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Zhuhai Intercontinental Le Mans Cup - China Rider

Morse on Zhuhai: final round of the inaugural Intercontinental Le Mans Cup

Kerry Morse
Jun 16, 2011
Photographer: John Brooks
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It may not have been the last bar on Earth; however, it was one of the noisiest. Who says that all Holiday Inns are the pits? While the digs in Zhuhai will never be confused with The Ritz-Carlton, the majority of the teams were content enough. A race in China is far from just another stop on the calendar. It is a major undertaking involving considerable logistics in getting man, machine and equipment all in one place at the right time. Long gone are the days when a car and a couple of mechanics made the long haul by air or sea to partake in an event. The images from 1954 of an Aston Martin or Ferrari being unloaded at the Autodromo in Buenos Aires for a 1,000km sports car race may show a simpler time, but the reality of the effort remains the same today. Competition and commerce.

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Endurance racing has been the backbone of sports prototype and sports car development since the beginning of organized motorsport. National championships are based around sprint races, though in order to get the major names and manufacturers to invest their time and finances, it has to be played out on an international stage. Back to Buenos Aires for a moment—consider that among the official entries for the 1954 race were factory teams from Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, O.S.C.A. Gordini and Borgward, and Porsche well represented with a few examples of its new Spyder. Commercial consideration was evident in that a good showing from any of these manufacturers could result in sales being made to the wealthy sportsmen in the countries making up the stops in a championship season.

In many cases, teams sold cars on the spot after the race was completed, which not only generated cash flow, but also added the insurance of providing parts and service to the buyers. It may be called a sport, but it is and always will be a business. The stakes are higher today, considerably more so than shuffling off a few of last season’s race cars to those who have the money. Now it’s all about market share, what a manufacturer can bring to a locale. It could be name recognition for a regional factory that produces vehicles, or a technical showcase for a manufacturer looking to broaden its horizon.

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Which brings us back to the ILMC Zhuhai 1000 KM. The 14-turn, 4.319km circuit held its first international event in November 1996. It has the distinction of being the first permanent road racing facility constructed in China. More commonly known as the ZIC, it served as incubator for an ever-growing scene. With Hong Kong only an hour away by ferry, ZIC was convenient and accessible. As China’s economy grew, its appetite for motorsports and prestige brands also blossomed and caught the attention of major auto manufacturers.

Audi and Peugeot came to Zhuhai to continue their dueling-diesel rivalry. The Lion had claimed the bulk of the 2010 endurance season podiums, while Audi continued its Lord of the Rings majesty on the Lion’s home ground with victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Both squads were packed with talent, and the race on the Chinese mainland was expected to continue the season-long duel. The prototype category was also filled with entries from smaller private teams that always keep the spirit of endurance racing intact. They may not have the funding or name recognition, but they make up for it with committed enthusiasm.

As important as the LMP prototypes are, endurance racing would not exist realistically without the GT class. It’s the backbone of the series. Several local teams added color, bringing to the grid a Lamborghini Murciélago, a new Audi R8 LMS from Hong Kong, and an Aston Martin DBRS9. The usual suspects also made the haul: BMW Team Schnitzer; Larbre Competition with its Saleen S7R; Gulf Team First with a Lamborghini LP560 resplendent in blue and orange; a sole Ferrari F430 GT from AF Corse; and from the USA, a Jaguar XKR shared by Paul Gentilozzi and Marc Goosens. Porsche was represented by a trio of 997 GT3 RSRs. Team Felbemayr’s advantage was in having Norbert Singer and Rainer Gohl behind the scenes for the full ILMC season, and the experience of Weissach Flacht was instrumental as Porsche added yet another championship trophy to its cabinet.

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Porsche AG as an official entrant has been, for the most part, absent from the major races since the final days of GT1 in 1998. Even though the Spyder RS was a Werks effort, it was handled by Team Penske in the ALMS. Porsche always seems to be an official part of any major race series purely because of the depth of the staff at Weissach, who all seem to be in pit row.

Toss in the GT3 Cup series that are run as support races throughout the world and in actuality Porsche will always be in part of the scene. However, for Porsche to show up on the grid as an official entrant means something special, and they made the most of this one. The GT3 R Hybrid already had a couple of races on it and the notoriety of the concept was a major part of the motorsport news cycle. For Zhuhai, the GT3 R Hybrid ran in a class officially known as GTH (wonder what the H stands for) and was guaranteed a class win. Logic dictates that if you are the only one running, it improves your chances considerably.

