A summertime sensation in the Garden of England
When people look back on the 2018 British GT race at Brands Hatch, they’ll probably remember two things about it – the first was the constant and unwavering heat from the unbridled summer sun and the excellent 2 hours of motor racing that happened on the baking Brands Hatch tarmac.
In the run up to Saturday’s practice action, the championship was announced to be still in the balance, once again, despite the large lead held by the Barwell #33 Lamborghini drivers Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen, as the #75 Optimum Aston Martin pairing of Flick Haigh and Jonny Adam were awaiting the rulings of the MSA judicial committee of their appeal to the penalty applied to them at Snetterton, knocking them down the order and costing championship points. This caused a mild amount of consternation, but with SRO unable to push the MSA into making a decision the situation in the title race remained to be disclosed. But racing titles are better decided on track, and everyone put this to the back of their minds for the weekend ahead.
Brands baked on Saturday. Thankfully, the drivers in the paddock are a hardy breed, and the extreme heat of a GT cockpit didn’t put many off. Rather sadly, the field was missing several regular entries. The #101 Balfe Motorsport McLaren GT3 car was missing in action, as was the #24 RJN Nissan GTR and it’s baby brother #54 Nissan 370Z, although the #53 car for Kelvin Fletcher and Martin Plowman remained. Also missing was the #68 Steller Motorsport Toyota GT86, which was lacking suitable parts to maintain the car, and the #8 ABBA Racing Mercedes, which suffered a fiery demise at Spa, but promised to return in 2019 with Richard Neary and Adam Christodolou.
Practice was the first chance for drivers to get their eye in around Brands Hatch. Many drivers were concerned about the traffic around the Grand Prix circuit, with Brands feeling narrower with the speed and size of the two different classes becoming an issue for the faster GT3 drivers. Unfortunately, an incident claimed the wildcard entry of the #26 Ultimate Speed Aston Martin of Mike Brown/Matt Manderson in practice as their car shunted heavily on the entry to Paddock Bend – a notorious crashing point that has seen cars from many different forms of racing become very second hand at a rapid rate. The practice sessions were also interrupted by the misfortunes of Will Moore in the #62 Academy Motorsport Aston Martin, who found his GT4 car beached in the deep gravel traps twice in one session to bring out the red flag to recover the Yorkshireman from his stony place of rest.
Qualifying begun for the GT3 class but was halted after one flying lap apiece after Mark Farmer planted the #11 TF Sport Aston Martin neatly into the deepest part of the gravel at Paddock Bend. With the car recovered, the flying laps came in. Topping the times at first was the #1 Team Parker Racing Bentley of Rick Parfitt, who recalled his paces from the 2017 race here. Consistency between drivers is what gets pole though, and although Yelmer Buurman in the #116 ERC Sport Mercedes topped the Pro session, it was the Optimum #75 Aston that took pole, with the #99 Beechdean AMR Aston (with the perfect advertising campaign for the hot weather) of Andrew Howard/Darren Turner partnering up alongside it. Title leaders Minshaw/Keen could only manage 5th overall in qualifying. Not a promising start for the Barwell boys.
The Silver pairings of GT4 made light work of Qualifying. Even lighter work was made of it by the Century BMW team whose #42 cars of Ben Tuck/Ben Green and #43 of Toyota refugee Dean MacDonald and Jack Mitchell took 2nd and pole respectively. Behind them was the #61 Academy Aston of Tom Wood and Jan Jonck, using the knowledge acquired from Academy’s run in the GT4 European Series at Brands in May to make a big step forward. Pole for Mitchell was just what the doctor ordered, as a penalty for winning at Spa hung over the head of the #43 drivers to make their race efforts that little bit tougher. Missing from the GT4 sessions was the #56 Tolman Motorsport McLaren of David Pattison and Joe Osborne, with an engine change necessary on their car, and they would start at the very back of the field for Sunday.
