ETCC: Spa: Round seven preview

The seventh round of the LG Super Racing Weekend series will take place at the magnificent Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, a long, challenging track, generally extremely popular with teams and drivers alike. The weekend of racing will...

The seventh round of the LG Super Racing Weekend series will take place at the magnificent Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, a long, challenging track, generally extremely popular with teams and drivers alike. The weekend of racing will include the 13th and 14th rounds of the FIA European Touring Car Championship, which will be held on the Saturday. Instead of the usual three-hour race, the teams and drivers from the FIA GT Championship race will take part in the Proximus 24 Hours of Spa, which will start at 16:00 on Saturday.

The FIA European Touring Car Championship has a long association with Spa-Francorchamps, as the 24 Hours of Spa was an integral part of the Championship between 1964 and 1988. That final race was won by a Schnitzer BMW M3, driven by Roberto Ravaglia, Altfrid Heger and Dieter Quester - who will be taking part in the endurance race once more this year, in a RWS Motorsport Porsche 996 GT3-R. Last year, the Championship did not race at Spa, but the Belgian round, held at Zolder, saw wins for Gabriele Tarquini's Honda Accord and Fabrizio Giovanardi's Alfa Romeo 156 in the Super Touring Championship, while Duncan Huisman won the Super Production race in a Carly Motors BMW 320i.

The inclusion of a 24 Hour race into the normal LG Super Racing Weekend schedule has necessarily brought about some changes to the timetable. Free practice sessions for the FIA European Touring Car Championship and the FIA GT Championship will be held on Thursday, as will the first Qualifying session for the FIA GT Championship. Thursday evening will also see a Night Qualifying session for the 24-hour race, as all drivers have to qualify in night conditions. The FIA European Touring Car Championship Qualifying will take place on Friday, as well as the FIA GT Superpole. Saturday morning will start with the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup and Renault Sport Clio Trophy races, with rounds 13 and 14 of the FIA European Touring Car Championship starting at 12.20.


For the 13th and 14th rounds of the season, the FIA European Touring Car Championship will be returning to its roots, as the Belgian racetrack of Spa-Francorchamps played a significant role in the Championship between 1964 and 1988, when the 24 Hours of Spa figured on the calendar. This year, however, the endurance classic will give way to the usual two 50-km sprint races. Alfa Romeo continues to lead the title chase, despite BMW's domination at Oschersleben, a track ideally suited to the BMW 320i cars. However, Spa, a challenging and extremely long track, could be a different story. For this round, Dirk Müller (BMW Team Deutschland) will carry 30 kg penalty weight after his two wins in rounds 11 and 12; Jörg Müller (BMW Team Deutschland) will have 20 kg extra, while Rickard Rydell (Volvo S60 Racing Team) has 10 kg after finishing third in both the German rounds.

GIOVANARDI TESTS AT BALOCCO (1st in the Drivers' Championship, 84 points)
Although he still leads the Championship Classification, Fabrizio Giovanardi saw his leading margin cut by 18 points in Oschersleben, after a poor weekend for Alfa Romeo. Finishing off the podium for the first time this season, Giovanardi then took part in a two-day test at the Balocco test track. "We needed to understand why we were so far away off the pace in Oschersleben. We have checked some things and changed some others, proving that, as I said after the races, we were not at 100 per cent there. We also made some adjustments to balance the set-up of the car, with the new weight imposed by the regulations," he said. The current championship leader has not raced in Spa for eleven years. "I was there twice in Formula 3000. I know that some things have changed since then, but the basic layout has not. I like it very much, because it is a track where the driver can make the difference. At Oschersleben it was not possible to invent anything, but in Spa there are 180-200 km/h corners where you can keep the throttle pedal down or release it. It is my nature to be very confident before any race, and that is the case now. Maybe the results will prove me wrong, but I am not going to Spa to receive another blow like Germany. We must prove we are able to react and I am quite sure we will do it."

LARINI: I AM GOING TO SPA TO WIN (2nd in the Drivers' Championship, 66 points)
Like his team-mate Giovanardi, Nicola Larini had his worst weekend of the season in Oschersleben. He finished sixth in both races, scoring only two points. "We went to Oschersleben with a lot of question marks to be solved and not much hope. The results we had over the weekend proved that our fears were well grounded, as the BMW cars dominated, because of the rule changes and also because the twisty track suited them much better. But Spa will be a totally different story," said the Italian driver, who last raced there during his Formula One years. "It's a track I like very much and which suits my driving style. It's fast and has a lot of fast corners, which should also suit our car. I have never driven a Touring Car there, but I know that front tyre wear will not be a factor and this will enable me to be at my best. I'm really looking forward to racing there. I will be there to win!"

