After four years as part of the GT Winter Series, the GT4 cars finally got the track to themselves as the new GT4 Winter Series kicked off at Estoril in Portugal this weekend. An entry of 15 cars turned up for three races at the tough, historic circuit not far outside Lisbon.
The freshly created standalone championship divides entries into Pro, Am and Pro-Am categories, with drivers scoring points according to the number of rivals they beat within their category. There’s also flexibility on the technical side, with a special class created for SR Motorsport’s pair of ‘sub-GT4’ Porsche Caymans.
The format for the six-round series sees the teams tackle two 30-minute sprint races and an hour-long enduro featuring a pitstop.
The Saturday sprint was the highlight of that day’s programme. The weather was more cooperative than it was in some of the other races, with the track merely damp at the start. It was dry enough for slick tyres, but only marginally so…which is exactly what made it an entertaining 30 minutes.
Pole man Leo Pichler (Razoon Porsche Cayman) roared into an early lead, and looked too strong for his rivals either side of a first-lap safety car caused by spins behind him. Indeed, he had a lead of over three seconds when another stricken driver meant a second safety car intervention.
But Pichler did not find it so easy to get away at the second restart, just past the halfway point. The race turned into a four-way battle between Pichler, Jamie Day, Joel Mesch and Mathieu Martins. Day neatly thrust his Aston Martin Vantage past Pichler at the tight Gancho chicane – but the general loss of momentum then sparked a few moments of chaos amongst the leaders.
The jostling led to Pichler falling to fifth with a gravel excursion exiting the long Parabolica Ayrton Senna, while Martins jumped ahead of Day and Mesch (Schnitzelalm Racing Mercedes). It was an exciting comeback for Martins, who had in fact been among those to spin at the first corner of the race.
But a misunderstanding between Martins and a backmarker meant the former’s Racar Motorsport Porsche also had an unscheduled moment off the track – victory was not to be his. Martins dropped to third, and the battle over the final few tours was Day versus Mesch.
But the 18-year-old Day held off everything Mesch could throw at him. Which meant a brand new team, Forsetti Motorsport, could celebrate winning on its very first race appearance.
The British squad is run by engineer Joe Holloway, who has several years of Formula 1 experience under his belt. But why the name? Intriguingly, Holloway says Forsetti’s etymology is a secret for now. But he did add that agile motorsport minds might be able to work it out…
While Pro drivers swept the podium, Pichler’s fifth place overall was enough to net him Pro-Am class honours. Max Huber (NM Racing Mercedes) won the Am category.
There was no question of slicks for Sunday morning’s second sprint race. This one started wet and only got wetter.
Pichler admits to loving the rain, and took full advantage to make up for the mistake he’d made in Race 1. Ironically, the long final corner once again played a pivotal role. This time it was the Austrian’s major rival who got caught out by the fast, famous right-hander. Namely pole man Ivan Ekelchik (Wimmer Werk Motorsport Porsche Cayman).
Ekelchik had given Pichler a good run for his money after losing out at the first corner, but he pushed a little too hard once an early safety car period ended on lap five. His error exiting that Parabolica cost him a huge amount of time as he fought to get back on track, and he ended up retiring to the pits.
That made life relatively easy for Pichler, who enjoyed a clean run to the flag, stretching his lead to over five seconds by the finish.
Things were entertaining behind him as Tom Lebbon (Elite Motorsport McLaren Artura) spent much of the race trying to get past Jay Mo Hartling of Schnitzelalm Racing. Their battle was a study in the respective merits of wildly varying wet-weather lines, but Lebbon’s policy of sticking to the inside eventually paid off on lap nine.
That left Hartling having to fight off Enrico Forderer (whose ‘special’ SR Motorsport Cayman was enjoying the wet) for the rest of the race – a battle he narrowly won to round out the overall podium.
Class winners were Pichler (Pro-Am), Lebbon (Pro) and Speedy Motorsport BMW M4 driver Luis Liberal (Am).
While the sun stubbornly continued to hide on Sunday afternoon, the track looked less wet than it had done for some time when the GT4 cars went to the grid for their enduro. Still, only Zac Meakin elected to bolt on slick tyres – a gamble that didn’t pay off on a track that proved painfully slow to dry.
The excellent Day grabbed the lead from fourth place at the rolling start, with Pichler and Hartling keeping an eye on him as the safety car came out on the second lap. Egor Khichin, competing in his first car race of any description, had spun at Turn 4 and his Porsche needed to be cleared.
Pichler executed a smooth three-corner trick to take the lead from Day early on lap five, and then disappeared more than five seconds up the road. The fight behind the Austrian raged on, with Martins and Forderer joining Day and Hartling in the scrap.
Then, just before the pit window opened with 35 minutes to go, Pichler hit transmission trouble. He slowed in dramatic fashion on the main straight as he battled to find a solution, but neither he nor the team could come up with one and his race was effectively over at that point.
When the pitstops were over and the new leaders had handed over their respective cars, Roberto Faria (Racar) led Mesch and Mikey Porter (Forsetti), while Forderer’s team-mate Willi Kuhne was unable to match their pace and faded away.
With 20 minutes to go, we looked set for a close fight to the finish – but then the stewards announced a drive-through penalty for Faria. His time in the pitlane had come in one second faster than the stipulated minimum, and justice had to be done.
With Faria out of the picture in a distant third following the penalty, Mesch was gradually able to shake off Porter, whose second place at the flag was nonetheless a strong showing for the teenager’s first race in a GT car.
It was another Pro-dominated podium, but fourth overall and Am winner was the other NM Racing car, driven by Alberto de Martin and Nil Montserrat. CV Performance duo Charles Dawson and Emil Gjerdrum took Pro-Am class honours in their Mercedes.