British GT 2018 – Silverstone 500 Preview

It’s time to go long again.

June has finally arrived, and with it comes the blue riband event of the British GT season, the Silverstone 500. 500 kilometres is a fair distance for the championship to face, and the longest race of every season always brings a good scrap and a surprise result or two. So what can we potentially expect from this weekend’s endurance event? Perhaps we need look no further than last time out at Snetterton.

What happened at Snetterton was a massive display of V12 Vantage dominance from Aston Martin – try as the other GT3 teams might, there was little chance of an Aston not being top across the whole weekend. And this won’t have gone unnoticed by SRO. It’s unusual for one manufacturer to have such a good time of it across a race weekend. But to have almost all the GT3 Astons at the pointy end of the results will probably hit the Warwickshire concern with a change in Balance of Performance. Add to that the victory in May’s Blancpain Endurance race at Silverstone for R-Motorsport (incidentally running ½ of the Dane Train in the form of TF Sport’s Nicki Thiim) there will be severe concerns that the Aston will need the anchors added for the longest race of the season. While nothing has yet been disclosed, don’t be surprised for the V12 Vantage to be perhaps a little ‘fatter’ for the weekend ahead.

And yet, with the Aston dominance last weekend, it’s the ERC Sport Mercedes pairing of Lee Mowle and Yelmer Buurman who top the tables by 4 ½ points from the title-hungry #33 Barwell Lamborghini drivers Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen. Things never change for the Barwell pair – another year, another title challenge, but still second, for now anyway. Leading the Aston fight is the #99 Beechdean pairing of Andrew Howard and Darren Turner, who’ve a 12 point deficit from Mowle/Buurman.

So, there’s impetus for drivers to maintain points scores. Minshaw and Keen will want to repeat 2016 where they took victory at the Silverstone 500. Mowle/Buurman will want another endurance race win, and Buurman’s ability to charge for long periods of time will help that. Then we have last year’s winners – Rick Parfitt took the Bentley round to a majestic win, and there were green shoots of promising performance at Snetterton for he and Ryan Ratcliffe. A good race at Silverstone would bring a little joy to the Team Parker garage, where Ian Loggie and Callum McLeod’s podium at Rockingham in #7 has been the sole reason to shout loudly so far.

There’s always an augmentation to the field at Silverstone, and this year we welcome back the ABBA Rollcentre Racing Mercedes for a wildcard role in this year’s race weekend. Richard Neary has been driving the Merc in the Britcar Endurance series, but returns with factory driver Adam Christodolou for this one. Last year, Neary had a promising performance in the early stages of the race before suffering a spin. Also returning are new series regulars Balfe Motorsport, after their McLaren suffered a big hit at Rockingham. Shaun Balfe and Rob Bell had a great weekend in the McLaren during International GT Open’s visit in 2017, and there is no reason why they can’t have another crack of the whip on their return. Rounding out the new faces, Nissan’s Gran Turismo star Ricardo Sanchez will partner Struan Moore in the #24 GT-R for this weekend to have another hustle round after having had a play in the Blancpain race last month.

The battle for GT4 is even tighter than that for GT3. So tight infact that you can barely fit a sheet of paper width between Callum Pointon and Patrik Matthiesen’s #55 HHC Motorsport Ginetta and the #4 Tolman McLaren pairing of Charlie Fagg and Michael O’Brien. The battle of the Silver cup drivers in GT4 is back again this year, and as we come to this round there is only ½ a point between Pointon/Matthiesen from Fagg/O’Brien. This is testament to how consistency vs wins works. Fagg and O’Brien have always loitered around the steps of the podium, whilst Pointon/Matthiesen have had a big win at Rockingham to take the larger points score.

