The Silverstone Supercar Showdown - RAC Tourist Trophy
                                             5th - 7th May 2006 went behind the scenes for the RAC Tourist Trophy race at Silverstone on 5-7 May 2006, and in this article for the Inside Track series you can read a detailed account of our visit, and view some great shots of the racing action, on track, in the pits together with behind the scenes shots of pit crew, drivers and more.

But first an overview of the event and a glimpse into the long and chequered history of the Tourist Trophy. The Tourist Trophy is a well established race having first been run in 1905 at a 52 mile long circuit on the Isle of Man. The race has attracted some of the biggest names and teams in motorsport over the years, including Nuvolari, Campari, Moss, Fangio, Kling, Graham Hill, Derek Bell, Aston Martin, Mercedes, Jaguar, Ferrari and Maserati to name a few.  Britain's Sir Stirling Moss was a seven times winner of the event driving for Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes Benz. The race was originally run on road circuits, but tragedy took a hand in 1955 when on the Dundrod road circuit three drivers lost their lives in the race. From this point on road racing in Britain was banned, and the Tourist Trophy was subsequently run on closed circuits beginning in 1958 at Goodwood, then switching to Oulton Park from 1965 to 1967, before moving to Silverstone in 1970. The race returned to Donington briefly in the 1990's, before finally coming back to Silverstone where in 2005 it was run as a round of the FIA GT Championship, and was won by ex F1 driver Pedro Lamy and Peter Kox driving an Aston Martin DBR9. The race again formed part of the FIA GT Championship for this year, and being the opening race of the season, attracted strong interest and large numbers of fans. This year the Aston Martin teams were keen to win again, and the marque was present in force, with no less than 6 DBR9's chasing victory.

The FIA GT championship is now in its tenth year and is growing rapidly in popularity. The season consists of ten races including a 24 hour race at the superb Spa Franchorchamps circuit in the heart of the Ardennes. A street race in Bucharest and culminates in a grand finale at the Dubai Autodrome in November.

The cars competing in the championship are based on road going exotic supercars from legendary manufacturers including Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati, Aston Martin, Saleen and Corvette. The engines produce between 400 and 650 bhp. There are two categories designated GT1 and GT2. The former is for the more powerful cars and the latter those that are closer to their road going counterparts. The drivers of these superb machines are a varied bunch, with some ex Formula One stars, endurance and sports car specialists and young ambitious up and coming stars of the future.

The format of the race is well thought out and designed to maximise the excitement and drama with closely matched machinery, finely balanced by a performance matching system devised by the FIA and 'speed ballast' to ensure that cars of different configurations can compete on equal terms, and to pevent domination by a single marque, as has so often happened in the past.

Formula One could certainly learn from the practice and qualifying format, which is refreshingly simple, yet guarantees a frantic battle for grid position. The teams get two 90 minute free practice sessions and a single 20 minute qualifying session. There is no time to sit in the pits or cruise around burning off fuel in a qualifying session this short, it's flat out from beginning to end, providing a great spectacle for the eager fans. There is a 15 minute warm up session on the Sunday morning at an early 08.10am.The races are 3 hours long with the drama of pit stops for refuelling, changing tyres and swapping drivers.

From the moment we arrived at the circuit there was a great atmosphere and you could immediately see that this was going to be a serious event with privately owned but very professional teams showing off their impressive machinery, pit gear, trucks and hospitality facilities. During the weekend we captured some great shots of the team personnel, drivers, cars, pit lane, and 'on track' action, and have provided a selection of these images in the gallery that can be viewed by clicking on the links in this article. Another welcome feature of this event was the 'open paddock' facility, which meant that the general public could get up close to the cars and drivers, and kids could be seen eagerly scrambling for driver autographs, another thing that sadly we don't see enough of in Formula 1.

