In what is traditionally the longest and most unpredictable race of the British GT season, you can hardly expect the usual results from the field at Silverstone. And after last year’s victory for Von Ryan McLaren stand ins Gilles Vannelet and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs, the 2016 race had a lot to live up to in terms of surprises.
As the 51-strong entry made their first steps out onto the Silverstone tarmac, it was clear there was going to be a lot of movement throughout the field. With the additional entries from the European GT4 Series thrown into the usual 30-odd British racers, both pit and paddock were heaving and teeming with activity, and varied opinions on the upcoming need to pass traffic.
Saturday had dawned well enough, and teams knew they had a hard day’s work ahead at the beginning of Free Practice, especially with the prospect of the weather changing for the worse on Sunday. The biggest leap forward in FP1 was made by the Barwell Lamborghini team, with their three entries for this weekend all completing the session in the top ten with Alexander Sims returning from BMW duty in Europe to post the fastest time of the session in the #6 car. The BMW of Mowle/Osborne put in a good show to go second behind the striking Italian machine in the session.
It was a theme of the two practice sessions that drivers exceeded the track limits on every lap. As previously pointed out to us by McLaren’s Rob Bell, the track limits on British circuits are monitored fiercely, and as the second session came to an end, the drivers were summoned to a mandatory briefing regarding exceeding the acceptable boundaries of racing. During the second session, cars were shown the black flag for excessive use of off-track areas, and it seemed that drivers were more or less learning their lesson from it.
The second free practice itself showed improvements from many drivers. Aston Martin teams were really looking strong after a rather hampered Oulton Park event, and eventually Jonny Adam finished top of the pile in his #17 TF Sport Aston he was to share with Derek Johnston. A surprise 2nd in this session was Callum MacLeod driving the #24 Team Parker Racing Bentley, which had made a wildcard entry for this race weekend. Also going well was the #2 FF Corse Ferrari driven by the returning 2014 champion Marco Attard, and the flying Irishman Adam Carroll, who was enjoying being reunited with a Ferrari once more. There were improvements as well for the Tolman Ginettas, which the team were hoping were free of mechanical gremlins from the trip northward.
In GT4, the signs of the BoP moving away from the favour of Ginetta seemed clear, after the Generation AMR team took top spot in both sessions with their two cars, #42 of Jack Mitchell and Matty Graham in the first and the #44 car of James Holder and Matthew George in the second. The Ecurie Ecosse McLaren was looking good too, as was the EborGT Maserati. Sadly, the Simpson Racing team couldn’t bring their new Porsche Clubsport GT4 further up the order in spite of the speedy Scott Malvern putting his all in to the German machine, which had been joined by its counterparts from the European series.
Qualifying arrived and the order changed once more. The standard practice of letting the Am drivers out first showed that it was more or less business as usual, as Rick Parfitt in the #31 Team Parker Bentley went top from Barwell’s Liam Griffin in the #6 Lamborghini. Third though, was Will Moore in the #14 Optimum Audi which was looking good round the fast Silverstone GP circuit. Behind Moore, the TF Sport Astons of Mark Farmer in #11 and Derek Johnston in #17 rounded out the top 5. As we headed into the pro session, it was clear that the Bentley would not be relinquishing its pole position, as Seb Morris thundered around in a stunning lap time of just over 2 minutes to fix the big machine at the head of the field. Alexander Sims fixed second on the grid for the #6 Barwell Lamborghini ahead of Jonny Adam in the #17 Aston, Ross Gunn in the #1 Beechdean Aston and Rob Bell in the Ecurie Ecosse McLaren.
The GT4 field had double the action and double the traffic for their sessions. The McLaren in the hands of Sandy Mitchell put in a stunning lap of 2:12 to take pole in the Am session ahead of the Beechdean #407 Aston driven by Jack Bartholomew, and the popular returning Swede Dennis Strandberg in the #62 Academy Motorsport Aston. The championship leading Ginetta of Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson couldn’t achieve its usual high position. The Pro session was almost looking like staying with the same top 3 as the Am session, with Haggerty in the McLaren posting an equivalent 2:12 lap time to his teammate, however as the session drew to an end, Nathan Freke in the #73 Century Ginetta found a few extra clicks in his car to move up to third ahead of Matt Nicoll-Jones in the #62 Aston. For the European teams, former Formula Ford start Ricardo van der Ende and his co-driver Bernhard van Oranje, powered their Ekris M4 (which to all intents and purposes is a brightly orange coloured BMW M4 GT4 machine and very striking for it) to fastest time in class.