HHC Motorsport can be proud of what they are doing in the GT4 series. To be at the top for the second year running in their second year of British GT competition is nothing short of spectacular. Snetterton for them wasn’t brilliant – no podiums allowed the Tolman #4 car to catch back up to their championship leaders, but keeping up the pace is tough, especially when you’ve two Silver drivers facing off against some fantastic professional drivers. Silverstone will be another hard ask for them, but with Ginetta struggling at Snetterton they may yet receive a BoP boost to help them against the McLarens.

We’ve another returnee to GT4 at Silverstone in the form of the Appleby Engineering Aston Martin driven by James Holder and Matthew George. Yes, that Matthew George. George will be piloting both the Jaguar F-Type and the Aston V8 Vantage, requiring him to drive all 3 hours of the race at Silverstone in one way or another. Anyone who frequents the paddock will have spotted him maintaining a thorough fitness routine, so at least physically he’ll be more than capable of coping. It’ll be a fair juggling act at pitstops though. Sadly, for this race, we’ve lost the Johansen/Anttila #54 Ultratek Nissan, which is beyond repair after a punishing race at Snetterton.

The cards are on the table for the weekend ahead at least. 3 hours is a long time to face, and there’s so much that can happen across the field in that time. Will the experience of Minshaw/Keen pay through? Will it be a fairytale return for Beechdean and Andrew Howard with Darren Turner backing him up before his Le Mans trip? Can either of the GT4 Silver pairings make advantage of the extra half point on offer for an endurance race win? All will be revealed on Sunday afternoon.

© Pete Richardson June 2018

British GT 2018 – Round 3 – Snetterton

A solid weekend all round

When you look back at the opening two rounds of the season at Oulton Park and Rockingham, you begin to wonder whether there’s any hope of there being a race weekend where the drivers can stop worrying about the weather and just get on with the job in hand. The first knockings of summer bring with them optimism, a feeling of serenity and the threat of those barbecue-quelling storms that make everything feel like a typical British year.

The weekend of 26-27th May though will go down as a generally pleasant weekend though, and for no reason less than we got our usual feast of GT action at the Norfolk venue of Snetterton, where drivers and teams stare down the barrel of a narrow, tight and twisting circuit surrounded by wonderful high speed blasts which brings with it a question of whether to make the most of cornering or fit the car up for the acceleration and top speed for the two 1 hour sprint races on Sunday.

Sadly, we were short of the #101 Balfe Motorsport McLaren 650S which pranged at Rockingham’s Turn 4 last time out. Shaun Balfe is a canny man though, and knows to rush back would probably only have been a disadvantage. Better to be ready for the 3 hour blue riband Silverstone 500 event in a few weeks time where more points, and more space await the field. Also missing was Devon Modell from the #24 RJN Nissan, who was replaced by Jordan Witt, making his return to the championship after previously having wielded the “small but mighty” Chevron in past seasons in British GT.

The Mercedes was the car to have last time out at Rockingham, or at least Lee Mowle and Yelmer Buurman thought so, with justification. As free practice began though it was clear that a British Summer weekend needed a British manufacturer to make hay, and Aston Martin looked imperious, with Nicki Thiim in the #11 TF Sport Aston and Darren Turner in the #99 Beechdean cars leading the way with the other Astons looking serious behind them. Rather worryingly, the competition looked like not being at it’s usual strength. We are used to having Lamborghinis from Barwell being there or thereabouts at Snetterton, but Minshaw/Keen and De Haan/Cocker looked like being the best of the rest at best. Buurman was pushing the #116 Mercedes as best he could with the changed BoP on the Mercedes following the Rockingham win, but not even the flying Dutchman could halt the Warwickshire-made titans.

GT4 thankfully was as open as ever, and although the #62 Aston of Matt Nicoll-Jones took the second free practice session, it wasn’t by a huge margin, and the rest of the field, including the #66 Mercedes of Jones/Malvern which topped FP1 were still in close contention. It wasn’t all plain sailing though as the RJN Ultratek Nissan #53 of Fletcher/Plowman suffered engine troubles which would keep the car firmly in the garage needing severe transplant surgery under the bonnet, which the mechanics went at with heart and vigour to get the 370Z out on track once more.

