First blood to almost unstoppable Barwell
The first races of the British GT season have now been done and dusted, and with the Easter weekend now a firm memory, the championship battle has already had its first onslaughts.
With Oulton Park returning to its traditional season opening slot, it meant that the weather for raceday would almost be guaranteed to be a little bit on the inclement side, however, practice and qualifying on the Saturday was a largely dry affair.
Missing from the Saturday proceedings were Spirit of Race with their Ferrari 488, and Jonny Adam, who had foregone Cheshire to take part in the European Le Mans Series and World Endurance Championship races further down the road at Silverstone this weekend. This would result in both cars starting from the back of the GT3 grid, but with the driver calibre to make some movement in the order.
Free practice 1 was brought to a halt with barely any relevant times completed as a collision between the #43 Century Ginetta and the #36 Team HARD/RCIB Ginetta at Druids sadly ruined both cars and a portion of the Armco barrier. Thankfully, neither Steve Fresle nor Mike Newbould were injured, but a precautionary trip to hospital was made for safety’s sake, and the cars were withdrawn from the weekend. The opening session was topped by Sam Tordoff in the Barwell Lamborghini, showing that he was more than ready for his new challenge this year.
The second free practice session went the way of the #33 Demon Tweeks Lamborghini piloted by Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen, who were looking to make an early kick in the championship challenge having fallen just short after an awesome closing run to the 2016 season. The leading GT4 car was the #100 McLaren of Haggerty/Sandy Mitchell, who like Minshaw and Keen were making continued progress from their late 2016 pushes.
However, when the qualifying sessions came around, the lead changed, and much to the happiness of the locals from Crewe when the #31 Bentley of Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris claimed overall pole position for both of the weekend’s races. Team Parker Racing took their debut win at the circuit in 2016, and with an unchanged driver line up Parfitt and Morris held the advantage of confidence long enough in the two qualifying sessions to take the top spot, followed by Minshaw and Keen. For race one they would be tailed by Jack Mitchell/James Littlejohn in the #24 MacMillan Racing Aston and the #6 Lamborghini piloted by Liam Griffin/Sam Tordoff. Race 2 would see #6 starting third with the second Team Parker Racing Bentley #7 of Ian Loggie and Callum MacLeod taking a strong 4th spot. Hard luck fell on Derek Johnston in the qualifying session for race 1 as a collision with Lee Mowle’s AMD Tuning Mercedes saw the reigning champion knocked to the back of the grid.
GT4 qualifying saw the start of the anticipated battle between the McLaren 570S and the Ginetta G55, and the end results saw the #100 McLaren take pole for race 1 with a fine lap from Sandy Mitchell, whereas race 2 would see Ginetta factory ace Mike Simpson put the #111 Century Ginetta on pole, with Anna Walewska due to share the car in the race. It’s worth noting though, that the GT4 grid for race 2 saw a fine variation amongst manufacturers as the #53 UltraTek Nissan of Richard Taffinder/Martin Plowman and the #66 Team Parker Racing Porsche of Nick Jones/Scott Malvern made a push for a good starting position. This was encouraging to see, and would pan out to be one of the sights of the second race of the weekend as the varied pack hurtled round the circuit.
Warm up on Easter Monday was regrettably more of a “cold up” as overnight rain became morning gloom and dampness, and Oulton Park had a layer of water on the asphalt that made teams unsure how to play things for the first race of the day. The only thing taken away from it was a sense of foreboding from the Team Parker garage, where there was concern over the ability of the Bentleys in wet conditions. The big cars certainly catch the eye, but in damp or wet conditions they struggle, and the hope was that things would improve as the day went on.
The first race hadn’t even gotten away from the dummy grid when the first drama occurred. The #24 MacMillan AMR Aston of Jack Mitchell was parked in its grid slot when with just over 30 seconds to go, steam began to pour out of the front end of the V12 Vantage leaving fans and mechanics concerned. Quick work from the marshalling team meant the race would get away without a hitch, however, a broken coolant hose had severely dented MacMillan’s hopes of a top end finish in GT3.
