Zandvoort – Netherlands, 15th October 2023
The season finale of the Fanatec GT World Challenge powered by AWS Sprint Cup had everything to offer that was hard to beat in terms of excitement. Difficult and constantly changing weather conditions placed high demands on both the teams and the drivers. But at the dramatic Sprint-Cup-weekend at the unique circuit of Zandvoort, Emil Frey Racing clinched a podium and three Top-10 finishes at the end of the championship – and secured fourth place in the Sprint Cup Drivers’ standings as well as in the Team standings with drivers Albert Costa Balboa and Thierry Vermeulen.
Race 1 I Saturday, 14th October 2023:
In a thrilling qualifying session, Albert Costa Balboa secured seventh place in the number 69 Ferrari, whilst team-mate Konsta Lappalainen in the sister-car number 14 achieved ninth place.
First rain, then a hailstorm caused brief chaos before the start. The race was declared a “wet race”, even though parts of the track dried faster due to the strong wind. Due to the low track temperatures, the field was sent on two formation laps behind the Safety-Car to give the drivers a better chance to get their tyres up to temperature.
Albert Costa Balboa had a great start and found himself in second place after the first lap, 2.5 seconds behind the leading #40 Audi. On lap three he set the fastest first sector so far and showed that the Ferrari was one of the top cars in the field today.
At the end of the third lap, the Safety-Car was deployed and when the green flags were waved again ten minutes later, Albert Costa Balboa maintained second position. One lap later, the gap to the leading Audi was only 0.827 seconds, and after another fastest first sector on lap 10, the Spaniard set the fastest race lap.
Team-mate Konsta Lappalainen, who had made-up one place at the start, slipped back to 11th on the Re-start, from where he then pitted on lap 14 and handed the number 14 Ferrari 296 GT3 over to Giacomo Altoè. Unfortunately, the number 14 Ferrari was struggling with Set-up problems, but both drivers showed great stints and driving skills despite the difficult conditions.
When Albert Costa Balboa took over the lead on lap 13, as the #40 Audi pitted early, he again got everything out of the Ferrari and handed over the #69 to local hero Thierry Vermeulen on lap 15. Thanks to a great team performance and a quick pitstop of only 52.3 seconds, they gained a position over the #40 Audi and led the race.
After another accident, there was a Full-Course-Yellow on lap 20, which then called the Safety-Car onto the track two laps later after all. At the end of lap 24, Thierry Vermeulen led the field for the remaining eleven minutes until the black and white checkered flag.
But five laps later, the #40 Audi started to overtake and took the lead. Despite the strength of the Audi, Thierry Vermeulen was not to be shaken-off and finished just under a second behind in second place, securing another podium result for Emil Frey Racing – and that at his home race.
The sister car with the number 14 had a more difficult race but managed another Top-10 result with 10th place.
Race 2 I Sunday, 15th October 2023:
On Sunday, the cards were reshuffled and qualifying started on a damp track, but by half-time conditions were dry enough to switch to slicks. As the clock ticked down, it looked as though the #159 McLaren had secured first place on the grid for itself, but then Giacomo Altoè came along in the #14 Ferrari and snatched Pole Position by 0.012 seconds. Thierry Vermeulen placed the number 69 Ferrari in a promising seventh position. However, Giacomo Altoè’s fastest lap was later cancelled, and the number 14 was relegated to fourth on the grid.
The Sprint Cup went into a one-hour race for the very last time this year and, as had been the case all weekend, the weather on Sunday was unpredictable. Giacomo Altoè held his nerves at the start and fended-off three rivals to claim fourth place. The sister-car with Dutchman Thierry Vermeulen behind the wheel unfortunately lost a place at the end of the first lap and slipped back to eighth. The Safety-Car was deployed on lap two and stayed out for four laps. At the Re-start, Thierry Vermeulen lost a place to the #10 Audi, which later spun and the Ferrari driver inherited 8th place again.
Giacomo Altoè was putting pressure on the #30 BMW Gold driver from fourth on the grid, when suddenly and without warning, heavy rain started in the first sector from lap 10. In a battle for positions, the #159 McLaren forced the Italian off the track, but Giacomo Altoè came back only to regain fourth place shortly afterwards.
Just before the start of the pitstop-window, there was a Full-Course-Yellow. To create equal and fair conditions for all, the FCY remained in place until all pitstops were finished. When all the cars had been dispatched and all the driver changes had been made, the Safety-Car came out to pick up the pace to get the tyres working again.
