2010 was the beginning of a brave new era for GT racing.
After years of the FIA GT Championship, this year saw the inaugural season for the FIA GT1 World Championship. The premier class from the old championship was taken into a standalone series, and with the FIA awarding it World Championship status the series was elevated into the same echelon as F1, the WRC and WTCC.
The brainchild of Stephane Ratel and the SRO Motorsports Group, each of the events on the ten-weekend calendar followed something of an unusual format. The practice sessions and qualifying – an F1-alike system with three segments – were run as normal. However, the first of the two hour long races – the Qualifying Race – offered minimal points to just the podium finishers, but mainly stood to set the grid for the second race – the Championship Race – where points would be awarded on the FIA's new standard 25-18-etc points scale.
The shorter races drew ire from certain groups of sportscar fans, but Ratel's belief that his racing was easier to follow than the six or three hour races of other series undoubtedly drew more fans into GT racing – and (dare I say) rang true. These new fans (and the old ones) were treated to one of the best media coverage packages in racing. Each race was live on TV, with the ability to watch any of the races or qualifying – in their entirety – on demand through the series official website. In an era when many series are struggling with how to treat the opportunities of the internet FIA GT1 should be pointed at as a shining example.
But before the series took to the track, you could have forgiven some of the sceptics. Despite an overlap year where new spec cars were allowed into the old GT Championship only three cars emerged built specifically to the new rule – the Ford GT, Nissan GT-R and the latest version of the Lamborghini Murcielago. The remaining cars on the grid – Corvette, Aston Martin DB9 and the Maserati MC12 were old spec cars 'grandfathered in' to the new series, ballasted and restricted to bring them in line with the performance of the new cars.
With criticism already primed, and all the attention expected on a new championship, the SRO would have hoped for a quiet start to the season at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit.
And that's exactly what they didn't get.
For many around the world the first image they saw of the FIA GT1 World Championship was Natacha Gachnang's Matech Competition Ford, with everything locked up, heading straight for the barriers at the end of the facility's long back straight during the opening minutes of the timetrial qualifying.
The Swiss woman would suffer a broken leg in the impact. The injury would keep her from the driving seat until the Matech squad's Le Mans 24 Hours challenge, and keep the no.6 car off the grid for the first two rounds of the championship (with a little help from an Icelandic volcano).
But while one Matech car was in pieces the other was claiming the first 25 points of the season. In many ways it was dream start, not only for the team, but for the championship. Matech Competition was exactly the kind of team the new championship was aimed at – the Swiss-based outfit had built their own car, moving up from the FIA GT3 Championship and the driving pair of the no.5 car was perfect for the series’ new standing.
German Thomas Mutsch – also the team's Technical Director – had moved up to GT1 with the team, while F1 refugee Romain Grosjean was the kind of name the series had to attract to justify its new standing in the eyes of the casual fan.
That first weekend set the tone for the rest of the year. The shorter races bred close, but occasionally over aggressive racing (another thing that would draw criticism from fans and teams by season's end) with plenty of overtaking. The chief exponent of this on that first weekend was the Corvette of Marc Hennerici and Andy Zuber. The pair had won the Qualifying Race, before the pre-determined ten place penalty was applied to all four Corvette's because of problems with the ballasting of the Z06.
They almost certainly had the pace to win the Championship, steaming from eleventh on the grid to second by the checkered flag. But events at the next race almost certainly rendered the challenge of their Phoenix/Carsport team toothless.
On a bitterly cold day at Silverstone, the car of Mike Hezemans was ablaze at the end of the Hanger Straight. The Dutchman was able to escape the fire, but the car was total loss. The team were forced to scrub their entry for Le Mans and the team would only once field field two cars again (resulting in the squad being ineligable for team’s points) and Zuber, who was in the sister Corvette at Silverstone would not return to the team. Whether the two facts are related is an item for speculation, but many of the Corvette team's hopes of a serious title challenge went up in smoke that day.
The wild swings in fortune at Silverstone were not limited to the yellow Corvettes. Mutsch and Grosjean struggled all weekend, down on straight line speed (losing some 14 kmph to the Lamborghinis according to Grosjean) Mutsch spun in the Qualifying Race to finish a lap down, before Grosjean's opening stint in the Championship lasted as far as Stowe before the Ford was spat off the track towards retirement.
Instead it was the Aston Martin and Nissan teams at the front of the field. Neither brand had scored a point Abu Dhabi, but both looked unstoppable at Silverstone. The no.7 Aston (Darren Turner and Tomas Enge) incurred two penalties for cutting over the white pit entry line, but still bounced back to finish fourth. The two DB9's of the French Hexis AMR were able to pick up the pieces, taking an impressive 1-2 in the race
Penalties were again the story of the second race, though they car after the race. Turner and Enge had crossed the line as winners, followed by Hexis drivers Fred Makowiecki and Thomas Accary, but both teams fell foul of penalties.