Qualifying in GT3 though was all about one car and two men. Mark Farmer and Nicki Thiim made the most of the improved weather in the #11 Aston to top both the qualifying sessions for TF Sport. A little adjustment to the set up saw the blue car take the pole from its rivals, much to the delight of the pairing. Mark Farmer has history at Snetterton of podium visits, and another wouldn’t harm his morale or reputation. Graham Davidson got P2 for race one with the #47 Jetstream car holding off the #1 Team Parker Bentley of Rick Parfitt and the #33 Barwell Lamborghini of Jon Minshaw, who made an effort to prevent it being a total walkover for the Astons for Race 1. Qualifying’s second session saw Yelmer Buurman and Maxime Martin attempt to topple Nicki Thiim’s top time, but both fell afoul of the rules – Buurman pushed the #116 ERC Sport Mercedes beyond the limits of inhabitable race track, and Maxime Martin set a blistering time only to not set enough timed laps to qualify the #47 car properly, sending him to the back of the GT3 pack.

GT4 qualifying saw the #42 Century BMW of Ben Tuck/Ben Green take pole for the first race, happily putting a different marque top of the times for each separate session up to and including Quali.1 in the class. Tuck made a very neat and tidy lap to give himself space over the #55 HHC Ginetta of Pointon/Matthiesen. Behind them, Will Moore in #62 Aston headed off the suddenly speedy #68 Toyota of Tom Canning. The Toyota is the least-cylinder bound car on the grid, but it has legs when it needs them. The second qualifying session saw Nicoll-Jones nab race 2 pole, heading off Jack Mitchell in the #43 Century BMW, who was riding on the crest of the wave caused by #42 earlier. Jan Jonck, fresh off a solid performance in the GT4 European Series at Brands, took the other #61 Academy Aston to third, with Scott Malvern pushing the #66 Mercedes to fourth spot.

Race one got underway with the #11 Aston pulling away from the start to try and keep itself there. Behind Mark Farmer, Jon Minshaw reminded Graham Davidson that being a newcomer in British GT should be an ‘experience’ by passing him to take 2nd place and try and keep up with Farmer. But Davidson soon got the bit between his teeth, back past Minshaw and started to close up to Farmer, bringing the #1 Bentley of Parfitt with him to keep him company in pursuit of the top step. Infact it was all going really well for Graham Davidson, and then the safety car came out. A 60 minute sprint with a safety car period is rather frustrating for everyone, especially when it coincides with the pit window opening. In came the drivers for a change around – Davidson got out and Martin got in, but were held up, so Nicki Thiim once again pushed to the front as the #11 Aston retook the lead, which it would hold to the finish, taking the first “Dane Train” win in British GT, a highly popular score with the fans. Behind the TF Sport car, Davidson/Martin held a solid second, with Minshaw/Keen taking third after pit stop calamities held back the #1 Bentley from achieving further progress.

The GT4 race was fairly similar at the start. Ben Tuck got his head down behind the wheel of the #42 BMW, but sadly it wouldn’t last as the safety car meant that it was advantage neutralised when the pit window opened. With the field closer than it had been before, it was down to who could change and profit best. Cue the entry of one of the most popular men in the paddock: Joe Osborne in the #56 Tolman McLaren. Osborne is fast at Snetterton (he’d set pole last year here and had a podium with David Pattison), and the McLaren was in good shape to profit from the extra time required to be taken by the Silver driver pairings. 12 seconds is a huge time in motorsport, so when Tuck and Green swapped round, they had to watch and wait as the Pro-Am McLaren with David Pattison having driven a reliable and neat stint gave the #56 to Osborne who promptly waved goodbye to the cars behind and hello to a GT4 race win. Behind him, Charlie Fagg and Michael O’Brien came through to take 2nd place, proving their speed and consistency in the Silver Class again in #4 McLaren, with Will Moore and Matt Nicoll-Jones climbing up to 3rd after Martin Plowman’s #53 Nissan got a penalty for a pit infringement late on in the race, robbing it of a podium place when everything looked good for the rather unlucky 370Z.

