Magny-Cours 2004: Saleen a winner at last
2 May 2004
A close and exciting third race of the FIA GT season saw the Ferrari stranglehold broken at last as Saleen took its first win in the series in the hands of German team-mates Uwe Alzen and Michael Bartels.
The American muscle car made its series debut at the start of the 2002 season but, despite concerted efforts from both RML and, more impressively, Konrad Motorsport, had not managed to best either Ferrari or Lister in the victory stakes until Magny-Cours 2004. Ironically, however, it was the Vitaphone Racing Team - only formed by DTM refugees Alzen and Bartels for this season - that claimed the breakthrough win.
The black-and-turquoise S7R took the lead at the start and held on throughout the three-hour event on to take the maiden victory while, in N-GT, Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr took their second consecutive win, leading an all-Freisinger podium which also saw Russian drivers Nikolaj Fomenko and Alexei Vasiliev claim their
first-ever top-three finish.
Sunday dawned bright and warm over Magny-Cours and, although the skies clouded over during the main event, it stayed dry until the race had finished. After qualifying second fastest on Saturday, Bartels took the lead at the start and held on to it, only dropping briefly off the top during the first round of pit-stops, when he handed to Alzen. The German crossed the line with a 30-second advantage over the #1 BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari 550 Maranello of Matteo Bobbi and Gabriele Gardel - which, remarkably, appeared to have taken its third runners-up spot in as many rounds.
"It's great to finally see the chequered flag after two very disappointing races," Bartels said, recalling the early exits at both Monza and Valencia, "The car was quick again and, this time, we could actually make use of that. I think we did a quite good job, and I'd really like to thank Pirelli for all their hard work. I've never driven a car which keeps its tyre performance on such a high level over the distance."
"I can only thank the team for their great work - it's a great result for them and should help to build up motivation for the next races," Alzen echoed, "It was especially important for Pirelli to be in front of Michelin. I just hope we'll be equally lucky for the next races - especially our home race in Hockenheim. Then we can tackle the
Although it crossed the line ahead of the third-placed JMB Racing Ferrari 575, the BMS car was later awarded a 50-second penalty after Gardel was adjudged to have caused an avoidable accident - with the sister #2 BMS entry! The punishment also promoted team-mate Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari to third, with Bobbi and Gardel dropping to fourth. The penalty has been appealed, however.
"That's racing - such things just happen, even though it's a shame when it happens with your team-mate," a disappointed Gardel admitted later, "It's been a good race for us otherwise."
"Gabriele was very fast compared to Cappellari, and tried to overtake him, but Luca closed the door," Bobbi said, describing his team-mate's costly indiscretion, "It's a racing accident but, of course, it's not good because we're in the same team."
The reigning champion's attempts to close the gap on the leading Saleen were not helped by mechanical difficulties in the closing stages, and he was consequently unable to open out a sufficiently large gap on those behind to prevent falling to fourth.
"The last stint was really difficult for me because the first gear was broken and I could only use second, which meant I lost quite a lot of time," Bobbi confirmed, "Over the last ten or eleven laps, I also had some problems with the brakes."
The #17 Ferrari had been in contention for a podium finish throughout, with lead driver Karl Wendlinger enjoying a hearty battle with Bobbi in the opening stint. The all-Austrian crew of Wendlinger, Toto Wolff and Robert Lechner then kept their noses clean to come ahead of the second BMS entry and benefit from the penalty handed out to the #1 car.
"We're definitely on the right path," Wendlinger said of the steadily evolving JMB 575 threat, "We're closer to the leaders than we have ever been before."
It was not all plain sailing for the three-man crew, however, as Wolff almost became an innocent victim of the BMS intra-team incident.
"There was a little problem with one of the BMS cars, which went off and came back to the track right in front of me - I had to go into the gravel to avoid hitting it," he revealed, "Luckily, our car did not get stuck there."
