Very wet conditions: GTC outqualifies GTE; rash of red flags blights prototypes
The stewards decided to penalise Nelson Panciatici again for overtaking under yellow flags during Friday afternoon’s Free Practice 2 session. He lost his times and picked up a modest fine which will become a rather heavier one if he does it again this season. He will be watched very closely if he wasn’t being already.
But losing times from a Free Practice session isn’t such an issue when qualifying is able to go ahead and despite being very, very wet (and still raining) qualifying did get underway early on Saturday morning. No doubt the teams were watching the live TV feed from the Formula Renault 3.5 series qualifying carefully on the monitors to get an idea of the condition of the track but such were the levels of spray, not to mention spinning cars and four red flags (in just 26 minutes of running) for the single-seaters, it was hard to see much at all. It served as a pretty good premonition of what was to come though.
In conditions like this, the chance of yellow flags or those of a red hue are high, so getting an early lap is crucial. But push too hard too soon and the gravel traps will pull you out of the session entirely whilst way down the grid, a significant disadvantage come the race.
The latter is exactly what happened to Mallegol in #54 as soon as the 20 minute GT qualifying session got underway. Frolov didn’t fare much better in #72, he did get back to the pits after his out-lap but had managed to stove the front of his F458 Italia GT3 in sufficiently to prevent the car from taking part in the rest of the session. Cars were leaving the track or spinning everywhere in the opening laps, the conditions catching out even the likes of Kox (several times) and Tandy.
The GTC cars were much better into corners on their ABS brakes and were able to drive around the outside of some of the GTE cars, so it was no surprise to see #69 and #62 initially at the top of the times with a 2:24.388 for Shaitar. Of all the GTE cars, Bertolini’s Dunlop-shod JMW Ferrari was visibly more planted and he was top of the GTE runners throughout, taking the fastest time overall with a 2:22.474, then a 2:19.687 (at the time five seconds better than anyone else). Tandy kept it on the solid wet stuff rather than the soft green wet stuff for his first proper lap with a 2:27.674 to go second in GTE, fourth overall.
Shaitar improved his GTC leading time with a 2:21.262, still second overall and then Mancini popped up with a 2:23.611 for the Easyrace Ferrari, third overall and second in GTC.
Into the final half of the session and Tandy had strengthened his position with a 2:24.688 but Bertolini was way ahead of that, with his best of a 2:19.363. “They were very difficult conditions. My last lap would have been a 2:17 if it wasn’t for the red flag. We had a very strong feeling with the Dunlop wet tyres when the rain is really strong, especially when there is standing water. But also in the dry this weekend we have been the quickest and the pace is really strong. Yesterday I did a 1:44.8 after 12 laps on the tyre.”
RAM Racing had seen quite enough of the conditions though, Mowlem having spun three times on his out-lap. The team decided to pull both cars back into the garage.
Out on track, or more correctly, just alongside it, Lorenzo Case in #62 was ploughing through the grass yet improving his time to a 2:22.207. Shaitar in rival #69 posted a 2:19.524, second overall and back to the top in GTC.
Mancini posted a 2:20.996, so went second overall to lead GTC. A little further back, Peter Kox, fresh from several spins, finally managed a decent laptime of 2:22.799. “I aquaplaned coming off the last but one corner and hit the barrier quite hard, head on. It didn’t really do any visible damage but it was a big hit and broke the front splitter so it was dragging on the ground. We strapped it back on but I had a couple more spins, one of them in fifth gear when flat out when it just went ‘fyooosh’ [accompanied by the universal racing driver gesture for a car suddenly going the wrong way]. The car has a really good feel in the wet and I have no problem in the wet, but these conditions were well beyond that, there was just so much standing water. At least I tried!”
Case found that using the tarmac coloured water to guide his car round the lap was quicker after all. In fact his 2:17.964 was fastest overall, again driving around the outside of the likes of Collard he was able to improve that slightly to a 2:17.878 just as the chequered and red flags came out. The chequer was because it had ran its course, the red because Mancini had been caught out by the standing water at the apex of turn 10, dumping him into the gravel trap at the exit, so there was no option for anyone to improve on their final lap.
