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A weekend in the life.... Racing Engineering - Pt.1

3 June 2011


As starts to a race weekend go, it wasn't a great one. Another moment of stress on the one weekend where the team would want to do all it could to avoid any at all. And it wasn't even Friday.

Racing Engineering is one of, if not already, Spain's premier race team outside of Formula One, so the Spanish Grand Prix, at the Circuit de Catalunya on the outskirts of the country's second city, is a vital event on its GP2 Series calendar. The chance to entertain guests, engage with both current and potential sponsors, and generally feel the warmth of the home nation's support marked Barcelona out above the likes of Silverstone, Monza and Spa-Francorchamps.

Having one of the natural successors to double F1 world champion Fernando Alonso in the ranks helps too, and 22-year old Dani Clos, good-looking and articulate, does his bit to engender support, with his own fan club providing vocal support and a splash of yellow to contrast, patriotically, with the Ferrari scarlet adopted by Alonso's hordes of followers.

Clos, fortunately, wasn't the problem. Instead, it was his team-mate causing the headaches for team boss Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon as he drove through most of Spain to reach the latest destination on what has fast become a global tour for GP2. Highly-rated German Christian Vietoris had declared himself unable to take part on health grounds, but had done so very late in the day, leaving de Orleans with little time to source a replacement. GP2 Series rules stipulate that each team must field two drivers at every round, so the race – the first of a long weekend – was on.

For most of the 1200km from the team's base at Sanlucar de Barrameda, close to the Jerez circuit in the far south-west of Spain, the team boss and general manager Ines Koschutnig worked on finding an ideal stand-in, bearing in mind that the team would be going directly from Barcelona to Monaco for back-to-back race weekends, and there was no guarantee that Vietoris would be ready for the season's blue riband event. Various names were discussed, but one, Portugal's Alvaro Parente, was the one de Orleans wanted most.

“There were several drivers that we considered,” he confirmed, “but Alvaro stood out for many reasons. He was already known to the team, having raced with us before, and would therefore need very little time to settle in, but also brought a lot of GP2 experience and would be available for Monaco if needed. There was no point looking for someone in Renault World Series or Euro F3 as both had races that clashed with either Barcelona or Monaco, so Alvaro fitted the bill. It was just a question of striking a deal with McLaren……”

Parente, having served two full seasons years in F1's feeding ground already, had hoped to have moved up by now, but a disappointingly brief spell as reserve driver with the Virgin Racing team in 2010 – curtailed by a shortfall in promised sponsorship – had left him searching for a ride. Instead of settling for something in order just to be racing, he had instead found employment developing McLaren's potent new MP4-12C for the GT classes. Prising him away from the programme, albeit temporarily, had its price, but it was one Racing Engineering was prepared to pay.

Parente had arrived in Barcelona and was being fitted for his race seat by Thursday evening, his name and national flag already covering over Vietoris' on the gantry that carried light and lifeblood to his mount for the weekend. A fully self-sufficient race team, despite its distance from a major city, Racing Engineering produces its own livery stickers, each one carefully calculated and measured to produce the least wind resistance when its two cars are running on track. Aero benefits are not the main concern for the graphics that adorn the pit area, but the team's attention to detail and professionalism would not tolerate having 'Vietoris' and the German flag above a car driven by someone else.

The team was already hard at it when de Orleans arrived at the circuit the following morning, exercising a well-practiced drill in order to ready the two Mecachrome-powered Dallaras for the weekend's first GP2 session. It may only have been half an hour of 'untimed' practice, but every lap on track is vital in a series known for its close competition – and moreso for Racing Engineering after a nightmare start to the 2011 season in Turkey two weeks before.

Having triumphed, with Clos, in the final race of the third GP2 Asia Series, the team entered the main championship with high hopes and great expectations. It had also ended the previous season's summer series with Vietoris taking victory in Italy, but both the car and tyres were different when de Orleans took his team to Abu Dhabi in February.

Racing Engineering had been the only notable absentee among the GP2 faithful when the Asia Series was first launched with the intention of bringing on young talent, and especially that from emerging motorsport nations. Because it ran the original spec Dallara, making use of the newly-redundant machinery supplanted by the second generation introduced for the 2008 summer series, de Orleans saw no benefit in competing, especially as the cost of travelling to destinations in Malaysia, Indonesia, the UAE and Bahrain were far likely to out-weight the sponsorship that might be brought to the team.

This year was different though. Not only were all teams mandated to contest both series but, for the first time, the current spec Dallara, now in its third iteration, and new Pirelli tyres – replacing the tried and trusted Bridgestones – would be used, meaning that anyone not competing would be at a serious disadvantage when the main series kicked off in Turkey. That, and Clos' victory in the final race of the Asia Series – at a very un-Asian Imola of all places - was why the team's results at Istanbul Park were such a shock.

