It’s early Spring in the United Kingdom. Trees are in blossom, bumblebees are merrily buzzing their way around flowers, and most people are considering their first occasion to barbecue. Except of course, those involved with the British GT paddock who are heading for the North West of England and Cheshire, for Oulton Park which returns to its traditional opening slot on the calendar for the 2017 season.
For drivers the long wait is over, and competition restarts with the reigning champions in both classes back for more action. Last season, Derek Johnston and Jonny Adam in the TF Sport Aston Martin started with gusto and verve, and a fair slice of good fortune, by winning the first two races of the season. Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson in the Optimum Motorsport Ginetta G55 are hoping to repeat their luck at Oulton in 2016, where they took the car to a double race win, and strengthened their title charge with it. In the #1 and #501 cars respectively these pairings have much expectation and hopes, and a lot of pressure to live up to.
The levels of competition in each field have improved over the winter, most notably in the GT4 class. With the balance of the field weighted heavily towards the smaller class, the annual Oulton Park “traffic jam amongst the trees” could see the GT4 cars being a factor in both races over the weekend, with the faster GT3 machines requiring agility and space to weave their way around the narrow, treacherous Cheshire circuit.
Thankfully, last year there were relatively few incidents to speak of. A pit lane collision amongst several of the GT3 leaders left the path clear for Liam Griffin and Adam Carroll to win the first race in the #6 Barwell Lamborghini Huracan, the first ever for the Italian machine in the British GT championship. Also taking a popular victory in the second race was Team Parker Racing with the colossally sized Bentley of Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris, with the race shortened after an unfortunate crash for Anna Walewska in the Century Ginetta whilst battling for GT4 podium honours.
The Bentley will be a strong favourite again for overall and GT3 honours on Monday, however the vast size of the British machine is not necessarily suited to the tight confines of Oulton when it comes to lapping the field, as it did last year. Parfitt and Morris will want a repeat of last season’s win, and having back up from the Ian Loggie & Callum McLeod car may yet prove useful for them.
TF Sport have the same foursome as last season, and Johnston and Adam’s #1 machine is joined by the #11 car of Mark Farmer and Jon Barnes, who will hope to step up having won the Spa round last season. MacMillan Racing have taken on the role of being the third AMR backed GT3 Aston Martin this year, with Radical and historic expert driver James Littlejohn making a full return to the series alongside Jack Mitchell, a hot talent in almost any car he races.
Barwell’s Lamborghini squad comes back with 2 cars again, but with one massive change, as Sam Tordoff joins Liam Griffin in the #6 machine for this year. Tordoff will want to be at the front quickly having been at the sharp end of BTCC last year, although beating stablemates Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen in the brightly coloured #33 Demon Tweeks Lamborghini will probably go a long way into making him happy.
Anyone who watched the recent Blancpain Sprint series races at Misano will know that Mercedes are back in GT3 to show their muscle, and there are two AMG GT3s on the grid this season, and they replace the outgoing BMW Z4s run by the respective teams last season. AmD run with Lee Mowle and Ryan Ratcliffe, who share a car in British GT for the first time since 2014. Rollcentre, and their vast knowledge of sports car racing come back with last year’s Am champions Richard Neary and Martin Short. The AMG GT3 has certainly proved itself as a hot bit of kit in Europe, but whether the short cut-and-thrust of British tracks will suit the long-nosed German car is to be seen. Testing results show promise already.
Ginetta’s GT3 season in 2016 was probably one the Yorkshire concern didn’t really want to write home about. The bigger version of the G55 was wheeled into the workshop over the winter, and came back with some new parts inside it, most notable is a big thumping Chevrolet engine which was once the base for their G57 prototype racer. They’ve also wheeled in two US bright sparks in Parker Chase and Harry Gottsacker, who showed their paces in the Pirelli World Challenge last year. Chase will race alongside Ginetta superhero Charlie Robertson, and Gottsacker is sharing with Century boss Nathan Freke, who steps up from GT4.
One element we’ve not yet seen in the build up to 2017 is the Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 of Duncan Cameron and the globetrotting Matt Griffin. Griffin and Cameron have previous with the championship, but as with the Mercedes, the Ferrari remains relatively unproven on British soil. They may yet have to fight their way through the crowd to get near top honours this year.
Now we come to what is the bulk of the grid: GT4. Small in size the cars may be but there is no doubt they’ve captured the minds of many people, and the entry list reflects this.
