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Italian GT, Monza – Full Report
Drama At The Autodromo
 
“You can feel something in the air tonight”…were the right words for the big finale of the Campionato Italiano Gran Turismo at Monza, and in the end it was the most dramatic weekend of the last decade; since 2002, in fact, when the title changed hands several times on the last lap between the ‘old’ Vipers. But that was another story.

The much anticipated weekend of rain turned out to be full of sunshine, with temperatures well above 20°C.
 
The two free practice sessions saw plenty of big errors - the first being held in cool conditions with old tyres and the second one, on the verge of twilight, being even cooler - but there were clear indications that the Porsches and especially the McLarens were flying, with top speeds close to 20kph more than the BMW and ten more than the Audis were achieving. The Cup class was dominated by the Lamborghinis, with times well over two to three seconds quicker than the Porsche Cup of Granzotto-Cicognani, who basically had to finish third in one of the final two races to clinch the title.


The first qualifying session saw a predictable, but historic, pole for the McLaren with Chris Van der Drift at the wheel, three tenths quicker than the wild-card 458 of Paolo Ruberti, and six tenths quicker than the first of the title contenders, the Audi of Andrea Sonvico.

Close behind were Stefano Colombo, Alessandro Balzan, the debuting Ginetta of Matteo Cressoni and the Antonelli Porsche of Christian Passuti. A long way down in 14th place overall was the second Audi of Davide Di Benedetto, which was suffering with electrical problems. The Cup class was led by the #101 Team Imperiale Gallardo of Davide Stancheris.
 
The second session was a completely different story; a clean sweep of the first row for the Porsches, but not including the title contending EbiMotors GT3 R. Instead pole went to the wild-card Autorlando Porsche of Luca Rangoni, two tenths quicker than the Antonelli car of Matteo Malucelli.

The second row was an all Audi affair, with Dindo Capello third and Alex Frassineti fourth, but more than half a second slower than the Porsches. Fifth was Giacomo Barri in the #44 Porsche. Thomas Biagi in the title contending #33 BMW Z4 was only ninth.
 
RACE 1
 
The sun is almost setting at the start of the penultimate race into the 2012 Italian GT season, and the tension was palpable on the grid, where the four title contenders could pretty much decide the outcome of their season during the race. Could the second Audi bounce back from the back of the grid? Could the Porsches sweep the podium? Could the blindingly fast McLaren have its first “hurrah” of their season? Or could the BMWs put the final mark on their almost perfect season? We were about to find out.

The start was a clean one, but a four-car-wide line approached the first corner; but there was no match for top speed and Van der Drift turned into the first corner still in the lead. Balzan’s braking defied the laws of physics while establishing himself third (from fifth), and Ruberti was able to keep second. Down into the “curva Grande” Sonvico pushed Passuti way too wide, but in doing so lost top end speed and the new GT3 Ginetta with Cressoni was now fourth!

Sonvico was fifth, followed by Colombo and Passuti…and we hadn’t even reached the Ascari chicane!

Lap 2 At the first corner the Ginetta almost stopped, but was able to rejoin albeit having lost several places. Meanwhile Colombo (who says the BMW’s top speed was down?) overtook Sonvico on the main straight for fifth; but that was not all - almost unseen by all, Ruberti outbraked Van der Drift and became the new leader.

At the exit of the Roggia chicane the Autorlando Porsche was pushed very wide by the second BMW of Michela Cerruti, with the result being a spin and last place for Alessandro Garofano. Elsewhere, Di Benedetto had enjoyed a good start and was already up to seventh.

Lap 3 Balzan was charging and outbraked Van der Drift at the Roggia for second position, and he soon began to chase Ruberti for the only possible result that would keep their slim title chances alive - the win.

The situation in the next laps began to settle down, with the only move being made by the lone GT2 car - the old 430 Ferrari of Raffaele Giammaria - on Passuti for fifth, who soon found himself in sixth after Sonvico went by too.

Lap 6 Passuti regained the spot from Sonvico in the main straight. Upfront it was status quo with Balzan inching closer to Ruberti but unable to make a move (for now). Van der Drift was still third, followed by Colombo. Some seconds behind were Giammaria (GT2), Passuti, Sonvico, Mancini in the black 458 and Di Benedetto. We had already lost the Ginetta, which had stopped on track, and the Autorlando Porsche of Alessandro Garofano.

Lap 8 and we had a new leader. Balzan outbraked Ruberti at the first chicane using every available inch of track and was now the new P1. Further back Di Benedetto gained a place through overtaking Mancini, so the two Audis were now sixth and seventh; but they were both struggling badly with lap times, even compared to the BMW of Colombo which was easily keeping pace with the top three - Balzan, Ruberti and Van der Drift.

Lap 11 and we were almost at the pit-stop window. Balzan put a very heavy right foot down and began to gain time from Ruberti and Van der Drift.

Lap 13 Second place changed three times along the length of the main straight, as Van der Drift overtook Ruberti on pure top speed, only to lose the spot thanks to another blinding outbraking manoeuvre from Ruberti.

