What A Difference A Day Makes
After the controversy of Oulton Park, what British GT needed was a race weekend that ran smoothly, without things suddenly being thrown into doubt and confusion. So as the teams emerged from their garages on Saturday morning, it was a case of “oh no, not this again” as the weather decided that it would be a wet beginning to the weekend. Wet, and bitterly, painfully cold. Rain and cold are the enemies of successful practice. That said, any track time is a good thing, especially at Rockingham where drivers must contend with a lap of two distinct halves.
The main feedback from drivers was the lack of adhesion during practice. It was visibly evident that even the top drivers were reluctant to pile into the fearsome banked Turn 1 with any particular gusto. It’s possibly down to this that the Free Practice sessions ran so relatively smoothly. Only the #88 Team HARD Ginetta of Joshua Jackson and Ben Wallace suffered any heavy calamity, as they met heavily with a barrier and severely dented their front end. Tony Gilham’s team is all “never say die” attitude though, and the car was fixed for the afternoon’s qualifying sessions, a feat worthy of recognition. On the whole, most teams came out without much concern, other than helping the car stick to the road in right places.
If there’s one wonderful thing about wet and cold practices it’s the one lap pace of the classes. In the first session, Yelmer Buurman showed his strength in the #116 ERC Sport Mercedes, with the fastest GT4 car being the #4 Tolman McLaren of Charlie Fagg and Michael O’Brien. There was only 5 seconds between them, with the GT4 car outpacing some of the GT3 runners. Let it be said on record once more, that perhaps this should not be a surprise as the Bentleys, for all their excitement are a real trouble in the wet conditions, and Parfitt/Ratcliffe and Loggie/McLeod in nos 1 and 7 respectively didn’t really put down scintillating times while the big cars scrabbled for traction. The second session went the way of Flick Haigh and Jonny Adam in the #75 Optimum Aston Martin, whilst Will Burns set down a laptime good enough to give him and Mike Newbould top spot in GT4 in the #50 HHC Ginetta.
As Saturday wore on, the cold remained, but the rain lessened, and became a steady nagging drizzle, which in part relieved the tarmac of some excess water, but didn’t exactly improve grip around the course. As if to prove this, during the GT3 Am qualifying session, Jon Minshaw in #33 Lamborghini and Lee Mowle in the #116 Mercedes both rotated their vehicles at Deene and Turn 4 of the oval within moments of each other. Embarrassment for Minshaw, but heartbreak for Mowle, as the Barwell man went on to set second fastest time, but the Mercedes was buried firmly in the tyres protecting the pit entry wall. The fastest GT3 Am was once again the mercurial Flick Haigh, who went nearly a second faster than Minshaw.
The GT3 Pro session flipped things about though, with Phil Keen taking over from Minshaw and going nearly a second faster than Jonny Adam, who’d taken over from Flick Haigh. There was enough in it to give the green and red Lamborghini pole, which was handy considering the 20 second success penalty the #33 had to take in the pit stop during the 2 hour race.
In GT4, qualifying was pride and joy of the Tolman team, as the #4 and #5 cars took positions one and two on the class grid, with Jordan Albert and Lewis Proctor backing up Fagg and O’Brien from their earlier morning exploits. As cars received penalties for yellow flag infringements, the third car on the grid made it a McLaren 1-2-3, as the Pro-Am track-club #72 car of Adam Balon and Ben Barnicoat backed up the Tolman development drivers.
As Sunday dawned, the grey layers of cloud over Northamptonshire remained, as did the unpleasantly chilly winds which swirl round the quad-oval at Rockingham on a year-round basis. Thankfully though, the rain which had saturated Saturday, didn’t decide to trouble the circuit on Sunday, but the cold still gave a prevailing absence of grip to the tarmac. Warm-up was interrupted briefly by a clash between the #66 Team Parker Mercedes of Jones/Malvern and the #10 Equipe Verschuur McLaren of McKay/Hutchison, but the field went out for the full allotted 10 minutes and finally got some relatively dry track time in.
With the cars and drivers prepared, the only thing remaining now was for the race to begin. As the field got away, the Minshaw and Haigh battle began at the front of the pack in GT3. What neither of them figured on was the sudden awakening of Sam De Haan in the #69 Barwell Lamborghini. The pink and black machine looked a colourful missile chasing the pair, eventually passing Haigh to make it a Lamborghini 1-2 in the early stages. And then the first safety car came out when the #101 Balfe Motorsport McLaren of Shaun Balfe clattered the outside wall of the oval at Turn 4, leaving him stranded on the high line. With the field neutralised it was time to take stock of the early proceedings. Balfe had managed to claw himself up to 4th behind MInshaw, De Haan and Haigh, before his unfortunate crash. In GT4, Charlie Fagg was giving it everything in the #4 McLaren for Tolman, but was being reeled in by HHC Motorsport’s Patrik Matthiesen in the #55 GInetta, which was benefitting from a drier surface on race day.
As the race returned to green flag conditions, it was clear that things were very different from Saturday. Rick Parfitt now had the bit between his teeth in the #1 Bentley and started to go up the order, and Derek Johnston in the #17 TF Sport Aston also fancied a piece of the action. Flick Haigh however wasn’t enjoying the pursuit of the Barwell pairing and she speared off the track in the #75 Aston at Tarzan before rescuing and rejoining. Lee Mowle also took to the outskirts of Tarzan in the #116 car, but came out unscathed.