D. MÜLLER: I WANT TO KEEP THE BALLAST (3rd in the Drivers' Championship, 53 points)
After Oschersleben, where he scored his first wins in the FIA European Touring Car Championship, Dirk Müller could be considered as the man to beat in Spa. "I am still savouring the sweet taste of those back-to-back wins. They are a big boost for my motivation and I also believe they will also enhance the interest in the championship. In Oschersleben, even without the rule changes, we would have been in a position to be competitive due to the track's layout, but Spa will be another story. I hope we will see a close fight for pole position and in the races, although I am afraid that Alfa Romeo cars will be strong again, benefiting from the long straight after the Raidillon and from the uphill section between Blanchimont and the Bus Stop chicane. But the BMW technicians are working hard and hopefully we will have a few engine changes to make the most of the new rules," said Dirk, who had a brief test in Oschersleben on Monday after his double win. "We tested with the 30-kg success ballast I have to carry on board in Spa, but I really don't know how much it will affect my car's performance during the next weekend. Definitely it will not be an advantage, although I will do my best to keep this ballast for the following meeting."

J. MÜLLER PREDICTS CLOSE RACES (4th in the Drivers' Championship, 45 points)
Finishing second behind his team-mate Dirk in both Oschersleben races, Jörg Müller is one of the FIA ETCC competitors with the most knowledge of the Spa track. "1996 was my golden year there. I won the 24 Hours of Spa in a Bigazzi-built Super Touring BMW, together with Alexander Burgstaller and Thierry Tassin, and less than one month later I also won the FIA Formula 3000 round, which helped me clinch the title at the end of the season. It was six years ago, but those memories are still fresh in my mind, as is the racetrack." Will the BMW domination seen in Germany be repeated in Belgium? "I don't think so. Spa is a track that emphasises chassis and engines and that's why I think that Volvo, which has the best chassis, and Alfa Romeo, which has the most powerful engines, will be the cars to beat. As for us, I hope we will manage to be competitive, despite carrying penalty weight. For BMW it won't be as easy as it was in Oschersleben, but equally for Alfa, it won't be as easy as it was in the first half of the season. I think we'll see the closest and toughest races in the season so far." The two Müllers have reduced their point-gap to Giovanardi and Larini, but can they reopen the title fight? "It's really difficult, because Giovanardi is still so far ahead. But I think that, if the other BMW cars are as competitive as they were in Oschersleben, we still have hopes for the Manufacturers' Championship."

The name Mampaey means a lot for Belgian motorsport fans, particularly in Spa. Julien Mampaey's Juma Racing won three editions of the 24 Hours (1977, 1982 and 1983), and when his son Bart took over and renamed the team to RBM, he also managed to win the famous round-the-clock race in 1998. All four successes were achieved with BMW cars. "Spa is our home track and we always go there with expectations," Bart Mampaey said. " We will do our best to claim good results, to continue my family's tradition and also to please BMW Belgium, which supports our European campaign." The team's BMW 320i, driven by Swede Fredrik Ekblom, has emerged as one of the most competitive amongst the Bavarian cars taking part in the championship. Third in Race 2 at Anderstorp, Ekblom was leading Race 1 in Oschersleben before being punted into a spin by Dirk Müller. "We have improved very much since we had two days testing in Mantorp Park, right before Anderstorp. From then on we have always been at the top. Honestly I think that we have deserved some better results, but I'm looking forward to make up for that in Spa," Mampaey declared, adding: "The free practice sessions will be crucial. Spa is a completely different kind of track compared to the others we have visited so far. It is very long and in half an hour you only manage to cover a few laps. I guess the drivers who know the track will have an advantage in setting-up their cars and we might see big time differences in qualifying."

After running only one car in Oschersleben, Carly Motors returns to the usual three-car line up. Tom Coronel - who set pole position in Germany - will stay at the wheel of his nr. 7 BMW 320i, while Duncan Huisman will switch to the BMW Netherlands-backed nr. 9 that Peter Kox drove in the first five meetings of the season. Newcomer Pierre-Yves Corthals will drive the nr 8 car. Between Oschersleben and Spa, Carly Pellinkhof's team managed to win two rounds of the Dutch Touring Car Championship in Assen, enabling Duncan Huisman to retake the lead.

"I'm really happy that the team can run three cars again," Tom Coronel said. "I know Carly and I also know that this will not stop us being competitive. Obviously I had a lot of attention from the crew in Oschersleben, but this was not the reason I was so quick in qualifying. I think we have improved a lot since the beginning of the season and now my car is not playing with me - I am playing with her." The Dutch driver likes Spa, since setting pole position in the 1994 Formula Opel Euroseries there. "I guess that the Alfa Romeo cars will be a lot closer to the BMW cars there. We have some aerodynamics changes that hopefully will help us. I am aiming to break into the top-five in qualifying and at least for a podium finish in one of the races."

