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British GT 2018 – Round 1 – Oulton Park

Surprise, surprise, surprise

April has arrived once more and this means that the British GT season kicks off for 2018 with gusto and new fresh blood coursing through its veins. After an off season of brief uncertainty, the entire field has been lifted by new entries, new drivers and a really exciting mixture of fan favourites and promising combinations of car and driver.

Andrew Howard / Darren Turner Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage GT3. Jakob Ebrey.

In GT3 the big guns came rolling in. The pleasing sight of the #1 plate on the Bentley meant that Rick Parfitt Jnr would return with Team Parker Racing, with his former GT4 championship winning teammate Ryan Ratcliffe partnering him following Seb Morris’ departure to Blancpain GT duties. Ian Loggie and Callum Macleod retained the sister car. The challenge though was ramped up from every direction. Aston Martin is saying farewell to the Vantage V12 in 2018, and with a big shove from the factory to try and take the honours away from the boys at Crewe. Every Aston contains a factory driver. TF Sport retain Derek Johnston and Mark Farmer, who are partnered by the fabled Dane Train duo of Marco Sorensen and Nicki Thiim. Jonny Adam has switched to Aston newcomers Optimum Motorsport, who signed Flick Haigh who has been making progress in GT3 with their Audi around European circuits. Jetstream Motorsport have Graham Davidson partnered by speedy Belgian Maxime Martin, but the possibly most welcome addition was the return of the celebrated Beechdean Aston Martin, driven by Andrew Howard and Darren Turner. A truly formidable prospect.

Barwell Lamborghini are expanding for 2018 as well. Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen return for another crack of the whip at a title push, and nothing less than victory will suffice after two years of runner’s up spots. They are joined by Leo Machitski, back in British GT after a period of racing in historic cars and Blancpain Endurance, partnered by Finnish hotshot Patrick Kujala. A third Lamborghini Huracan for Sam de Haan and Jonny Cocker (another British GT stalwart and Barwell regular) is being run by the team to back up Minshaw and Keen. Add to those the Mercedes AMG GT3 of ERC Sport with Lee Mowle and flying Dutch factory driver Yelmer Buurman, and now full-time returnees Balfe Motorsport, fresh from International GT Open Pro-Am title triumph in their McLaren 650S with Shaun Balfe and Rob Bell sticking with their winning partnership. We also have a welcome return for Godzilla, as RJN bring back the Nissan piloted by the sole Silver GT3 entry for Devon Modell and Struan Moore. There was certainly no decline in GT3, as rather worryingly had been predicted.
GT4 was chop and change in every way. HHC Motorsport have sent their title winners Stuart Middleton and Will Tregurtha off to conquer Europe. In their place, Jacob Matthiesen and Callum Pointon take the #55 Silver class car, with Mike Newbould and Will Burns moving from Team HARD to the second HHC machine. McLaren have come to the party in force this year. Tolman Motorsport have the greatest responsibility, taking on the McLaren Junior squad of Charlie Fagg, Michael O’Brien, Lewis Proctor and Jordan Albert in 2 cars, as well as their tried and tested Pro-Am car of David Pattison and the ever enigmatic Joe Osborne. There are McLarens too for Equipe Verschuur with Scots drivers Finlay Hutchison and Daniel McKay, last season’s surprise package Track-Club with Adam Balon and Ben Barnicoat, who like Joe Osborne represents the McLaren factory, and for Balfe Motorsport, who are running former champions Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson.

The German manufacturers have a vested interest in GT4 now, and Century Motorsport have taken responsibility for the new BMW M4 GT4 in the UK. Ben Green and Ben Tuck hop out of their respective Ginetta G55s to join the team, while Jack Mitchell and Aleksandr Schjerpen pilot the second car, with Ricky Collard on loan for the first race of the year whilst Schjerpen is unavailable. Team Parker Racing have a Mercedes AMG GT4 for Nick Jones and Scott Malvern who are in their third year of competition, and their third make and model of GT4 car in that period! Fox Motorsport also come back with a Mercedes in place of a Ginetta, and Michael Murfitt and Michael Broadhurst (another familiar face to the historians in GT4) filling the driving seat.

