Hardest efforts affected
When the history books look back at this race weekend at the Rockingham Motor Speedway, they will show the eventual result of Sunday’s race. But a race result can only tell part of a story and the story from this weekend is one that will take some time to tell, and we as observers may not be able to explain everything that has occurred, for better or for worse.
Going into the racetrack there had been a couple of changes to personnel. Firstly at Century, where GT4 Supercup star George Gamble had taken Mike Simpson’s seat in the #111 University of Bolton liveried car alongside Anna Walewska. At TeamHARD/RCIB Racing, Jordan Stilp returned alongside Britcar racer Simon Rudd in the #36 machine, as Mike Newbould and Michael Caine were unable to attend.
Saturday dawned under a layer of cloud and the first gusts of the ripping wind which blasts and circles around the big banked oval expanses of Rockingham. By the end of Free Practice 1, there had already been a mechanical casualty, as the #33 Minshaw/Keen machine expired rather graunchingly on the apron of the banking approaching Turn One. Barwell carry plenty of spare Lamborghini Huracan parts, and they were able to repair the green and red machine in time for qualifying later in the day, well worthy of praise. The session ended in their favour, with the fellow Italian machine of the Spirit of Race taking second fastest for #21 Cameron/Griffin. Rockingham, traditionally, has favoured Maranello machinery, and the Ferrari 488 looked like it picked up where the 458 left off.
Free Practice 2 saw the end of one half of the In2Racing squad as the #29 McLaren 570S of Marcus Hoggarth and Matty Graham came to grief and was unrepairable for the remainder of the weekend. A pity on two drivers who have come to terms with a change of car well, and were not slacking on the timesheets. With the #33 car missing, Derek Johnston and Jonny Adam hit the top of the timing sheets for the first time in the #1 TF Sport Aston, and looked at carrying on where they left off in 2016 with a win under their belts. In GT4, Lanan took the #51 Ginetta G55 of David Pittard and Alex Reed to P1, showing their consistency after the race 2 win at Oulton.
Qualifying followed, and a nearly full field sat in pit lane to await the aggregate qualifying for Am and Pro drivers. 10 minutes for each driver is plenty of time to get a solid lap in, although some would argue at Rockingham’s 1.94 mile lap length, space on the track is at a premium.
In GT3 Am, the barometer swung towards the Aston Martin side of the paddock, as Mark Farmer (#11 TF Sport), Jack Mitchell (#24 MacMillan) and Derek Johnston (#1 TF Sport) took the top 3 spots on the timing screens with Jon Minshaw (#33 Barwell Lamborghini) falling foul of the strict track limits rules and having his 2 fastest times disallowed.
Then, out rolled the Pro drivers, and the consistency lay with the #1 car, as Jonny Adam showed no cobwebs from his Monza trip (despite a headcold caught on Italian shores) to set aggregate pole. Jon Barnes in #11 backed up his TF Sport team mate and made it an all Aston front row. The second row was all Lamborghini as Phil Keen in #33 and Sam Tordoff in #6 put in some excellent laptimes to promote their machines up the order. Charlie Robertson in the #19 Century Ginetta and Matt Griffin in the #21 Spirit of Race Ferrari now fell foul of the track limits and saw their grid charges dented severely.
GT4 qualifying begun with the Silver graded drivers showing their hands early, and the #55 HHC Motorsport Ginetta G55 of Will Tregurtha was the fastest out of the blocks, with David Pittard going all out behind him for second in the Am session. With the top 5 covered by less than a second, it was always going to be nip and tuck when the Pros came out for their 10 minutes.
Despite the size of the GT4 grid there were no dramas for the returning drivers into the pit lane as they swapped over. Professional drivers Mike Robinson (#501 Optimum Ginetta), Joe Osborne, (#56 Tolman McLaren) and Martin Plowman (#53 UltraTek Nissan) put their cars through their paces in this session, although it would eventually be an all Silver front row as the #55 HHC Ginetta of Tregurtha/Middleton and the #51 Lanan Ginetta of Pittard/Reed locked out the top two spots.