For the first time this season, a Belgian driver will race in the FIA ETCC. Pierre-Yves Corthals, a 26-year-old from Liège, will take the wheel of the nr. 8 Carly Motors BMW 320i, which was driven by Gianni Morbidelli in the first four meetings of the season and by Duncan Huisman in Anderstorp. "Since last winter I have tried hard to build up an ETCC programme. I was in touch with all the Manufacturers except Volvo. I had a good opportunity to run a Honda Civic, but at the very last moment the programme was cancelled due to lack of budget. A Manufacturer, looking for a young driver for 2003, has already promised me a test, but before that I really wanted to do at least one race this year to show that I could be good in this Championship. And I'm really happy I have the chance to take part in my home race with a Carly-built BMW," said Corthals. Despite his youth, Corthals has a lot of experience with saloon racing cars. He has won six Belgian one-make trophies and is the reigning champion of the Renault Sport International Clio Cup. Every time he had the opportunity to drive a competitive Touring car, he has proved his speed, often winning during guest appearances in the Belgian and French Touring Car Championships. "I have perfect knowledge of the track and I know that the team will give me a good car. Obviously it won't be easy for me to compete with drivers like Giovanardi, Larini, Rydell, and the Müllers, and therefore I would be pleased to qualify into the top-ten. My dream is to finish Race 1 in sixth position, so as to sit on the reverse grid's pole position for Race 2. But my ultimate goal is to improve my rating, to show that I deserve an opportunity to be a regular competitor in next year's ETCC."

After their Anderstorp debut, Swedish team Flash Engineering will be back in Spa. The team was forced to miss Oschersleben as their Volvo S60 was used by works driver James Hanson to replace the car damaged in Anderstorp. As originally planned, team principal and two-time Swedish Touring Car champion Jan "Flash" Nilsson will take the wheel, replacing Jens Edman who drove in Anderstorp. "I really love the idea of having my first ETCC race in Spa, because, in my opinion, it is the best track in Europe," Nilsson said. "I have raced there only once, in the 1996 round of the Renault Spider Eurocup, but most of the other drivers will be in the same situation. No one has tested there and only a few of them have a good knowledge of it. And this could make things more even. That is good for me as my job won't be easy at all, because I will find myself facing the best Touring Car drivers in the world. I would celebrate a top-ten position like a victory." A regular Volvo driver in the Swedish Touring Car Championship, Nilsson is currently second in the points, behind Audi's Italian driver Roberto Colciago. "Last week we raced in Knutstorp. Everything went wrong for us and I was forced to hand the Championship lead to Colciago. I really hope my bad luck is finished now and that I could have some good luck in Spa. I will be there mainly to see and to learn, because our target is to take part in the whole 2003 season."

Both the CiBiEmme Team Honda Civic Type-R cars will run at Spa with engines from British engine builder, Neil Brown. Salvatore Tavano already used one of these engines in Anderstorp and Oschersleben, with excellent results; his team-mate Sandro Sardelli will have a similar one in Spa. "We had no doubts that Neil Brown would be able to supply powerful and reliable engines. Now, we can focus our attention on a proper chassis development," said JAS Motorsport's Stefano Fini, project manager of the Civic Type-R programme. CiBiEmme will continue to evaluate the International Engine Service's engines, which should be tested again before Pergusa. Earlier this week, Tavano did some testing at the Vairano track, checking some new technical solutions. "We are working on the car's general set-up, changing some things in the suspension geometry and looking for the best adjustments to the differential," Fini commented. "In the previous races the Civic proved to have an advantage on the twisty tracks, due to the limited cantilevers, while losing ground on the fast tracks in terms of aerodynamics. I think that Spa will be good for us. We are aiming to be competitive and, with a bit of luck, Tavano and Sardelli could score their first points in the Drivers' Championship"

The Team Hotfiel Sport Ford Focus ST170 will not race in Spa. "We decided to cancel our entry because of Thomas Klenke's Oschersleben crash," said driver Patrick Bernhardt, who was due to make his ETCC debut at Spa. " The car was badly damaged and it also needs to be further developed. The team has no time to do it now, because we are fighting to win the German Touring Car Challenge title and I crashed my Super Production Focus during the Nürburgring DTC meeting. But we will be back, for sure! The DTC will finish on October 13th, and our goal is to rejoin the ETCC one week later in Estoril. If it proves possible, we would also like to take part in the previous meeting at Donington Park, but it will depend on whether we can find some time to test."


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Series General
Drivers Fabrizio Giovanardi , Dirk Müller , Tom Coronel , Jorg Muller , Peter Kox , Duncan Huisman , Rickard Rydell , Gianni Morbidelli , Gabriele Tarquini , Salvatore Tavano , Nicola Larini , Thomas Klenke , Roberto Colciago , Roberto Ravaglia , Patrick Bernhardt , Altfrid Heger , Jens Edman , Pierre-Yves Corthals , Bart Mampaey