AF Corse #62 will be on class pole, separated from nemesis #69 by the JMW Ferrari heading up GTE. #83 Easyrace is next (GTC), then #60 Kox Racing Lamborghini (GTC), #77 Proton Porsche (GTE), #67 IMSA Porsche (GTE), #75 Prospeed Porsche (GTE), #52 RAM Ferrari (GTE), #79 Ecurie Ecosse BMW (GTC), #53 RAM Ferrari (GTE), #55 AF Corse Ferrari (GTE). Neither #54 or #72 recorded a time.
Turn 10’s puddle was to become the key one in the Prototype Qualifying session that followed, triggering no less than four red flags that turned the end of the session into something of a farce. By the time it got to the first of these, Signatech Alpine were lying third behind Race Performance and Nelson Panciatici was clearly trying to get onto the front row at the very least, having been pipped by Patrick Niederhauser.
Way out front throughout was Brendon Hartley though, his 2:09.301 was over two seconds faster than anyone else. The team wanted pole, as was clear from sending the car to the end of the pitlane in the pouring rain four minutes before the green light whilst the others sheltered under umbrellas outside their pit boxes. “I think for all the last races pole was on the cards, at the Red Bull Ring the team took a clever approach and I set a time with just three laps but then everyone else did double the laps to try to out-bid our time. What it meant was Jonathan [Hirschi] got a great chance to start the race on fresher tyres. We’ve shown our strength and the car hasn’t missed a beat this weekend. I’m really happy to get a pole for the team and I am confident that I can hand it over to Jonathan for him to do a good job. I think we have the strongest line-up here, but of course anything can happen, like at the Red Bull Ring. We were quick in the dry yesterday, even without using new tyres and the car feels good in the wet too. I like conditions like this and like at Silverstone (although there I admit I made a small error which turned into a bigger one!). I used the out-lap to find the standing water and the car felt good. I had about four GT drivers come up to me just before I went out to tell me where to be careful with standing water, but it changes from lap to lap, sometimes the puddles are bigger, sometimes not. The Oreca has always been good in the wet and I’ve done so many races this year, in the US and Europe, that I can feel very confident and that is how you need to be in these conditions.”
Mediani impressed again and SMP Racing will start fourth as a result, quite a turn-around from Austria, where in effect they were only testing within a race.
Turvey would doubtless have put Jota Sport higher up the grid in his quest for a fourth consecutive pole position but for a crash at the end of the start/finish straight that put him out of the session and caused the first red flag. “There was so much water on the track. We were aquaplaning everywhere. They were pretty tricky conditions for qualifying. On my outlap it spun round on me. It was more dangerous than when I’ve been in races where they brought the Safety Car out for heavy rain. I managed a banker lap but at T1 on I think my third lap as soon as I braked the rear wheels locked and it came around and I was a passenger from there really. I couldn’t get the car slowed down and it hit the tyre wall but it moved it so I don’t think it has done too much damage. I think for the race, if it stays like this, anyone who stays on the track for the full three hours is going to get a good result.” Sam Hignett confirmed that the damage was light, to the left rear bodywork and minor left rear suspension damage too.
Paul Chatin headed PC and #49 will start as high as sixth overall with an excellent 2:13.959, nearly three seconds faster than Ayari. The timing screen said Gary Hirsch was in the car at the time but it later changed to Chatin. Hirsch had a spin into the gravel at T10 to bring out the third red flag. TDS will start seventh overall after a session where Beche didn’t really figure and he was one of the drivers to throw it deep into the gravel at Turn 10, leading to the fourth red flag after which the session was terminated with around a minute left.
Klien had been caught out in the Morand Morgan by not setting a decent time prior to the red flag sequence (his 2:16.904 was good enough for second when he set it), then causing the second red flag by spinning into the gravel at T10. Morand will start a disappointing eighth overall ahead of the #48 PC car. #4 will start 15th overall, Alex Kapadia having been on qualifying duty. CO Jones had also bravely opted for that task in #46 but must have regretted it, having thrown the car into the gravel at T10 on his out lap, so no time was set by the Algarve Pro Racing Team.