GTWC: Reema Juffali close to class podium finish in Misano
"Finishing just outside the podium on Saturday meant that we were in the fight" - Reema Juffali finished just a couple of seconds short of a class podium in GT World Challenge Europe and scored her team's best result in the series so far in race 1.
The rookie season for Saudi team Theeba Motorsport in the uber competitive GT World Challenge Europe is progressing with significant improvements at every round and at Misano World Circuit - home of the second meeting of the Sprint Cup - driver/owner Reema Juffali and Fabian Schiller just missed out on a podium finish in the Bronze Cup on Saturday, following a very strong day for the team. Juffali made her first appearance of the season in the Sprint Cup at Misano, with Bronze class entries not being entered at the curtain raiser at Brands Hatch due to the high number of entries. Reema, who is sharing the #81 Mercedes AMG GT3 car with Alain Valente and Ralf Aron in the Endurance Cup, partnered for the first time with Fabian Schiller, due to a clashing commitment for Ralf Aron. It was Reema's first time in Misano - a 4.226 km technical circuit located in the Italian riviera - and the Theeba squad used practice and collective testing to get up to speed. In pre-qualifying, inspection for a potential mechanical issue kept the car in the pits for a while, but the first qualifying on Saturday morning finally showcased the team's potential. Schiller was out in the final 10 minutes of the session - but a red flag for the stranded car of Lorenzo Patrese in the gravel halted the action and resulted in heavy traffic in the final minutes. Schiller set the 15th fastest time overall and put the Theeba Motorsport Mercedes fifth among the Bronze Cup entries, having been impeded in his final laps. The German driver was behind the wheel for the first stint of the first one hour race of the weekend - contested in scorching temperatures on Saturday afternoon. The start proved to be chaotic and an accident involving Nicolai Kjaergaard's Garage 59 McLaren being turned on the straight than saw Dennis Marschall, Gilles Magnus and Loris Spinelli also being collected; Fabian Schiller was able to navigate through the chaos at turn 1 and made up a few positions, slotting into 11th place overall and fourth in the Bronze class. The race remained green and Schiller mingled with the Pro class cars - retaining fourth in class after briefly running in third. Raffaele Marciello (#88 Akkodis ASP Team Mercedes) led the overall classification, ahead of the Emil Frey Ferrari 296 of Giacomo Altoè and the #188 Garage 59 McLaren of Henrique Chaves. Schiller tried to close in and aimed at potentially taking advantage of a battle unfolding in front of him between the #60 VSR Lamborghini and the #40 Tresor Orange 1 Audi - while at the same time enduring the pressure of Charles Weerts in the #32 WRT BMW. Feller and Weerts would pit as soon as the pit window opened - leaving Schiller in clear air and in the overall top 10. The bronze cup cars stayed out for a few more laps; Schiller moved up to third overall and second in class during the pit stop cycle, before eventually pitting on lap 21. After a great opening stint, Schiller handed over to driver/owner Reema Juffali with 24 minutes left on the clock; she rejoined fourth in class, just behind the #112 JP Motorsport McLaren of Patryk Krupinski. Juffali was faster than the Mclaren ahead and got within 1 and a half second of Krupinski: the Saudi driver kept improving her sector times - but couldn't quite get close enough to attempt a pass - as a few Pro entries got in between their battle with 10 minutes to go. As they went through traffic, Juffali closed in once again on lap 33 - but also had to watch her mirrors from the recovery of Hubert Haupt's Mercedes. After 38 laps, Reema Juffali crossed the finish line in P4 in Bronze Cup, keeping Haupt behind to secure her team's best result of the season so far in GT World Challenge Europe. The #188 Garage 59 McLaren won from lights to flag in class - in an uninterrupted race with no neutralizations - and preceded the #911 Pure Rxcing Porsche and the #112 JP Motorsport McLaren.
Juffali tackled the second qualifying session on Sunday morning, in another sunny and warm day on the Italian riviera. The Saudi was eighth after her first lap, then improved in her second attempt to slot into fourth in class with a brilliant lap - but which was then deleted for track limits. The #126 Imperiale Racing Lamborghini of Dmirty Gvazava bagged the Bronze Cup pole position for race 2 later in the afternoon. The second race, though, was off to a difficult start for Theeba Motorsport, as an accident in the final corner of the first lap saw Juffali picking up a puncture - thus having to complete a full lap before pitting. Unfortunately, damage was significant and Juffali was forced to retire from the race. After some action-packed laps, a five-wide car battle for the lead in silver class saw Di Folco hitting the barriers before Curva della Quercia, bringing out the safety car. The race went back to green just before the pit window, which saw overall leader Dries Vanthoor losing over 10 seconds at the pit stop and dropping from the lead. The sister #46 WRT BMW car took the lead in the hands of Valentino Rossi. The nine-time MotoGP world champion managed to keep the gap to five seconds to the closest pursuer - the #11 Comtoyou Racing Audi of Lucas Legeret - and incredibly took his first outright win in GT World Challenge Europe on home soil. Bronze class honors went again to the #188 Garage 59 McLaren, after a pass in the closing stages by Henrique Chaves over the #911 Pure Rxcing Porsche of Ayhancan Guven. A highly positive performance on Saturday, though, was testament of the big progress for Theeba, now consistently in the fight for the top five in class and not far away from its first podium. “It is a sad way to end a weekend that was looking good until then", Juffali commented. "Finishing just outside the podium on Saturday meant that we were in the fight. The team delivered a great car and Fabian did a brilliant job to step in this weekend. We will take the positives and prepare for Nürburgring in a couple of weeks." The German circuit will in fact host the next round of the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup on 29-30 July.