Raceday begun relatively drama free. The only blotch on the record card for the warm up was the sudden stop of Liam Griffin’s #6 Barwell Lamborghini on the exit of the final corner, which thankfully did not curtail the warm up session. TF Sport again held the top two spots on the timesheets, whilst the #72 track-club McLaren of Adam Balon and Adam Mackay popped in a neat time to head GT4 warmup standings and throw doubt on whether Ginetta would be able to maintain pace, although the predominantly white machine would pull back to its garage with a technical issue in pit lane.
If there was one thing that made Rockingham an improvement on Oulton Park it was the lack of moisture on the racing surface. In fact, the only issue facing the drivers would be the traditional blast of wind across the circuit from north to south. There was some spring warmth in the air at least, and this meant that the Bentley could come into play by the closing stages of the race, as dry asphalt plays less havoc with the two Team Parker Racing machines of Loggie/MacLeod (#7) and Parfitt/Morris (#31).
The first two hour race of the year also brought the first success penalties of 20 seconds which would be served by #33 and #51 in each class. The #1 TF Sport Aston would have the advantage of pole but a 15 second pit stop penalty, whilst the #11 TF Sport Aston and the #501 Century Ginetta were to take an extra ten seconds at their pit stops. At Rockingham, the safety car is a frequent runner though, and with that, the opportunity for making up the time lost with these penalties is there to be taken.
The field set off on the pace lap in good order, and came round quickly to take the rolling start, and Derek Johnston put down his foot firmly in the #1 Aston, followed swiftly by Jon Minshaw in #33 who capitalised on a sloppy, slow getaway for Mark Farmer in the #11 Aston Martin. Within a few laps the race had its first and only retiree, as the #72 track-club McLaren of Adam Balon pulled into the pit lane and withdrew despite the best efforts of the team mechanics.
The GT4 lead went to David Pittard in the #51 Lanan Ginetta, but he had the determined Scot Ciaran Haggerty in the #100 Garage 59 McLaren on his tail, looking to make amends for a lost result in race 2 at Oulton by storming around after the red and white machine. Will Tregurtha dropped back to third but kept in touch with the leading two in class.
The first safety car was called when the #69 Century Ginetta GT3 machine of Harry Gottsacker found the gravel trap at the tricky Yentwood corner on the infield. The incident was not too serious thankfully, and the young American brought the car back to his team to review the car and get it back out on track to make the most of some dry track time and gain a few points. As the green flag went out again to restart, it became clear there’d been a big change in GT3 as James Littlejohn in the #24 MacMillan Aston now followed Johnston and Minshaw in 3rd place, and looked hungry to go further.
We shall come back to GT3, because the GT4 lead had changed, and Haggerty took the #100 McLaren to the front of the pack and began one of the best battles of the race as the #55 HHC Ginetta with Tregurtha at the wheel was pursued by #51 (Pittard, Lanan Ginetta), #501 (Johnson, Optimum Ginetta) and then the impressive #63 (Webster, RCIB Racing Ginetta). This quintet were dodging, ducking, weaving and nosing about the twisty infield before Haggerty would sprint round the oval with a pack of snarling Yorkshire built machinery at his tail threatening to consume the McLaren, which Haggerty admitted wasn’t working as well as he’d wanted. The McLaren held on gamely as the 4 Ginettas swapped positions behind him to try and snap at its heels on the torturous and undulating road portion of the course. This is one of the great moments of racing, when a driver and car can be well in tune enough to maintain a lead despite a disadvantage, and it kept the pack close and the intrigue high.
