British GT Media Day – What We Learnt

 

The British GT season has been building up to the full racing launch at Brands Hatch on 16-17th April, but on 15 March at Snetterton a glimpse of what would be coming this season was given to the waiting media and The PitCrew Online was there amongst the proud names in GT3 and GT4 racing to find out and learn more.

Sadly, from a driving point of view, the weather didn’t play ball at Snetterton that day, and Norfolk was cold, gloomy and a little bit damp, but with the opportunity to shakedown new machinery, teams took the chance to get mileage on the clock with their cars and drivers ahead of the season starting.

The day had started though with a huge announcement – the brand spanking new McLaren 570S GT4 was revealed to the waiting world, and took the paddock by storm. Not many people had anticipated the arrival of the 650S’s baby brother, but it has signalled McLaren GT’s attempt to enter the class with a flourish. The Ecurie Ecosse squad will run McLaren’s in both GT3 and GT4 this year, and although there is no announcement as yet on the drivers of the GT4 car, Andrew Kirkaldy of McLaren GT told us that the intention was to place a “Silver” driver partnership in the car so as to enhance the development of the car through racing in its first season. Feedback though from the car had been positive with McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell praising the small machine and even setting the fastest time in class during one of the testing sessions. The Balance of Performance regulations are yet to apply, but people will watch this new entry with keen eyes.

Another new entry in the GT4 paddock this year was the Maserati run by EborGT. The huge and spectacularly noisy GranTurismo MC will be driven by former GTCup pairing of Marcus Hoggarth and Abbie Eaton. Abbie is catching a lot of attention round the paddock as a female driver with a history of good results, and she was looking forward to the season ahead. On speaking to her she talked of how it was brilliant to be in the British GT, and although issues on the media day prevented the Maserati from completing all 3 test sessions there was potential in the car. The team’s best hopes for good results, she explained, would come at the “bigger circuits” such as her home track of Silverstone where the ‘big’ Maserati would come into its own against some of the smaller, and potentially more nimble competitors.

Our next port of call was the Team HARD garage, where we found their two Ginetta G55s (in the usual vivid green and pink paint associated with the concern) and a very determined team manager, Tony Gilham. Tony very kindly shepherded us out of the Norfolk cold into his motorhome to discuss the team’s ambition for 2016.

Gilham and Team HARD’s aims were very much clear from the outset: To turn the dreams of talented drivers into a racing reality, by supporting them through a clear chain of programmes designed around getting those with clear ability into racing seats. With this in mind for the GT programme the team had signed Jordan Stilp and Will Phillips for one car, and Robert Barrable and Wilson Thompson in the other. Tony was quick to heap praise on his drivers. Barrable has moved over from rallying, and Team HARD had previously offered him the chance to drive on tarmac in the VW Cup in 2015 with good results. Stilp had been in the Team HARD programme since 2012 and, following on from a strong showing in the Ginetta GT Supercup at the end of the BTCC season in 2015, was made for a seat in the British GT Paddock.

The enthusiasm of Tony Gilham in his project is very clear to see. This was a proper “racing team” run by a family not to find drivers who would pay for a drive, but to give competitive racing to drivers who are proving their capability behind the wheel. It will be hard to miss their presence in the British GT paddock this year, not only as their cars and drivers were right at the sharp end of the time sheets, but with no less than 17 cars produced by them in the VW Cup support series (and 34 drivers in total on their development programme) they will be a huge part of the series. Gilham’s other main aim though? Being able to challenge for GT4 wins and titles. With the organisation of his team you can’t doubt they’ll be ready to do that from the first fall of the flag.

The bigger GT3 class is also growing this season, and lovers of big GT cars will have pounding hearts at some of the exotica on show this season round the British tracks.

The most striking arrival for 2016 in GT3 is the Lamborghini Huracan, which Barwell Motorsport have brought to the paddock. The Huracan is a monstrous car – with typically outlandish sleekness and a roaring V10 engine in the back. Mark Lemmer, team principal of Barwell, gave a very clear reasoning to the introduction of the Lamborghini. The team had previously run the BMW Z4, and with the new M6 having a turbocharged engine, Lemmer and Barwell sought to find a car with a normally aspirated engine for 2016. With the Lamborghini having the obvious appeal of the supercar, plus the right engine it was a perfect match for the team for 2016. With the Lamborghini comes a wealth of driving experience as the team will be joined by Italian driver Fabio Babini, to partner Liam Griffin in one of their cars for 4 of the season’s races. Alexander Sims will join Griffin for the remaining 3. Barwell are competing in both British GT and Blancpain GT this season, and are looking to develop the car into a real force in both the shorter British and longer Blancpain races.

Another 2 teams in the paddock are running the BMW Z4 this year, the first of which being AmD Tuning who have taken onboard one of the most popular driver pairings of the very affable Lee Mowle and Joe Osborne. Mowle and Osborne reunited with their Z4 with some vigour at Snetterton and were never far off the top of the timesheets overall. The loss of TripleEight to the British GT paddock was a sorry sight, but with the AmD team taking up their cars for the 2016 season, there’s no doubting the Z4 can stay near the top with these two in hand.

The second car saw the return of a familiar face to British GT – that of Martin Short and Rollcentre Racing. Short will be partnered by Richard Neary, who has stepped up to the big GT class for this year. In speaking to Martin, he was quick to underline the task he faced in his return to the series as the competition has grown over the last few years of the series. The car was running capably at Snetterton during the testing sessions, and Short had been able to see where he could improve the Z4 to get closer to its rivals. The advantage of the Z4, mused Short, lay in the weight distribution of the car compared to the Mosler of old. The front-engined machine gave a better balance and with Neary coming from a background in Cosworth tin tops, this was the ideal machine for his debut in the series.