Despite the mid-race collision between the #1 and #2 Ferraris, the BMS team did enough to retain its lead in both championships. Pending an appeal into the #1's demotion in France, the team has a 30-point lead in the teams' classification over JMB Racing and GPC Giesse Squadra Corse. In the drivers' standings, Gollin
and Cappellari continue to lead, with Bobbi and Gardel five points adrift.
"I had a good race, with a lot of pressure from the Konrad Saleen for about 15 minutes towards the end," Gollin revealed, "It was very fast and I just couldn't hold it off any
more - I tried to close the door but couldn't. It was only when Lechner made his move that I saw the big problem he had with his bodywork."
The #4 Konrad car was subsequently penalised for ignoring the black-and-orange warning flag waved to make its driver aware of loose rear bodywork. Fifty seconds were added to the car's time, dropping the car to fifth. The incident wasn't the only 'problem' for the team, however.
"I was pushing so hard during the last stint and one of the stones that was lying on the track hit us really hard and the car literally just fell apart," Walter Lechner Jr reported, "The first stint went race well - even though I don't understand why the polesitter has to start from the right-hand side of the track, which gave us little chance to maintain our position at the start.
"We were going very well at the beginning, driving good lap times, but the pit-stop wasn't really optimal [due to starter problems], and Toni [Seiler] was a bit off the mark today. He was just not the Toni we knew from Valencia. He lost a lot of time - and I couldn't make up for that, even though I was giving my all during the last stint. The car was literally undriveable, and I still kept pushing."
The lead GPC Giesse Ferrari entry kept up the Italian squad's push for honours, despite a problem with the #11 575 M Maranello late in the race.
"We were aiming to do a double stint with the tyres at the end, so I went out on the tyres Philipp Peter had used," Fabio Babini explained, "I was lying third after two hours, but I drove over something and the front splitter broke, giving us a lot of vibration and understeer. The car was very low, so I had to do the whole of the last hour like that, and it was very difficult to drive."
A Porsche one-two-three was always a possibility in the N-GT category, but few would have expected to see the three yellow-and-green Freisinger cars take the top three places.
The #99 car of Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr took its second consecutive win, with the two Germans heading the 'French' sister car of Stephane Ortelli and Emmanuel Collard by an ever-increasing margin to the flag.
"Lucas made a very good start and was able to overtake the [polesitting GPC Giesse] Ferrari right away," Maassen explained, "We had a very good pit-stop when I got into the car, and I had a lead of about 14 seconds. I was able to improve that, and pushed very hard at the beginning until we had close to 24 seconds. We had no problems with the car."
Luhr was even happy enough with the Porsche's performance to complain about the pace of the supposedly faster GT class machines.
"I lost some time being stuck behind one of the GT cars during my first stint," he confirmed, "Obviously, that car was much quicker on the straights but, in the corners and the breaking zones, he held me up a little bit. Eventually, the driver realised that he was in my way and he let me pass."
Ortelli found himself involved in a tight battle with polesitter Christian Pescatori, which prevented him from closing the gap on his team-mates.
"I had a great fight with Christian - I was trying to overtake him in the slow corners and he was breaking as late as possible, even blocking me a bit," the Porsche man reported, "But it was a fair, good fight, until I could finally get past him in the chicane. The race was perfect, and we didn't make any mistakes, but, unfortunately, we lost about ten seconds during the last pit-stop. This is now the third time in a row I have finished second, but I'm not disappointed at all."
Collard reported traffic problems during his stint, and was particularly irked that it was another GT car to blame.
"I lost nearly ten seconds behind a Viper," he fumed, "I could overtake it eventually but, by then, it was already too late and we'd lost plenty of time. I'm a bit angry about
that, but we're still leading to the championship."
With the regular frontrunners reprising their results from round two, the talking point was the third place finish for Russian drivers Nikolaj Fomenko and Alexei Vasiliev, who took their first ever podium.
"I'm very happy for our team," Vasiliev bubbled, "We had a few problems with some electrical components before the start - the automatic gear shift didn't work - but, in the end, we were lucky and made it to the podium after all."
Fourth place went to the father-and-son team of Gerold and Christian Ried, with Vonka Racing's Porsche taking the final points in fifth.