The mid-part of the race saw the driver changes taking place. The time penalties applied were 30 seconds extra for Biagi-Colombo; 20 for Di Benedetto-Frassineti; but none for both Sonvico-Capello and Balzan-Barri. Once all cars had stopped the new order was Barri-(Balzan), Mario Cordoni-(Ruberti), Alessandra Neri-(Van der Drift) and Malucelli-(Passuti) all very close together; but Malucelli is another ‘man on fire’ and in the space of half a lap had overtaken both the McLaren and the 458 Italia and begun to chase down Barri. Fifth, several seconds down, was Capello-(Sonvico), followed by the lone GT2 car of Andrea Palma-(Giammaria). Stefano Comandini-(Lancieri) in the red 458 Italia was seventh, followed by the BMW of Biagi-(Colombo) pressed hard by the second Audi of Alex Frassineti-(Di Benedetto).

Lap 21 As predicted, Frassineti caught and passed Biagi, quite easily, at Lesmo 1. In the meantime, upfront Malucelli was constantly gaining tenths on Barri and the apparent safe gap was now a little more than a second. Dindo Capello was also on a charge and the veteran driver got the black McLaren of Neri two laps from the end for the fourth spot.

Lap 27 On the penultimate lap the challenge for the lead was made as Malucelli outbraked Barri into the Parabolica; but Barri was not yet done and immediately begin to chase down the new leader.

Lap 28 Malucelli was still leading but Barri was exploring every move to regain P1 - nothing happened into the first corner and at the Roggia chicane, but when the two Porsches entered Lesmo 1, Barri seemed to be understeering badly, and this soon became oversteer. The result between the Lesmo curves was a predictable one, a hard hit into the inside barrier with the radiator spreading water all over the place.

But Barri somehow fired it up again and managed to at least finish the race, albeit with a very badly bruised Porsche. Along the way, though, he found the gravel at the Parabolica but somehow managed to rejoin the track…just at the point where all the others cars were arriving! Amazingly, everyone missed the EbiMotors Porsche, which crossed the line in eighth, but it was later excluded from the results for “dangerous driving”.

While these dramas were playing out Malucelli took the win from Cordoni, Sonvico, Neri and Palma. Comandini finished sixth from Di Benedetto, and the two BMWs of Biagi and Cerruti.

Keep in mind what role the exclusion of the EbiMotors would play in the second race, because this would be one of the “butterfly effects” that changed everything.

The Cup class saw an easy win for Sanna-Stancheris from their teammates Wiser-Rizzo, but the retirement of the third car of Babini-Zadotti almost gave the class title to the Porsche of Cicognani-Granzotto.

They now basically had to finish the second race to clinch the title.

In the end Race 1 was the usual “Italian soap opera” where everything happened that could happen, with turnaround events all over the places. One thing was certain - the title would now be decided after a three-way fight with the BMW of Biagi-Colombo the heavy favourite from the two Audis of Sonvico-Capello and Di Benedetto-Frassineti.
 
RACE 2
 
The last race of the season began under a scorching 24°C sun and with plenty of spectators in the grandstand, the picture perfect for the media that comes out in forces at Monza. The time penalties during the driver change would be more spread out this time, with 15 seconds extra for Biagi-Colombo and Passuti-Malucelli, ten for Cordoni-Ruberti and just five for Sonvico-Capello and Frassineti-Di Benedetto.

Who would be the 2012 Champion in both classes? It was time to find out!

The last start of the season was another “creative” one, with Rangoni clearly in front of everybody even before the start finish line. Malucelli kept his second place, but then came chaos at the first corner where cars arriving three abreast is not usually a good thing - Capello was on the inside line, Frassineti in the middle and Barri outside, with the result that Frassineti was now third and both Capello and Barri had to shortcut the first corner, with Capello bouncing over the kerb. In this usual “Italian casino” the Ginetta briefly moved up to third, only to outbrake himself at the Roggia and immediately drop back to fourth.

But that wasn’t all - at Lesmo 2 Cordoni made a “do-or-die” move on Barri, who thankfully saw the Ferrari at the last moment and left the door enough open to prevent a certain supercar pileup...and we were still only half way round the first half-lap. At the next turn, Ascari, Capello overtook Simon Iacone’s Ginetta for P4. Some meters ahead Frassineti took second from Malucelli.

As the pack headed down the straight to the Parabolica we finally had a clear view of the order, with Rangoni clear by three seconds, from Frassineti, Malucelli and Iacone who had used the Ginetta’s top end speed to re-pass Capello. Then came the two 458s of Cordoni and Lancieri, Balzan and the two BMWs of Biagi and Cerruti…but the first lap was not yet done with its dramas and, at the exit of the Parabolica, Capello muscled himself ahead of the Ginetta, forcing the English car way too wide and into the gravel trap, losing some places. Almost unseen the McLaren started last and the Mercedes SLS didn’t start at all.

