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.
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.
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.