There is also Japanese interest with the RJN Nissans of Kelvin Fletcher and Martin PLowman, and Stephen Johansen and Jesse Anttila, with the newly homologated Toyota GT86 in the hands of Steller Racing for young talents Tom Cannon, Sennen Fielding, Dean MacDonald and Alex Quinn.

The field is rounded out by the British manufacturers – Jaguar have arrived after months and years of hopes and speculation with the F-Type GT4, and Invictus Racing are supporting Am drivers who have suffered life changing injuries. The two cars are piloted by Ben Norfolk and Jason Wolfe, and Steve McCulley partnering the returning Matthew George. A very inspiring team line up.

Team HARD return with Ginetta G55s for Callum Hawkins-Row and Ginetta stalwart Anna Walewska, with Will Phillips returning to the team to partner Ben Wallace in their second car. GT4 isn’t Aston-free either, as Academy Motorsport have two cars for Tom Wood and race-winning Dane Jan Jonck, and Will Moore back to drive alongside Matt Nicoll-Jones.

Flick Haigh / Jonathan Adam Optimum Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage V12. Jakob Ebrey.

With the teams and drivers set and ready to race it was off to Oulton Park in Cheshire for the annual Easter Bank Holiday burn up. And with winter only having just passed the UK, it wouldn’t be Oulton Park without some dubious weather forecasts. At one point, a Yellow Warning for snow threatened to take the gloss off the entire weekend, but the truth was possibly a lot worse.

The Saturday qualifying sessions threw their usual surprises. The first came in the opening session for the Am drivers in GT3, where Flick Haigh put pedal to the metal and stuck her Optimum Aston on pole. The first outright pole for a woman in British GT, and it was a sensational lap to beat the competition behind her, as Rick Parfitt and Ian Loggie made the Bentleys hustle on a dry track. The Pro session was claimed by Phil Keen whose green and red Italian bull held up the Aston Martin matadors behind him to take a solid Race 2 pole. GT4 was wiped cleanly by the new Dutch squad, Equipe Verschuur, until it was pointed out that they had incorrectly sent the wrong drivers out to qualify in the wrong sessions. This left the way clear for Callum Pointon in the #55 HHC Ginetta and Scott Malvern in the #66 Team Parker Mercedes to take the respective poles, with Verschuur suffering the indignity of starting from the back for their indiscretion.

Sunday is a rest day in Cheshire, and teams prepared themselves for the coming Monday race day by practicing pit stops driver changes and musing over the potential change in the weather. Which inevitably came in the form of the nemesis of every good Bank Holiday: Rain, rain and more rain. A slippery Oulton Park greeted the teams for the warm-up, and Rick Parfitt’s Bentley found the scenery easier to get to than the track, rather setting back his charge after a good Saturday session. The race was then held up following several earlier incidents in other races with drivers struggling to come to terms with the slick tarmac. At midday though, behind the safety car, the drivers set off in grid order. Well, almost, as Nick Jones stalled his Mercedes in GT4, and suddenly found himself a lap down with not a racing lap complete.

Flick Haigh though knew exactly what to do as the race director called in the safety car after 4 laps of investigative touring – and she pressed on free of spray and other impediment in the #75 Optimum Aston Martin, whilst behind her in GT3, others came to grief. Mark Farmer was tipped into a spin at Old Hall Corner, whilst Derek Johnston took to the scenery (but thankfully not the barriers) at Hizzy’s chicane, rather spoiling TF Sport’s day. The Bentleys as usual, hated the rain, and Rick Parfitt and Ian Loggie soon found themselves losing touch with the top drivers, as Jon Minshaw found the Lamborghini’s boots stuck to the tarmac much more happily in the watery conditions. In GT4, the field settled down to eat the wall of spray left by the GT3 cars. And there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful for Callum Pointon, who held calmly onto his lead in the #55 HHC Ginetta. Behind him, a collision between Jack Mitchell and Will Moore sent the Yorkshireman’s Aston nose first into the wall at Lodge, sufficiently bending the radiator beyond repair and ending the #62 Academy car’s race early.