As the start was given, the Bentley slipped a little and Jon Minshaw put the power firmly down in the #33 Lamborghini. Save for a slight slip at the Hislop Chicane and a brief loss of time at the pit stop when Minshaw handed over to Keen the green and red machine was utterly relentless in its pursuit of the chequered flag and race win honours. As the track dried out, Keen also got faster and faster, making any attempt to catch the Barwell machine rather fruitless from the competitors point of view. Behind, Sam Tordoff in the sister #6 car did his best to make the most of the conditions and set a strong consistent pace in his first race in British GT. Behind the Lamborghinis, who should appear into view but the reigning champions in the #1 TF Sport Aston Martin. Freshly returned from Silverstone, Jonny Adam made the most of a steady climb up the order from Derek Johnston to capture a podium finish, and this was well deserved. Another excellent drive came from the other non-qualifiers Spirit of Race, and the British racing green and white Ferrari was being driven with vigour and excitement by Matt Griffin who looked like not having the bit between his teeth, but the whole bridle and most of the bumpers of the cars infront of him as the Maranello machine rose up the field passing the many competitors infront of him.
It’s not often in motorsport you get a big but pleasant shock, and GT4 in race 1 was just that. Sandy Mitchell had made the most of his pole position and was calmly shifting the #100 Garage 59 McLaren round Oulton, until the pit stop where a jammed wheel nut made life hellish for the two young Scots at the wheel. Cue another car to the front, and this time it was the Academy Motorsport Aston Martin piloted by Will Moore, who with Matt Nicoll-Jones had made progress through the field to lead. Then, as is custom in the championship, out came the stop-go penalties and Moore had to come in and serve time for a pit stop infringement. 18 seconds of time, to be precise, and the lead changed again. Cue the newcomers. Adam Balon and Adam Mackay are new to the championship this year. As is track-club who are running their #72 McLaren 570S. The two ex-Lotus Cup drivers looked to be rather comfortable in the Woking built machine, which falls very close to the mark of their former Lotus machinery. The car was not involved in any collisions, and just made the tortoise affair of the “tortoise vs hare” style racing look simple. Even when they were hit with a very brief 1.4 second stop go penalty, Mackay cruised in, and cruised out with time to spare over the #55 HHC Motorsport Ginetta G55 of young newcomers Stuart Middleton and Will Tregurtha. Water on asphalt is a great equaliser in racing, but nobody had expected two new teams to stand on the top steps of the race 1 rostrum. Taking a very creditable third were the 2016 GT4 champions Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson in their #501 Optimum Motorsport Ginetta. This was a welcome and well celebrated result.
Between races 1 and 2, the hammer of justice is once again swung by the Clerk of the Course, and penalties for racing indiscretions of all kinds are applied to the race 2 grid. For Academy Motorsport, the penalty for pushing the limits in race 1 was a disqualification for driving outside of the required safety levels expected of the drivers, and a back of grid start.
In addition to the Clerk of the Course making his decisions, fate had also claimed the engine of the #19 Ginetta G55 of Parker Chase and Charlie Robertson, and the new GT3 Ginetta would no longer take any part in the race weekend, leaving only its #69 counterpart driven by Harry Gottsacker (who incidentally looked quite feisty in the opening stages of the first race) and Nathan Freke remaining.
Race 2 was already looking a little brighter all round, but when the lights changed again the Bentley squirrelled and Phil Keen took the advantage on the first lap. The 10 second success penalty that affected the #33 car was obviously pinging around Keen’s mind, and before the halfway mark, his lead was up to 13 seconds, and quite frankly, at that point only a failure would have kept him and Minshaw from a second race win. Sadly, the failure of the Lamborghini fell solidly in the lap of Sam Tordoff, when the normally V10 Lamborghini began sounding more like a V8, and then dropping time before Tordoff parked up the car on Lakeside to rue a DNF.
In GT4 though, the red lights were like a red rag to a bull, as Mike Simpson and Ciaran Haggerty clashed off the line, causing Simpson’s car to lose its front left headlight, Haggerty’s McLaren to lose its ignition, and Joe Osborne’s #56 Tolman Motorsport McLaren to shear its bonnet fastenings, leaving Osborne with only clairvoyance to guide himself round more than half a lap of Oulton back to the pits, only for the tried and tested duct tape to fail 2 laps later, leaving him blind to all obstacles.