Lap 2 Capello slowed out of the first corner with a problem on the right rear tyre (probably caused by a little contact into the first corner with his teammate, and another little one with the Ginetta in the move at the exit at the Parabolica, we later discovered). A blowout looked imminent, but miraculously the tyre remained intact and Dindo found himself only a few places down the order instead out of the race - was lady luck looking out for the Ingolstadt side?

Lap 3 Rangoni was still leading from Frassineti, Passuti, Lancieri, Barri - who overtook Cordoni into the first corner - and Capello. The Lesmo 1 corner claimed another victim as the Ginetta spun into the gravel and ended its race on the spot. Meanwhile, another TV replay was showing another small contact between Capello and Cordoni; could this be the final touch on the already badly damaged right rear Avon on the Audi?

Lap 4 Passuti smoked Frassineti for P2 into the first corner.

Lap 5 The first corner saw another dramatic move - Capello and Cordoni were side by side, but the wild-card AF Corse 458 of Cedric Sbirazzuoli was also alongside Cordoni, with the result that Capello ended up clouting Cordoni pretty hard before shortcutting the chicane and bouncing very hard across the kerbs again. Amazingly everyone continued racing, with Capello now sixth. Where were the BMWs? Almost lost in the Park, was the answer; P7 and P8 with no chance to gain ground even to the slower group upfront - problems ahead for the Munich cars?

Lap 7 The title suddenly changed direction again, from Ingolstadt to Munich, because the feared puncture on Capello’s Audi had now become a reality. Adding insult to injury, he spun at the first corner and had to do a full lap on a three-wheeler Audi. Despite this, he did the usual perfect job for the top-pro driver he is, bringing the car back to the pits. Two laps were lost, but Sonvico, who soon would get the wheel of the car, would still be racing for the title.

Lap 10 With the pit window about to open the order remained the same with Rangoni leading from Malucelli and Frassineti, who was in turn being pressed hard by Barri. A quiet fifth was Lancieri, followed by Sbirazzuoli, Cordoni and the two BMWs.

Lap 11 Barri overtakes Frassineti for a Porsche 1-2-3

Lap 16 With all stops complete, another possible twist in the title dramas occurred as a very smoky BMW was captured by the TV cameras….and it was Thomas Biagi’s. It was race over for him as he stopped between the two Lesmo corners, and all he could do now was wait and see how the race played out and where the two Audis would be in the final standings.

Two more retirements were the McLaren of Van der Drift, which ended its race at the Roggia with a right rear puncture, and the Ferrari of Ruberti with mechanical troubles.

The leader was still Garofano-(Rangoni), with second the Balzan-(Barri) Porsche; which soon was finding some “warp speed” to close the gap very quickly to the other Porsche. But the move was perhaps the simplest ever done in a race, as Garofano exited too wide at Lesmo 2 and gave away the lead of the race to the EbiMotors GT3. The Comandini-(Lancieri) Ferrari held third from the Audi of Di Benedetto-(Frassineti), who needed to find one more place to be crowned Champion. As it was, the title was still, for now, in the hands of Biagi and Colombo; but a very intriguing scenario could happen, as Sonvico’s Audi was still scoring a bunch of points, thanks to the retirement of Cordoni and Van der Drift and the non-starting Mercedes - another place up in the standing could give the other Audi the title!

What would happen in the final five minutes of the race? Could the Gods of racing somehow give the title to Audi? It suddenly looked a distinct possibility when the Porsche of Malucelli had a puncture on the penultimate lap…if he didn’t finish, the title would go to Sonvico; but the Antonelli team quickly changed the tyre and the Porsche finished the race in front of Sonvico. But still it wasn’t settled and the order could yet change again in favour of Sonvico if only the pit wall decided to “park” the other car; but no such order was issued and so Thomas Biagi and Stefano Colombo became the 2012 GT3 Champions.

The race finished with Balzan and Barri scoring a win in the dominating style they’ve shown all year.

The Autorlando Porsche finished second, with the Ferrari of Comandini-Lancieri third. Frassineti and Di Benedetto finished fourth, despite the best efforts of Di Benedetto to overtake the Ferrari ahead. Fifth was the AF Corse 458 of Sbirazzuoli, followed by the Race 1 winning the Porsche of Passuti-Malucelli. Sonvico and Capello finish tenth, two laps down.

The Cup class was again a one-marque show for the Imperiale Lamborghini Gallardo with all three cars finishing on the podium; but fourth was enough for Niccolo Granzotto and Alessandro Cicognani in the title race and they are the 2012 GT Cup Champions.

What a finale, what a spectacle, what a show!

A roundup of 2012 will follow, but for now congratulations to the winners and much honour to the losers; because they gave everything - and I mean, really everything - in a Titanic battle for the best-ever season of the Italian GT Championship, version 2012.

If this is the final year of the world (remember the Mayan predictions), we can say that we saved the best for last.

Gabriele Tosi (with thanks to Daniele Paglino)