All good things ...
After seven of the season's eight rounds the all important drivers titles in both classes of the 2009 FIA GT Championship were still up for grabs. Just as in 2007, the final round at Zolder would decide the final standings. Perhaps even more significant; after 13 seasons and 132 races, the FIA GT Championship would come to an end in its current form. If all goes according to organiser Stephane Ratel's plans, it will be replaced by a GT1 World Championship and a GT2 European Championship from 2010 onwards. A preview of things to come was already provided this season by the Matech-Ford GT1 and Nismo GT-R that were built to the proposed 2010 regulations. One of each was present at Zolder and helped bump the field to 21 cars. Further entertainment was provided by the European GT3 Championship, which also had its season's finale at Zolder after the Dubai round was canceled. The ever unpredictable fall weather helped to spice things up further.
Going into the Zolder race, the GT1 drivers table was headed by Vitaphone Racing team-mates Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini. The two Maserati MC12 drivers had an advantage of 4 points over locals Anthony Kumpen and Mike Hezemans. With a maximum of ten points available, the challengers had their work cut out. Another disadvantage was the presence of two other Vitaphone Maseratis, ready to take away valuable points from the Pekaracing Corvette racers.
Already not on their best behaviour this year, Porsche decided to help the title attempt of Richard Westbrook and Emmanuel Collard by splitting the two up. Each were teamed up with Marco Holzer and Martin Ragginger respectively; two young but hugely talented drivers. Both youngsters were not considered 'platinum' drivers by the series, so neither of the Porsches was required to carry the 50 kg weight penalty dealt to full pro line-ups. This left Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander to defend their 3 point lead, 50 kg heavier and against two cars instead of one. They did have the benefit of the latest updates to their AF Corse Ferrari F430 GTC, which will only become available to the other Ferrari teams next year.
Practice and qualifying
With so much at stake, the changeable weather dealt to the teams on saturday was the last thing they needed. Both 80-minute practice sessions were on wet and drying tracks but qualifying was mostly dry. Despite the difficult and ever changing conditions, there were surprisingly few incidents and no real damage to report. With better weather predicted for sunday there also was little gained from exploring the limits in wet conditions.
On a mostly dry track the GT2 cars were out first for their 15-minute qualifying session. Bruni used all of his vast skills to set the fastest time in the championship leading Ferraris. Joerg Bergmeister was a close second in his Trackspeed Porsche. Title challenger Richard Westbrook could do no better than third quickest. His erstwhile team-mate Collard was all the way down in eighth and his chances for the title now looked very slim.
Out next were the nine GT1 cars, which would have a rather eventful session. There were several yellow flag situations, which made it next to impossible to set a quick lap time. The fastest time was set by Kumpen in the Corvette, followed closely by Alex Muller in one of the Vitaphone Maseratis. Both were however awarded a five-place grid penalty for a yellow flag infringement. The decision to penalize Kumpen was only made public an hour before the race and put a big dent in the Belgian's title aspirations. The post-qualifying reshuffle put Alex Pier Guidi in the #33 Vitphone Maserati on pole ahead of Enrique Bernoldi in the Brazilian Corvette.
European GT3 Championship
Since its inception in 2006, the current GT3 class has attracted a wide variety of production based GT racers. New additions for this year included the Audi R8 LMS, Alpina B6 GT3 and the Morgan Aero SuperSport. For the sixth and final round of the season just two dozen cars were entered, which was the direct result of a massive pile-up at Paul Ricard a few weeks earlier. The field was complemented by the cars running in the Belgian GT championship. The two groups ran together in the two one-hour races but the Belgian cars did start 20 seconds later to keep the two championships apart.
