Endurance Team Romania had their first international experience at the 12hrs of Mugello, achieving its main target of finishing the race. Stepping on the podium was a welcome bonus.
History was made come the end of last week when we witnessed the first participation for a Romanian outfit in an international championship, namely the 24H Series. The series, which hosts long-distance endurance races for over a decade, held its second round of the 2017 season in Italy, at Mugello. This is where the team made up of Sergiu Nicolae, Fabrizio Broggi, Stefan Unchiașu and Mihai Costin decided to race in what is the first of a number of international entries for the Willi Motorsport-backed outfit. The car of choice was a TMG-built Toyota GT86 CS-V3 entered in the A2 class.
Reaching their goal of running in a FIA-sanctioned international event wasn’t easy, nor short. The team arrived at Mugello, which is also a host of the Moto GP World Championship, early last week and immediately set out to work. They installed their tent that would play the role of their headquarters during the race weekend, with trucks from much bigger teams SPS Automotive and Grasser Racing parked left and right. These were, actually, the teams that shared the pit box #18 with Endurance Team Romania’s car.
Official on-track action commenced on Thursday when Dutch organizers Creventic waved to the new-comers the interesting proposition of running their own personal cars on the track for a number of (slow) accommodation laps. ETR jumped to the opportunity, as these would go on to be the only laps logged in by the team’s drivers that day, the outfit deciding to skip the two optional free practice sessions that followed, amouting to 6 hours of precious track time.
That meant that the car only actually left the garage a day later, on Friday morning at 9AM. It was to be the first and only free practice session where everyone was welcomed. During its 90-minutes length, all four drivers drove laps around the Italian track – no more than 8 for each one in such a short amount of time. It proved to be a steep learning curve for everybody, made even trickier by the quicker cars and the Code 60 caution periods that broke the rhythm of the session.
In spite of this, quick times started to emerge come qualifying, Sergiu Nicolae backing his previous Euro GT4 experience by placing the GT86 ahead of the Clio of last year’s A2 champions, Stanco&Tanner Motorsport. This order wasn’t set in stone however as the nimble, and much lighter, Clio Cup III eventually put in a marginally quicker time to move back to 2nd in class. Sergiu’s best lap, a 2:18.188 was enough for third in A2 and 45th overall respectively. As per the regulations, all four drivers put in at least one fast lap during the 60-minute-long qualifying session.
Due to Italian noise regulations, the race was broken into two segments, an experiment already tried and tested by Creventic. Thus, the first segment (4 hours) got underway right after qualifying, on Friday, and the second (8 hours) was to commence on Saturday morning. Ștefan Unchiașu was behind the wheel for the first start which was properly unorganized at the back of the field, the Stanco&Tanner Clio falling back from the pack which made the ETR Toyota lose valuable time in the grand scheme of things.
Two hours later, Unchiașu pitted, handing over the car to Fabrizio Broggi, no battle scar noticeable on any body panel. The Italian then drove cleanly for an hour and a half before pitting once more to give the car to Mihai Costin who drove on new tyres and a full tank until the fall of the chequered flag at 18:00 local time. At the end of Day 1 of racing, the team reported no mechanical issues whatsoever, but the lack of pace meant that their main rivals, the Clio and the much quicker Peugeot – by almost ten seconds in qualifying – were five laps ahead. The Renault was, in fact, ahead of the faster Peugeot, aided by the fact that the latter had to make an unscheduled stop to fix a mechanical glitch with half an hour left to go in the first part.
Saturday swept by and the blue sunny skies were replaced by a curtain of clouds that lowered the temperatures – adding a new challenge for the drivers. The team elected to start the second portion with their quickest driver, Sergiu Nicolae, but he did not benefit from a new set of rubber, all of his team-mates having this opportunity at one point in the 12-hour-long race.
Sergiu quickly passed the Stanco&Tanner Clio with a brave move on the outside through San Donato (Turn 1), going on to beat Friday’s fastest lap time – a 2:17:251 by Unchiașu. Nicolae managed in only the third lap of the second section a blisteringly quick 2:14:655, before being caught by the leaders. Sadly, this time did not dictate the pace of the quartet throughout the eight hours left to run. The averages fluctuated, with times falling around the 2:30 mark when tire degradation and an apparent brake problem took their toll.
The team ran faultlessly in the second part of the event, hindered only by the lack of experience in the pits which made them lose time on pit lane. There was also a small penalty – 14 seconds stop-and-go – awarded for speeding under Code 60 but it didn’t matter at the end of the day, as the much quicker Peugeot, on the one hand, and the more consistent Clio on the other, were both ahead when the flag fell Saturday evening. Endurance Team Romania completed 262 laps (more than 1300km) to finish third – the podium being a well-deserved outcome after a clean race that exceeded the expectations of most team members.
With a healthy baggage of information about the car and experience for the drivers, Endurance Team Romania look for more endurance races in the near future. The organizers and race broadcasters also stressed how happy they were to see this participation materialize, the team featuring on a number of occasions on the live stream. ETR and the 24h Series seem to be a good match, the positives outweighing the negatives on their competitive debut.