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FIA GT Series: Baku World Challenge, Saturday Practice & Qualifying Report

René Rast ended a rather chaotic day in Baku with pole position for tomorrow’s FIA GT Series Qualifying Race on the streets of the Azerbaijani capital. The German was the fastest in the two qualifying sessions, beating Markus Winkelhock by half a second. FIA GT Series Pro Cup points leader Laurens Vanthoor finished qualifying in third place. Edward Sandström, currently second in the points, was only 12th fastest and will start from 17th in the Qualifying Race tomorrow morning.

Today’s time table went out the window before 9AM already as modifications had to be made to the circuit in order to get it homologated (and make it a safer place to race on). Initially there was a one hour delay, then an additional hour, before the call was made that the free practice session would not commence before 12:30 and a new timetable would be issued shortly. Eventually the first session started at 12:40 but soon the first red flags were waved for debris on track. It was followed by another red flag when Alon Day hit the wall exiting the first hairpin and the session ended when Daniel Keilwitz and Edward Sandstrom collided at the final chicane, causing severe damage to the Corvette (UPDATE: Callaway Competition examined the car and discovered damage to the fuel tank. The car has been withdrawn from the weekend).

Session two was more of the same with cars brushing the wall, but this time there was just a single red flag when the Hexis Racing McLaren clipped the concrete barriers – but Rob Bell continued and returned to the pits.

Qualifying started right after the Historic F1 cars had left the circuit at 4.40PM, but after only 13 cars had completed a timed lap the red flags were shown again as Maximilian Buhk crashed the #1 HTP Gravity Charouz Mercedes into the tyre barriers. With 6 minutes and 38 seconds remaining in Q1 the clock was stopped, with Markus Winkelhock being the fastest driver with a time of 1:43.314s.

After almost 15 minutes the track was cleared and the pit exit lights went green again. Markus Winkelhock was on the pace again and improved his fastest lap time to 1:43.062, but he wasn’t able to improve as Mattheus Stumpf crashed his Rodrive Lamborghini. The red flags came out once again, ending the first part of qualifying.

Due to the delays the second qualifying sessions started at sunset and soon the drivers switched on the headlights of their cars. The first couple of lap times were not fast enough to threaten Winkelhock yet, but when René Rast went out he soon started to set purple sector times. Rast had waited in the pit a bit longer to give himself some extra space and it turned out to be the perfect strategy to claim pole position for tomorrow’s race.

On his first real flyer he already put the #12 Audi R8 LMS ultra on the front row, followed up by an even faster lap that put him on pole position. Rast improved once more, setting a fastest lap time of 1:42.551, before calling it a day as it was getting too dark to continue. Vanthoor finished Q2 in second place, a full second behind his teammate. His time was still fast enough to secure third on tomorrow’s Qualifying Race grid.

“It wasn’t a perfect lap and I was not happy at all,” said Rast after the qualifying session had ended. “But I enjoyed myself on this street circuit and all in all we can be very happy. I love the track, it is very challenging. It has everything. Fast corners, slow corners, chicanes.Every little mistake is crucial.”

When asked why the Audi’s were this good in qualifying Rast replied: “Our car is faster through the slower parts of the circuit, so we take a bit more speed out of the slower parts. We don’t have the absolute top speed here though.”

Marcel ten Caat (@dsceuroeditor)