The British GT Championship has begun its annual pilgrimage to its most northerly venue on the calendar. And far from being the frozen wastes of the Arctic, the paddock is packing its bags and heading into the lovely parkland of Cheshire, where Oulton Park provides the setting for Round 3 of the 2016 season.
This round is the first of this season’s “Sprint” rounds, with two races taking place on the bank holiday Monday, each being one hour long and putting an emphasis on speed rather than consistency. Each driver will take his seat in the car for half an hour in both races, and the points on offer for each race will be slightly lower than those offered for a 2 or 3 hour race.
The Balance of Performance has now been altered for this round as well, so we can expect changes throughout the field, and maybe we may see winners from outside the #17 TF Sport Aston Martin of Derek Johnston and Jonny Adam, who lead the championship heading into the third round. Two victories from 2 rounds put them well in control at this stage with a 25 point gap to Liam Griffin of Barwell.
So, to bring the others closer, the Aston has been put on a high 95kg ballast diet and will be noticeably heavier as it cruises around the Cheshire countryside, whilst its rivals have all remained relatively lightweight in comparison. Whether this has any effect will be proven, although with the Lamborghini, Bentley and McLaren looking quick at Rockingham, they will be hoping to press up to the Astons for GT3 and overall honours.
What the new machinery will make of the Oulton circuit is yet to be discovered. The general feeling around the paddock is that although the track is aesthetically pleasing and one of the British classics, the circuit is not suited to the GT3 cars, with parts being too narrow to feel comfortable passing the GT4 class. A quick mind will be necessary to make progress through the field as much as anything else, especially on the section returning from Knickerbrook back to the start/finish line, where space is at a premium and speeds are relatively high.
In GT4 there is one noticeable change, and that is in the driver line up at RCIB Team HARD, where Wilson Thompson has been replaced in the #75 Ginetta GT4 by Aaron Mason, a frequent driver in Volkswagens with the “boys in pink and green” for the rest of the season. Rob Barrable has retained his seat and will carry on alongside Mason for the 2 one hour races.
Following the penalty palaver at Rockingham, drivers will be looking to keep out of the steely gaze of the stewards at Oulton Park, especially Nathan Freke of Century Motorsport, who along with Anna Walewska piloted their Ginetta GT4 to first place only to be DSQ’d for passing under yellow flags.
The Balance of Performance for GT4 cars has also changed, and inspite of their win at Rockingham in the hands of #407 Beechdean drivers Jack Bartholemew and Jordan Albert, the Aston Martin Vantage GT4 will actually lose weight to keep up with the Ginettas and McLaren which flew at Rockingham, although their challenges ended for various reasons before and after the chequered flag. The Ginetta and McLaren both gain 60kg of ballast for this round, although their drivers will be keen to put mechanical issues, accident damage and more behind them.
Pit time is crucial in a one hour GT race, and the top 3 finishers in each class from the last round will have additional time penalties to face. This leaves Johnston/Adam with 10 seconds extra in the box at their stop, with Minshaw/Keen facing an extra 7 seconds in the #33 Barwell Lamborghini and Howard/Gunn having an extra 5 seconds in the #1 Beechdean Aston. The same penalties apply to #407 Beechdean Aston, #40 Century Ginetta and #51 Lanan Ginetta in GT4. In a race round a tight track the pit routine is vital to keep a race challenge alive as passing opportunities will be at a premium.
With this considered, it is worth looking to some of the mid order runners from round 2 throughout each class for potential sprint race victors. The #31 Team Parker Racing Bentley of Parfitt/Morris has been sensationally quick so far this year, and they will want to get back to good places after an emotionally charged weekend at Rockingham. The #14 Optimum Motorsport Audi of Moore/Ratcliffe has been on a severe BoP diet and looked consistent for pace in the last round, and so could leap up the order. And Liam Griffin will want to catch up ground on the TF Sport Aston with Adam Carroll again partnering him in the #6 Barwell Lamborghini Huracan.
If there is one certainty that the sprint format brings us, it is that there’s not enough time to wait for other people to make a mistake and hand you a result, so drivers will be pushing as hard as they dare during their half hour stretches in the cars on Monday. Don’t expect a “friendly” race at Oulton, this will be elbows out action from flag to flag…
The #66 Simpson Motorsport entry remains for the time being, a Ginetta, however Nick Jones and Scott Malvern will soon have a Porsche Cayman GT4 in their hands to race, and the new car should hopefully make an appearance for the Silverstone 500 in June.
All drivers will want to be on their best behaviour and will be polishing their halos frantically for presentation to the race director this round, as the last race at Rockingham saw a wave of penalties for pit stop infringements, yellow flag overtaking and causing avoidable incidents. At Oulton’s narrow tarmac, there could yet be more wrist-slapping ahead.
The support package at Oulton Park this weekend includes a race for 1950s sports cars. Oulton Park has been holding sports car racing in some form since 1953, and the comparison between the contemporary and classic will show just how far the world has changed, although don’t bet against Aston Martin being at the top of both piles come Monday evening.