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Balfe Motorsport Spirit-KIA Mosler
FIA GT Championship Round 4 – Imola

Third place at Imola was the best the Newark Glass Group, KIA Spirit and Spirit Volkswagen-backed team could hope for at Round 4 of the FIA GT Championship, on May 29. In what were possibly the toughest conditions the car, team and drivers had ever had to endure, they all came through to follow the factory Porsches across the line once again. However, it was a struggle to get there!

A walk around the circuit on Thursday afternoon gave Shaun Balfe a little bit of preparation for a technical circuit that he had never been to before, in readiness for the free practice sessions the next day.

Meanwhile, back in the garage, the team was busy fitting new front brakes to the Spirit Kia Mosler, a development the team had originally hoped would be on the car for Silverstone.

The opening free practice session served as a sighting and bedding in test for Shaun, before he handed over to Jamie Derbyshire, and they both started to settle in to bringing the lap times down.

In the first session a couple of the other Porsche teams had the drop on the Balfe squad and for the first time since Monza the team were not lying in third place in the GT2/G2 running order.

The second session was better for the team, but the Ebimotors Porsche was less than half a second behind the Mosler, giving the team something else to think about for qualifying.

dailysportscar.comThe main problem, which would haunt every car on the grid over the course of the weekend, was the heat. The Mosler seemed to suck in all available warmth from the radiator and the brakes straight into the cockpit, and it was making things mildly uncomfortable at this early stage for both drivers.

The opening qualifying session was undoubtedly going to be the quicker of the two during the day. With the heat getting into the track minute by minute, it was a case of getting a time in early and seeing what happened.

A boost for the squad came at the end of the session when Shaun had managed to end up less than a second behind the Lieb / Rockenfeller Porsche on the grid. Although the Porsche is well ballasted, it was certainly another improvement for the Mosler and once again made them the closest team to the GruppeM cars at the sharp end.

dailysportscar.comA decision whether or not to take part in the second session was made for the team when they had to check over a niggling gear selection problem. A small ratio change was also thought to be an improvement, so Jamie and Shaun both took to the circuit to make sure things were as they should be, before calling it a day and letting the team prepare the car for race day.

If the heat had been bad enough for the drivers over the first two days, then Shaun’s face dropped when FIA GT Media Delegate Jacquie Groom told him during the qualifying press conference that the forecast for Sunday was to be even hotter! Maybe the season in Spain last year was going to pay off?

He was still happy to be third on the grid though, especially on his first visit to the circuit.

“I was surprised and pleased with my time during the first free practice session and through qualifying,” said Balfe. “We’ve got some new parts on the car for this weekend, which is helping the car in braking and a few other areas. We are still trying to narrow the gap to the GruppeM cars. But I don’t think they’ve got to worry just yet!” he added with a grin.

So, a three hour race, over the hottest part of the day, in sweltering conditions… Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Shaun made a cautious start to the race, knowing that the first two chicanes and the hairpin would be frantic and likely places for contact. After the first couple of laps he settled in to a rhythm and began pulling away from the privateer Porsche behind, but watched the GruppeM cars up ahead steadily pull away as they chased each other.

However, the heat was soon to come into play. With no cool-suit available, a window net was put up to replace the driver’s window in the Mosler, with the aim to try and get a breeze running through the car over the drivers. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work as well as expected, as the hot air from the now bigger and hotter front brakes blew into the drivers face.

Both drivers had decided that the same trick as Silverstone would be employed to try and keep cool too. So, both drinks bottles for Jamie and Shaun were frozen overnight, with the effect that as it melted in the car it would keep the fluid cool.

Good idea in theory. However, with the time spent sitting on the grid and the heat in the car climbing to over 50 degrees, it didn’t work out that way.

Shaun went to take a drink on lap six and as found that what he thought was going to be a cool drink actually scalded his mouth. His automatic reaction was to yank the tube from the front of his helmet so he didn’t do it again. But, by then the fluid had started to syphon down the pipe and as it rested on his overalls it poured all over him.

“I couldn’t believe it when I went to take a drink,” he said afterwards. “I thought the bottle would hopefully stay cool to around the middle of my stint. But I just got a burnt mouth. When I pulled the pipe out and it kept pouring onto me it just felt like someone had taken a recently boiled kettle and was pouring it over my race suit. It was horrible.”

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For the first time in his career Balfe also asked the team to be taken out of the car early. From half-way through his opening stint he was on the radio explaining that he couldn’t drive at the limit for any length of time and the team needed to rapidly re-think the driving strategy as it was going to be impossible to carry on.

Jamie was told to get ready for an early stop and a double stint by both drivers was the re-arranged schedule.

As Balfe climbed out of the car he staggered back into the garage and struggled to take off his helmet and gloves, as the team handed him bottles of cold water. He then took the decision to turn the hose-pipe on himself outside the back of the garage in an effort to cool down, knowing that he had to do it all again later.

As Jamie took over the wheel, with third place still intact, he was soon to be in the same position. With a comfortable lead over the cars behind and the GruppeM cars pulling away up ahead, it was a case of pounding round and round and keeping a constant pace, not an easy thing to do as you rapidly dehydrate in the driving seat.

As Jamie steadily began to suffer in the heat, he also came over the radio from mid-way through his drive and asked how many more laps the team needed him to do.

As Shaun was recovering he got ready for his second turn at the wheel. A totally shattered Derbyshire climbed out of the car, in an even worse state than Balfe had done earlier.

He staggered back into the transporter and was placed in front of the small air-conditioning unit, and had several bottles of water poured over him to try and cool off. Philip Derbyshire was also relieved to hear from the circuit doctor that the pins and needles Jamie had in his hands and feet were a normal sign of heat exhaustion, nothing more sinister.

As Shaun continued to circulate Jamie made his way back to the motorhome to sit in the air-conditioning and was finally able to cool down enough to regain feeling in his hands and feet. He felt so exhausted that he was unsure whether he was going to be able to get back into the car for a second stint. A call from the team with just over half an hour to go told him that Shaun was in the same situation again. A quick change back into his race suit and he was able to bring the car across the line for the last 25-minutes, with an incredibly hard-earned third place the team’s reward.

“I’ve never driven in such hot conditions,” said Jamie. “We didn’t know what to expect. Both of us, about 35 minutes into our first stint, we were both absolutely shot and on the radio telling the team that we were not going to be capable of driving at the speeds we normally do. They asked us both to hang on for a handful of laps more. I almost collapsed when I got out of the car.

“I had to go back to the motorhome and cool down. The team told me that Shaun was in the same situation again, so I put my suit back on and got back in the car for the last 25-minutes to the flag. I think we’re just happy to have made it and got to the end. The GruppeM cars are always going to be tough to beat, but we’re happy with what we’re doing so far.”

“We both really struggled in the car, we didn’t have any cool-suits or anything,” added Shaun. “The three-hour format is still relatively new to us and to the car so we are still learning all the time. But we’re enjoying it and Brno will be another new circuit for me and the team and the car, but I am positive!” he smiled.
AP

 

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