The 2017 season is now drawing to its close, and in a return to tradition, the penultimate round of this season took place on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, which is a fantastic venue for sports car racing of almost any kind. British GT knows how to put on a show here for better or worse, and with titles on the line by now, everyone was gunning hard for a shot at glory.
Going into the round, in GT3, Minshaw & Keen held the standings lead over Parfitt & Morris. Neither team had scored perfectly at Spa last time out, although the Barwell Lamborghini did take one race win away from the Ardennes. The gauntlet was laid down to the Team Parker Racing Bentley boys: “catch us if you dare”.
GT4 is no less challenging, with even the Optimum crew in with a mathematical but unlikely shot at the 2017 honours, however the strength of the two Silver driver pairings of Middleton/Tregurtha and Pittard/Reed in the HHC & Lanan Ginettas has meant that the fight stayed between them as Brands arrived.
Saturday morning dawned with cloudy spells, and rather sadly, in the first Free Practice session the #19 GT3 Ginetta G55 of Century Motorsport, this weekend piloted by Tom Hibbert and Ben Tuck, found the bare Armco at the exit of Stirlings Bend and damaged itself beyond a feasibly safe repair. Century are a fantastically well run team, but Nathan Freke has struggled with misfortune in ways that scriptwriters could not manage. On the plus side, they had hired Niall Murray, a Formula Ford hot shot to partner Jacob Mathaissen for the weekend in the #43 GT4 car, and Murray took to it like the proverbial duck to water.
Meanwhile, things looked rosy at the front for both GT3 championship leading crews, as the Bentley took the first free practice session, and Phil Keen’s hot lap put the #33 Lamborghini second behind Jonny Adam, who showed that he was hardly fatigued from his recent title winning exploits at the 24 Hours of Spa the previous weekend.
With everything settling in well, the fickle gods of weather cast their hand. A rather dramatically timed short and sharp thunderstorm settled in on Brands Hatch. It came and laid a lot of water over the Kent countryside, making a mess of everyone’s hard work in setting up the cars, and instantly changing the face of qualifying.
With the Pro-Am qualifying format taking place this weekend, with aggregate times deciding the grid for the 2 hour race, it was clear that the turbocharged teams would suddenly be at a disadvantage. Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Mercedes cars were the ones to have. Sure enough, Minshaw and Keen put their experience of low grip to good use and bagged the overall pole, with the MacMillan AMR #24 Aston with its Silver pairing of Jack Mitchell and James Littlejohn occupying second place on the grid. Not far behind were the #11 TF Sport Aston of Mark Farmer and Jon Barnes, with the #6 Lamborghini of Griffin & Tordoff also up high. But, for the Bentley, rain is the great enemy. As the big machine pulled out of the pit lane its traction control kicked in, it’s handling went to pot and the two Team Parker cars were nowhere near where they wanted to be for the Sunday afternoon start. Wet tracks, wet settings and the Bentley do not mix in any way, and the hope was that Sunday would be much improved. The #7 Bentley was already suffering this weekend as it was, after Callum MacLeod found the front brakes not working as he wished in free practice, narrowly avoiding a monster shunt at the fastest part of Brands.
By the time GT4 qualifying started, the rain had truly stopped, and a dry line began to appear. Pole in class went to the #62 Academy Motorsport car of Will Moore and Matt Nicoll-Jones, whose slick tyre strategy decision in the second part of GT4 qualifying put them forward. Things were not so rosy however at Lanan, after David Pittard suffered the ignominy of falling off the road on the Grand Prix loop, and leaving Alex Reed a nervous wait to see that their #51 Ginetta would be allowed out for him to drive. The format of qualifying for GT4 showed the gap in quality between the Silver pairings and the Pro-Am ones. Joe Osborne’s time of 1:35 in the second half of the session was an excellent time, however the aggregate with his Bronze graded teammate David Pattison sadly wouldn’t see the Tolman car as high up as it could have been.
To the rescue of many teams, the sun came out on Sunday morning, and stayed out. Warm up went off without a hitch, and some teams even had the confidence to complete only one lap of the circuit. The sun beat down hotter, and everything was set.
As the lights changed, James Littlejohn sent out a warning shot to Jon Minshaw by attempting an audacious pass round the outside at the first entry to Paddock Bend, and Minshaw defended for his life. The game was afoot. Minshaw needed to break the field to extend his title lead, and having the hot pace of a Silver grade driver around wasn’t going to make matters easier. The big issue though wasn’t what was immediately behind him. Rick Parfitt had pushed the “go faster” button in the #31 Bentley, and he was making moves through the field. A dry track, a hot day and a point to prove, and Parfitt was off to prove it. He despatched Derek Johnston, Liam Griffin, Mark Farmer and eventually Jon Minshaw and set off in pursuit of the now leading James Littlejohn, who had cleared the Lamborghini and was trying to get away, knowing a pit stop penalty was coming for the #24 Aston for a podium finish in the last race at Spa.
Fate though, would intervene with plans once more. The fast starting Will Moore in the #62 GT4 Aston had done his best to hold the lead in class, before eventually Sandy Mitchell in the #100 Garage 59 McLaren had given the Aston a lesson in overtaking. But as Moore exited Surtees with about 25 minutes elapsed, the Aston suddenly slowed, rattled a little and ground to a halt. The black Aston was abandoned and retired necessitating a Safety Car period to rescue the Academy car.
A small respite ensued, and gave everyone a chance to take stock. GT4 was now back to its usual squabble between the #100 McLaren of Mitchell/Haggety, the #55 HHC Ginetta of Tregurtha/Middleton and the #51 Lanan Ginetta of Pittard/Reed. Nobody though, expected what was coming. What infact was coming was the #42 MacMillan Aston of Will Phillips and Jan Jønck. The Aston is usually a decent bet around Brands Hatch, and for whatever reason, it was all coming together for Will Phillips, who was having his best race of the year so far.