By the time the pitstop window opened for driver changes, Flick Haigh now had an ever decreasing amount of breathing space as Minshaw caught and passed and pushed onwards in the #33 Lamborghini, but she held on long enough that when the driver changes were made, Jonny Adam came out infront of Phil Keen. The driver changes in GT4 had also taken place, and Callum Pointon swapped out for Jacob Matthiasen. But then, the race lead battle changed in the blink of an eye.

Phil Keen got the bit between his teeth, and was now charging after Jonny Adam, keen to prove that being a factory driver doesn’t mean you can’t be put under pressure for a win, but as they lapped the traffic, they approached the tricky narrow run to Druids, and the GT4 leader Matthiasen. Past the leading two went, but on exiting Lodge, Keen slowed and dived for pit lane again. A brush with the left side of Matthiasen’s Ginetta left the Lamborghini with a broken wheel rim and a puncture, which ended his victory charge and Matthiasen’s. Jonny Adam now had only to maintain a good speed, and he would bring it home safe and sound ahead of fellow AMR factory team mate Darren Turner in the #99 Beechdean Aston, who now had Yelmer Buurman hounding him, as the Dutchman put his own factory talent behind the accelerator of the #116 Mercedes, turning some spectactular laptimes in chasing down Turner’s Aston. But Adam would not be caught.

In that moment, history was made again. Flick Haigh had become the first female winner in GT3 in British GT, and this was possibly one of the most popular victories of all time, with hardly anyone feeling that the race win was either a fluke, a fix or anything other than well deserved. The smile on Haigh’s face on the pit wall was matched by Adam’s and the entire Optimum team’s. Beechdean were happy with a solid second, and Lee Mowle mounted the podium alongside Yelmer Buurman in what was a very fine podium for the Pro-Am racing formula.

GT4 yielded another surprise result. Creeping steadily up the order once more was the often under-fancied track-club McLaren piloted by Balon and Barnicoat. Ben Barnicoat hadn’t raced in the UK save for his local kart track for some time, but looked so at home in the #72 car as he glided up to the top of the field, aided by a well timed pit stop. The Derbyshire driver pulled out enough time over the #42 BMW of Green/Tuck to ensure he could celebrate a comfortable victory by the flag. Unfortunately for the Century team, the BMW was penalised for a pit infringement, handing their 2nd place to the #4 Tolman McLaren of Fagg/O’Brien, who had had another solid drive in the pouring rain. Supersub Ricky Collard put the sister #43 BMW of Century into third, allowing he and Jack Mitchell to stand on the podium following the demotion of their teammates.

Flick Haigh – Optimum Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage V12.Jakob Ebrey.

Race 1 was complete, and the anticipation grew for the second race. Sadly, so did the rainfall. The decision was made once more to start the race behind the safety car, with the Pro drivers taking the opening stint this time. 10 minutes of circulation though was enough to convince the race director Peter Daly, that the weather was nowhere near ready to let up. After another long delay on the grid, and with the standing water encroaching on the track from the trackside, leaving puddles on both run off and road, there was nothing else to be done but to abandon the race.

Not a popular decision, but there is sense in it for so many reasons. A driver puts himself at risk with every moment in the seat of the car. And an aquaplaning car at high speed is little more than a metal cage preparing for a crash. Safety is paramount, and pleasingly, there is much more to takeaway with every car and driver in one piece at the end of the day rather than the near certainty of danger on a wet circuit however the thrill of a race.

We await to see what news comes on a rescheduling of a race. There are rumours points may be scored, but this would demean the point of a race, with only 10 minutes behind the safety car to show for any movement in Race 2. The weather was the true winner of the second outing at Oulton, but you couldn’t complain at all about the opening race of 2018. Roll on Rockingham Motor Speedway, where hopefully the weather will behave long enough for the enjoyment of all

 

© Pete Richardson 2018