A second safety car period ensued when David Pattison beached the #56 Tolman Pro-Am McLaren in the gravel at Chapman Curve, and required a snatch to pull him from the depths. By this time, Graham Davidson in the #47 Jetstream Aston had taken an interest in the chase of the Barwell Lamborghinis. Davidson is no stranger to the front end of the field and before long he had overhauled De Haan, and taken second behind Minshaw. Flying Scotsmen are no strangers in British GT and Davidson is the latest to prove his mettle. His charge was helped by what sounded like the imminent demise of the #69 Lamborghini, which suddenly took on a melodic tone not dissimilar to a selection of nuts and bolts in a tin can.
Behind the lead battle, there was a squabble for space at Tarzan between Johnston and Parfitt, and with the Bentley seemingly occupying the space that the #17 Aston should have been in, Johnston decided to assist the #1 car out of its path, causing Parfitt a nervous spin and an even more nervous wait for the traffic to pass around him before he wellied the throttle to point the Bentley in the right direction. Another hard charge had been ended, and from that moment the #1 Bentley failed to make any further inroads into the race. During his stint, Ratcliffe even had the misfortune of the car suddenly requiring a “hard reset” as he cruised to a stop just past the Deene hairpin.
Pitstops in British GT are a thing requiring precision and good timing. Every team member must be ready to play their part properly for any incident that may arise. The Optimum Aston squad had a small fire to deal with, which hindered Jonny Adam from getting a clean getaway back out to chase after the pack in his stint. The Barwell squad welcomed both their cars in, the #33 for the regular stop plus 20 seconds penalty, and the #69 permanently with transmission issues stopping the car from rejoining the race. Unfortunately, Phil Keen did not have his helmet equipped at the right point, and breached safety laws, which required the team to serve a further stop go penalty, denting their hopes of remaining in the top 3. Graham Davidson swapped for Maxime Martin in the #47 car, and the Belgian got to work on showing his factory talents.
In GT4, things had been relatively calm. The #4 Tolman McLaren led the #55 HHC Ginetta, and those positions soon reversed as Callum Pointon took over from Matthiesen. Making ground since the pitstops though were Finn Jesse Anttila, who had taken over in the #54 Ultratek Nissan, and was looking very competitive and very fast suddenly in one of the oldest cars on the grid, and Ben Barnicoat in the #72 track-club McLaren, where Adam Balon had once again put in an underrated but competent drive. Sadly, the track-club challenge blunted when the car started spitting a huge jet of flame from its exhaust. This left the way clear for the chasing pack, and the Tolman team were finally losing their grip on the weekend. Eventually, it was the #62 Academy Aston Martin piloted by Will Moore and Matt Nicoll-Jones that seized the initiative for 3rd place in class, despite a hairy moment into Turn 1 when Moore brushed sidepanels with the #11 TF Sport Aston of Mark Farmer, thankfully without major damage to either car.
GT3 though, was about to change utterly. Maxime Martin had set off from the pits in the hope that outright speed would put him on top of the pile come the chequered flag. A penalty coming for Keen would give him breathing space. What he didn’t anticipate was for the penalty that would apply to himself as the overran the track limits one too many times for the clerk of the course’s liking, and that turned hope into “what if” for the Jetstream Motorsport team. Cue the surprise package of the weekend.
At Monza the weekend before, the German Black Falcon squad took their car to 3rdplace overall in the Blancpain Endurance Series race. One of their drivers that day, Yelmer Buurman, was more than keen to show off his ability in the driving seat. A good series of fast laps let him up to the tailpipes of the #99 Beechdean Aston Martin, which was now driven by Darren Turner, who had inherited a podium spot following Andrew Howard’s usual gritty drive.
Buurman didn’t like the Aston being infront, but being a fair man he decided to give him a real show. Buurman showed the nose of the #116 Mercedes down Turner’s inside at Tarzan, knowing the British driver would give him short change for the cheek of an attempt. Buurman and Turner then went side-by-side along the following straight, where the left-right-left of the Brook chicane was located. With no regard for the average way of overtaking, Buurman launched the Mercedes round the outside of Turner into the first left hander in what was a superb passing manoeuvre with no comeback. From then on, it was top spot or bust for the Dutchman, and so it proved to be, with the Mercedes barely missing an apex or a cylinder blast to the chequered flag, whilst others behind him squabbled, struggled, slithered and slipped back. Lee Mowle had until this weekend never won a British GT race. It was high time after some near misses for him to achieve this goal. Behind them, Marco Sorensen had taken over from Derek Johnston in the #17 Aston and taken second on the road, only for this to be rescinded following an additional time penalty for the team for causing the spin for Rick Parfitt’s Bentley in the opening hour of the race.
Whilst the #1 Bentley suffered, Callum McLeod made up for Team Parker’s rather under-par start to the season by inheriting 2nd place after pushing the #7 Bentley up to 3rd on the road at the flag, whilst the #99 Beechdean car of Andrew Howard and Darren Turner took 3rd spot on the rostrum.
GT4 finished as it had been in most of the second hour. The major change being the rise of the #62 Aston to 3rd spot, although the performance of the Ultratek Nissans in 2nd and 4th was definitely something of a remarkable achievement. It was a definite reversal of fortune for the Tolman squad though, whose cars went from top of the world to off the rostrum in a 2 hour period on Sunday. HHC Motorsport were now back again, and Matthiesen and Pointon look no less effective than Middleton and Tregurtha did last year.
The most remarkable thing though was this – the race winner, who nobody expected, started from the very back of the GT3 pack, following Lee Mowle’s spin and prang during qualifying. It often shows how much a difference a race makes, and how much time can pass between being nowhere and being somewhere. Next time out, it’s two one hour long races at Snetterton, where there’s usually always something occurring to change the order of the field, and usually quite spectacularly.
© Pete Richardson May 2018