This didn’t stop Simpson though, as the battle for GT4 lead switched places between him, Martin Plowman and Scott Malvern, before the inevitable contact occurred once more between Malvern and Simpson at Cascades, putting both drivers into the grass, which at that point still being slippery regrettably made recovery a tough job for the eager racing driver. Both cars would go on to finish the race, but nowhere near where they aimed for. Plowman was in inspired form in the Nissan though, and he would charge on at the front until the pit stops.
By the pit stops, Haggerty had made progress from back to front and the McLaren now led, only for the Sword of Pit Stop Damocles to fall from its hair and grant the #100 car a 30 second post-race penalty. When you consider that the actual timing offense in pit lane was for the stop to be less than 2 seconds under the minimum limit, the punishment seems unduly harsh, and the Garage 59 team were left feeling rather philosophical about their weekend. The same time penalty would also be applied to Will Phillips and Jan Jonck in the #42 MacMillan AMR GT4 Aston.
Then we come to a slightly more unsavoury moment. In the opening stages of the race, Seb Morris had punted his team-mate round at the Hislop Chicane, leaving a briefly dizzy Callum MacLeod, and Morris and Parfitt in arrears with the clerk of the course, who summoned Morris through for a drive through penalty. Their charge had been dampened by this, and eyes now fell on the progress of the #7 Team Parker car, although a trip down the road at Cascades suddenly blunted their efforts as MacLeod fell victim to the wet and ice-like grass. He handed over to Ian Loggie at the pit stop who tried to make best of the situation.
Loggie was making pursuit of Richard Neary, who had taken over from Martin Short in the #88 Abba Rollcentre Mercedes, as the cars came to pass Sam Webster in the #63 Team HARD RCIB Ginetta. Unfortunately, the narrow width of the circuit was not made for 3 cars to come in close proximity, and at Hill Top, just after the first chicane, contact was made between the Bentley and the Mercedes, destroying both cars and a large section of tyre wall, as well as putting the unfortunate Webster off the road through a series of disorientating spins. The safety car came out, and as there was little time left on the clock, the race finished in a neutralised state. Loggie and Neary however, were summoned to appear before the racing stewards. The eventual decision was to disqualify Loggie from the weekend, censuring his licence and fining him for his part in the incident and the immediate aftermath. The official wording says “driving in a manner incompatible with safety”, and Loggie will in addition take a 5 place grid penalty for this judgement at the next round.
The final order under the safety car was Minshaw and Keen again from the two TF Sport cars of Johnston/Adam and Mark Farmer/Jon Barnes taking their first podium of the season. In GT4 Lanan Racing’s David Pittard and Alex Reed took their first win of 2017, ahead of In2Racing’s Marcus Hoggarth and Matty Graham with the #501 Ginetta of Johnson/Robinson taking another third spot.
The gloom of the day eventually cleared, but with the incident in the second race, a much greyer metaphorical cloud had descended over the track, and the teams now look forward to the first 2 hour race of the year at Rockingham, where we hope bygones will be bygones and that the racing suffers little for events on track in Cheshire.
Otherwise at Oulton Park:
A number of teams this weekend fell afoul of pit stop regulations during the races on Monday. Academy, MacMillan, Garage 59, track-club all suffered penalties for short stops, in varying degrees, leaving a few drivers and team managers and owners rueing the minimum time regulations. In addition, there were penalties for unsafe driving for Scott Malvern and Academy, showing that there is no mercy from the stewards as has come to be the norm in this series.
The “Silver” class in British GT sees two non-amateur drivers share a car in exchange for a small penalty on the cars performance, notably ballast. This was the penalty applied to the Optimum Audi in GT3 last year, which hampered the car enough to render it regrettably uncompetitive. If the Silver class is to be successful, there would need to be a reduction in ballast to make the combination of car and driver successful, as the Gold rated drivers carry a much higher speed advantage in the Pro stages of the race.
It might just be my own personal opinion, but the opening round of the series feels much better for having taken place at Oulton Park this season as opposed to Brands Hatch, as the Easter weekend plays out in a more flexible fashion for drivers, teams and most critically spectators interested in the racing at both WEC/ELMS and British GT events. The crowd at Oulton was a good size, and the banks were packed with people keen to see the new season begin.