Moonlighting: Monza musings

Moonlighting: Monza musings

Swiss electro-pop band Yello once did a song called “You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess”. Its content, or chart success, need not concern us here, but its title did come to mind as I stood at the end of the Monza pit lane for pre-qualifying and watched this massive field head out on track.

It is a very British mentality to knock something successful, so I am making mental notes not to do so. After all, GT racing is booming and that grid was something else, wasn’t it? That amazing shot on TV of the grid as the cameraman went all the way through it, row by row by row, the line of cars stretching all the way to Malpensa almost, underlined how popular the category is. And the racing was fantastic, inevitable with so many cars and so many battles, although it was a little frustrating that the leading Kessel Racing Ferrari was untroubled for the last hour plus.

Do you sense a “but” coming here? Well, if there is anything that one could criticise, it is the size of the entry and what that does to the overall safety of the race. The Blancpain Endurance Series has a new Race Director for this year in Bernard Cottrell and he’s one of the best in the business. I’ve known Bernard for many years and he is always on top of the situation, but I’d wager even he held his breath for the first lap as the massive grid snaked its way around Monza. Actually, when you analyse it, the concerns over contact-induced safety cars are perhaps overplayed. For example, the Blancpain Endurance Series policy is to race at Grand prix circuits, so by definition they have lots of run off area and internal and perimeter roads to allow cars to be brought back to safety without affecting the flow of the race. Therefore, once contact was avoided at the first chicane, we were home and dry. Well, not quite because there were incidents, but the safety car deployed for the spun Vita4One BMW was Sod’s Law: as soon as you shout for the safety car, the incident clears. I can imagine Cottrell’s response in Race Control to that moment….

New for this year is a partner for me in the Blancpain Endurance Series commentary booth and I was delighted to spend Monza, as I will the rest of the season, with John Watson. Wattie was convinced, perhaps understandably, that we’d have a safety car on the first lap, and while I haven’t yet seen the five Euros I won from him, a bigger result was that the race didn’t have the carnage many expected. For that, everybody should take a bow.

What seemed to be a bigger talking point was the pit lane. Monza is always a critical circuit on fuel, when dry at least, and teams were talking of a one-lap window. In other words, they came in on a set lap or the one after: no more wriggle-room than that. So that meant that you could have had half the field (give or take) in on either lap, or worse, over half on just one lap. The result? A very tight and congested pit lane while teams are trying to refuel. One driver said he had to queue for 40 seconds before he could get to his pit box to refuel. That’s like sitting at the pumps at a service station and waiting for people to pay and come back to their car – it also blows your strategy right out of the water.

But is there a solution? Teams spoke about angling the cars nose forward, therefore allowing more cars into a given area, but I am sure that the SRO brains will have looked at this for Silverstone, where there is another huge pit lane. Spa fascinates me, with 80 cars potentially and what might happen when people pit, under the safety car, in the rain…. I used to love being a pit lane commentator, but these days I think standing in a box is a far safer place for an old chap!

So, what else did we learn from Monza? I thought it was interesting that on a day when pit lane discipline and activity affected the race shape, that Kessel Racing won, as this is a team that has seen decent result slip away on pit stops in the past. It’s great to have another winning team and can you believe it is only the second win for a Ferrari 458 outright since the Blancpain Endurance Series started? The fact that each class was won by 458s proved the car was ideally shaped for the fast Italian parkland circuit and it will be interesting to look at speed trap data come Silverstone.

The entry list was astounding. I could take up your entire day droning on about who was there and what they have done in the past, but that must have been one of the best entry lists in terms of quality in any GT race ever. Want to argue? Don’t. The sheer size of the entry list means you had more champions and race winners from any class than ever before and with young guns in their 20s taking on veterans like Marc Sourd who was winning in Renault 12s back in 1971, it proved that SRO’s push to increase the Gentlemen Trophy has worked well.

Highlights? Well, one was Adam Carroll’s dogged last stint and his successful push for position at the last corner; another was Philipp Eng’s pole lap and so, too, was Rob Barff’s first stint. Wattie and I were delighted to see Rob’s progress and we felt his pain when the stint came to an end and the car inevitably fell due to the slower pace of his co-drivers. Such is Pro-Am racing I guess. Andrea Bertolini’s stint for AF Corse was another highlight, but let’s be fair to Louis Machiels and Niek Hommerson: both did a great job in their stints and are far better drivers than they were when they first came into Blancpain Endurance Series. The Am element of Pro-Am is fascinating now, trying to put the drivers in some sort of order in terms of speed, and it is proving very difficult.

Another highlight was Bas Leinders introducing me to the joys of Vedett Belgian beer. What began as a conversation about fuel strategy ended up as a discussion about trappiste beers, and whilst I am not sure that Vedett makes a BMW go any faster, it was perfect for sipping in the afternoon sunshine!

On a different note, I must have a word with Giacomo Petrobelli. Regular readers of Moonlighting may recall I praised him highly after last season, but his first race in the Pro Cup wasn’t a success, with a number of spins in his Ferrari 458. I suspect all was not well, but Giacomo has some explaining to do!

We didn’t see the best of him, nor of Hexis. My standard answer to the question: “Who is going to win?” was “Hexis” and I was spot off in my assessment. First thoughts of fuel saving were dispelled by Philippe Dumas confirming it was an engine problem, but the car should fight back at Silverstone.

Ah yes, Silverstone. June 1/2 in case you had forgotten and a superb circuit at which to watch GT cars. Go to Becketts and be astounded by how committed drivers have to be through the Esses stand on the bank at Stowe and see the cars work through Stowe and Vale and the head for the new corners and see them work on the slower, twiddly bits.

I’d suggest that you do a lap chart to follow the race, but….. that may be impossible. Can we get to 70 cars? Come and join us and find out.