The favourites already showing their paces

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The Swiss Eric Berguerand set the fastest time in practice for the first FIA Hill Climb Masters on Saturday near Eschdorf in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. In second place, the Frenchman Nicolas Schatz was also the fastest of the Category 3 drivers whilst the Belgian Yanick Bodson posted the benchmark time for Category 1. On Sunday, the three official climbs will begin at 09.30.

It was a good hour late that the 140 drivers waiting to start the first FIA Hill Climb Masters could at last tackle the Eschdorf climb for the first time on Saturday. The reason was dense fog and much reduced visibility. A few incidents and then an accident during the first climb involving the Slovakian Michal Kovalcic Senior, who rolled at the last bend in his Skoda Fabia S2000, only extended the delay. Although the driver escaped unhurt, the safety barriers did not, and it took a long time to return to conditions of optimum safety. Eventually, only two practice heats were possible instead of the planned three.

But the large crowd of spectators was certainly not disappointed by what they saw, which was certainly exciting. The mix of leading names in European hill climbing and specialists from some national championships, particularly French, British and Irish, put on a great show for the fans. And in addition to the breathtaking climbs by the masters of the sport, spectators also enjoyed the opportunity to chat with the drivers in a paddock open to everyone. That is the convivial nature of the sport of Hill Climbing!

The stakes were not vital at this stage, but it was still possible to gain an initial idea of how strong the competition would be, although some, like Simone Faggioli and David Hauser, concealed their skills a little deliberately braking before the finish line. Holder of the track record, the Swiss Eric Berguerand (Lola B99-Cosworth) ended day one at the top of the charts with a time of 49.631, compared with the 48.990 he posted, in competition, at the traditional Eschdorf event at the beginning of May. “It was great day, but it is clearly possible to go faster,” he smiled. “I made some minor mistakes but on this very short hill the climb has to be perfect. Of course I am ahead today, but don’t be mistaken: the top favourite is still Simone Faggioli. Although he eased off before the line, he is still only just behind me.”

With his Norma M20 FC-Zytek, the seven-times European champion was in fact in third place, but by less than 4 tenths of a second. The Italian finished behind the five-times French champion Nicolas Schatz (Norma M20 FC V8-BMW), the latter at the same time posting the best time for Category 3 cars (those not complying with FIA European championship regulations). “I am very happy to be in second place, but I know that Simone slowed deliberately,” Nicolas explained. “All the same, I am not satisfied with the way my prototype behaved … there’s work to be done for tomorrow. Above all, I’m waiting to see the Brits, who are learning the course, come close with their single-seaters, which are more powerful than our cars.

With Geoffrey Schatz, Nicolas’ young brother, in fourth place with his Reynard 95D-Mugen and Cyrille Frantz (Norma M20 FC V8-BMW) in fifth, the French were well represented among the leaders. Local hero David Hauser (Wolf GB08F1) was just outside the top five, ahead of the Czech Milos Benes (Osella FA30-Zytek), the British drivers Trevor Willis (OMS 28-RPE) and Scott Moran (Gould GR61X-NME) and the Frenchman Sébastien Petit (Norma M20 FC V8-BMW).

The battle for unofficial victory in Category 3 promises to be fought between, among other, the Austrian Karl Schagerl (VW Golf Rallye TFSI-R), the German Herbert Stolz (Porsche 935 DP2) and the Swiss Ronnie Bratschi (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8 EGMO), only a few tenths apart at the end of practice.

But it is above all to Category 1 (FIA-homologated saloon and GT cars) that all eyes will be turned as the first three will be awarded medals. The Belgian Yanick Bodson posted the best time by far with his Porsche 997 Cup whilst Nicolas Werver, driving a similar car, was still not entirely at ease and slid too wide on the second run. So the four Mitsubishis make up the rest of the top five in the Category with, in order, the Czech Jaromir Maly, the Austrian Christian Schweiger, the Pole Marcin Slobodzian and the Austrian Stefan Widenhofer. “My chances of victory will really depend on the weather, Yanick Bodson confirmed. “If it’s dry, my Porsche and the one driven by Nicolas Werver will have their chance. If it rains, on the other hand, I think it will be very difficult to beat the Mitsubishis with their four-wheel drive … It promises to be interesting!

Expected to turn out in large numbers, the spectators should very much enjoy the three planned official runs. Those who cannot make it to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg can follow the event on “live stream” at from the first run, scheduled for 09.30. It will only be at the end of the afternoon that the three medals can be awarded for the three Categories, as well as the Nations Cup, which will be won by the national team with the best grouped regularity. In any event, the suspense will be thrilling!

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