As expected, race day dawned grey, cold, and exceedingly damp. The “warm up” session was more or less what it said on the tin, for Northamptonshire was bathed in unseasonable gloom, with cars kicking up huge rooster tails on the straights. The conditions threatened to catch out several drivers, and at one point Derek Johnston had a lurid looking rotation coming onto the Wellington Straight. Things were not well in Bentley though, as the #31 car returned to its garage after an off and the noises coming from the Team Parker pit box began to sound industrial – another body blow for the team’s luck this season. Fortunately, both cars would make the grid for the race in their correct starting positions.
As the race came, the temperature started to rise, but the rain was lingering, and persisting enough to force the grid to abandon its usual rolling start procedure and head out behind the safety car for the opening minutes of the race. And with the rain came the immediate change of strategy. There was barely time to move before teams went for broke and put in for their driver swaps. The Barwell team went for broke and switched out Jon Minshaw, Mark Poole and Liam Griffin for their respective Pros – Phil Keen, Richard Abra and Alexander Sims. Marco Attard also put the Ferrari in the hands of Adam Carroll, and Ian Stinton put the #32 Tolman Ginetta into Mike Simpson’s possession. This would hand the initiative to the Pro drivers as the green flag flew.
Derek Johnston stole the lead from Rick Parfitt on the fourth lap in, and Andrew Howard and Will Moore soon made their way past the #31 Bentley and up the order. The GT4 order was shuffled at the very first racing turn, with Jack Bartholomew passing the Ecurie Ecosse McLaren into Copse, and relegating the Scottish drivers backward into the clutches of the #51 Lanan Racing Ginetta of Alex Reed and the #42 MacMillan Racing Aston of Jack Mitchell, who had edged their way forward from the start.
It wouldn’t be long before the Safety Car would come out again for what felt a lengthy period, encouraging teams and drivers to check and change strategies. Derek Johnston’s race in the title leading Aston Martin had ended at Becketts with a shunt, putting the #17 car out of the race and in danger of losing out in the points standings.The length of the safety car period was not helped by the length of the Silverstone GP circuit, necessitating a long wait to “snatch” the race leader, nor by a suspension failure for the #666 Lamborghini which had to cruise round to the pit, holding up the field behind substantially while they could not pass.
As the caution period cleared, Alexander Sims had mounted to the lead of the race, followed by the #32 Ginetta which was making profit from its early pit stop. Not far behind in fourth was the other #56 Tolman Ginetta of Pattison/Davenport which was looking strong. The GT4 lead had passed back to the #59 McLaren now as well but the Ecurie Ecosse team were caught out by the green flag flying and found themselves well back down the order.
It wasn’t long though before the #32 Ginetta took the lead from Sims who pitted the Lamborghini. Behind the Stinton/Simpson car, the Beechdean Aston of Howard/Gunn had now moved up to second, and the #31 Bentley with Seb Morris at the wheel was chasing hard. Phil Dryburgh’s #8 Motorbase Aston Martin was also well up the order, and eventually only ceded position to the second Tolman Ginetta #56 of Pattison/Davenport.
But then, disaster struck Seb Morris in the Bentley, as the Welshman lost control of the big machine heading back down towards Brooklands, ripping apart the front end of the car, destroying the splitter and the radiator. 2 championship contenders had now fallen by the wayside in the race. Silverstone was once again proving its reputation as an unpredictable race, and a heartbreaker too, as Bentley had worked hard to repair their regular machine once more after a morning shunt.
The shuffling continued as the Beechdean Aston pitted leaving the way clear for something rarely seen in the British GT field – a Ginetta 1-2 as Simpson and Davenport pushed their way around the track in the Tolman cars having their day in the metaphorical sunshine.