From lap 17, racing conditions returned to normal and Konsta Lappalainen, now in the number 14 Ferrari, lost two positions in the tough conditions. Albert Costa Balboa, on the other hand, lost eleven seconds during his pitstop in the number 69, as there was a Lamborghini in front of him in the pits and his Ferrari had to be pushed back to get away. This resulted in the loss of many positions, but the Spaniard didn’t let it get him down and put in a strong recovery. Lap-after-lap he caught one car after the other and on lap 21 he was already in 10th place (8th in PRO). By the chequered flag he had made-up two more positions and finished eighth overall and sixth in the PRO class.
Konsta Lappalainen came under massive pressure from the #60 Lamborghini towards the end of the race, which he managed to keep behind for some time. But on lap 28 the Lamborghini passed the Ferrari after slight contact and the driver pairing of Altoè/Lappalainen narrowly missed the podium only just by finishing in fourth place.
Team Quotes Emil Frey Racing
Lorenz Frey-Hilti, Team Principal: “If you finish in the Top-10 in both races with both cars, then you can actually be happy with that, but we are here to win and with our potential we couldn’t quite reach our goals this weekend. Second place on Saturday was great, of course, but when you lead half the race after Albert Costa Balboa’s amazing start, it’s a shame. Today I couldn’t understand why we were denied Pole Position and given a grid-drop-penalty. Giacomo Altoè clearly slowed down and braked at the yellow flags, and because of the faster track he then made-up time in the other sectors. A real pity! It was very difficult to make the right decisions in the race today. On top of that, we had a lot of bad luck at the pitstops, first a Lamborghini in front of us prevented us from taking out the 69 and at number 14 the check-in was not ideal. And all that under Full-Course-Yellow, where you’re not supposed to lose any space during the pitstop, which was doubly bitter. Despite everything though, we were able to take home a podium.”
Jürg Flach, Technical Director: “Zandvoort was once again a nerve-wracking weekend. It was nice to finish the race on the podium yesterday after a strong performance. Losing Pole Position today due to a dubious decision was a big disappointment. The pace in the second race was good, but the number 69 car was blocked by the neighbouring SSR car, and the number 14 car couldn’t get away as it wished after the pitstop, which also cost time.
All in all, another podium would have been possible, but we had a lot of bad luck on Sunday.”
Driver Quotes Ferrari 296 GT3 #14
Giacomo Altoè (Italy): “If you look at everything, we didn’t have a bad weekend. We started the race from 9th on Saturday and when you’re driving in the middle of the field it’s never easy to overtake, especially on a track like Zandvoort. With my Pole Position I had the best result of the year at the end of the season and then we got a penalty. My pace was consistently fast, but unfortunately, we lost positions at the pitstop. I want to thank the team for a great job and I’m looking forward to next season.”
Konsta Lappalainen (Finland): “We had a difficult race on Saturday, but despite everything we finished in 10th place and that was good. We had a bit of bad luck at the pitstop on Sunday, which should have gone better. Still, I’m happy with the weekend and my personal performance.”
Driver Quotes Ferrari 296 GT3 #69
Albert Costa Balboa (Spain): “There were really difficult conditions throughout the weekend. But it’s in these changing track conditions that I perform at my best. I had a really strong start against the faster BMWs on Saturday and braking into the first corner I just went for it. Our car really flew yesterday. It was such a shame that it wasn’t enough for the win, but personally I was very happy with second place – and I was on the podium with Valentino Rossi for the first time, so that was a very special moment for me.”
Thierry Vermeulen (Netherlands): “We definitely showed this weekend that we are one of the strongest cars in the field. On Saturday we could have had the win, unfortunately I made a mistake and we ended-up with second place. Sunday was really difficult for us both in qualifying and in the race. I didn’t have the feeling in the car today like I had yesterday. With the long Full-Course-Yellow and the Safety-Car phases, there was not much time to make-up positions. We were really frustrated when we were blocked at the pitstop. Losing eleven seconds under FCY is a huge amount and such rules should not be in place in any championship, because it is not fair to the team. After everything we’ve been through this year, it’s great to finish the year in fourth place in the Sprint Cup Drivers’ Championship. I’m looking forward to seeing all the GT World Challenge fans again next year.”