Just when I thought that one more racing category and my brain would go pop, along comes sportscar racing’s all-new FIA GT1 World Championship, vying for my attention. The FIA endorsed series is aiming to give fans what they want, and it looks set to fulfil most of its promises.
The new-for-2010 series burst into life in the surreal surroundings of the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago. Featuring a full capacity entry of 12 two-car teams, split between six marques; the championship that many sceptics predicted would never happen, happened – and in style.
The race in Abu Dhabi was, for the best part, extremely close. We saw some exciting battles all the way through the field, with cars passing each other in places we never thought were possible.
Wary that it may have been a one-off, I held off on committing my thoughts of the new series to the World Wide Web until after the honeymoon period, and after GT1 had visited the rather less glamorous Silverstone circuit, which currently resembles a building site, for round two of this year’s championship.
But what do you know? Once again, we were treated to two action packed 60 minute races (gone are the long-distance GT races of old), which provided plenty of overtaking, a Corvette going up in flames and an Aston Martin losing a wheel along the pit straight. What more could you want?
Well what about the promise of close competition between all six types of car on the grid? Oh yeah, that…
It would have been silly of me to ignore the controversial issue of the so-called ‘Balance of Performance’ between the six marques – Ford, Chevrolet, Maserati, Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Nissan – that erupted in Abu Dhabi, that almost culminated in two squads boycotting the second round of the championship.
The Nissans were deemed to have been rendered uncompetitive in Abu Dhabi when they were imposed with a 30kg penalty, after a pre-race test by former grand prix driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen sampled all six competing cars.
Frentzen completed just two laps in the Matech Ford before complaining about steering issues, and as such, the Ford escaped without a penalty. He also got behind the wheel of the Corvette when the track was still ‘green’, and so they were only handed an extra 10kg of ballast.
Cue accusations that some of the teams did not present their vehicles with the ideal set-up when Frentzen took all six models out for a spin at the Yas Marina circuit before qualifying.
Ford and Chevrolet enjoyed a clear performance advantage over the rest all weekend, and the two best cars from these two camps fought it out in both races. The Matech Ford, which went on to win the race, did not dip below the 2m 10s barrier in testing, but comfortably lapped around the 2m 7s mark throughout the race. How strange…
Sounds like a bit of a farce doesn’t it? The artificial performance factor is perhaps a little annoying, yet strangely, it is probably the biggest contributor to the exciting racing the series has provided thus far. I do concede however, that something needs to be done to try and bring equalisation across the whole grid.
I’m not entirely convinced the problem was eradicated this weekend either, as in a role reversal of sorts, the Aston Martins dominated at Silverstone, lapping at least a second per lap quicker than everyone else, closely followed by the Nissans, while the Fords and Corvettes appeared to struggle massively.
Cynics may argue that it smacks of trying to appease them after they felt aggrieved by what happened in Abu Dhabi (Aston Martin ran 90kg lighter than the Corvettes for example), but it’s not really as simple as that. The truth is that Silverstone suited them far better, and they gained more from the new faster layout of the circuit, rather than the changes of weight and restrictors.
It’s a complicated issue and one that looks set to dog GT1 until the situation is sorted. The performance balancing act worked well during the final years of the old FIA GT Championship, so hopefully a fix can be found, if only to stop the series’ naysayers from saying “I told you so,” which they’re no doubt itching to do so.
What would I do? I believe the tests need to be conducted in a more scientific way than simply employing Frentzen to give his opinion based on a few laps.
The fundamental issue is that the V8 and V12 engines used do not have the same torque and power output. Simply equalising these will probably result in the V12s losing some grunt in the low-end, while over-restricting the V8s will result in them gasping like an asthmatic as it tries to make up the power to keep up with the Maseratis and Lamborghinis on a long straight.
But I do think it’s possible to get the numbers close with various air restrictors, so long as weight distribution and the centre of gravity are taken into account. But also, just accept that some tracks will suit the characteristics of some cars better than others.
GT1’s single issue in trying to create a level playing field is all championship organiser Stephan Ratel needs to concentrate on at the moment. To appease the teams that are currently participating – the same teams who have been playing the performance of balance system at its best through some crafty gamesmanship.
Everything is in place for GT1 to become the next big thing in motor racing. All it takes is for Ratel to tackle the performance balancing issue correctly, and instead of having pockets of exciting battles throughout the field, we should in theory be rewarded with an as near 24-car-scrap battle as possible – leading to wholly unpredictable races. And that to me sounds like motor racing heaven.