The FIA GT Series is about to live an exceptional closing to the 2013 season, as teams and drivers head to make history at the Baku World Challenge. This will be the first-ever round of a FIA Championship to take place in Azerbaijan, one of the booming nations in the Caucasus, and the Azeri hosts are preparing a stellar event to be remembered. There is great excitement and anxiety among the FIA GT Series community to discover the urban track in the streets of the “City of Lights”, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. For the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, the event promises to be even more memorable, as this year’s Driver title can’t escape one of the Team WRT pilots and the squad is only 6 points away from mathematically securing the Teams’ crown. Needless to say, a street circuit unknown to everybody, and the presence of many additional participants of top level that will join for this special event, are key factors to be taken into consideration. To mark this special occasion, the team is entering and additional car, entrusted to Filipe Albuquerque and Grégoire Demoustier.
“We are all delighted and very excited to go to Baku”, reckons Team WRT Principal Vincent Vosse, “To end the season with such a great new event is fantastic and can only bring a lot to the Championship. I have been following the preparations and I am confident that the organisers, which include a lot of Belgians thanks to Jean-François Chaumont and his team, will put together a great event. It will certainly be an atypical weekend, which means some extra pressure but also some extra pleasure, and we really would like to add such a prestigious race to our collection of wins. It won’t be easy because the Balance of Performance is what it is and there will be many additional good contenders. Although they will be ‘transparent’, in that they will not score nor block points, I hope they will not interfere negatively in the fight for the title. Given the nature of the track, we can certainly anticipate very tactical races, and an active role of the Safety-car! The first objective, for us, will be to secure the Teams’ title and have a nice family fight among our drivers for the Drivers’ crown. I have absolutely no preference: all our drivers have done a great job, they are all great guys, and whoever wins will make me happy!”
Sporting Director Pierre Dieudonné seems not worried about the many unusual variables of this race. “It’s a new track, unknown to everyone”, he admits, “but that is true for everybody. There are no data on the circuit, we have just seen the topography of it but all the rest will have to be discovered on site, especially the surface. But we do know our car, so I am confident that we will be able to find quickly the best set-ups. Regarding the fight for the Drivers’ title, we have decided to leave our drivers free to defend their chances and not have team orders whatsoever. The starting point being that they are all intelligent and grown-up boys, they will be free to fight, the only boundaries being not to hurt the team’s interest and to respect each other and the cars. I think being as clear as possible is always the best way to handle this kind of situations.”
The championship standings say that Laurens Vanthoor and Stéphane Ortelli lead with 101 points. The young Belgian driver seems quite cool at the eve of a weekend that could bring him a first international GT title. “I have spent the last few days in Germany with my girlfriend and fine-tuning my physical preparation with my trainer”, says Laurens, “I also have been devoting some time to my latest hobby, photography, something that has always fascinated me. I wanted to take some distance from motorsports and avoid thinking too much about this decisive race. I’m not worried about urban tracks, I like them and did well at Macau and Norisring in the past. I’ve seen the Baku circuit on a simulator but just to check the basics, it is clear that we won’t have any serious information until we are there. The last race wasn’t too good for us, so we are in a less comfortable position in the championship but still leading. I think Stéphane and I have a little advantage in terms of performance, therefore our strategy will be quite straight-forward: avoid mistakes and stay ahead of our team mates. At WRT we are used to always work together, sharing all data and information, it will be interesting to see how we do things in the context of a family title fight.”
Only five points behind are Edward Sandström and Frank Stippler, who closed the gap at the last race in Navarra. The German driver is certainly happy to go to Baku: “I really look forward to this new experience”, says Frank “and I think Baku can become the equivalent of Monaco or Macau in other championship. I simply hope that the additional contenders that are coming attracted by the event and the prize money will show respect for those fighting for a title and not do crazy things. To have a family fight for the title is good news when you are in a team like WRT: you know your team mates and you know the fight is going to be fair. Whatever the result, it is going to be very good for the team, after a successful season of hard work!”
The third in contention, and a ‘lone runner’, is Niki Mayr-Melnhof, who will have a tougher job, as he has a 26-point disadvantage, but “you never know, especially on a street circuit. Sometimes, the outsider is the lucky one”, as says with a relaxed tone the Austrian driver, who will be again associated with his usual partner, René Rast.
On the fourth car, Grégoire Demoustier, the young French who is already an established driver in the GT élite, will make his debut with Team WRT. He will be partnered by Portuguese star Filipe Albuquerque, a man well-known in the team and who has been driving with Yves Weerts one of the Team WRT’s Audis R8 LMS ultra at the International GT Open’s finale in Barcelona two weeks ago. “I’m always very happy to race with WRT”, says the Audi driver, “we know each other well and I really look forward to this opportunity. A new circuit means that everybody will be on the same foot, and an urban track means that the driver will make the difference. The driver’s feeling and confidence really are the key factors on a track like this. Grip will be an issue because the surface is new, but it will improve throughout the sessions, and it will be crucial to evolve along the track, going fast but keeping cool to avoid contact with the walls. I hope we can be able to fight for a podium position.”
The weekend will have a compact format, with free practice and qualifying on Saturday and the two races on Sunday. Given the time difference (Baku is three hours ahead with respect to Central Europe), races will be quite early for most European fans, with the Qualifying one starting at 6:15 and the Main one kicking off at 10:00.