Though the 24H SERIES will be hosted for the very time this weekend at the Circuito do Estoril, this month, Joe is reminded of a “well-choregraphed ballet” he attended at the venue in 2007 with four-time World Touring Car Champion, RML.
Words – Joe Bradley
Images – Lotus / Petr Frýba
We have a new circuit to visit for this weekend’s Hankook 12H ESTORIL. Situated 32km (20 miles) west of Portugal's capital city Lisbon, the Circuito do Estoril was built in 1972 on a rocky plateau near the village of Alcabideche, just over 5km (3.3 miles) from the town that lent its name to the new track.
Opened in June 1972, the circuit was troubled by politics and economic uncertainty right from the start, so much so that it took until 1975 for the first race of international significance – the opening round of that year’s European Formula 2 Championship, won by a dominant Jacques Laffite – to be held (follow-up events in 1976 and 1977 were won by fellow French rising stars Rene Arnoux and Didier Pironi). These however, plus one round of the World Sportscar Championship aside held in 1977 – the race was won by Vittoria Brambilla and Arturio Merzario in an Alfa-Romeo T33 – was it, and Estoril, with little interest from any international motorsport body, quickly found itself in the doldrums.
Fortunately, thanks to a resurgence of interest in the area and a successful campaign to woo Formula 1 back to Portugal for the first time since 1960, Estoril began laying a very solid historical foundation. 1984 saw Niki Lauda clinch his third and final F1 World Championship when he beat Mclaren teammate Alain Prost by just half a point, and of course, this was the track (albeit a very wet one) that saw Ayrton Senna take his first F1 win in the iconic John Player Special Lotus. Since then, Estoril has always been a favourite winter testing venue for British teams seeking a more relevant track temperature than perhaps a winter’s day at Snetterton.
I remember my first visit there in December of 2007. We were there as part of a test session with the RML team, who were at this time very much in contention of the World Touring Car Championship. I was the team manager at Robertshaw Racing and we had just taken possession of two, one-year-old Chevrolet Lacettis to campaign in the 2008 British Touring Car Championship. It was quite an education observing this World Championship team going about their business.
The standout memory for me was watching Alain Menu, the two-time BTCC champion who, just three years after his switch to world touring cars, already had several wins to his name. He was able to make a decision on setup changes with just one or two laps of the circuit, sometimes even on the out lap: out of the pits; straight back in; “no, that does not work.” He would then make specific suggestions – 2mm of 'toe-in' on the rear, or camber changes or tyre pressures – and out he went again. On the next lap, once past the pits, he’d be straight back in (“another millimetre.”).
The team would move around his car like a well-choregraphed ballet, and it was a privilege to watch a team that would go on to win four World Touring Championships consecutively from 2010 to 2013 in action.
Getting your race car setup correct, you could argue, is even more critical for longer distance races. Getting it wrong can affect your tyre wear over the course of a stint, which will have a knock-on effect on your lap times. Getting it really wrong can render the race car very difficult to drive. Important enough over a 20-lap WTCC race, but when you’re fighting a car to stay on the track for a 90-minute stint, you just know the likelihood of the stint ending in the wall is perhaps a closer proposition.
This is why we like to give our teams the maximum amount of track time the timetable can afford. Drivers and engineers alike will endeavour to fine tune their racecars to make sure they are both fast and, indeed, drivable.
An added challenge of this weekend’s race format is the inclusion of a six-hour endurance race on Friday, which will form the grid for the actual Hankook 12H ESTORIL itself on Saturday. I'm looking forward to seeing just how the teams go about this. It’s not quite an 18-hour endurance race, even though it’s going to feel like it, with a complete reset ahead of the 12-hour event giving teams the chance to service their cars. Once again, the 24H SERIES is mixing it up with another challenging format, once again living up to the #ThisIsEndurance mantra.