The first race was started with an extra lap behind the safety car to give the drivers an extra sighter of the drying track. All cars seemed to get away cleanly until the first chicane where one of the Ferraris spun and remained on the track facing the wrong way. One of the Porsches could not get around it and the two hit. Both cars were damaged too extensively to continue but could clear the crash-site in time. One of the Alpinas took the early lead but a spin into the gravel at the second chicane yielded the lead and eventually the race to Christopher Mies and Christopher Haase in one of the Audis.
The second race started on a dry track but halfway through the rain returned and the safety car was called out on track. Racing continued a few laps later by which time the Kessel Racing Ferrari of Stefano Gattuso and Lorenzo Bontempelli had moved into the lead. They held onto it and took the final win of 2009. Mies and Haase finished 4th, which was more than enough to win the title.
The 132nd and final FIA GT race
Fortunately the weather played no part during the race; we were actually treated to some sunshine. All eyes were on the #4 Corvette of Hezemans and Kumpen as it had to make up quite a bit of ground to pass Bartels and Bertolini in the standings. At the head of the field the Brazilian Corvette challenged Pier Guidi for the lead going into the first corner but the Maserati held onto the lead and immediately started to build up a lead over a chasing pack. The fight for second was between three Corvettes and the other two Maseratis. Hezemans in the #4 went in for the first of two mandatory stops very early to get out of the traffic. Bertolini followed suit and came out in the lead. A great drive by Hezemans saw the #4 pass their title rivals and jump all other cars except for the Pier Guidi and Matteo Bobbi Maserati. The second place finish was not enough as the #1 Maserati of Bartels and Bertolini crossed the line in third. With the win of #33 Maserati and the driver's title, it was a perfect weekend for the Vitaphone Maserati team. It's not over quite yet as the Pekaracing Team filed three protests over unsporting behaviour from the Vitaphone team and its principal/driver Michael Bartels with regards to team orders. Anthony Kumpen was remarkably frank about Bartels in the post-race press conference, where he basically accused Bartels of being a cheater.
A bit further down the field, Gian Maria Bruni converted his pole position in an early lead. The additional 50 kg was, however, literally weighing down his Ferrari. His brakes started to suffer, allowing two Porsches to get by. This allowed the Westbrook / Holzer 997 GT3 RSR to grab the lead. Later in the race the second Porsche dropped back but its place was taken by two Ferraris, dropping the 2010 spec F430 to fourth. There were clearly no team/manufacturer orders at work here. With his win Westbrook claimed the title but at a price. On the podium he missed his season long team-mate, Emmanuel Collard, who had crossed the line in sixth and had to settle for third in the championship.
The class of 2010
Both the 2010-spec GT1 cars had a difficult race. The VDS team Matech-Ford slowed down after about an hour and could not make it back to the track. The Gigawave Nissan suffered from brake problems and required a repair that lost them almost half an hour. The GT-R managed to cross the line but was not classified.
So what are the prospects for 2010? The Matech-Ford seems almost certain of being back in 2010. It will face the existing GT1 cars, which are 'grand-fathered' in to get worthy grids. The Nismo built GT-R showed some form but it is believed to be in need of a complete redesign before it will be raced again. With the current economic climate as it is, this is not a given. Reiter Engineering has revealed its 2010 spec Lamborghini Murcielago LP650 during the summer but it has been awfully quiet since. A rather more surprising addition to the 2010 GT1 field could be the Lexus LF-A that was recently launched in Tokyo.
Hopefully Ratel's ambitious and brave plans for a World Championship will take shape quickly and kick off with a well filled grid at Abu Dhabi in the spring of 2010.
The final race of the 2009 season and FIA GT Championship provided plenty of excitement. The close racing kept everybody at the edge of their seats, helped in part by the fact that the timing and scoring was not working properly. It was a shame that the FIA GT ended with a bit of controversy but those who were there, will tell you that it started that way back in April of 1997 when Mercedes-Benz fielded the rule bending CLK-GTRs. As our final bow to 13 seasons of great racing, we would like to point you to our exclusive 100-shot
gallery with images from the main race as well as the GT3 support event.