Francorchamps / Zolder. The Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium based Mühlner Motorsport Team is running two Porsche 911 GT3 R as Exim Bank Team China in the FIA GT1 World Championship. Series promoter Stephane Ratel (SRO) brought the components together: Exim Bank China is the sponsor of the ambitious project, Mühlner Motorsport is the team running it, supplying the cars and equipment and responsible for all technical and strategy issues, and the drivers, chosen by SRO, ultimately have to deliver the on-track performance.
The number 8 Porsche is driven Ren Wei, who last year competed in China in the Scirocco Cup, and the Frenchman Benjamin Lariche, making the move from single-seaters to GT cars. The sister car, carrying number 9, is shared by a second Frenchman, Mike Parisy, who finished runner-up in last year's FIA GT3 Championship, and the New-Zealander Matt Halliday, who has lots of Porsche experience via the Porsche Supercup.
The package proved to be quick at the first round in Nogaro, only a drive-through penalty for a jumped start and a slow driver change prevented a good result in the main race there. At the second round, at the team's home race in Zolder, the team was able to build upon what they had learnt at the first meeting. The free practice sessions on Friday gave an early indication of the competitiveness of the Exim Bank Team China run by Mühlner Motorsport: Parisy was second quickest on the day, only 3/100ths slower than the best time.
In Q3 of the Saturday morning qualifying session, Matt Halliday and Mike Parisy ensured themselves pole position for the first race on Saturday afternoon, only to get a three place penalty down to P4 as Halliday had crossed the white line on exiting the pits. Lariche/Wei made it to Q2 and thus ensured themselves the 14th starting place.
In Saturday's race, the results of which determined the grid for Sunday, Parisy / Halliday ran 3rd and with this podium result ensured a good starting position for the next day. Wei unfortunately had an accident in the first stint of the one hour race and the damage was severe enough to prevent Lariche from being able to drive.
The Sunday morning warm-up demonstrated that the overnight work by the Mühlner team mechanics had brought the Wei/Lariche number 8 Porsche back to its previous perfect condition and the 3rd best time for the number 9 sister car showed that they were in good shape for the race.
With perfect timing, as the cars were already standing on the grid, dark rain clouds drew in. As it had not yet started raining, it was a tough call as to which tyres to fit for the start. Exim Bank Team China run by Mühlner Motorsport decided to fit rain tyres. As the field set off, the circuit was still completely dry – it did not start to rain until the second lap. But that made the risky call on the grid a correct one, despite a fully dry start to the race. Those cars which had started on slicks either pitted or fell a long way back.
Just before the opening of the pitstop window (between the 25th and 35th minutes of the race), the sector times showed that some of the cars which had stayed on slicks and were now at the back, were starting to lap more quickly and Bernhard Mühlner took the second risky decision of the race in deciding to bring Halliday in right at the start of the pitstop window and send Parisy out on slicks, notwithstanding the fact that the circuit was still damp. The competition waited a few laps for the circuit to dry out more and that was just what the Mühlner team needed in that, after all the stops had been completed, Parisy was in the lead as he had been much quicker early on using slicks whilst the opposition were still on wets. The final ten laps, Parisy had to defend hard against the heavy attacks of a competitor but held him off brilliantly to bring home the win.
Benjamin Lariche and Ren Wei were also able to bring the number 8 Porsche into the results and gained a lot of experience through the race.
"What an unbelievable success!" summarised Bernhard Mühlner after the race, and continued "I'm very proud of the whole team. Six weeks ago this Exim Bank Team China run by Mühlner Motorsport project was just an idea and now one of our Porsches has won a race in an FIA World Championship. The decisions to start on wets when it had not yet started raining, and then to change to slicks whilst it was still damp, worked out perfectly. But if it had stayed dry at the start, or started to rain again in the remaining 33 minutes, then I would have been the idiot who messed it all up."
The next round of the world championship is in Navarra, Spain from the 25th to 27th May.