The theme of Brands Hatch was contrasts in fortune. Whilst one car was pushing up, another was struggling. Jon Minshaw had used up whatever the #33 Lamborghini had to give, and was now languishing in 6th place as the pit window approached. He was pushing no less hard than usual, but things wouldn’t work for him. He could see the Bentley disappearing, and could do little about it.
Just as the time ticked over for the pit window to open, the Bentley roared under the bridge at Clearways in what looked like a commanding lead. What had befallen James Littlejohn and the #24 MacMillan Aston which had led for so long? In it came to the pits, up it went onto the jacks. Back into the garage, and out of the race. A sticking throttle is a bad thing in itself, and sticking wide open is nothing short of terrifying. It was a sad end to a very commendable effort, and the Bentley was unchained to go on its way unopposed.
This is more or less what it did now. The pit stops saw Sam Tordoff, Jon Barnes, Jonny Adam and Phil Keen step into their respective cars behind Seb Morris in the Bentley, and this was the order to the finish of the race, with little hiccup or error. Tordoff put in a very solid drive holding off a pack which was little more than a couple of seconds away from his tail at any given time.
GT4 however, was still in the process of sorting itself out properly. David Pittard’s Ginetta suddenly found itself lacking the right kind of steering movement, and Alex Reed was not going to be taking over a fully fast machine. Sure enough, they fell by the wayside, and it was Will Tregurtha’s time to make hay while the sun shone. What he didn’t count on though, were three things. One was Ciaran Haggerty in the driver’s seat of the #100 McLaren. The second was Jan Jønck in the #42 Aston. And the third was Joe Osborne, in the #56 McLaren. Each one of them was on a real charge. Jønck had picked up where Phillips left off, and he began hassling Haggerty for all he was worth. Eventually, the pressure told, and the Aston went by. Haggerty then had Joe Osborne for company, and Joe went by as well, making the most of perfect conditions to push the #56 Tolman car harder and faster. Osborne would eventually get closest to the young Dane, but nobody would prevent MacMillan taking their first ever race win in British GT. Behind, Tregurtha had now got to Haggerty, whose tyres were suffering.
As the final lap approached, Tregurtha got a better run out of Stirlings, and passed Haggerty into Clearways. Haggerty wasn’t going to stand for this, and out came a flying dive up the inside at Paddock. The McLaren didn’t like this. The asphalt didn’t. The gravel trap at Paddock and the tyre wall did though, and they welcomed the unfortunate Scot with open arms. So close to a podium, and one moment changed it all. Tregurtha came home to extend a championship lead that will give him and Stuart Middleton a brief amount of breathing space going into Donington.
But even more elated were the Bentley boys. An unpromising start on Saturday had become a charge through the pack and a victory, and more significantly, a 10.5 point lead going into the final race at Donington, where titles are won and lost. It’s advantage to the Team Parker squad, but will fate be as kind to them this time round.
A few thoughts on the future of the British GT:
Whilst LITP took their summer holiday to Spa, the SRO announced its plans to separate the GT3 and GT4 classes of British GT. The GT4 class will now become the British GT4 Cup, and will have races at the usual GT rounds of the season, and an additional standalone race at Thruxton, which will see a return to GT racing for the first time in a long while after the horror shunt for Bradley Ellis on the approach to the chicane. GT3 would run its own races as well, encompassing the usual rounds, but with the addition of entries from one-make GT racing series such as the Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Porsche Carrera Cup and Ferrari Challenge to bolster grid numbers.
Those dreaded words. “Bolster grid numbers”. It really doesn’t take a mathematician to see that GT4 is the most popular class in the series at the moment, and to separate GT3 and GT4 will mean that teams will have to choose their destiny for the season ahead. At Brands Hatch, there were 10 GT3 entries. One of these was not a regular season entry. One of the regular teams, AmD were missing due to an accident in a different series that left their Mercedes bent and broken. A race cannot be appealing to spectators, or teams when there’s potential for the starting number to be only in the single figures.
GT4 Cup will be the most popular option next year. More races, more competitors, a more appealing entry for Bronze graded drivers. More manufacturers making more new cars. More options. More and more and more, compared to the rather uncertain and unsure footing provided by the future of GT3 racing.
The general feeling according to many in the paddock over the last few seasons was that SRO were looking to promote GT4 harder than GT3, and that the trend was showing that the class was growing. While there is the message that “16 to 18 cars are expected for GT3 in 2018” the reality is that the teams are not able to commit to that number now. So where does that leave it all?
Part of the appeal of the series for the spectator is the noise, size and power of the GT3 class. The class is popular for its variety, the talent of the drivers, and the fact that the SRO BoP has made the racing very very watchable. This isn’t to say the racing is bad in GT4, or that the category is uninteresting or undersubscribed. It just lacks that extra appeal that GT3 has to myself, and to many others.
From what I have heard inside the paddock, it is going to take a lot of effort to save GT3 in Britain now. Teams will look elsewhere to establish true competition. There are very successful series in other countries, which run full GT3 grids. Admittedly, these are run outside the full control of SRO, but nonetheless they are very well subscribed and popular for it. It may be too late to bring in a similar set of regulations to those series to make it work in Britain.
Time will tell. My gut feeling is that Donington Park will be the last time we see a dedicated GT3 class race in a UK national series. Come 2018, if the GT4 Cup is the premier event of a British GT weekend, it will be the acid test for the true future. We lost GT1, GT2, and GT3 is looking ominously close to loss now as well. It is my hope that the series cannot, and does not go into a state of ever decreasing spectacle.