One of the most notable GT3 changes for this season is at Ecurie Ecosse. Where last year the Scottish team had run the BMW Z4 in partnership with Barwell, it was time to move on to pastures new, and the McLaren 650S GT3 was sitting in their garage. Alasdair McCaig of Ecurie Ecosse will be partnered by the McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell, who will bring a lot of experience to the team for the 2016 season. In moving on to McLaren, the team have secured one of their desires to have a British manufacturer backing and supporting them for their 2016 effort. McCaig was quick to highlight the importance of the McLaren’s capabilities, with the car recently taking victories in the Asian Le Mans Series and at the Bathurst 12 Hour race. With direct factory support from the McLaren GT team, there’s no reason that there cannot be further success for the Woking marque.

We moved on to the Team Parker Racing garage next. Team Parker have picked up the Bentley Continental GT3 for the 2016 season, and along with it, they have new drivers in the form of Rick Parfitt Jnr and Seb Morris. We talked to both drivers about their new mount and in both cases, it seems that the Bentley has impressed massively. Seb Morris is joining British GT after a year in the GP3 series, but was immediately taken by its performance. Morris’ experience in single seater racing has transferred well to tin tops with this car, and he was able right away to put in strong lap times with the stately machine.

Parfitt Jnr has moved to Team Parker Racing after a long association with Ginetta, and was keen to show his gratitude to Lawrence Tomlinson of Ginetta for supporting him during his last few years of racing. 2015, explained RPJ, had been a very tough year for him with his debut in GT3 racing but Team Parker seeking him out as a strong bronze-graded driver had given him renewed motivation for the new season. Like Morris, he had been impressed with the nimbleness of the Bentley, although his much more immediate reaction was “it sounds like thunder!” Not really surprising for a rock musician!

Astons are once more prolific in the top class although there is a swap of drivers taking place amongst the teams. Beechdean, 2015 overall champions, return for 2016 with team boss Andrew Howard sitting alongside Ross Gunn, last year’s GT4 driver’s champion. Howard initially not planning to do British GT, kept his seat for 2016 and the #1 plate on the car to give Gunn his chance to step up to the faster class. Aston Martin Racing contracted driver Jonny Adam moves from Beechdean to TF Sport where he will partner Derek Johnston, although Adam retains his close link to the Beechdean team and was seen assisting Ross Gunn and his teammates throughout the testing session at Snetterton in the absence of TF Sport.

One of the biggest wholesale changes across the championship this year is the arrival of Pirelli tyres. British GT has moved away from Avon, who supplied tyres to the series for a number of years, and both Pirelli and Stephane Ratel (head of SRO, the organisers and promoters of British GT, Blancpain GT and more) were keen to explain the change to Pirelli gave a consistency across GT racing as a whole. The move to Pirelli also allows for a better application of the Balance of Performance, which is so important to maintaining the levels of exciting competition which we all have come to enjoy from this class of racing. Indeed there are drivers and teams in the British GT paddock who have welcomed the switch, finding the performance of the Pirelli tyre favourable to the Avons previously used.

During the press conferences, Stephane Ratel was keen to point out the strength of the GT4 class in this championship. Whilst GT3 is seen throughout Europe and internationally, GT4 also provides a large amount of interest, not least in the British championship where the entries are growing year on year, with new manufacturers coming in to boost competition further. As part of this season’s package, the grid will be joined by the GT4 European Series at the Silverstone 500 and Spa Francorchamps round, expanding the grid to up to 50 entries at these two famous venues. Credit must go to SRO for having managed to grow the British GT interest to such a point where the grid in both classes is expansive, varied and retains close racing action. There can only be better times ahead, and the first formation lap hasn’t even begun…

Other noises from Norfolk:

It wouldn’t be life In The Pitlane without some additional snippets. We’ve had the pleasure of speaking on a few other subjects with people in the paddock…

Paul Hollywood, the master baker and now TV chef, will join Beechdean’s GT4 team later in the season. When we spoke to him, he admitted to being a huge petrolhead with a collection of amazing cars. The Editors present at Snetterton were rather stunned to find that Paul owns a replica Aston Martin DBR1 – a car most potently driven by Stirling Moss to win the World Sportscar Championship in the late 1950s!

One of our first interviewees on the day, Abbie Eaton, impressed us with her dedication not only to the racing cause but with her endurance capabilities by admitting to taking on the insane physical challenge of the Tough Mudder, one of the most gruelling and painful obstacle courses in Britain. Driving a GT car will seem much less worrying than that, in our eyes anyway…

We asked a few of the drivers we spoke to about what their current road car was. The PitCrew Online found out that the most popular choice is the BMW 1M Sport, although Will Phillips pleased our Editor-in-Chief by admitting to owning the same car as him. Rick Parfitt Jnr admitted to moving from his BMW to the “practical” Range Rover (to accommodate more stuff in the boot, apparently).

The new McLaren 570S GT4 was keenly showed off by McLaren GT’s employees present in the Ecurie Ecosse garage, and the baby McLaren was packed with exciting gadgets as you would expect from the big factory. However what we enjoyed most when looking inside the cockpit of the new racer was the sight of the spanking new tan leather covering the dashboard. McLaren were keen to point out that this was only an optional extra and would not necessarily appear in all customer cars.

We have severe envy of Joe Osborne. Osborne is not only racing with AmD Tuning this season in British GT, but he is also racing for Optimum Motorsport in the 24H Series in their new Audi R8 LMS (to be seen in British GT with Will Moore and Ryan Ratcliffe) and with Barwell’s Lamborghini in the Blancpain GT. He’s also been helping McLaren with development of their road cars. Hard life for a professional driver, eh?