Meanwhile at the top of GT3, Derek Johnston started testing the patience of the race director and dropped over the track limits to receive a 5 second time penalty. Suddenly, the #1 Aston started to roll back down the order. This let the #33 Lamborghini of Minshaw into the lead, but behind him, snappy Scot James Littlejohn could sent bull’s blood, and the #24 MacMillan Aston dived past to lead the race over all. Behind these two, the #31 Team Parker Racing Bentley of Rick Parfitt was making up for lost dry race time as he headed the #21 Ferrari with Duncan Cameron at the wheel. Soon enough, the Ferrari was passed too, and the first strong showing from Mercedes this weekend came from AmD Tuning’s Lee Mowle, who was looking calm, confident and pacy in the #30 red Mercedes.
The safety car was scrambled again when the #43 Century Ginetta G55 GT4 of Steve Fresle “missed” Gracelands and beached itself conveniently in the gravel at the downhill left, necessitating a snatch recovery. The field bunched again, but at the green flag, Littlejohn kept his advantage as the field neared the pitstop window for a change of driver and tyres, and a big glug of fuel.
At the Tarzan hairpin (which I feel is rather a shadow of its Zandvoort precedent), Nick Jones in the #66 Team Parker Racing Porsche came into contact with the #54 Nissan of UltraTek Racing’s Tim Eakin, who had given a good account of himself in the first half of the race, bagging a drive through for the Porsche, and rather denting any hopes of a podium charge later on.
Also suffering from the wrath of the race director was Harry Gottsacker, who was aiming to press on in the #69 Ginetta, however in his haste he exceeded the track limit one too many times and copped successive penalties for time. A shame for the team and driver, as the new Ginetta GT3 had barely had enough running time at Oulton. The #19 stablemate driven by Parker Chase and Charlie Robertson soon pitted too and had the bonnet lifted for running repairs. Both cars eventually took the flag through trials and tribulations. Not the finest hour for either car, but with a new specification, there were always going to be teething troubles for the GT3 G55.
Littlejohn, Minshaw, Parfitt et al all pitted at around 60 minutes having completed their required minimum driving times, and whilst the #33 Lamborghini suffered its interminable wait to rejoin the circuit. James Littlejohn handed the #24 Aston over to Jack Mitchell, whilst Rick Parfitt accidentally overshot his pit spot as he handed the big #31 Bentley to Seb Morris, who would have the bit between his teeth ready to chase the Hesketh liveried Aston down for the lead. Also joining the leading trio would be the #21 Ferrari, now with the solidly fast Matt Griffin at the wheel.
In GT4, the lead would change now at the pit stops as the #51 Lanan Ginetta paid the success penalty, and the #55 HHC Ginetta would benefit best from the pit stops as Stuart Middleton leapt past Sandy Mitchell who was now piloting the #100 McLaren. Behind them, Matt Chapman was now at the wheel of the #63 RCIB Racing Ginetta, and the reigning team champions held 3rd place in class.
At the front of GT3, Jack Mitchell was managing his race with aplomb. The Kent youngster is a very talented racer, and the #24 Aston was paying for its Silver Cup ballast as it fell backwards towards the charging Morris and Griffin behind. Mitchell wasn’t going to bow out easily though, and suddenly a thrilling trio of cars began to fight through the lapped GT4 traffic and amongst each other, taking little nibbles at different parts of the course. The Bentley and Ferrari did beautifully well on the twists of the infield whilst the Aston ran the length of the oval with its powerful V12 singing shrilly at the very nose of this high speed train, pulling a little back over the cars behind it. The watching spectators were goggle-eyed with anticipation of a tight switchback for the lead time and time again. Every time Morris made moves to take the Aston, he would be at the mercy of Griffin’s Ferrari, and the racecraft on show here was excellent to watch.
Now, sadly, once again, things began to turn sour from a racing point of view. Firstly, we must note that Griffin at some point, made contact with the #31 Bentley driven by Morris, and the stewards reviewed the contact and placed a 5 second penalty on the #21 Ferrari to be added to its overall race time. So, when eventually Griffin passed Morris, who in turn passed Mitchell and left the Ferrari and the Bentley leading. Griffin would have to stretch his legs and make a gap over the Bentley pushing him hard for position.
