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Why Imola could bring “more chaos” to the WEC

Following a season-opening race in Qatar that ran without interruption from safety cars, there is widespread expectation that Imola’s tight and undulating nature may conspire to produce incidents that the open, flowing nature of the Losail International Circuit helped negate.

Imola, which has replaced Monza as the host of Italy’s WEC round for 2024 on what is expected to be a one-off basis during renovation works at the home of the Italian Grand Prix, features tall kerbs that GT3 cars can attack aggressively, whereas the Hypercars are advised to use more caution.

This factor, and the importance afforded to mechanical grip rather than aerodynamics thanks to Imola’s higher proportion of slow corners than in Qatar, means cornering speeds are more evenly matched between the two classes than usual. Overtaking will be difficult, and the comparatively narrow track and grass/gravel beds lining its perimeter will punish any passing attempts not executed correctly.

WRT BMW driver Rene Rast told Autosport: “Qatar is a lot wider, there’s more run-off. If something goes wrong, we have run-off, here you only have gravel.

“Everybody has to be aware, the GT but also the Hypercars, we have to respect each other. For sure it’s going to be tight and we will see probably a bit more contact than in Qatar.”

Toyota driver Nyck de Vries explained that he was “quite amazed at how aggressive the racing was” in Qatar and suggested that risk management will be crucial on Imola’s tight confines, not least because there’s a high chance of rain for the race.

“This is almost the opposite of what you have versus Qatar – that was very high-speed, very flat, long track, a lot of space,” the Dutchman told Autosport.

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa (Photo by: Paul Foster)

“Even though the nature of that layout didn’t make overtaking necessarily easy, here there is no space and there is a lot of kerb usage which is different than Qatar.

“It’s important to be patient and to finish, because I do expect that we will have quite an eventful race. Potentially the weather is playing into that as well.”

Difficulty in passing

Projections that overtaking cars of similar performance will be tough at Imola could be found in all corners of the paddock on Friday. Giuliano Salvi, Ferrari race and test team manager, offered up an astute comparison when describing the challenges of multi-class racing at the Emilia Romagna track, which most recently hosted multi-class sportscar racing sanctioned by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest as part of the European Le Mans Series in 2022.

“I heard someone calling it the Monaco of endurance, and I think that is a very precise definition,” he said.

“It will not be the track with the most overtakes in the calendar simply because it’s quite narrow,” agreed Laurens Vanthoor, part of Porsche’s Qatar-winning line-up. “Then again, there’s not so many high-speed corners so you don’t lose so much aero.”

Fuel consumption and tyre strategy are key tenets of endurance racing that usually mitigate the significance of qualifying, as the minimum six-hour duration of WEC racing typically allows teams that can eke the best performance out of their tyres over a double stint to make up for starting out of position. But Salvi believes the fight to get into Saturday evening’s Hyperpole session will take on a special importance in Imola, as those starting near the front will likely be gentler on their equipment.

“It will be a very tense race, but not only the race but also qualifying,” he added. “Qualifying will be very important, to start at the front will be really crucial.”

#46 Team WRT BMW M4 LMGT3: Ahmad Al Harthy, Valentino Rossi, Maxime Martin (Photo by: Emanuele Clivati | AG Photo)

This applies not only to tyres, but also brakes.

“It’s one of the hardest tracks generally on brakes,” noted Lamborghini’s Mirko Bortolotti. “If you can have a more efficient brake phase, keeping your brakes alive for a long time, maybe that can also be something that can [help] through the race run.”

The T-word

Where tyres were a key buzzword in Qatar, traffic has taken up that mantle in Imola. Most anticipate that for the Hypercar race, the GT cars will have a key role to play in creating opportunities.

Bortolotti observed: “You can get caught in a wrong spot or maybe take a wrong decision on passing a GT car, you end up on the wrong line and that can open up opportunities for overtakes.”

“The most overtakes will be done after traffic or in traffic,” said Vanthoor. “GT traffic management will play a very big role, also staying out of trouble in those circumstances.”

BMW driver Sheldon van der Linde anticipates that the congestion “is going to be very difficult to navigate through”.

“If you can stay out of trouble, stay out of the gravel, in the end that’s the target here,” he told Autosport.

#88 Proton Competition Ford Mustang LMGT3: Giorgio Roda, Mikkel Pedersen, Dennis Olsen (Photo by: Emanuele Clivati | AG Photo)

“If you can make it to the last two hours without any damage on your car, you deserve a trophy for that alone!”

“Sometimes you have to take risks,” said Rast, “which sometimes is too much and you touch a GT car and then it spins off the track or sticks in the gravel and there is a full-course yellow. I expect more virtual safety cars, we expect a bit more chaos. It’s going to be tricky.”

Two-way street

This verdict is shared by GT3 drivers. TF Sport Corvette’s second practice pacesetter Charlie Eastwood pointed out that the stop-start nature of the circuit means losing a position into a corner and being held up by a Hypercar that is unable to tackle the kerbs with the same vigour will be particularly costly. As such, compliance from the GT3 drivers cannot be assumed into the braking zones.

“If you get on top of [traffic management] it’s worth so much more lap time,” he told Autosport. “It was as tricky as I expected [in practice]. A couple of times into the Turn 14-15 tight chicane [Variante Alta], I’d go to defend and they’re trying to send it around the outside on the brakes.

“The writing is on the wall that it’s going to be a super-tough race. And not only for the GTs, it’s probably even harder and more time-consuming for the Hypercar, but it makes it actually very interesting.”

“The braking points for the GT3s and the Hypercars are fairly similar,” reflected Eastwood’s BMW rival Augusto Farfus.

“Of course, the approach speed is much higher and it can be very difficult for them. They will use us as an opportunity to gain places potentially on their competition and we can use them as well to gain places on our competition.

#51 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P: Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi (Photo by: Paul Foster)

“Especially in those phases where there will be a train of Hypercars coming by, that is the time where they will want to be opportunistic against their own competition, this is a time when we can be also opportunistic. Therefore, the chance for contact, the chance for incidents gets higher.

“It’s not going to be an easy race here, especially for the track layout.”

Suitable for WEC?

Opinions on the track’s suitability for the WEC are mixed. Speaking prior to practice on Thursday, Peugeot driver Paul di Resta told Autosport: “I don’t think it suits the current cars, the balance of delta between the two different classes is not that big. I think it’s too small.

“We should be on bigger tracks like Spa, like Le Mans, like Qatar was. There’s probably other tracks out there that would have been better.

“Maybe it will prove me wrong on Sunday. But I just think it’s unnecessarily tight for such a big grid.”

But there is plenty of optimism too. Eastwood welcomed the new kerbs that he says “add even more character” to the track, while Imola race debutant Alex Lynn was effusive in his praise too.

The Cadillac driver said: “It's mint, I like it. It's nice to be at a track where you can feel the presence of the fans, the tifosi. It's a great, old-school circuit. It will be tough in traffic, but that just adds a bit of spice.”

#2 Cadillac Racing Cadillac V-Series.R: Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn (Photo by: Paul Foster)

“It’s nice to have a bit of a mix, I think we cannot go to the new era of parking lots every weekend either,” reasoned Vanthoor. “This is something completely different and very old-school, a different approach.

“In the end it’s the same issue for all of us. The one who gets out of that situation best will have the advantage.”

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