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Group C Racing: Catalan Classic, Race Report

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As Gareth Evans crossed the line to conclude the 2013 Group C Racing Series, his team held out a sign that said “MERC RACE 8 POLE 8 WINS 8” in celebration of the perfect season for the Mercedes C11. But whatever else happens in 2014, Chamberlain Synergy will be denied repeating that special moment following the Race 1 victory at Barcelona of Katsu Kubota’s Nissan R90CK.

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The Nissan beat the Mercedes fair and square in a hugely entertaining race that went right down to the flag, giving hope to the rest of the field that they too could perhaps vanquish the seemingly indomitable Silver Arrows.

Qualifying

The omens weren’t good, weather-wise, in the run up to the weekend. A coating of red Saharan sand covered the circuit on the Wednesday, with torrential rain following on Thursday. Come Friday morning, however, the clouds parted and the sun came out and it remained glorious for the remainder of the weekend.

There was stormy weather ahead for several of the Group C runners, alas. The Class 3 Gebhardt C91 of Frank and Michael Lyons hadn’t even made it out of the UK, having somehow suffered an ECU failure on the day it was due to set off for Spain. It had worked fine during a recent successful test at Spa, but a spare could not be sourced in time and so the car had to stay behind while the Lyons family headed to Barcelona to race in Historic F1.

It wasn’t the only Class 3 car in trouble, with Christophe D’Ansembourg’s Peugeot 905 unfortunately suffering engine issues during testing on Friday. Happily, his trusty Porsche 962 had been brought along in case of such an eventuality and was wheeled out by the Mec Auto team for qualifying on Saturday, with Hervé Regout sharing driving duties; but even this car wasn’t to have a trouble-free day, with driveshaft failure ending their day’s running early. Disaster loomed as it was discovered that there was no spare, but the Mec Auto boys pulled an all-nighter and managed to cobble together a replacement from parts borrowed from elsewhere. Well done to all concerned!

So good news for the second Jägermeister Porsche 962 on the grid – the other being Peter Harburg’s recently-acquired ex-Brun machine – and all the more so because Regout had managed to go fastest in Q1, with a time that was good enough for a front-row start for both.

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But things were rather less positive for Eric Rickenbacher and his Swiss team of enthusiasts, who were crestfallen – and not a little bit angry – after the Cheetah’s newly-rebuilt engine dropped a valve in Q2, after a water leak had earlier caused a spin in the first session.

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Stefano Rosina was another in the wars in his Nissan NPTi90, with a hefty off in Q1 destroying the back wing plate against the barrier. In a remarkably resourceful move, the team headed down to the local builders merchant and purchased a large sheet of ply; from which they fashioned a replacement.

Pole went to Bob Berridge, who announced his return to the seat of the Mercedes C11 with an emphatic lap of 1:41.865. Happily, someone had fitted a camera:

Behind the Mercedes and the #17 Porsche, we had a second row occupied by the two Spices in the field – which must have pleased Gordon and Mandy Spice, who had come along for the weekend. The #111 Class 2 SE88 of Mike Donovan was third (1:47.295), with the Class 1 SE89 of Adrian Watt fourth (1:48.441). Katsu Kubota – sharing the #25 Nissan R90CK with Joaquin Folch for this round – was fifth fastest (1:48.505) and Erwin France sixth in the #45 Porsche 962C he was sharing with his father Pierre-Alain.

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Row 4 was shared by Richard Eyre’s #3 Jaguar XJR16 and Henrik Lindberg’s #33 Porsche 962; Row 5 by Kent Abrahamsson’s #28 Nissan R90CK and Russell Kempnich’s #12 Porsche 956C; Row 6 by Peter Harburg’s #5 Porsche 962 and Peter Garrod’s #72 Intrepid RM1; while Row 7 was the sole preserve of Stefan Rosina’s Nissan.

Qualifying result – here

Race 1

Sunday at Barcelona would see two 30-minute races, with the first beginning at 10:45 and the second at 16:35. All of the cars that had made it through qualifying were present and correct in the Spanish sun as the grid formed up for Race 1, with the Silver Arrows – in the hands of reigning champion Gareth Evans for this first event – sitting proudly in P1.

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A clean start saw Evans begin to pull out a lead of 1.480s over the first lap and it looked as though we were in for a continuation of 2013, especially when lead extended to 2.2s after two laps.

