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LMES - Spa-Francorchamps - Saturday Afternoon Report
Brilliant Predictions
When we caught up with Allan McNish yesterday, he suggested that he could improve on his Friday 2:06.2 “by a tenth or two” in qualifying. Meanwhile this morning, Nic Minassian quietly predicted (to the team) that he could “get into the 2:05s,” in the Creation DBA.

Both men were absolutely spot on with their times in qualifying this afternoon – helped by the fact that of course (bearing in mind the times) the session was dry. The rain that was forecast for this afternoon seems very late in coming, as the whole afternoon’s track action was run in bright sunshine. Minassian will start from the pole, with the three Audis next – and then the Tommy Erdos-driven RML Lola in a terrific fifth.

It was a fragmented, but very interesting, session. With so many cars on the track, a red flag seemed inevitable – but we had two of them.

McNish was down into the 2:06.1s straight away, a couple of seconds faster than Minassian’s best – with Roman Dumas setting a very impressive 2:10 in the Nasamax – with more to come. Jamie Davies then joined the Scot in the 2:06s, just a three tenths off the best so far.

Nic Minassian then set a 2:06.2, and that would have been an interesting enough session, but there was more to come. Other impressive early performances came from Joao Barbosa in the Dallara (2:07.781), six tenths quicker than the Pescarolo car, and a second faster than Ara in the Goh Audi. The Nasamax was next…. interesting. Then Romain Dumas set a 2:09.942, and on that lap he passed Seiji Ara at La Source… even more interesting. The hybrid eco-fuelled car is suddenly almost on ‘2003 spec.’ pace.

Then we had the first red flag, for debris on the track at Blanchimont. At this point, Uwe Alzen was down to a very impressive 2:18.6 in the Vitaphone Saleen, while Patrick Long was fastest in GT with a 2.27.5. Paul Belmondo’s 2:14 was five seconds faster than Alexander Frei’s best in the factory C65, with the new Lucchini third quickest.

Three minutes after the stoppage, the green flags flew, and before the next red flag, both McNish and Davies improved, to 2:06.002 and 2:06.139. These two Veloqx cars look very well matched for a re-run of Monza and the Nurburgring.

McNish was held up though, but at least that meant his predicted time was right: “I had another crack to improve my time after the second red flag but was inadvertently held up. It would have been nice to be on pole but in reality we have a very good car for the race. Everything has gone well for us so far but it only counts in the race.”

So was Jamie Davies (held up): “On my ultimate fastest lap, just before the second red flag interruption, I was held up badly and lost time. But we should be in good shape for the race, which is what matters.”

The T2M Porsche was then seen marooned in the gravel, the WR was stopped at the side of the track, and the Cirtek Ferrari spun at Les Combes. Cue red flag number two.

Off we went for the third time – which was disrupting the session horribly for some, who had just warmed their tyres nicely when they had to pit, again.

Minassian went a little quicker (but was still third), while Ara set a 2:08.1, two seconds off the pace – and then handed over to Capello. Sam Hignett got into the Jota Zytek – on the softer of this car’s two sets of Dunlops remember – but wherever we saw him on the track, he seemed to find dreadful traffic.

Nic Minassian then found a clear lap, and a very high 2:05 (2:05.964) was pole for the DBA Zytek, his second of the year.

Minassian: “The car was fantastic, the team rebuilt her completely after Silverstone to concentrate on reliability. We’re a little team but we’re fighting with the big boys. We have had a good healthy fight with the Audis and have been competitive with them all year. It’s great to get down into the 2:05s and be on top again.”

JC-W then set 2:08s very impressively, in traffic, while the Goh Audi (Capello) then found some real form with a 2:06.881, for fourth fastest – so it was Audis 2-3-4. Then Erdos set his 2:07.351, to pip both the Rollcentre Dallara and the Pescarolo – in which Ayari also got into the 2:07s. Another interesting Rollcentre / Pescarolo battle to come tomorrow? Hignett found enough room to go eighth fastest, putting the Nasamax ninth and the Lister tenth. Only the Panoz of the LMPs wasn’t among this elite ten.

