Michelin : FIA GT Championship The chase for the GT1 Drivers' and Teams' titles approaches its climax
Although the battles for both the 2008 Drivers' and Teams' crowns have been settled in GT2, with the honours going respectively to Bruni/Vilander and AF Corse/Michelin, the ninth and penultimate round of the FIA GT Championship could well decide the outcome in the GT1 title chases, too, when the series visits Zolder. No fewer than 10 drivers and three Michelin partner-teams can still hope to take the spoils in the premier category.
Following the 2008 FIA GT Championship's visit to Spa-Francorchamps in French-speaking Belgium earlier in the year, this weekend marks the turn of the Flemish part of country to host a round of the series, at Zolder. "There are quite a few similarities between Zolder and Zandvoort which is situated in the middle of dunes on the Dutch coast," says GÃ©rard Bombled, the manager of Michelin Competition's endurance and FIA GT programmes. "Zolder is a medium speed track which doesn't give much grip, so our partners will most probably run soft compound tyres."
This legendary circuit, which formerly figured on the Formula 1 Grand Prix calendar, has a habit of producing some memorable FIA GT action. In last year's championship, it was here that Thomas Biagi clinched the GT1 title, while Dirk Muller and Toni Vilander secured the GT2 crown at the end of a race that was dominated by the Aston Martin/Michelin of Wendlinger/Sharp.
Although this year's top prizes have already been dished out in GT2, both GT1 crowns are still up for grabs, with Michelin's partners Vitaphone Racing and Phoenix Racing jostling for the Teams' title, while no fewer than 10 drivers can still hope to follow in Biagi's footsteps in the Drivers' category.
Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini (Maserati/Michelin) currently enjoy a lead of six points over Corvette/Michelin's Fabrizio Gollin and Mike Hezemans, with the Maserati pair's team-mates Miguel Ramos and Alexandre Negrao - who recently claimed their first win of the season at Nogaro - a further half-point down. Jean-Denis Deletraz and Marcel Fassler (Corvette/Michelin) are 14Â½ points behind the leaders and can still hope to clinch the title on paper, as can Karl Wendlinger and Ryan Sharp (18 points adrift).
The year's penultimate clash consequently promises to be a thriller. The NÂ°1 Maserati of Bartels/Bertolini will be carrying just 20kg of ballast, while the Phoenix Racing Corvette will be racing with a heavier weight handicap. Karl Wendlinger and Ryan Sharp dominated the 2007 race in the NÂ°33 Aston Martin/Michelin to win from pole position, and the same driver/car combination will be targeting its fourth success of the year this time round. Zolder will also give SRT (Bouchut/Maassen) a chance to shine on home soil, while the Gigawave and Larbre CompÃ©tition teams will both be looking to pick up their first win of the season.
"Bartels and Bertolini seem to have the best chance for the title, and Vitaphone Racing will be able to count on another Maserati MC12/Michelin - in the hands of Pedro Lamy - to perhaps drop the Corvettes down a notch," says GÃ©rard Bombled.
In GT2, Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander (Ferrari/Michelin) made sure of the Drivers' crown a fortnight ago at Nogaro, while AF Corse had already wrapped up the 2008 GT2 Teams' championship. "There still promises to be an interesting fight for second place in the final GT2 standings, with two Michelin partners seeking to pass our rivals BMS Scuderia Italia," points out GÃ©rard Bombled.
Another strong showing is to be expected from the Prospeed Porsche/Michelins following their success at Nogaro, and the CR Scuderia Ferrari/Michelins - which are still hunting for their first win of the year - could go well, too. Henri Moser, whose victory in the 2007 FIA GT3 Championship was rewarded by an allocation of Michelin tyres for 2008 - came fourth at Nogaro and will be looking for a podium finish in Belgium at the wheel of his Kessel Racing Ferrari.
GÃ©rard Bombled (Endurance and FIA GT Programmes Manager, Michelin Competition):
"Zolder is exactly 4.006km in length. Some 80 per cent of its corners are right-handers but that doesn't necessitate different tyres on the left- and right-hand sides of the cars because it isn't a particularly quick circuit. The surface is not very granular, either, and it is frequently coated in sand, so it doesn't give much grip; which is why we will have compounds ranging from soft to hyper-soft in GT1, plus medium and soft compounds for the GT2 runners. It should be noted that the Belgian circuit is particularly hardwearing on the rear tyres. It's been a while since we last raced here in the wet. It's not an easy track when it rains, but our partners will be able to benefit from a range of competitive wet weather tyres..."