The Superside FIM Sidecar World Championship competitors got their first chance to sample the Salzburgring circuit in Austria for Round 5 on Saturday morning's free practice session. Overnight rain had made the circuit tricky, with most teams opting to use intermediate tyres to feel their way around. World Championship leaders Tim & Tristan Reeves were running in a new Suzuki engine on their Team Roberts machine and didn't figure in the top 15 times. Rivals and second in the championship Jörg Steinhausen & Trevor Hopkinson, returning to the track for the first time since their horrific last lap crash at Schleiz, were also taking things easy, but with their circuit knowledge ended fourth quickest just behind Billy Gällros & Johnny Briggs on the Sourcecom BG Sweden LCR-Suzuki.
A surprise second fastest were Sepp Doppler & Bernard Wagner on the Gemini Racing LCR-Yamaha. The men using their experience around the fast sweeping curves of the Salzburgring to good effect to record the second fastest time at an average speed of 169.4kmh / 104.6mph on the still drying track.
Martien & Tonnie van Gils topped the time sheets on the Maton Racing Etec machine less than 5/100th's of a second ahead of the Austrians on their first visit to the track.
The heaven's had opened again over the Salzburger-Region by the time of the first Qualifying session at lunchtime. As the sidecars took to the track, the rain had initially subsided and Steinhausen & Hopkinson made sure they were out on track first before more rain came. With a clear track - and vision - they quickly posted the fastest time of the session on lap three before it started raining heavily again. For Twenty minutes the rain came down, putting paid the any faster laps, but towards the end of the session the rain had stopped, and despite the amount of water still standing on the track, the teams began to get quicker. Doppler & Wagner once again showed their circuit knowledge and ended in 7th position a fraction behind Gällros & Briggs. The van Gils pairing early pace was repeated as they had the 5th fastest time, although some 14 seconds slower than in the previous damp conditions.
The Reeves brothers were still running in their new engine at the start of the session, and were stuck well down the order until the very last lap. In the still tricky conditions they managed to haul themselves up to 4th position, abiet 3 ½ seconds behind the time set by Steinhausen.
Sandwiching Reeves and Steinhausen were Pekka Päivarinta & Peter Wall in 2nd position on the Päivarinta SRT LCR-Suzuki, and Tero Maninnen & Pekka Kuismanen on their Tuusmotor machine. The Scandinavians obviously revelling in the conditions, and continuing their close battles from all through the season.
By the time of the final qualifying session, the rain had eased during the afternoon. But the circuit was still wet and some of the Superside teams initially went out on full wet tyres. But after only one lap, the circuit was drying very fast and those teams, including both Steinhausen and Reeves, were immediately into the pits to change to an 'intermediate' set-up.
As the track began to dry out under the trees the lap times began to tumble. The Steinhausen Racing Q8 machine of Jörg Steinhausen & Trevor Hopkinson quickly went to the top of the times, and continued to lap the 4.225km track increasing speed every time around until eventually he got to within 2 tenths of Marcus Bösinger's 7 year old lap record, despite the conditions not being ideal. Tim & Tristan Reeves tried very hard to match the German's pace, and in the dying moments were ahead on the second split time, but as they approached the final Esses section their gear lever snapped and they were forced to finish the in second gear. "It was disappointing not to take pole position away from Jörg" said Reeves, "but considering it's our first time here, and I'm carrying the extra 20kg - I'm too bothered at the moment".
Sweden's Billy Gällros and passenger Johnny Briggs ended the session a superb 3rd, earning their first Front row start. "Everything is going well at the moment" explained Gällros, who was a Grand Prix winner here as a passenger in 1979.
The Father & Son team of Gary & Dan Knight were 4th quickest on their Redline Superbikes LCR-Suzuki. The pair have really come to form in the last few races, finishing 4th at Schleiz last time out. "It's not changed much since I was last here...15 years ago!" said former European Champion Gary.
Unfortunately for the fast Finns in 6th position, Pekka Kuismanen - passenger to Tero Maninnen - lost his grip on the fastest part of the course, and fell from the machine in the closing moments of the session. "My gloves and leathers were still wet from the earlier sessions" said Kuismanen "And I was finding it difficult to hold on. Then I lost my grip, and simply fell out of the back of the machine. I hope I am okay for tomorrow" explained the calm Finn. However, he forgot to mention the fact that the pair were travelling at 220km at the time he parted company with the machine, and that he was in the process of being taken to hospital for a suspected broken ankle, and had skinned his wrists to the bone!
So the scene it already set for another classic encounter for the Superside FIM Sidecar World Championship. And although Reeves can afford to finish behind Steinhausen, he is unlikely to take the easy option.