Photo-Jakob Ebrey/British GT

So, Race 1 yielded two of the most popular wins of the season so far, but Race 2 was coming. To add to the drama and perhaps increase the blood pressure of some drivers, just as the field took to the formation lap, some drops of warm (but not unpleasant) rain started hitting the track. As the Pro drivers would take the start first, it was clear that the rain in the air was completely psychological and could be ignored. Sadly in GT4 though, this meant that when the field bunched up for the tight Agostini hairpin, the cars infront were psychological and could be ignored too, as the #86 Toyota of McDonald/Quinn hit the #72 track-club McLaren piloted by Ben Barnicoat, putting both cars out of the race, and the track into neutralisation with barely a lap gone.

Nicki Thiim wasn’t complaining though. He’d led from the first moment of the race and the #11 TF Sport would only have a 10 second penalty in the pit stop to serve which would knock them back down the order, but Thiim barely saw the back of anyone else in his stint, lest it were a backmarker or the safety car, which came out early to suspend proceedings a little. Behind him though was WEC teammate and fellow Dane Train driver, Marco Sorensen, who was in the #17 sister TF Sport Aston. And it was he who would profit from a lack of pit penalty this time round when the window opened.  Sorensen handed over to Derek Johnston, and Darren Turner handed over to Andrew Howard in the #99 Beechdean Aston, which would finally make a race distance having failed to manage it in race 1. What then happened was one of the finest pressure/defence drives we’ve seen as Howard nailed his nose to the rear bumper of Johnston’s car, in an effort to put the 2016 champion off his stride. Johnston is no fool though and kept his business to himself as the Beechdean car started to sniff out gaps and put pressure on him. The two cars finished neatly, cleanly and safely first and second, with Howard having to settle for second to Johnston/Sorensen. Behind them, Mark Farmer held on to 3rd with the #11 TF Sport car, which was holding off the #75 Optimum Aston driven by the scarily fast Flick Haigh, who was making up time hand over fist in the late stages. It would have been Astons 1-2-3-4-5, but for a penalty for the #47 car of Davidson/Martin, which went in a little too heavily on the #33 Lamborghini of Jon Minshaw in the last quarter of the race, putting Minshaw off the road, but thankfully not out. 1-2-3-4 still looks good for Aston though, if a little too dominant ahead of the next race.

Photo-Jakob Ebrey/British GT

Despite the messy beginning, GT4 played out pretty cleanly in the end, as Nicoll-Jones led the field to begin with, but Jack Mitchell squeezed the #43 BMW into the lead in the opening half of the race, showing his credentials as a solid racer in any machine once more. Behind them, the other BMW of Ben Green got nudged into a spin, and had to work hard to get ground back. As the pit stops came, it was now time for the third Tolman McLaren to take over the lead, as the #5 of Jordan Albert and Lewis Proctor got a shift on and went to the front. Behind them though, Ben Tuck had been shown the proverbial red rag, and was turning bullish laps to recover the time lost by Green’s earlier spin. He made up time and time each lap, and positions, to be in place when Proctor succumbed to pressure on the last lap of the race, demoting the #5 McLaren to second, and giving the #42 BMW a deserved win on sheer effort. Once again, Nicoll-Jones/Moore took 3rd place to remind everyone that Aston Martin weren’t done with GT4 yet either.

Snetterton had provided us with a fair bounty of racing again. And Aston Martin came away with a huge pile of trophies, a pair of happy Danes, and a potential headache of BoP, ballast and pit stop penalties to be applied at Silverstone next time out, for the 500km, 3 hour event which sees the winning drivers awarded the RAC Trophy and is the highlight of the British GT year. Good things come to those who work hard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t escape the hammer of racing justice of course… Silverstone, and its long race, await.