“We were very upset with the results in Turkey,” de Orleans admitted, “The Pirelli tyres were very complicated to understand, very inconsistent, and we need to work to understand how to find a proper working solution for Barcelona.”

Both Clos and Vietoris had been on the pace when it mattered in practice and qualifying, and the Spaniard made a noticeably blistering start to Saturday's feature race to move into podium contention, but problems with the tyres ultimately relegated him to eighth – and a single point – while Vietoris made two stops instead of the usual one, and only found he had his car 'under him' in the final stages – when he lapped up to ten seconds quicker than some of his rivals!

Clos' result, ironically, gave him pole position for Sunday's sprint event that acted as curtain-raiser to the Turkish Grand Prix but, despite another good getaway and leading for the first couple of laps, the Spaniard was unable to keep Stefano Coletti behind him and, once the Monegasque was through, the floodgates opened, with Clos eventually winding up 15th. Vietoris' race wasn't much better, the German ending his weekend in the barriers at turn three after brake failure.

“I really don't want another weekend like Istanbul and think this was a one off event,” Koschutnig confided, “We won the last race of this year's Asia Series and were very competitive during the pre-season testing and, therefore, Istanbul was a big surprise for us. However, everyone has worked very hard since then and now we understand very well what happened there.

“While we were fast in qualifying, Saturday and Sunday was not what we were hoping for due to a variety of reasons and there were quite some points we threw away, which is a pity. But the important thing is to understand what has happened and why. The tyres are a major issue this year and we are optimistic that we will be back to our normal form in Barcelona.”

The first priority for the Spanish round, therefore, was to try and confirm that remedies implemented since Istanbul would have the desired effect, at least allowing Clos to compete as expected, while giving Parente as stable a platform from which to dial himself back in, the two-time GP2 race winner having sampled neither the latest Dallara or its Pirelli tyres before the Friday morning session.

“Following Istanbul, we had to have an in-depth look at all the different parameters involved in the performance of our cars during the weekend to understand and optimise the choices for Barcelona,” sporting director Thomas Couyotopoulo revealed, “Obviously, in GP2, as well as in F1, we have seen this year that the strategy and choice on set-up has to be done taking into account the very high tyre wear of the Pirellis. A great effort has been made to analyse the data of every session and race in Istanbul and identify the validity of the choices made.

“We showed in Istanbul that we can be quick in wet as well as dry conditions, so the focus now obviously lies on conserving the tyres and maintaining a good performance level throughout the races. This involves a variety of points, such as set-up choices, driving styles, strategy and tyre management. With only 30 minutes of free practice, there won't be much time to adjust the cars, but we tested in Barcelona one month ago and take the information gained at that stage into consideration as well. We were the only team in Istanbul able to place both drivers in the top ten in qualifying. Therefore, the first goal is to repeat this in Barcelona, preferably as high up the grid as possible!

“Although Dani is from Barcelona and we are a Spanish team, Barcelona is just one more race on the calendar for us from a technical point of view. We prepare things as precisely and diligently as we do it for any race weekend, so nothing special is planned in particular. The circuit is very well known by all the teams and drivers so, from a technical point of view, no-one really has an advantage there. However, it is always a pleasure for us to drive in Barcelona as there is little to be compared to racing in front of the home crowds.”

While not resembling race conditions in any way, the practice session ended positively for the team, with Clos ninth and Parente 14th, both having produced both data and feedback that could be used ahead of the afternoon's solitary qualifying session. That would be run in different conditions again, with the second 90-minute F1 session of the weekend adding to the rubber coating the Catalunya tarmac, but the team was confident it would be in the mix for the first few rows of the grid, if not pole position itself.

The weather, at least, remained constant for both sessions, with clear blues skies and a stiff breeze, but much of the afternoon action happened in the first quarter of an hour. With just 30 minutes in which to set a time, qualifying can often be a fraught affair, and everyone knew the importance of getting at least one competitive time in the books before things got busy later on. This time, however, the early laps proved to be the better ones. Although Clos improved marginally on his second effort, it failed to improve his position, and he remained seventh to the end, with some of those at the front of the grid having managed to save a set of tyres by realising that there was little to gain by venturing out again.

There was a small stroke of luck for Clos that evening, however, with poleman Jules Bianchi being adjudged to have set his time under yellow flags signifying an incident. The Frenchman was docked ten places, promoting those immediately behind him, although he did not fall as far as Parente, who remained a still creditable 15th after his first qualifying session in nearly eight months.

“Considering we have to watch our tyres for tomorrow, we had to pay attention to not ruining them, and I think both drivers did very well considering the circumstances.” de Orleans confirmed, “Dani drove an intelligent qualifying, while Alvaro did very well even though he hasn't driven a GP2 car in eight months. I am quite confident for tomorrow.”


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