With Spa complete and at the double following the Blancpain 24 Hour race shortly after, it was a return to British soil for the penultimate weekend in the British GT season. Regrettably though, we came with a distinct shortening of the GT3 field with the withdrawal of two of the most notable entries.
Beechdean’s #1 GT3 Aston was withdrawn from proceedings following serious accident damage at the previous race weekend at Spa. It has been some long time since a Beechdean sponsored machine was missing from the GT3 line up, with Andrew Howard not entering a race for the first time since the 2011 season. Not all doom and gloom for the ice cream magnate though as his GT4 entry increases by one for this round with Paul Hollywood taking a well earned break from his TV presenting duties to join Jamie Chadwick in the #408 Aston alongside the regular #407 which will be piloted by Jack Bartholomew and Ross Gunn, who replaces Jordan Albert in the car, as Albert leaves the team.
Also sadly missing is the Audi R8 of Optimum Motorsport, who made the unusual step of parting ways with both drivers – Will Moore and Ryan Ratcliffe – after the Silver pairing rules meant that the time were hampered with weight penalties and subsequently left uncompetitive amongst the other GT3 competition. The boxy German machine was sadly missed for this round, however the #50 Ginetta GT4 championship chasing entry stays put.
The GT4 field was in fact boosted by the return of Stratton Motorsport’s two entries – a Lotus Evora for Richard Taffinder and Martin Plowman as well as an Aston Martin for David Tinn and Andrew Jarman. It was a very welcome return for a Lotus to the GT paddock after last year saw a brace fighting for season honours.
Last season’s Snetterton race was akin to the opening scene of Noah’s flood, with the rain hammering down in torrents, and the race weekend in 2016 began on completely the opposite scale with the teams being greeted by bright sunshine. A very welcome sight for the championship contenders. And indeed the championships are as close as ever, with TF Sport and Barwell fighting it out for the teams championship with 6.5 points between them. The drivers’ table is still led by Derek Johnston and Jonny Adam however they are being caught by Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen, who are closing in with consistent performances. In GT4 the rookie team of the year, Team HARD with their two Ginettas are top of the team tree with a 23 point gap. Following the withdrawal of Jordan Albert, Jack Bartholomew is now left in sole pursuit of the Optimum driver pairing of Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson both piling into a feast of points at the opening of the season.
Free practice in Norfolk was a hot affair (literally) with the pace eventually being set by the Barwell and TF Sport teams once more. The first non-Aston or Lamborghini was the BMW Z4 of Lee Mowle and Joe Osborne with the McLaren of Ecurie Ecosse with Alasdair McCaig and Rob Bell next up. In GT4, the Generation AMR squad were running on a high with both their cars 1st and 3rd in the standings, sandwiching the baby McLaren. Unfortunately, the 56 Tolman Motorsport Ginetta GT3 machine suffered a shunt and would need heavy repairs to make qualifying, which it duly did, earning Tolman an award for the team of the weekend.
As at Oulton, the qualifying sessions would set the grids for both races, with the Amateur drivers starting the first race and the Pros starting the second. Following on from his win at Spa, Mark Farmer put the TF Sport #11 Aston Martin on pole for race one with Jon Minshaw’s #33 Lamborghini alongside him. The Lamborghini then claimed pole for race two in the hands of Minshaw’s team mate Phil Keen, who this time headed title rival Jonny Adam in the #17 TF Sport Aston. In GT4, Alex Reed in the #51 Ginetta put in a beautiful lap to secure race one pole, with Ross Gunn taking a clear pole for race two in the #407 Aston on his return to the class after last year’s championship win. Things were not going so well for Team Parker Racing’s #31 Bentley, with Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris failing to make the impact on the timesheets that they had previously managed, however there was cheer for Mowle and Osborne, who pushed their BMW right up behind the Lamborghini/Aston battles to be in prime position for Sunday’s racing.
As Sunday dawned once again bright and sunny, the GT3 field was once more thinned down as the #88 Team Abba Rollcentre BMW of Richard Neary and Martin Short was withdrawn after a serious oil leak left the car irrepairable for the day’s events. A bitter end to the weekend for the BMW squad, who could only watch on whilst the others made their way round to the first race of the day. At the first change of the lights, Mark Farmer put his foot down and took Derek Johnston with him into the first corner at Riches. Alasdair McCaig’s McLaren appeared up behind Johnston on the infield and the pair collided on the exit to Agostini, causing both to slew across the grass and drop to the back of the GT3 field. Further back at the front of the GT4 pack, MacMillan Racing’s Jack Mitchell had a storming start and was past Reed in the Lanan Ginetta and Johnson in the Optimum Ginetta. Infact, this was a strong weekend for the GT4 Aston contingent, and before long Jack Bartholomew was charging up to the front in the Beechdean Aston Martin #407. The front of the race was becoming a real spectacle as the gaps never extended far enough for anyone of the top 4 to be out of contention for position, with Lee Mowle chasing after Minshaw and Farmer at the top of the tree. Behind them Johnston and McCaig had recovered from their blushworthy moment in the #17 Aston and #79 McLaren to push back up the order. As they went into traffic, Mark Farmer made hay while the sun shone to try and open a gap over Minshaw’s #33 Lamborghini, knowing that TF Sport’s time penalty for winning at Spa would push the #11 back down the pecking order at the driver change. In GT4, the #59 McLaren was slowly making its presence felt in the pack. As the pitstops came, the #79 McLaren pulled out without Rob Bell getting far, as the off across the grass earlier on had caused radiator damage. Phil Keen took over from Jon Minshaw and Jon Barnes took over from Mark Farmer in the #33 and #11 cars, but with the time penalty for Barnes to serve, it was Keen who stormed away, chased by Joe Osborne now in the #7 BMW, and Osborne was in no mood to finish second. Unfortunately, the BMW man went in in a slightly overzealous fashion on Keen at the Bomb Hole, and made contact, causing Keen to spin and lose position. As the race wore on, Osborne maintained his lead in GT3, however the stewards had finally caught up on the contact, and awarded a drive through penalty to the #7 car, with only minutes left in the race. A fine drive from Osborne to maintain first had been sadly ended by an incident on track, and although he took the flag first, the timekeepers levied a 30s time addition to the BMW in lieu of the drive through, leaving the Demon Tweeks #33 Lamborghini as the winner of the first race ahead of the #11 TF Sport Aston and the recovering #31 Bentley of Parfitt and Morris. In GT4, by virtue of pace and no time penalty, the #59 McLaren of Sandy Mitchell and Ciaran Haggerty held onto a lead from the charging Ross Gunn in #407, who had passed Matthew Graham in the #42 Aston on his way up through the pack. This result meant that a lead change in the title race for the GT3 teams, with Minshaw and Keen going ahead of Johnston and Adam as the second race opened up before the teams.