Unfortunately, the safety car would appear again as Matt Chapman fell victim to the inviting gravel trap of Yentwood corner, and ruin a podium chase for him. Whilst the #63 Ginetta was recovered, something unexplainable happened. The safety car allowed the #21 Ferrari of Matt Griffin to pass, while it held up the chasing #31 Bentley of Seb Morris in 2nd place. Cue utter consternation from teams, drivers and spectators. Suddenly the race leader had a lead of about half a lap from the pursuing pack as they were stuck behind the Safety Car. Nobody quite understood what was occurring. The timing screen showed Griffin as the leader, and the 5 second penalty remained on screen, but he now had clear daylight infront and behind him. The order remained until the flag fell on the race.
Confused and disbelieving teams and drivers bundled around the podium at Rockingham. Happily, the GT4 win had been finely contested and Will Tregurtha and Stuart Middleton proved they had earned their Ginetta Junior graduation. Haggerty and Mitchell held onto 2nd place and a fine rostrum finish in the #100 McLaren, whilst the #501 Optimum Ginetta took another 3rd place finish.
The GT3 podium felt less harmonious, as Parfitt and Morris did not celebrate their 2nd place finish in the #31 Bentley. The champagne flowed for the #21 Ferrari of Duncan Cameron and Matt Griffin, and for the 3rd placed MacMillan Aston of Littlejohn and Mitchell, who had proven that the Silver Cup weight disadvantage did not hinder determination at least. But, there was a figurative dark cloud over the pits, paddock and grandstand, as the result felt rather unbalanced with the release of the Ferrari from its berth behind the safety car in what seemed a rather farcical situation.
A few hours later, the race stewards came to their final decision. The #21 Spirit of Race Ferrari would be given a penalty of 26 seconds to be added to their final total race time, putting them behind the #31 Bentley of Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris. Suddenly, the Ferrari team and drivers felt robbed of victory. A mistake which they had not made had penalised their team. Bentley felt that Ferrari gained an unfair advantage, which denied them an on track victory, which was unfair.
Unfair and unfair do not make fair, as much as two wrongs do not make a right. The series suffered today for the fact that one mistake turned the outcome of the race on its head. Drivers complained of a penalty system that robs them of a sensible racing outcome. Fans left the circuit not knowing the exact circumstance of a racing finish. It is a shame to not see the racing on track at Rockingham reflected in the results, as they only tell a tale of confusion, and a waste of hard effort from several drivers.
Rockingham rows and rambles:
A lot of people are now dissatisfied with the management of mid-race and post-race penalties, and there is certainly a worry, from me if from nobody else, that the series will suffer as a result. Teams, drivers and judicial teams should meet and discuss a suitable arrangement for the penalty system. The MSA will have watched this and been considering what to set up in the Yearbook of Sporting Regulations in the event that the Safety Car allows the leader by in error. Perhaps there is no easy way to settle this.
In addition to the point raised above, Track Limit penalties applied to no less than 6 cars during the race. A lot of drivers are in disagreement over these penalties. Many will probably tell you “there’s road there, use it” so long as it is to their advantage in helping the car go faster. Stewards would probably take a dim view of this on safety grounds, as one slip of wheel could see a potentially damaging accident occur. Again, there is no simple settlement to this, as you can argue both sides. Based on the number of penalties issued at Rockingham, more people would probably side with the drivers at the current point in time! We cannot know how to settle this without sensible and measured discussion.
In spite of all the penalties, controversy and aftermath, the race at Rockingham showed what the true capability of a battling batch of drivers and cars could do. 5 drivers battling for the GT4 lead? 3 drivers battling for the GT3 lead? It is the dream of any spectator to see a train of cars all with an equal chance of success. And that for the most part is what we got as observers and spectators. There were a lot of people on edge as the two lead battles had people glued to the short but twisty course and the racecraft of skilful and capable racing drivers in exciting and captivating racing cars. Snetterton has a lot to live up to in Round 3.