The 2016 British GT championship made its annual return to the North West of England and Oulton Park for the first of two sprint race meetings this season. Previously, this round would have opened the championship season for British GT racing, however the change in calendar gave ample opportunity for a dry and warm day of racing in Cheshire.
Saturday’s qualifying sessions had proved one thing if nothing else – the Balance of Performance had definitely held back the GT3 Astons which had dominated the top step of the rostrum in the first two rounds of the season. Step up to the plate, Seb Morris in the #31 Bentley and Jon Minshaw in the #33 Lamborghini to take pole position for their respective race starts. Both drivers were not only taking advantage of the increased competitiveness of their cars, but Oulton is the “home track” for both Morris and Minshaw, so the mental edge was there too.
In GT4, the Ginetta G55 parade seemed to be rolling on as always it had, with Optimum Motorsport’s #50 car driven by Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson parking itself on pole for both races. At the other end of the scale, the #66 Simpson Motorsport Ginetta returned to its pit box after coming back “in a thousand pieces and slightly burned” following an incident which ruled Nick Jones out of qualifying for his starting spot. The car would be rebuilt for Monday’s races.
By the time Monday arrived, the sun had too, and this had put the paddock in a cheerful mood ahead of the day’s races. The warm up yielded a small surprise as Jody Fannin put the #5 PFL Motorsport Aston top of the times for the day, although Littler and Fannin would be starting from the middle of the pack come the races later on in the day.
An important fact about Oulton Park is that the circuit is a British classic, and being set in park land, offers a challenge to drivers by the virtue of the lack of width throughout the vast majority of the length of the circuit. There is very little that can be done it seems, to widen the course, and most drivers felt that the current GT field had outgrown the circuit, with little room to pass for position, and sharp concentration required to pass slower cars when blue flags flew.
This was thrown into sharper relief during the morning’s driver briefing, where the race director and clerk of the course laid down the law in no uncertain terms about driver conduct during the opening laps and when passing slower cars, as well as warning teams to be mindful of each other whilst pit stops for driver changes took place, as there is a premium on pit space at Oulton as well. And, there would be penalties for any teams and drivers who would flout these rules. These stern words rang loudly in the ears of the drivers as they filed back to their garages in advance of the first race.
The grid for race 1 had an all-Lamborghini front row. The #33 Demon Tweeks liveried car of Minshaw/Keen was alongside the #6 Irish TV liveried car of Griffin/Carroll, and the two Italian machines paraded the field round for the pace lap, ahead of Parfitt in the Bentley and Johnston in the #17 championship leading Aston. The first race would see the “Am” drivers taking the start and handing over to the “Pro” drivers at just before half distance.
From the lights out, it was clear that the intention for Rick Parfitt in the Bentley was to make up ground, and he passed Liam Griffin in the #6 Lamborghini for second. However, the other Griffin in the race, Kieran, driving the #47 JWB Aston GT4 car started slowing with mechanical problems. With Minshaw leading the pack over the line at the end of lap one, he was followed in close quarter by Parfitt and stablemate Griffin, with Derek Johnston and Alasdair McCaig in the #17 Aston and the #79 McLaren fighting over 5th place. The GT4 battle had started all Ginetta, with Optimum’s Graham Johnson in #50 heading Will Phillips (RCIB Racing #45) and Alex Reed (Lanan Racing #51).
Another driver looking to push up the order was Will Moore, who was making the most of a 7th place start for the Audi R8, and he hustled 2015 champion Andrew Howard’s #1 Beechdean Aston out of the way and looked to chase up the McLaren of McCaig. Also pushing was Marcus Hoggarth in the GT4 Maserati, which although starting from dead last was making up positions in the GT4 order.
Order, however, was soon to be frozen, as Sean Byrne lost control of the #40 Ginetta of Century Motorsport at Knickerbrook, requiring the deployment of the Safety Car. This took up a long period of time, as the tyre barriers had been dislodged with some force and repairs would take a while. Impatience began to grow amongst the queued drivers, and when eventually the green flag was about to fly, it all boiled over amongst the GT4 field.
As the field came out of Deer Leap and up to the line, there were bits missing from the back end of Will Phillips’ #45 Ginetta, bits missing from the front of Sandy Mitchell’s #59 McLaren which had suddenly dropped down the order and a lot of damage to Alex Reed’s #51 Lanan Ginetta, which pulled into the pits and out of the race. The concertina effect in full flow, and left some of the top runners in GT4 with little to show.
With 10 minutes left before the pit window opened from the green flag flying again, Minshaw realised that a time penalty he would have to take in pits meant it was time to leave the Bentley behind a bit, and down went the hammer in #33. Unfortunately, Parfitt wasn’t having any of this and matched and beat Minshaw’s pace to keep close to the tail of the bright green and red Huracan and in with a shout of sending the big Bentley into the lead after the driver change.
Behind them, Will Moore’s challenge to the Ecurie Ecosse McLaren of Alasdair McCaig sadly came to an end as Moore lost control of the #14 Audi and spun at Old Hall, thankfully without lasting damage to the car but leaving Moore stewing over what might have been. Kieran Griffin’s afternoon went from recovery to wreck as he clipped a tyre stack at the Hizzy chicane and ended up off the road at Knickerbrook.
And as if the safety car drama wasn’t enough, the GT3 battle suddenly erupted as the pit window opened. The race director had previously instructed drivers to park infront of their garage at 45 degrees to effect the driver changes without taking up large amounts of already at a premium pit space at Oulton, and this was duly followed by all who came in.
What nobody had accounted for was what happened when it was time to leave the pit lane. Minshaw and Parfitt arrived in the pits and then Alasdair McCaig in the McLaren followed suit. McCaig hopped out, and in got Rob Bell in good time. Parfitt swapped with Seb Morris in good time too, but suddenly found his passage out of pit lane blocked by the McLaren being rotated to exit – and when it didn’t fire up properly, the Bentley was truly banjaxed. To make matters worse, Phil Keen had taken over the #33 Lamborghini from Minshaw, and shot down pit road having completed pitstop and time penalty, only to hit the Bentley as it waited to exit the pit lane. Those watching were riveted to this scene, all too aware of the inevitable penalties that would be coming.
All this delay and action meant that the top 3 for the race changed utterly. It was now the other #6 Lamborghini of Adam Carroll that took the lead, and comfortably ahead of the suddenly appearing Joe Osborne’s #7 AmD Tuning BMW and the #11 TF Sport Aston Martin in the hands of Jon Barnes. The GT4 class was still headed by the #50 Optimum Ginetta, which looked like it wasn’t going to miss a beat in this race, and was calm and comfortable infront of the #42 Generation AMR Aston of Jack Mitchell.