Written by Owen Bradley
Credit: Jules Benichou
GT World Challenge Europe returned to an iconic circuit, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Now, this is an iconic track, but it's an iconic track from the 1980's and 1990's, particularly for Formula One. In recent times, one really does struggle to think of a good race at Barcelona for F1, but it's even worse for the GT World Challenge.
This is a very technical track that flows together. But it's also so narrow that the only overtaking zones are into Turn 1, and the heavy braking zone of Turn 10. The sheer amount of incidents and crashes throughout the first couple of hours, was unsurprising and honestly quite embarrassing. These drivers are capable of driving at 24-Hour races in Spa-Francorchamps, Nurburgring Nordschleife and other historic circuits too. But when it comes to a 3-hour endurance race, we either have a lot of incidents which breed a Safety Car, which then in turn bunches the field likely breeding another Safety Car. The other option, is that we have a precession where nobody is able to overtake one another. Whilst the GTWCE 2023 race was chaotic in those first two hours, it had multiple Full-Course Yellow's and Safety Car periods, is this really what racing should be like? Not to mention the sausage kerbs on some corners, which certainly help to negotiate the racing standards, but have been proven time and time again, to be fairly dangerous in themselves.
Credit Patrick Hecq
Valentino Rossi and WRT #46's Bitterly disappointing Barcelona Endurance Race.
Unfortunately, for a circuit that brought him a lot of luck in MotoGP, thinking of the thrilling last lap, last corner pass in 2009 on Teammate and Rival, Jorge Lorenzo and many other battles with Casey Stoner, Andrea Dovisioso and Dani Pedrosa. Sadly in 2023, in bigger stockier GT cars, it is so tough to really overtake at the circuit. All the way from Free Practice and Pre-Qualifying, we could see that this was going to be an extremely gruelling weekend for everyone driving a BMW, which has it's main strength on the straights, to put it simply.
Q1 by Valentino Rossi, was tough to watch. Ending up in P29 for his session, it was clear to see that with this track being very technical, and not favouring the BMW drivers, that this would be a race where the BMW would be right in the midfield, right in the war with the other cars around them. There was some hope, that perhaps through strategy, they could work themselves back inside the Top 10 perhaps, but they all knew that it was going to be a tough day ahead. Augusto Farfus and Maxime Martin managed to improve the pace, managing to get the #46 BMW into P19 with all the combined Qualifying Results. It would be a P19 start, a somewhat decent result and only two places behind the #32 BMW WRT team as well.
Credit: Patrick Hecq
Valentino Rossi would start the race, needing to get his elbows out from cars coming at him from behind, whilst also trying to make some progress. Rossi would unfortunately make contact with a McLaren at that late-braking zone of Turn 10, which would give him a 10-second penalty to be served at the first pit stop. Rossi made somewhat steady progress, jumping into P16 at one stage and certainly faster than everybody around him, even setting a Fastest First Sector of everybody at one stage. Multiple collisions led to Safety Cars and Full Course Yellow periods, and this kept Rossi right there with a chance to come through the field with strategy. WRT have been incredibly intelligent with their strategies in the past, like in the 2022 Spa 24 Hours, putting the #46 Audi at the time, into the Top 3 after starting in 33rd, within the first few hours of the race.
However, as Maxime Martin began to get suited and booted, Rossi would have a tank-slapper on entry to the quick chicane of Turns 7 and 8. He spun around and got the car beached in the gravel. This did bring out another Safety Car period, and Rossi was able to get himself back into the car, bringing it in for Martin who climbed aboard the car, although by this point they were nearly 2 laps down. Seeing the race as more of a test session, at one point they decided to call the car back into the pits, and this would be to retire the car. A seriously disappointing result in the final Endurance Cup round of 2023. Where Rossi has shined this year at Brands Hatch with a 2nd place finish, and of course at Misano where they took victory, Unfortunately for the team, it seems that they should now be putting more focus on Endurance Racing, and really trying to train Rossi up for that.
Credit: Patrick Hecq
This was just another race where one single mistake, has cost the team so much. They were out of the championship, but just by staying in the race and battling for a Top 10 finish, this would build more experience and allow them to get valuable data and information. Sadly, it does seem that the Endurance Cup this year, has been quite disappointing.
The key thing to take away, is now - Rossi knows where to improve. When I got the chance to speak with him earlier this year, at the Brands Hatch Press Conference, he told me that the Le Mans 24 Hours is where his goal is, and that GT Racing is essentially a great stepping stone to get to that point, which it absolutely is and has been. Rossi has come on leaps and bounds in 2023, He's taken 2 podiums in 2023, and overall has just looked far more confident and a lot stronger than in 2022. It has however, been in the Endurance Races where the cracks start to show. This weekend, it was simply one mistake at a circuit which is incredibly difficult.
Rossi CAN Improve
Rossi absolutely can, and will improve as we head into 2024. Perhaps the only sour taste that Barcelona is going to leave, is that it just doesn't look so good on the record of Endurance Racing, as he so desperately wants to drive in more endurance races in 2024 and 2025. He evidently has the talent to be able to win in GT Racing, and it truly is an absolute privilege to see him still racing. The difference of his quality in driving between 2022 and 2023 is monumental, and has been incredible to see, but the time now does come, where we need to see him make that next and potentially crucial final step. Once he unlocks his full potential in GT Racing at least, I do truly believe that he can be a championship contender, but he must try to unlock this potential soon, because time is not quite on his side, if he wants to remain as a threatening contender in races, which he most certainly has been in 2023.
Credit: Jules Benichou
In 2022, Rossi claimed finishes of P14 and P16 at Zandvoort, in the middle of his first ever season. Just imagine, in a more dominant car which he has taken victory with, and with a lot more experience - the Zandvoort weekend could be an ultimate high to end his 2023 GT Campaign with.
Rossi and the #46 WRT BMW team have just one Sprint weekend remaining, at Zandvoort. This is a circuit which, similarly to Misano and Brands Hatch, is fairly narrow and twisty in parts, but at the same time does have enough straights and fast, sweeping corners to throw the BMW's right back into the mix. Zandvoort is going to be a crucial weekend for them, if they are able to secure one final podium or even a victory, it might just turn this season from an impressive one, to an absolutely brilliant one. I have faith that Valentino Rossi will take this disappointing result very well, as he often did do in MotoGP. Rossi is incredibly self-aware, he reminded himself that time was running out in MotoGP, when he returned after an injury back in 2010, with a customised helmet with a clock on it to connote how his time is on the clock and was running out, although he did go on to race for another decade and nearly picked up another championship. So there's certainly some evidence that he does learn from mistakes, and is an incredibly adaptive person in the entire world of motorsport.
Rossi will understand how important that weekend in Zandvoort is, and he will improve. Tune in to the Zandvoort race in a couple weeks' time, to potentially see a Rossi podium which I predict, might just be the case.
But what did you make of the final GTWCE Endurance race? Would you like to see another circuit host an endurance round, rather than Catalunya? let me know in the comments down below!
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