The safety car came out once more, following shunts for both the #60 Maserati of Marcus Hoggarth (who earlier made good progress up the order along with co-driver Abbie Eaton) and the #5 PFL Aston of Pete Littler between Stowe and Vale, leaving both cars damaged, the Aston more so than the Maserati. The final shuffles of the deck took place. Both Ginettas pitted from their 1-2 to change drivers, and back in the Barwell pit, Phil Keen took his place back in the #33 Demon Tweeks liveried car and headed back out into the lead of the race. This was to be a lead he would not relinquish.
Behind the Lamborghini, Ryan Ratcliffe had climbed into the driving seat of the second placed #14 Audi, but was not able to keep up the pace of the chasing pack, particularly that of the tarmac ripping BMW of Joe Osborne, who set a late fastest lap as the track lost a little surface water, before taking advantage of the Audi battling with a feisty Ross Wylie in the #8 Aston. Behind Osborne and Ratcliffe, Adam Carroll and Rob Bell were having a cracking fight in the Ferrari and McLaren respectively, which was a pleasure to watch as the two aces fought out a battle of wits and speed, which the Irishman eventually won. Sadly for Ratcliffe, the pace of these two proved too much as they breezed past the Audi, who would eventually take fifth place as the flag fell.
The GT4 field behind them had a very active afternoon, but the biggest surprised came in the class winner, as the Team HARD/RCIB Racing #75 Ginetta posted itself top of the class with drivers Aaron Mason and Rob Barrable. Barrable’s off road ability shone through as he mastered the wet tarmac to glide up the order and maintain distance to the leaders, before Mason carried on the consistency and hard work as others fell by the wayside. Notable exits included the #50 Optimum Ginetta of Johnson/Robinson, who were involved in an incident with the #88 Rollcentre Racing BMW which saw the car of Neary/Short excluded from the results. Team HARD are a massive presence in the paddock but newcomers to the GT scene and so were overjoyed to take the big endurance win at Silverstone. Nathan Freke and Anna Walewska pulled their way up to second place with the Century Ginetta ahead of the Beechdean pair of Bartholomew and Albert. Sadly, the McLaren GT4 of Haggerty and Mitchell suffered a sad end as the car stopped out on track with barely a minute of the race remaining.
The European GT4 series had been a Porsche show for the most of the race. The German PROsport Performance team had brought out the big guns, and they secured a 1-2 finish with the cars driven by Jorg Viebahn/Peter Terting and Nicolaj Moller Madsen/Andreas Patzelt keeping a strong lead over the Ekris M4 of Simon Knap/Rob Severs. Sadly, the popular and radical looking SinR1 of Sofia Car Team lost its way early on, after a trip to the gravel left the car driven by BTCC racer Michael Epps out of the way of a points finish in their class.
The biggest smiles of the weekend belonged to Barwell though, and Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen had proven themselves and their team the best at the tactical challenge of the 3 hour race. The Lamborghini’s second race win of the season had arrived and it was a triumph of consistency and control in difficult conditions. There were beaming smiles for Mowle and Osborne too, who had secretly hoped for rain at Silverstone, and been rewarded with a superb podium. It was a welcome return to the champagne steps for Marco Attard too, following Adam Carroll’s heroics at the end of the race in the brand new Ferrari. Once again, the Silverstone 500 had its usual trials and tribulations and there were surprises, shocks, and rain and more rain. 2016 had remembered 2015, and delivered another belting race.
“500” other things:
As the chequered flag fell, the storm clouds loomed on the horizon, and Noah’s storm passed over Silverstone, dumping an absolute torrent on the teams in the paddock. Unfortunately, the Simpson Racing garage fell foul of a flash flood in pit lane, which caused their mechanics to work hurriedly to clear their pit. There was also a nasty incident with the PFL Motorsport trailer, where the tail lift failed and left a crew member injured, thankfully not seriously.
Seen at Silverstone: Rick Parfitt Jnr’s new toy of a one wheel hoverboard… We’re not sure we approve necessarily, but when you’re a man in a hurry it beats walking.