The season opener of the SRO GT World Challenge Europe took place this past weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy. It was the series debut for the M4 GT3 with two entries from Rowe Racing, with the #98 car driven by works drivers Augusto Farfus, Nick Yelloly, and Nicky Catsburg, and the #50 car driven by BMW Juniors Neil Verhagen, Max Hesse, and Dan Harper. Both cars finished out of the top ten, but it was a valuable learning experience.
In qualifying, the #98 M4 GT3 started ninth on the grid in the Pro Cup class, with an average lap time of 1:40.616, just three-tenths off the pole time of the Team WRT Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo II (SRO uses the average lap time of three qualifying sessions to set the grid). The top thirteen cars were within a half-second of each other. The #50 BMW qualified in eighteenth, with a 1:40.940 lap average. Entering the SRO GT World Challenge Europe series is a new adventure for the BMW Juniors, who did almost all of their racing last year on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. SRO races are typically long sprint races and consist of GT3 cars only, so it’s a different experience versus a 24-hour race on the ‘Ring with a wide variety of cars.
In the race, the M4 GT3s generally held their position and the cars were so evenly matched around the circuit that it appeared to be difficult to make a pass. You could see this in the battle between Nick Yelloly in the #98 M4 GT3 and Jack Aitken in the #63 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo. Yelloly would catch up to Aitken on the twistier parts of the track, but then Aitken would pull away on the straights. They diced this way back and forth for the first hour of the race until the first pit stops. Neil Verhagen, meanwhile, worked his way up two positions to sixteenth in the first hour.
If you can’t pass on the track, you need to get past other cars with faster pit stops, and this is where the Rowe Racing team had some real issues. The abundance of cars and the tight confines of the pit lane at Imola led to another car blocking Yelloly from getting into the appropriate pit box during the first pit stop, which took longer and dropped them down the order. They ultimately finished in eleventh. The Junior team car had issues as well, as Max Hesse had to stay on the track during a safety car period when the #98 car was already in the pits. With the tight pit lane, there wasn’t enough room to service both cars at the same time. The #50 car finished fifteenth, as Dan Harper gained five positions in his final stint. The overall win went to the #32 Team WRT Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo II.
Despite the lackluster finish, Rowe Racing Team Principal Hans-Peter Naundorf was encouraged by the performance at Imola. “We only narrowly missed the top ten and can be satisfied with P11 and P15 as well as the performance of drivers and cars,” he said. “Unfortunately, the tight pitlane cost us better results as both cars lost a lot of time due to unlucky circumstances. The positions we lost could not be made up again on a circuit where overtaking is as difficult as at Imola. Our BMW M4 GT3 could have gone faster than the cars in front of us in certain sections but wasn’t quick enough on the straights to overtake. All in all, I am very happy with the first race of the car, and there is a lot of potential left, as not everything was perfect today.”
Rowe Racing is only competing in the longer endurance races that make up the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup, and their next race will be at Circuit du Paul Ricard in France on June 3–5. Find out more information on the series website.—David Haueter
[Photos courtesy SRO.]