Events of the month

FIA GT Series: Baku, Azerbaijan

"It was not the easiest of weekends,” he confided while boarding the flight home. Stéphane Ratel is not only the master of his GT racing universe, but also a master of understatement.

The inaugural Baku World Challenge certainly had its challenges. The FIA GT Series championship finale would be fought out around a new street circuit on the waterfront of Azerbaijan’s capital city. It was never going to be easy, for organisers or drivers. Street tracks have their own special problems, especially in a country with precious little experience of motor sport.

“Baku is the new Dubai,” an oil company executive told me. “The Azeris have come a long way in a short time, but there is much more in the pipeline.” He was referring, of course, to the vast amounts of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea, the income from which is being used to put the former Soviet state very firmly on the international map.

There was a street race in Baku during autumn 2012, but the World Challenge was something altogether more ambitious: more cars, a new circuit and demo laps by some historic Grand Prix cars, plus the GT Series championship decider. The scene was set for a dramatic weekend but nobody could have predicted just how spectacular this
new event would be.

The Baku World Challenge was a joint venture between the Stéphane Ratel Organisation, promoter Jean-François Chaumont from Spa-Francorchamps, the FIA and the Azerbaijan government, with marshals drafted in from the Hungaroring. By the end of a rollercoaster weekend most folk agreed that this new event has enormous potential, speculating that Mr Ecclestone will be keeping an eye on the ‘City of Lights’ – so called due to its sparkling modern architecture.

It’s true that the circuit is still in need of some tweaks before it can be considered for a Grand Prix, but the layout along the waterfront is challenging and fast. The FIA was not happy with one of the chicanes, but that was sorted before the GT cars went out in anger. More bizarrely, the Tarmac was washed early on race day, forcing the FIA to declare a wet race on a beautiful sunny morning. These, though, are the teething troubles with a new circuit in a far-off land with no racing heritage and the Azeris are as keen as anyone to learn from these glitches. They have the wealth, the enthusiasm and the commitment. All they need to do now is immerse themselves in the inner workings of the sport.

The Audi R8s were clear favourites to take the title, and the vastly experienced Stéphane Ortelli was expected to be crowned champion by the close of Sunday afternoon. Into the first chicane they funnelled and Ortelli, in his Team WRT Audi, got the break he wanted when a messy multiple collision left poleman Niki Mayr’s Audi and Rob Bell’s McLaren limping back to the
pits for repairs.

Ortelli and Alon Day (Charouz Mercedes) initially held sway and, during the mandatory pitstops, Laurens Vanthoor took over the Audi and passed Day to assert himself at the front. Kevin Estre took over from Bell in the Hexis McLaren and so began a mesmerising drive through the field from eighth position, the Frenchman aggressively forcing his way to the front. Minutes from the end he passed both Alvaro Parente (Loeb McLaren) and Day at the first hairpin and chased after the leading Audi. There weren’t enough laps left for Estre, however, so the race and the 2013 championship went, as predicted, to Ortelli and Vanthoor. Almost two hours after the race, the stewards penalised Estre and Day for avoidable contact at the hairpin. This elevated the Parente/Loeb McLaren to second and put the Bell/Estre McLaren down to third, with Day/Maximilian Buhk back in fourth.

It was unfair on the Azeri fans, drawn in by posters urging them to ‘Come Feel The Power!’, that such a thrilling climax to the season ended in the stewards’ room long after they had left their seats. Still carrying their national flags, handed out free at the gates, they’d got back in their cars and driven home through the traffic as if they were on the last lap of a title decider. Baku in rush hour, we learnt, is a street race all its own.

None of this mattered to Ortelli and Vanthoor who picked up a cheque for €100,000, the 2013 FIA GT Series title and a fine race win in the inaugural Baku World Challenge. This was a fifth major GT title for the man from Monaco, making him one of the most successful GT drivers of recent times.

