Despite only three hours flying from Amsterdam, the distance felt much further once I got out of the modern airport on Istanbul’s European side. A quick glance at the traffic introduced me to a whole different range of cars, and also convinced me to get the highest insurance on the rental car. Once out on the road in ‘my’ slightly odd-looking Clio sedan, it was not as bad as it initially appeared, despite the common walking or reversing on the highway. I received clear instructions from the rental agency to follow the signs ‘Ankara’ to get to my hotel, but they forgot to mention that ‘Ankara’ (the country’s capital) is mentioned on every other sign. After a slight detour I finally reached the hotel as it was getting dark.
The reason of this trip to Turkey was the Istanbul 1000 km race; the season opener of the Le Mans Series. Held under torrential conditions, it was the finale last year. With not much of a support program, there was little to do on the track ‘till later on Friday afternoon, so there was plenty of time to relax after my ‘Tour d’Istanbul’. Driving to the newly built track was like stepping into a new world where battered roads all of a sudden turned into a smooth six lane highway. After picking up my credentials, several armed men showed a great deal of interest in the shiny white Clio; carefully checking it inside and out. Silence was still in abundance when I arrived in the paddock, but there were plenty of anxious faces ready to start the engines. As we all know; once the flag drops, the bullshit stops. At three in the afternoon it finally did and the first practice session of the season got underway. What happened next can be read in the following report and seen in a spectacular 150-shot slideshow
Free practice and qualifying
While the brand new Radical had already impressed at Paul Ricard two weeks ago, it stunned everybody including the car’s owner Martin Short in the first two practice sessions. In only its third day out ever, the ultra low LMP2 was easily fastest in class and even beat most LMP1 cars. It was all put somewhat in perspective in qualifying where the Rollcentre entered car finished seventh overall and second in class behind the familiar RML prepared MG Lola. Nonetheless the Radical was the hottest topic on Friday and Saturday and the car’s performance should no doubt make a very viable option for other teams in the future. All four Courages in this class suffered from various problems, but Barazi Epsilon C65 and one of the Belmondo cars did manage to pick up the pace in qualifying. Absent from this class is the Chamberlain Synergy Lola, because the timing conflicted with a business meeting of the Portuguese owner.
Overshadowed somewhat by the black and green ‘rocket-ship’ the LMP1 class saw familiar faces at the top end of the grid with the Pescarolo and Creation swapping the lead throughout the practice sessions. Eventually the French beat the Brits by .070 to take the pole. A further two seconds down it was Jan Lammers in his newly acquired Dome who fought off the two new Courages. All three of them suffered from reliability issues on both days, so a finish could very well secure a podium spot. Chamberlain Synergy is present in the LMP1 class, but their new Lola has yet to find a competitive pace, but recent tests proved it is very reliable.
The biggest news in GT1 was the withdrawal of the B-Racing Lamborghini after it suffered its fourth engine failure this year. Livered in a combination of Aston Martin racing green and the French ‘tricolore’, the Larbre Competition DBR9 topped all the leaderbords with Portuguese Pedro Lamy clocking the fastest times. A second behind and only a second apart were four of the five others in this class, lead by Jos Menten in the PSI Engineering Corvette C6.R.
Just 1.3 seconds separated the top seven in the GT2 class and more remarkable only two out of the seven were 911s. After a pole at Sebring, the F430 GTC equaled that performance in its second international race. In the hands of Peter Sundberg, the Icer Brakes car beat the first of the Panoz Esperantes and the two other Ferraris. The Autorlando GT3 RSR in the hands of ‘factory driver’ Marc Lieb rounded up the top five. Spyker’s team boss Hans van Rennes was happy to announce that the twitchy rear-end that had troubled Dutch cars on day one and at Sebring was cured, but the fast drivers managed to do no better than 10th and 11th in class for the race they briefly led last year.
Hampered first by a dusty track and later by a drizzle, the drivers struggled to find grip and the times were somewhat slower than clocked in November of last year. Fingers were crossed throughout the paddock (with one or two exceptions of course) hoping that the predicted dry weather would come for the race.
1000 km or Six Hours
Well not quite; about 90 minutes into the race the organizers announced the race would finish two hours early due to lack of fuel. Apparently a slight miscalculation resulted in a shortage of 8,000 litres. Nonetheless there was enough action in those four hours to fill at least six.
At the start it went all terribly wrong for the RML MG Lola, which spun and hit the wall on the main straight. It was probably a combination of a wet track and an overly enthusiastic driver. The damage was repairable, but the laps lost proved not to be. Although it had stopped raining an hour before the race, the track refused to dry up properly and those on rain tires had a clear advantage. Barbosa in the Radical stormed through the field and even challenged the Pescarolo and Creation for the lead when the throttle stuck open. No real damage, but the problem dropped them back several places. Despite, or maybe because of the treacherous conditions, the lead changed several times, but the Creation and Pescarolo were never far apart. Tragedy struck in the 56th lap when the Creation’s Ricardo gearbox gave way and forced the team to retire. This was not the end of the tragedy in LMP1 as shortly after Racing for Holland Dome and the works Courage were out of the race. It paved the way for an easy victory for last year’s champions; Pescarolo.
One of the big surprises of the race was the performance of the Epsilon Barazi LMP2 Courage, which stayed out of trouble and finished a remarkable 2nd overall. After the early trouble, the Radical again fought its way back up the field in sight of a podium finish when the electronics fried and the fire extinguisher went off forcing Tim Greaves to retire with less than 15 minutes to go. It was a sad finish to what was a miraculous weekend for the Radical and Rollcentre boys, but their time will come; sooner rather than later. Pierre Bruneau finished second in class in his Pilbeam, followed by the G-Force Courage in which 17 year old Ed Morris showed very good form.
In GT1, Larbre Competition DBR9 took a comfortable victory ahead of the Menx Ferrari and Luc Alphand Adventures Corvette C5-R. The Aston Martin’s lead was challenged early on by the PSI Experience Corvette C6.R until it came to stand still at turn eight after 79 laps.
About a half an hour before the finish, I’d left the press centre to shoot the final stages of the race and the Pescarolo taking the flag. Unable to understand the very excited, but also very Turkish speaker, I could only guess the result in the GT2 class. There were still four cars in contention until the very end, but eventually the GPC F430 took the new car’s maiden major win, closely followed by Marc Lieb in the Autorlando Porsche. With two poles, a second place and a win, it has been a very successful roll out for Ferrari’s new racer. Time will tell if it can also take the Porsches on in the big one where its predecessor never even managed to finish. Richard Dean and Lawrence Tomlinson in the LNT Panoz completed the top three, while the Spykers finished fifth and seventh.
The two big stories of this weekend were most certainly the Radical’s performance and the clumsy and unprecedented fuel shortage; both causing a premature end. It’s very commendable that Pescarolo’s flawless performance is hardly newsworthy anymore; it’ll take a great car and driver pairing to beat them in the Le Mans Series this season.
Sadly there were only a few hundred paying spectators (there was probably more security personnel) on the grandstands and it is highly doubtful the Series will return here in the future. Despite the many problems the teams suffered because of the remote location, the racing was very good and that’s what matters at the end of the day!