Practice sessions were hampered by steady rain, the results being a lot of yellow flags and time spent in the pits. The usual pre-race routine: tire and driver changes, other adjustments, and for a few of the local teams, a settling of nerves. How often do you get to mix it up with the big names? The press room was rarely quiet; the influx of domestic and the foreign made for lively chatter and the chance to learn about the local culture. One encounter in particular helped me considerably on understanding where the Chinese racing scene may be going. The editor of a magazine covering, as she said, “all things autosport in China,” handed me a current issue and asked what I thought. As with many Far East publications, it was high quality in terms of stock and print. What it lacked was content of actual cars. Her explanation, almost an apology, was that there is not an automotive tradition in China and they are trying to create one.

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Dear reader: Did you know there is a “Scirocco Cup” series? Well, Blind Boy Ignorant here sure didn’t. VW stages these races on seven circuits throughout China, and naturally, a round would be one of the support races for the main event. In keeping with the current theme, the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia was on hand for its season-ending finale, with a huge hospitality tent above pit row. What better place to watch from?

The clouds parted for race day and the battle commenced at high noon with the pole-sitting Number 2 Peugeot getting a questionable jump on the rest of the field. An immediate rumble from the press room blamed the ACO officials for not issuing a penalty purely because of nationality. (Where have we heard that before?) The usual Audi pairings were changed for Zhuhai, with Tom Kristensen partnering Allan McNish in the Number 7 R15 and Dindo Capello with Romain Dumas in the Number 8. It took about 15 minutes for the Audi squad to get its game face on, and it started with Dindo doing a number on Sebastian Bourdais aboard Lion Number 1.

Back in GT there was the usual battle between BMW, Ferrari and Porsche, and it was to continue like that all the way to the flag. Missing from that GT scramble was the sole Jaguar XKR, which retired on lap 10 after getting up to a season-best fourth position. I spoke with members of the team the next morning before departing for Hong Kong, and the disappointment was deep. This had been a very difficult season for all involved in bringing the Cat back and there was nowhere else to go but up after constant component failure this season.

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The race ended as it started, in the way of controversy. A late yellow wiped out the huge advantage of the TK/McNish Audi over the French Lion of Montagny and Sarrazin. A late pit stop got the Peugeot out first with TK emerging from the pits only to be held up by the other Team Peugeot that was some three laps down. This game was played just long enough for the lead Lion to build up an insurmountable gap before the Audi could get by to give chase. The second- and third-place Audi spots on the podium did not go down well with Allan McNish, who voiced his displeasure in the post-race press conference. Ah, the passion of sport.

Charly Lamm of BMW Team Schnitzer was pleased with taking the GT win for Munich. His squad had a mixed year with its M3; he didn’t want to be reminded of what happened at Le Mans but took the ribbing with good humor. Porsche and Ferrari filled podium positions two and three, respectively.

And what of the GT3 R Hybrid? How about sixth overall, three laps ahead of the winning BMW GT, in addition to being a couple of seconds a lap quicker than the rest of the GT field and with one less pit stop—although it could have been two less if Porsche management had wanted to show off. The line that Werks drivers Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister needed bathroom pit stops instead of for refueling was a recurring one. As noted earlier, for Porsche to be an official entrant, it has to be for something special. It was.

Jurgen Barth: On a Zhuhai

Jurgen Barth is, if anything, a well-seasoned traveler and a man who continues to wear many hats as an administrator and a racer. The former head of customer racing for Porsche was the pivotal link for bringing international sports car and sports prototype motorsport to the mainland of China.

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ec: You have been involved with this from the start; how did the idea to race in Zhuhai happen?

JB: When we started the BPR series in 1994 we had been in contact with Mr. Suzuki, who had been the FIA Representative in the Far East. I knew him from the World Endurance Championship days when I was responsible for the transportation of the Group C cars and teams to Suzuka and Fuji for the races in Japan. He made the contact with Joe Lim and Steward Tan in Zhuhai and we were immediately cleared to run a race there.

ec: From that original contact, how long did it take to put together the race, and it was on a street circuit, wasn’t it?

JB: From the first meeting, I think it took altogether a bit more than half a year. This was the first event to be held in Zhuhai. Yes, we used a temporary street circuit for the BPR races in 1994 and 1995.

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ec: When was the facility completed and the first race held?

JB: The permanent circuit was ready in November of 1996. The BPR was the first international event to be held on the new circuit. Porsche also came with the new GT1 for that race. The series then became the FIA GT but didn’t return to Zhuhai until 1999.

ec: How have the manufacturers responded to racing in China—are they supportive enough?

JB: Yes, the manufacturers have been really responsive. Porsche, BMW, Jaguar and Lotus already use the circuit as a showcase. Porsche, for example, came in 1995 to make local contacts. Horst Marchart, the boss of R&D in Weissach, held a meeting for the local officials from the government.

ec: Do you plan to continue to be involved with Zhuhai in the future?

JB: I hope to be. I have been a steward for GT3 races and am also a consultant. I enjoy Zhuhai and the area very much.

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By Kerry Morse
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