the level of the championship is growing, and the gap between Alfa and BMW and the other competitors is shrinking. SEAT has improved a lot, Peugeot has shown good potential. The fight will be closer, the show will be greater, and winning will be even more rewarding." Concerning the new car, Giovanardi said: "I feel at ease with it, as it is just the latest evolution of the 156 Gta I developed two years ago. We are confident it will mark an improvement compared to last year's car, lthough not a big one, because the regulations are so tight."

After claiming the Manufacturers' Championship in 2003, BMW is now aiming for the 2004 Driver's title. Like last year, the German Manufacturer is represented by five 320i cars, backed by dealers and importers: Schnitzer Motorsport and Ravaglia Motorsport run two cars each under the names of BMW Team Deutschland and BMW Team Italy-Spain respectively, and RBM will run one for the BMW Team Great Britain. The three teams completed their preparation testing with three days in Spa (Tuesday to Thursday). Among their impressive group of drivers are Jorg Muller and Andy Priaulx, who were classified second and third in 2003. "I'm one of the guys going for the championship, but there are least eight of us pretending to it," Jorg Muller declares. "In such a situation, good or bad luck in the first two meetings might change everything. But I'm pleased we are starting the season in Monza. I like the circuit, because there the leading cars remain grouped and fight at close distance."

SEAT has considerably stepped up its programme since joining the FIA ETCC last year. For the first time in Monza, the Spanish brand will be represented by four Toledo Cupra cars: the three SEAT Sport works drivers, Jordi Gene, Frank Diefenbacher and newcomer Rickard Rydell, plus the SEAT Sport Italia car for Gianni Morbidelli. SEAT tested on Monday and Tuesday in Barcelona. "It was a very good test. I'm a lot more confident with the car now, and the lap times we set were very competitive compared to last year's. We will only shake down our 2004 cars in Monza, but I feel SEAT is ready to make a big step forward in the ETCC's hierarchy," Rydell commented. So far Morbidelli had only driven the car for a few laps during the official tests in Monza: "I regret that there was no time to test again. We have to look at this first event as an adventure, and try to do our best. However, for the team and myself, the fact of being in Monza is already a success."

For all the drivers, the event in Monza marks the start of the new season. But for Alessandro Zanardi it has a special meaning, as it also marks his comeback to a full racing season. "I'm back in the role of a professional driver. Which means that my season has started already, with winter testing, and I got into the racing rythym again," the BMW Team Italy-Spain's driver said. During the winter tests, Zanardi was impressively quick. "Clearly my expectations are totally different compared to my first race at the end of last year. I surprised everybody, myself included, with the pace I was able to set in the tests. However I want to keep my feet on the ground -- if I can say that. The qualifying in Monza will help me to verify the results of the testing and take my bearings."

Work is going on at a frantic pace in the RS-Line's workshop, where the German team is fighting against the clock to complete the two Ford Focus ST170 cars that Sebastian Grunert and Roland Asch will drive on their debut in the FIA ETCC. "It was not possible to test again after the media day. We will only receive the new engines on Tuesday, meaning that we will shake down the cars in Monza on Saturday morning. It is like a jump into cold water, but it seems that everything is going in the right way so far," team manager Reiner Stiefel commented. The team is also under a lot of mental pressure, as important managers from Ford and Liqui Moly will attend the race in Monza. "This is motorsport. And it's good for our motivation to know that they are looking at our programme with such an interest."

While the new Honda Accord 2.0i is undergoing the final stages of its construction, JAS Motorsport will take part in the first two events of the season with one Civic Type-R for Alessandro Balzan. "I'm quite pleased with how the project is developing at JAS, and I'm sure the Accord will be competitive from its first races," the Italian youngster commented. Two other Civics -- also built at JAS -- will be run by the Hong Kong-based GR Asia team; Briton Simon Harrison and a second driver yet to be named will be behind the wheel. "Despite not having much time for testing, I'm confident that the Civic will prove to be a front runner in the Independent Trophy," said Harrison.

Twelve drivers will take part in the Independents Trophy. Besides the three Hondas and the two Fords, four BMWs and three Alfa Romeos have also been entered. Carly Motors' Tom Coronel is the favourite, after he finished as runner up to team-mate Duncan Huisman in 2003; this year he has been joined by a new team-mate: Paulien Zwart, who is also his fiancee. The two other BMWs will be run -- one each -- by the Swedish Crawford Racing and the Italian Proteam Motorsport. The first will be driven by Carl Rosenblad, an experienced driver, who is returning to the LG Super Racing Weekends after his 2002 season in the FIA GT Championship. As for Proteam, they rely on Stefano D'Aste, who is facing his first season in a professional series. Extremely successful in the Renault Trophies, Oregon Team join the ETCC with a team of three ex-Autodelta Alfa Romeo 156 Gta cars for a young and promising trio: Luca Rangoni, four times European champion in the Renault Clio V6 Trophy, Salvatore Tavano, winner of the 2003 Italian Super Production Championship, and Michele Bartyan from Austria.

Peugeot Sport Engineering will make their FIA ETCC debut with one 307 Gti car for former Formula One-star Jan Magnussen in Valencia, during the second race meeting of the season. Despite desperately trying to get the car ready for Monza, as planned, the team was forced to renounce their participation in the opening round. "After we were forced to cancel our test in Brno because of the snow, we had no time left to organise another one. This meant we would have come to Monza with no proper testing on the new car. We therefore opted to delay our debut to Valencia," marketing manager Thomas Bach explained. Meanwhile, two new four-door cars are under construction in the team's workshop, which are due to join the championship in the third or fourth event. Until then, Magnussen will drive a three-door car.


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Series General
Drivers Fabrizio Giovanardi , Andy Priaulx , Tom Coronel , Jorg Muller , Carl Rosenblad , Frank Diefenbacher , Augusto Farfus , Duncan Huisman , Simon Harrison , Rickard Rydell , Alessandro Balzan , Gabriele Tarquini , Jordi Gene , Michele Bartyan , Salvatore Tavano , Stefano D'Aste , Roland Asch , Paulien Zwart
Teams Proteam Motorsport