Justin Keen was sure he could have set a 2:07 in the Lister (he was particularly affected by the red flags – but the team stuck to its plan, to allow Marc Goossens to complete the session, and the Belgian found that “it’s a car with a strong potential but different from the other prototypes I have driven in the past. I’ll also have to adapt to Justin’s set-up because he’s the team’s regular. He has another approach to driving such a car and that makes it not always easy“), while Romain Dumas reckoned he could have set a 2:08 in the Nasamax.

“The time could be so much better but there was too much traffic,” said the Frenchman. “On my best lap the WR hit me on the straight before Blanchimont, and the damage to the bodywork unbalanced the car. (But) it’s the first time we have had the car as good as this.”

Add 50 kilos to the Audis and smaller restrictors, then see where the Nasamax is next year…..

LMP2 eventually saw Jonathan Cochet take the pole in the factory Courage, 2.3 seconds faster than the owner’s time in the #26 C65. Wim Eychmans will drive this car throughout 2005: “I’m very happy to drive a prototype again. The deal here was a last minute one, but the team seems ok; they have the same professional level as Courage but less experience in prototypes of course. But don’t forget that Belmondo was a regular competitor in FIA GT for many years. Our aim is to win the LMP2 class and to finish in a good overall position too.“

The third of the ‘elite’ cars in LMP2 was the new Lucchini, only a second slower than the Belmondo Courage. The older Palmyr Lucchini did well to lap in 2:19, with the Tracsport Lola next on 2:24. Bruneau’s Pilbeam needed a new engine after qualifying, while the WR also seems to have failed to qualify all of its drivers – but both should start the race with a full complement available.

GT turned out to be as close as expected, although it was no surprise to see Ortelli fastest in the Freisinger 911, four tenths faster than Kirkaldy in the Cirtek Ferrari and Lieb in the Sebah Porsche. These two pipped Warren Hughes in the #41 RSR TVR in the dying moments. Hughes was very disappointed to find that the gap between his fourth place and second was so tight – 31 thousandths: “We’re learning more all the time and surprising ourselves with what we find. Fourth was a great result today, second would have been unbelievable.”

The Sebah squad were very happy with third fastest, and Marc Lieb was suitably impressed with speed of this heavily developed 2000 chassis. Xavier Pompidou all but matched Lieb's times, and this pair are going to be very serious Freisinger rivals tomorrow.

The JMB Ferrari pushed the Jones / Maassen Porsche down to sixth. Bert Longin feels “at home in this car. If for one or another reason the 575 project doesn’t continue next year, I would immediately opt for this car. It has more potential than the Porsche 996.“

Tim Sugden was a frustrated twelfth fastest in GT. He, Ian Khan and Michel Heydens are not racing the ‘EMKA’ Porsche – because this famous car is still fitted with a magnesium gearbox casing, which is outlawed under ACO rules. “We had a lot of understeer yesterday and a very long sixth gear," explained Sugden. "When the mechanics took the gearbox out they found real problems, and had to source another ‘box, but this one is fairly tired. We were late out for that session, sorting out a damper problem. In fairness, the JvG mechanics only picked the car up on Tuesday.”

Piers Masarati was equally frustrated, with an Autorlando Porsche that seemed to root its front tyres after a couple of laps. Liz Halliday found that the car had “heavy understeer after a couple of laps, plus snap oversteer.”

It was better news for the Racesports TVR, although the drivers all suffered because of the red flags and “neither of us got a good run,” chorused Steve Hyde and Adam Sharpe. “The car can do a 2:32 round here, but our 2:35 in qualifying should be our race pace.”

The p/steering problem seems fixed on this car, Dennis Leech providing a lengthy explanation of the cause – basically the fluid had been boiling, and once that happened, it became compressible, causing the steering to tighten. A cooler has cooled it down.

GTS? The Hezemans / Deletraz 575 should be fixed for tomorrow, so only five cars were out this afternoon. Pedro Lamy was a second or so slower than Uwe Alzen, while Patrice Goueslard qualified the other Larbre 550, so we didn’t have any heroics from Tomas Enge. Both Larbre cars had their plans upset by the red flags. David Leslie qualified the Nash Saleen with a 2:22 – and that is about that for practice and qualifying from Spa.

It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, so perhaps much of the above won’t be terribly relevant! But will the weather predictions be as accurate as those of McNish and Minassian? Perhaps they will - at 18.30, it was raining....

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