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However, Christophe D’Ansembourg had other ideas and on Lap 3 he started to recover some of the ground he had lost to the C11 and reduced the gap to 1.892s.

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It had been a tidy start all down the field, but some had fared better than others. Katsu Kubota dropped from fifth to seventh on the opening lap as Erwin France and Richard Eyre went by, and then had the perfect viewpoint as the Jaguar found a way past the black Porsche on Lap 2; the Japanese driver and car taking the opportunity to also regain a place on the same lap. The Nissan was now finding its feet and the R90CK powered past the XJR16 on Lap 3. Further back, Stefano Rosina had by this point passed both Peter Harburg’s Porsche and Peter Garrod’s Intrepid in his own Nissan.

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Two relatively slow opening laps from Adrian Watt had widened the gap between the two Spices to just over three seconds, although they remained in second and third with three laps down. But while Watt’s pace had improved to match that of the SE88 of Mike Donovan, neither driver could do anything to hold back Kubota, who went from sixth to fourth on Lap 4.

Back at the head of the field, Evans was aware of an ever-growing mass of orange in his mirrors as D’Ansembourg continued to close. The gap from second to third fell below a second on Lap 5, but the Belgian now had his own problems as his own mirrors were rapidly filling with white and blue, and by Lap 7 the gap from first to third was a mere second and a half.

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Barcelona seemed to be working well for the trio of Nissans in the field, with all three making progress. As Kubota pressed home his attack on the top two, Rosina took another scalp in the shape of Russell Kempnich’s Porsche 956 to move up to 10th, while further up the track Kent Abrahamsson took seventh from Eyre’s Jaguar in the #28 R90CK; the XJR16 having also lost a place to the recovering France.

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Evans had been improving his pace with every lap and had dropped into the mid-1:47s by Lap 7. Kubota, however, was in his element by this point of the race and on Lap 8 pulled out a 1:45.827 to not only sweep by both the Jägermeister Porsche and the silver Mercedes, but also to establish a lead of 1.205s by the time the three cars crossed the line again. Fabulous stuff! Another two quick laps from the Nissan extended its lead by 2.520s by the end of Lap 10, but Evans began to close up again thereafter – this wasn’t finished yet.

Stefan Rosina’s fine run ended on Lap 9 with an unscheduled stop, not long after he had taken ninth place from Henrik Lindberg. The Nissan returned to the race having lost a lap, but was now someway adrift at the rear of the pack.

But while the fighting raged throughout the field – and there was even a fight for 11th place as Peter Garrod began to haul in Peter Harburg –all eyes were on the fight for the lead, which once more dipped below a second on Lap 12.

Evans wasn’t giving up and was harrying Kubota all the way round the 4.655km circuit, but a slight easing of pace on Lap 14 allowed the Nissan to gain a second on the C11 and at this the moment that the race was decided; not even a 1:46.083 from Evans on Lap 15 being enough and a delighted Nissan driver took the flag by 1.308s after 17 laps of excellent competition.

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“The clutch was gone in Q2 on Saturday and the mechanics worked till midnight so we could race on Sunday. Thank you to them for putting it right,” said Katsu Kubota. “I started from fifth and lost a few places in the first few laps as I just wanted to make sure everything was okay with the car. After that I started catching back up one by one, then around Lap 8 or 9 the brakes became a bit iffy – they were still there but iffy. So I tried to drive as gently as possible in race speed, checking the brakes in strength by pressing pedal a bit, and towards the end the brakes came back. All in all it was a fantastic race; the weather was nice, the organisers have done a good job and the team worked hard. I am so happy with the result!”

Having been unable to keep pace with the top two, Christophe D’Ansembourg eased his Porsches pace in the closing lap to consolidate third, while Mike Donovan won the battle of the Spices to take fourth by four seconds from Adrian Watts’ Class 1 version.

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The top six was rounded out by Erwin France’s 962C.

A topsy-turvy race for Richard Eyre finished in fine style, with the Jaguar retaking seventh from Kent Abrahamsson’s Nissan on Lap 12 and then holding off a determined last-gasp charge from Henrik Lindberg’s Porsche to secure the place and take the Class 3 win – the gap between the two being under three seconds at the close.

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The Swedish Nissan finished eighth, with Russell Kempnich ninth. Despite his efforts, Peter Garrod’s challenge for 11th in the Intrepid fell short by just half a second, while Stefano Rosina’s recovery drive in the NPTi90 was a lap shy of getting onto terms with these two cars.

