This year the traditional Easter races (Paques is French for Easter) at the Nogaro circuit in South-West of France was headlined by the FIA GT1 World Championship. One of five FIA sanctioned 'World Championships, the 2012 series is, somewhat confusingly, run for GT3 cars but more about that later. Similar cars were also out on track during the weekend for the GT3 European Championship. Another headliner of the meeting was the Classic Endurance Racing (CER) with a particularly strong field of close to 40 classic GT and sports racers. Additional support series included the Mit Jet Series for remarkably small, motorcycle engined sports cars and the Euro-Racecar NASCAR championship, which is the European equivalent of the popular American stock-car series. Being Easter, the feature races were held on Monday, making for a somewhat unusual race weekend. An altogether more complicating factor was the changeable weather; during Saturday and Sunday the track never was completely dry. This particularly affected the first GT3 and GT1 races.
Our photographers ventured to the Gers region just North of the Pyrenees mountains to capture the Coupe de Paques in full colour. The result is this 200-shot gallery
FIA GT3 European Championship
Serving as a support series for the World Championship, the FIA GT3 European Championship is aimed specifically at gentleman drivers, who want to compete at an international level. To maintain a level playing field, the drivers are rated 'gold', 'silver' or 'bronze' according to their capabilities. Each entry needs two silver drivers or one gold and one bronze driver. For the 2012 series, six races are scheduled with the Coupe de Paques serving as the season opener. Due to strong competition from the Blancpain Endurance Series, which is also organised by Stephane Ratel's SRO, the number of cars entered for the race was a modest 12 cars.
In qualifying the two Sainteloc Audi R8s and the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3s looked particularly strong. Due to the wet weather, outright pace was not the only determining factor during Sunday's Race 1. The highly experienced Marc Sourd excelled in these conditions, taking a win with the Sainteloc Audi he shared with compatriot Gregory Guilvert. Behind them several other drivers struggled with the conditions, resulting in several spins and collisions. One of the AF Corse Ferrari drivers even missed the pitlane entrance and in a move rarely seen on the racetrack, put the car in reverse to make the pit stop as scheduled. Under dry conditions, Race 2 proved much more straightforward with Dominik Baumann and Maximilian Buhk clinching victory in their Mercedes. Also worth mentioning was spirited drive to third from Michael Lyons in the Ferrari 458 Italia he shared with Stefano Gai after being forced to serve a drive-through penalty for clipping the line on the pit-exit.
FIA GT1 World Championship
It has been all change for the third season of the FIA GT1 World Championship with the GT1 cars used in the two previous editions being replaced by GT3-spec machines. Although a step back at first glance, this move has opened up the World Championship for far more manufacturers and teams. As a result of, title contenders include fabled names like Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and McLaren. Strong in quality, with 17 entries, the season opener did lack a little in quantity. Most of the teams were new to the Championship but previous champions Vit4Phone and Hexis did return, switching to BMW Z4 GT3s and McLaren MP4-12C GT3s respectively. Two one-hour races were scheduled; with the 'qualifying' race on Sunday determining the grid for the 'championship' race on Monday where the most points could be scored.
While the Belgian WRT team's Audis looked strong in the practice sessions, it was Toni Vilander in the AF Corse Ferrari, who managed to clinch the first pole of the year. With changeable weather expected and a damp track, most teams send their cars to grid on slicks to see if they could be used. The most definitive answer came from Stef Dusseldorp in the Hexis McLaren; he spun and hit the wall at the old pit entrance. He did manage to limp back to the pits but the damage was too severe to repair in time for the race. Not surprisingly, all of the surviving cars started the race on wets. Bravest of all in the opening stages of the race was Tomas Enge, who quickly moved from seventh on the grid to first within a few laps. He handed the car to Albert von Thurn und Taxis with a sizeable lead. The Bavarian Prince was quickly hunted down by the two WRT Audis but the gentleman driver did well to defend the final podium position from a charging Alvaro Parente in the other Hexis McLaren. Victory went to the WRT Audi of the experienced Stephane Ortelli and youngster Laurens Vanthoor, who had never raced a closed car before this weekend.
With the sun finally breaking through a seemingly impenetrable cloud cover, the championship race was run on completely dry conditions on Monday afternoon. This time storming through the field after the start were Toni Vilander in the Ferrari and Mike Parisy in the Chinese entered Porsche but both were soon after called into the pits to serve drive-through penalties for jumping the start. This freed the way for another one-two victory for the WRT team, finishing in the same order as the day before after Vanthoor managed to get by Oliver Jarvis soon after the pit stops. They were followed home by two Mercedes, two Ferraris and two Lamborghinis. The closest battle in the final laps was for sixth after a great recovery run by Peter Kox in the Reiter-prepared Lamborghini. He could get to the tail of the #3 Ferrari but ultimately was unable to pass. With two retirements due to mechanical issues from the championship race, this was a weekend to forget for defending champions Hexis with a fourth-place finish on Sunday as only a small consolation.
Classic Endurance Racing
Putting the weekend into a historic perspective was the one-hour enduro that opened this year's Classic Endurance Racing (CER) championship. With a very colourful entry list consisting of 37 sports and GT racers of the 1960s and 1970s, the CER event was well worth staying at the track until the dying minutes of the meeting. As regular followers of the series, most of the entries, which ranged from a Ford GT40 to a menacing Porsche 935 K3, were familiar sights but each race does also bring out 'new' cars. Among the most interesting of these this time was David Ferrer's Lola T70 Mk3 Coupe. Raced extensively in period until a heavy crash, it returned to Europe in 2011. This was its first race since the owner acquired the car, and because it had been restored as a show-car in the United States, it provided the mechanics with plenty of work. Sadly the bright-orange machine eventually only managed to complete two laps in the race.
Benefiting from the best weather conditions of the weekend, the CER field was led from the line by Martin O'Connell in Sandy Watson's Chevron B36. A veteran of six Le Mans 24 Hours races, the Chevron was up against nearly a dozen of quick Lolas but eventually had the better of all of them by over half a minute. O'Connell's fastest lap of 1:31.074 was just a handful of seconds off the pace of the GT3-spec cars, despite the B36's modest four cylinder engine. The remaining podium positions were filled by Frederic da Rocha in his Lola T298 and Dominique Guenat in his Ford Cosworth DFV powered Lola T286. Throughout the field fierce battles were fought with the tight corners and long straight playing to different strengths of the various cars. The other class victors were Pierre-Alain France with Lola T70 Mk3B (Proto 1), Jean-Marc Merlin in his Porsche 935/78 (GT 2) and Raymond Narac and Michel Lecourt sharing the latter's Porsche 911 Carrera RSR 3.0 (GT 1).
Despite the often far from favourable weather conditions, over 38,000 spectators ventured to the lovely Nogaro circuit. They were treated to a great show with close racing and fortunately very few serious accidents. With the recent addition of a brand new pit complex, the Nogaro circuit beautifully combines the look and feel of a classic racing track with the amenities we have all become used to.