We were out on track for the two free practice sessions, the first one on Friday 5th May was run in beautiful sunshine, and the cars were a spectacular sight as the teams and drivers worked on their set ups for the race. It was almost inevitable that the sunshine couldn't last for the whole weekend though, and sure enough the British weather didn't disappoint, with rain arriving on the Saturday morning, and affecting the support race qualifying sessions. The GT cars pretty well avoided the worst of the weather, although by the time the 20 minute qualifying session took place in mid afternoon it was still damp and showery. The cars put on a great show with the GLPK-Carsport Corvette C6 of Bert Longin(Bel)/Anthony Kumpen(Bel) and Mike Hezemans(Ned) taking pole position with a lap at an average speed of over 156 Kph. Second fastest was the Zakspeed Racing Saleen S7R of Sascha Bert(Ger) and Jarek Janis(Cze). As a result of the conditions, the speeds were down on the free practice sessions, which saw the Saleen lapping at over 177 Kph. Silverstone is one of the world's great circuits, and if you don't agree then you can't have stood on the outside of the track at the approach to the Becketts Esses, where the cars provide a truly awesome high speed spectacle at very close quarters.

We spent some time in the pit lane on the Saturday, and observed the teams practising their pit stop routines and marking out the track with tape where the cars would stop during the race. Although there was a strictly enforced pit lane speed limit, it was still a daunting sight to see the car approach the team in the pit box, as the speed was scrubbed off at the very last moment, demanding perfect judgement by the driver. The action was frantic and the stops were timed to perfection, with all of the participants eager to get into the groove ahead of the race. The drivers helped each other as they swapped places, each installing his own seat in the car with his partner strapping him in ensuring that the belts were tight. The pit sequence for most teams seemed to be to refuel and do the driver change together, then a whistle was blown or buzzer sounded, or load shout uttered, and the refuellers jumped clear to allow the wheels to be changed. When all was complete the car was released, it was all over in a flash. The cars looked great, but you definitely wouldn't want to get in and out of one on a daily basis, when you are in a hurry. It's a very tight squeeze to get into such a low car, avoiding the roll bar and high seat head restraints with a full face helmet and a HANS (Head And Neck Safety) device attached.

It was with eager anticipation that we arrived at the circuit early on the Sunday morning and headed for the pit lane. The teams were busy preparing the cars for the 15 minute warm-up and doing more practise pit stops. You could sense the atmosphere building for the big race, which was due to start at 1.30pm. The weather was looking unsettled as the teams made last minute changes, practised the pit sequences yet again and discussed strategy. The track was damp for the short 15 minute early morning warm-up session, resulting in slower laptimes that saw the Aston Martin DBR9 of David Brabham and Christophe Bouchut go fastest with a lap at 155kph.

The 3 hour race commenced at 1.30pm on a damp circuit, causing last minute consternation amongst the teams on what tyres to use, a decision that would prove to be decisive. Throughout the race  a battle developed between the Maserati MC12 of Michael Bartels and Andrea Bertolini, and the Saleen S7R of Zakspeed duo Sascha Bert and Jarek Janis. Close behind was the Aston Martin DBR9 of Fabrizio Gollin and Fabio Babini. The pit strategy of the Maserati team payed off in the end, with the car winning the race at an average speed of 162kph. Despite the race lasting 3 hours, the first five cars all finished on the same lap with less than 5 seconds separating the winning Maserati and second placed Saleen. In the GT2 class the AF Corse Ferrari 430 GT2 of Matteo Bobbi and Jaime Melo took victory, from the second placed Ebimotors Porsche 996 GT3 RSR of Emmanuel Collard and Luca Riccitelli.

The victorious drivers took to the podium amid great celebrations, and were presented with the impressive and historic RAC Tourist Trophy by none less than seven times previous winner of the race Sir Stirling Moss. Sir Stirling then made a hasty exit prior to the customary champagne spraying and soakings that followed.

The scene is set then, for an exciting and close fought season, that will surely see more thrilling battles and a variety of winning cars and drivers in the months ahead. We have added links below to the official websites of the FIA GT Championship and Silverstone Circuit and would recommend a visit, to sample the fantastic race atmosphere, that simply cannot be grasped by watching TV coverage alone.

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