What a race! Close, exciting, and with racing throughout the field – and we had had a 100% finishing record.

Race 2

The grid for Race 2 was the same as for Race 1, but there were several fresh drivers in the various cars. The front row now had Hervé Regout in the #17 Porsche alongside Bob Berridge in the pole-sitting Mercedes, while Row 3 saw Joaquin Folch in the victorious Nissan and Pierre-Alain France in the #45 Porsche.

Unfortunately for Peter Garrod, a loose alternator wire resulted in the Intrepid having to be wheeled off the grid. The problem was resolved by the team and the car was able to join in after three laps, but even though the RM1 ran flawlessly thereafter, it was to be a lonely race for its driver.

With Berridge having blitzed pole so effectively, the expectation was that he would just drive off into the sunset.

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But Regout – who drove these cars during the Group C era – had other ideas and the top two cars ended Lap 1 virtually side-by-side (the official gap being just 0.022s)…..and then the Porsche took the lead!

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Lap 2 ended with the orange 962 heading the C11 by almost half a second and the many spectators were wondering if lightning would be striking twice in one day. But Berridge isn’t known for a fondness for finishing second and the pedal was pushed all the way to the floor; a 1:45.983 on Lap 3 being followed by a 1:44.092 on Lap 4, a 1:44.062 on Lap 5 and a 1:43.243 on Lap 6. The Porsche had no answer to this and the Mercedes was indeed headed for the sunset.

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The running order experienced quite a shake-up in the opening laps, with several cars gaining places. Adrian Watt was ready for the start and took third from Mike Donovan on the opening lap. Richard Eyre again made a storming start in his C3 Jaguar to repeat his Race 1 trick of taking position from the France Porsche and the #25 Nissan, while Kent Abrahamsson also made up two places on the first lap at the expense of France and Henrik Lindberg. On Lap 2, however, a trip across the grass for the #28 Nissan was followed by the smell of burning and Abrahamsson decided to pit and park up rather than risk a fire, thus becoming the first retirement of the day.

After a cautious start, Folch quickly began to find a groove in his Nissan and retook fifth from Eyre before challenging and taking Mike Donovan for fourth, but it would not be until Lap 8 that he would overcome Adrian Watt’s resistance in third. By this point, we had also lost the Jaguar, which had suffered a driveshaft failure. Peter Harburg had also lost a lot of ground after pitting with a suspected puncture.

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By the halfway point of the race, the Mercedes had established a lead of 24 seconds and Berridge only now decided to ease his pace, but only to the 1:46s. Regout held a 15 second advantage over Folch, who was by now four seconds clear of Watt and 10 seconds ahead of Donovan. Sixth was Stefano Rosina, who was again enjoying himself in the #84 Nissan NPTi90, but a loss of power on Lap 12 ended a fine run and he became the third retiree of the day.

Only Pierre-Alain France made a gain in the second half of the race – the Frenchman recovering from a dreadful opening lap to hunt down and pass Lindberg’s Porsche – and the final few laps were completed without further drama; Bob Berridge taking the win for the Mercedes by almost 40 seconds.

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“It was good to have a battle with Hervé at the start of the race and great to be back racing in a Group C car at Barcelona. The Catalan Classic is a fantastic event which I’m sure will grow year on year!”

Hervé Regout took a comfortable second in the #17 Porsche, while Joaquin Folch was delighted with third.

“Phenomenal, the cars are outstanding!” said the Spaniard. “I was very conscious over the weekend that it’s the first time I’ve driven the car, which is very powerful and of course not mine! I’m incredibly grateful to Katsu for offering me the chance to drive the Nissan and thank him deeply. We were going to share the E-type this weekend but it had a twisted valve. It was difficult to learn how fast to keep the speed in the corners – I spun in the qualifying session yesterday as I’m used to calming with throttle in the F1s!”

The Spice battle this time went the way of Adrian Watt, who took fourth by 14 seconds from Mike Donovan.

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France was sixth, Lindberg seventh, Russell Kempnich eighth, Peter Harburg ninth and Peter Garrod the final finisher in 10th.

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The Circuit de Catalunya had proven itself to be a fine venue for the start of the 2014 Group C Racing season and had produced fine entertainment. The series now moves on to the Spa Classic in mid-May.

Race results:

Race 1 – here
Race 2 – here

MH