The skidplank on the winner Young Driver AMR car was found to be too worn – resulting in disqualification – while the Hexis team were slapped with a 15 second penalty for not serving a drive through penalty within three laps – just enough to drop them behind the Sumo Power run Nissan GT-R or Warren Hughes and Jamie Campbell-Walter who had finished third on track.
And so two British drivers and the only British based team on the grid won The RAC Tourist Trophy.
The vicious swing was back for the following round at Brno, Mutsch and Grosjean took their second win of the year, though their success owed much to the work of their pit crew to jump them from fourth to first when much of the field took their compulsory driver change stop under a convenient safety car.
The races at the Czech track also saw the first win for the Vitaphone Maserati squad. The team were multiple champions in the previous incarnation of the championship, but had yet to show the same dominant form in 2010, though they had quietly racked up points at Abu Dhabi and Silverstone.
If the team, and lead drivers Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels, had been quiet until now, then they left the following round at Paul Ricard after a full fanfare. Wins in both the Qualifying and Championship races put the pair above Mutsch and Grosjean – on his way out of the team – at the top of the drivers' points table, and it was to a position they never lost as they kept up the impressive record of scoring at every track the series visited.
From that point on Mutsch – who remained their nearest challenger with new co-driver Richard Westbrook – only out-scored them on two occasions, one of them the final round at San Luis when the title had already been won (or lost depending on your perspective).
The Germans title aspirations had crumpled with two non-scoring weekend at Navarra in Spain and then Interlagos. Mutsch himself being to blame for the Spanish exit after an over ambitious overtaking move. Their Brazilian demise came in the Qualifying Race at the hands of Frank Kechele's Reiter Engineering Lamborghini – the German also forced to retire, ending his team's realistic chances of challenging Vitaphone for that title. The crash had both starting from the rear for the Championship Race, neither recovering into the points.
The final challengers left standing to Bertolini and Bartels were Tomas Enge and Darren Turner. Silverstone disappointment behind them the pair had boosted their hopes with a dominant weekend at the Nurburgring – repeating Vitaphone's feat of winning both races, something with Makowiecki and Yann Clairay would do at the final round.
A second place in the Interlagos Championship Race had given them a chance of snatching the title in the San Luis finale, but a poor qualifying – the timetrials and race – saw Bartels and Bertolini take the drivers' title with the Championship Race remaining. Only Aston Martin stealing the SRO Cup for Manufacturers (due, in no small part to Clairay and Makowiecki's heroics) stopped Maserati from taking a clean sweep of titles.
In general it was a successful first season for the championship. Every brand – save for Corvette – won at least one Championship Race, which speaks of the relative parity of the cars, as diferent as they are, and a new scheme for success ballast in 2011 should go some way to damping the wild swings from race to race.
Over 70 drivers had at least one race in the championship – ranging from pay drivers and local specialists to names as high profile as Olivier Panis, Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy, which leant a disjointed feeling to proceedings – though happily the more fast moving of the driver revolving happened in the team in the lower half of the grid. Perhaps they were in the back half of the grid, because of the driver shuffling.
After only one season the championship faces an uncertain future.
The squads that ran Corvettes – Mad-Croc Racing and Phoenix/Carsport – have expressed doubt over their ability to gather the necessary funding for a 2011 campaign. Matech Competition have announced their intention to step back from racing, instead concentrating on building the Ford GTs for racing in various series. The other Ford team – Marc VDS Racing – were leading the calls for better driving standards after a season which included more than enough spins for the team at the hands of competitors – a last lap punt from Nicky Pastorelli's All-inkl.com Murcielago at Navarra particularly sticks in the memory.
Whatever the winter brings, if the series' sophomore year can come anywhere close to its debut, then the FIA GT1 World Championship should be well worth watching.
Here’s TCF’s choice for the top five FIA GT1 drivers (or driver pairings) in 2010:
1. Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini – Equally at home in the new championship as they were in the old one. A quiet start to the season gave way to a pair of stellar weekends – and that record of scoring every weekend made them uncatchable in a competitive series.
2. Darren Turner and Tomas Enge – Did nothing other than what was expected of them. Fast and consistent they were on the wrong side of some (fair) decisions and the swinging performance balancing. Easily could have had more than one Championship Race win, which would have been crucial come San Luis.
3. Thomas Mutsch – Although almost certainly the weaker half of his pairings with Grosjean, then Westbrook the German was still able to justify his place in the driving seat. A few mistakes blotted his 2010 copybook and his title chances disappeared too early.
4. Fred Makowiecki – A new name to most people, the GT3 stalwart was among the fastest in the series on his day. Two-race sweep at San Luis was a fine end of a good season.
5. Frank Kechele – Perhaps the surprise package of the year in the Reiter Engineering Lamborghini, the young German took a pair of wins in the summer for the team in a year which should launch him on the world stage.