The second race was started of course, by the regular Pro drivers, and Keen and Adam on the front row of the grid blasted off from the rolling start knowing that the title hinged on this race and the next. Adam wanted desperately to get ahead of the red and green liveried Lamborghini, however with a 10 second penalty coming in the pits for the Lamborghini, Adam could afford to merely keep Keen’s tail in sight. Joe Osborne was back in the mix as well, this time fighting Alexander Sims in the second Barwell #6 Lamborghini. Behind the leaders, a race of attrition had begun. Jody Fannin in the returning #5 PFL Aston was plummeting down the order at a rapid pace, and Rob Bell was struggling in the #79 McLaren too. Before long, both cars would be out of the race with mechanical issues putting an end to their chances. This elevated Seb Morris further up the order from his lowly start position of 9th. GT4 was not absent of mechanical problems either, and while Ross Gunn was trying to keep SuperRacing’s Matthew George off his tail, the Lotus driven by Martin Plowman headed into the pits to retire in an unfortunate weekend for the Norfolk marque, following a retirement in the first race. Plowman had had a scary experience after noticing a fire in the Evora cockpit leading to his withdrawal from the race. Also out from GT4 went the podium finishing #42 Aston of MacMillan Racing, which went pop in a spectacular way on the infield, leaving oil and a rather saddened Matthew Graham behind it. Amongst all of this, Jonny Adam never once gave in on his pursuit of Phil Keen’s Lamborghini, as the teams headed up to the pit stop. And here, the race turned on its head, as Derek Johnston climbed into the #17 Aston Martin, only for his seatbelts to become tangled as the rival #33 car served it’s 10 second success penalty. The world stood still for TF Sport as Minshaw fired up and headed out into the distance. Mowle had taken over from Osborne in the BMW now and was ahead of Johnston, and Liam Griffin had made the most of Alexander Sims’ consistent driving and was fighting with Mowle for position, when the BMW and the #6 Lamborghini collided, sending Griffin onto the grass and sustaining irrepairable damage to the car. In GT4, Jack Bartholomew was out again in the #407 car and had maintained Ross Gunn’s hard work, as James Holder faded in the chasing #44 SuperRacing Aston. Graham Johnson was now chasing for a podium finish to peg back some points in the title battle in the #50 Optimum car, and he took Reed in the Lanan Ginetta with him. At the front though, another investigation hung over the #7 BMW which put a cloud over Mowle and Osborne’s drive, and with Johnston chasing hard to make up lost time and keep the gap down in the championship race to a minimum, it was only a matter of time for the #17 car to hit second. Behind them, Rick Parfitt had caught up and was attempting to get past Mowle, who defended his podium place with vigour, eventually triumphing over the Bentley boy to get something back from what had been a clouded weekend for the AmD team. But the story of the day was Minshaw and Keen taking the first British GT double sprint weekend win since 2010, which pushed open their title topping gap and made for yet another nailbiting final round at Donington in September. The Barwell squad have now taken 3 wins in the last 4 races in the championship, and will face a mountain to climb at Donington the next time out to beat the penalty they face in a pitstop and a track that traditionally favours the Aston.
And so it is to the Midlands we next go, for the traditional season finish to the championship with the title on a knifeedge once more. Minshaw and Keen lead Johnston and Adam by 11.5 points, and there has always been some drama at the final round of the season to make life complicated for the title fighters. The GT4 battle is also up for grabs and even tighter. Bartholomew is a mere 2.5 points behind Robinson and Johnson and needs only to finish ahead to win the title. The gloves will be off, and the stage is set for yet another final race decider…
Notices from Norfolk:
Tolman were not the only team with a big repair job needed ahead of Sunday’s races. In the second qualifying session, Matthew George suffered an off in the final qualifying session on Saturday, however the Generation AMR SuperRacing team rebuilt the entire front end for Sunday, including a fetching “eyepatch” where the headlight once was.
The McLaren pairing of Ciaran Haggerty and Sandy Mitchell broke the record for being the youngest pairing to ever win a British GT race. To give you a rough idea, Sandy was born in 2000. To most of us, even that seems really young…