There most popular new thing this season in the class is the McLaren 570S, which has 6 entries. There are two from Garage 59, who supported Ecurie Ecosse last year for Sandy Mitchell and Ciaran Haggerty, and Akhil Rabindra and Dean MacDonald. Mitchell and Haggerty will be keen to get more from this year after 2 race wins in 2016. Tolman step back down to GT4 with David Pattinson and Joe Osborne who believes GT4 will be the future of GT racing on British shores at least, and must be in for the top steps. In2Racing have two cars due to race. Richard Marsh and Gareth Howell in one, and Marcus Hoggarth and Matty Graham making a late switch from the EborGT Maserati in the second. Track-club, the former Lotus Cup specialists now come to the British GT series with Adam Balon and Adam MacKay sharing the driving duties. It would not be a surprise to see a selection of these cars at the front of the GT4 pack and on podiums this season, although Oulton may not suit the car as well.
Ginetta’s GT4 presence remains this year and Optimum are joined by two cars for Century, who have given Britcar racers Steve Fresle and Jacob Mathiassen the chance to prove their mettle in the GT paddock with their G55. Anna Walewska returns, partnering Ginetta factory man Mike Simpson, who steps into the GT4 G55 for the first time. Team champions Team HARD with RCIB Racing are bringing back their talent pool and two cars for Mike Newbould and 2012 GT3 champion Michael Caine, who has lost none of his desire and attitude behind the wheel, with the second for youngsters Matt Chapman and Sam Webster. Add in the Lanan Racing car of David Pittard and Alex Reed, who are quietly confident of shaking up the order once more with their machine which won at Spa, and the HHC Motorsport squad with junior graduates Will Tregurtha and Stuart Middleton and you have a big contingent of challengers for GT4 podiums and wins.
Whilst McLaren and Ginetta’s interest has grown, Aston Martin’s has diminished, which is rather a surprise considering the popularity and prevalence of the V8 Vantage in the last few seasons. Only two teams remain flying the Aston GT4 flag – MacMillan Racing with Team HARD transferee Will Phillips and F4 graduate Jan Jonck, and Academy Motorsport returning with Matt Nicoll-Jones and Will Moore, who share their British efforts with a GT4 EuroSeries campaign.
Nissan have put their oar in this season as well, and UltraTek Racing partner RJN in providing two 370Z GT4 machines. Richard Taffinder and Tim Eakin, who ran with the team’s Lotuses last year are back and are partnered by Martin Plowman and Kelvin Fletcher respectively. Nissan will have to prove a lot quickly, as they have not been a regular in GT4 competition, and Oulton may be a baptism of fire for the squad and their drivers.
Two further entries expand the manufacturer’s pool for 2017. EborGT ran some solid races last year with the Maserati GranTurismo MC GT4, and they return with ex-MacMillan racer Matty Graham, who impressed the Yorkshire team in testing enough to get a race seat and James Kellett. Team Parker Racing are also backing the only Porsche in the field, which this year comes with all the interesting pieces that Stuttgart can supply the team. Nick Jones returns to drive it, as does Scott Malvern, who impressed in his Ginetta, before the (sadly underprepared) 2016 Porsche arrived.
Furnished with this mighty entry, what can we actually expect on Easter Monday. It would be tough to rule out wins for the #31 Bentley of Parfitt/Morris or the #33 Lamborghini of Minshaw/Keen, with these consistent pairings pushing to improve against the TF Sport Astons, who will surely push to keep their two strong lineups at the sharp end, which the V12 Vantage is more than capable of. Don’t rule out the Griffin/Tordoff car though, and there could even be a podium shout for the #24 MacMillan Aston, if they are in the mood!
GT4 could be beyond prediction this year. Mitchell and Haggerty will want to begin at Oulton as they did at Donington last year – winning. Ginetta have improved their car, though and there are a number of good drivers out there who will be confident of stopping them, and of course, Johnson/Robinson will be favourites to do that having both the theoretical #1 plate and a double win in the Park last year. But, with competition being what it is, you should never rule out GT hotshots like Joe Osborne and Mike Simpson from making a big break when they climb onboard.
Two one-hour races await the field on Easter Monday. It will be hectic around the rolling Cheshire parkland from the first fall of the flag, to say the least. Drivers were warned last year to not make risky decisions in case the wrath of the Clerk of the Course be incurred. With a full season ahead of them, you cannot rule out the battle for an early advantage being hard fought from the first seconds of racing beginning. Expect the blue touchpaper to be lit with vigour.
Design fans will want to keep a keen eye on the #56 Tolman McLaren this year in its striking grey and purple honeycomb livery, which looks sensational from almost any angle. Joe Osborne may be stepping down a class, but he’s picked a heck of a machine to “step down” into.
Both Ferrari and Porsche have full time entries this year, although sadly any hopes of a Steve McQueen Le Mans style battle between the two old rivals are dashed, as Porsche’s big car is yet to make an appearance in the GT3 class. We can but dream of battle being rejoined on British tracks in future.
This is the only race weekend this season where there is a full day’s gap between qualifying and race day. Easter Sunday is not a racing day, and so teams and drivers have 24 hours away from the cockpit. No bad thing, when you consider the pressures of the opening round of the season.