“I could not have done this today without the speed and talent of Laurens,” he said, “so thank you to him. I really can’t believe that we’ve won this race and it feels so good to do it with Audi. I am so happy, I am almost speechless.”

As the sun slipped down behind the skyscrapers, happy fans and weary officials made their way back to homes and hotels after a memorable weekend’s racing. Those of us who watched the Baku World Challenge wince its way through some growing pains will say “we were there” and hope to return. Despite all the hiccoughs, GT ringmaster Ratel remains optimistic.

“The concept is good,” he said. “We brought a grid of 28 cars and had a very competitive race – that is good at the end of the season. The city is beautiful, it has some great history and the location is excellent, not too far away, just between Europe and Asia. This could become an absolute classic, like Macau, no doubt about that. There is great potential here, for sure. Yes, there are some things to resolve, the tight chicanes – especially the first one – for example, but we must remember a street track is a street track. There is never enough space. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day F1 comes here.

“D’you remember? We were racing in China at Zhuhai in 1994, and a few years later F1 went to Shanghai. I don’t know, we will see.”

For now, many lessons have been taken on board and another title has been decided. A great many Europeans came away enthralled by the city of Baku, capital of a country that is going places as quickly as oil pours from the Caspian Sea. Rob Widdows

East African Safari: Classic Rally

On a tough rally in Africa run over nine days and more than 1000 miles of competitive sections, one would never have imagined such a ding-dong lead battle. Mere seconds separated the leading drivers in the 2013 East African Safari Classic, held for cars built before 1979.

At the start of the final day, Ian Duncan/Amaar Slatch (Ford Capri V8 Perana) led Stig Blomqvist/Staffan Parmander (Porsche 911) by nine seconds. Two competitive sections later, having tied for fastest time on the first, Blomqvist had taken a 38sec lead. What could go wrong for the Tuthill-prepared Porsche?

Both drivers threw caution to the wind through the final 50 miles and, though Duncan finished the section with a damaged tyre that looked as if it should have deflated, it was Blomqvist who got a puncture, losing his lead and the rally.

Earlier, there had been dramas when Björn Waldegård, multiple winner of the original Safari, crashed out at the start of the third day after taking a Tanzanian concrete river crossing too quickly and rolling his Porsche 911. The Swede and co-driver son Mathias were unhurt.

Deliberately choosing to take a softly-softly approach to this hard, dusty rally, Paris-Dakar veteran Gérard Marcy and co-driver Stéphane Prévot drove the entire rally at what they described as “90 per cent”. They suffered only a fraction of the troubles affecting faster cars and were rewarded with third place, 12min behind Blomqvist. Among those ‘faster cars’ were the BMA Porsche 911s of Bernard Munster/Johan Gitsels and Grégoire de Mévius/Alain Guehennec. Munster was new to the event and took it gently at first, but sped up after the Ford Escort RS1800 of John Lloyd/Gavin Laurence caught him on the first section. After getting into his stride and setting fastest time, punctures and broken brake calipers put him back down the field. His team-mate de Mévius led the rally at one point, but was sidelined by a broken driveshaft on the first stage back in Kenya.

With time allowed every evening for service and sweeper cars towing stricken crews out of sections, the number of competitors did not drop significantly and 54 of the 60 starters qualified as finishers.

Within the top 10, there were seven Porsche 911s with only Duncan’s Capri, Lloyd’s Escort and the Datsun 260Z of Steve Perez/John Millington breaking the monotony.

Perez had an excellent run on this event battling through problems with punctures and damaged suspension to finish fourth overall. Over the last two days he had had to fight off the attentions of Kenya’s new rally champion Baldev Chager, who had swapped his modern four-wheel-drive rally car for a Tuthill-prepared Porsche 911.

Perez’s team-mates Geoff Bell/Tim Challen were going well with their 260Z until an axle broke on the penultimate day, after which they dropped from contention completely following a roll. John Davenport