Sunday was as hot as Saturday. Almost everyone but the brave headed away from the heat, seeking shade and comfort around Brands Hatch. No joy for the drivers in seeking respite from the hot conditions though as temperatures in the cockpit soared exponentially as the 1:40pm start time loomed. Away leaped the field from the starting line as one pack, with Flick Haigh steering #75 into the lead with Andrew Howard in #99 following suit. Graham Davidson in the #47 Jetsteam Motorsport Aston looked around the outside of Howard into the first corner, but decided that a first corner lunge was not a sensible idea. Ben Green in the #42 GT4 Century BMW however took the lead from the sister car at the start, and left Dean MacDonald to the hungry looking #4 Tolman McLaren driven by Charlie Fagg, who dispatched with Tom Wood in quick fashion.
Jon Minshaw though, was not having a fun time holding back Sam De Haan in the #69 Barwell Lamborghini, and then the #1 Bentley of Rick Parfitt, who both looked like they were more than capable of passing the #33 car during the first hour. As time ticked on it looked more like a job of keeping the bottle corked for Minshaw, and hope that the pit stops would do them good.
The race however went into neutralisation, after Graham Roberts beached the #88 Team HARD Ginetta in the gravel, necessitating snatch recovery and a Safety Car. There’s been a recent phrase in television commentary on GT racing – safety cars breed safety cars. Once the #88 car was recovered, the track returned quickly to green flag conditions, only for the second Safety Car period to happen within the next 5 minutes after the #50 HHC Motorsports Ginetta of Mike Newbould tangled with the #44 Jaguar of Paul Vice on the Brabham Straight. The Ginetta speared off hard left nose first into the tyre wall, demolishing the front of the HHC car and a large chunk of barrier. Mercifully, Newbould emerged unharmed. Vice, with damage to the rear left quarter, spun the #44 car around and continued, minus a few panels of car. The clean up was lengthy, and the field was sent through the pit lane until racing resumed once more. In the brief green flag period between the two caution periods, Graham Davidson had caught Andrew Howard napping at the flag line and passed the #99 car for second place behind Haigh, but the #47 couldn’t match the pace of the leader enough to make any inroads before the pit stops came.
At the hour mark, there were notable changes in both races – with penalties coming for the GT3 and GT4 winners from Spa, the #47 Aston and the #43 BMW would no longer be at the sharp end of their respective fields. The biggest surprise though, when the first pit stops ticked over, was a new leader – the #69 Lamborghini, now driven by Jonny Cocker. Behind him, Jonny Adam had hared out in the #75 Optimum Aston to find his vision of a clear road with a black and pink obstacle now in his way, and driving excellently. First and second were never more than a second apart for quite some time after this, but that wasn’t the focus of the attention.
Behind them, the hottest and fastest train of the day took shape – Darren Turner in Aston #99, Phil Keen now in the #33 Lamborghini was now holding off Nicki Thiim in the #11 TF Sport Aston, which had made its way forward from the back of the GT3 pack, with Yelmer Buurman in Mercedes #116, Callum MacLeod in the #7 Bentley and the rapidly catching #17 TF Sport Aston driven by Marco Sorensen. These 6 cars barely put a wheel out of place for up to 45 minutes of hard, determined racing, punctuated by GT4 traffic, but showing the absolute class and equality of the professional drivers and their cars on a searing afternoon. It was gripping to all watching to see the battle continuing. Turner chased by Keen, Keen holding off Thiim, Thiim being threatened by Buurman…
There’d been a big change in GT4 though. All the leaders from earlier in the race had been Silver graded drivers, but now the Pros stepped in in the Pro Am cars. Silver drivers, with extra time added in their pit stops, watched the race slip away from them as the lead changed drastically. Graham Johnson, in the #501 Balfe Motorsport McLaren had been running a consistent and clean race til the pit stop, so when Mike Robinson took over, the 2016 champions took the class lead. Behind them, Martin Plowman in #53 Nissan began the unenviable task of keeping Scott Malvern at bay in the #66 Team Parker Racing Mercedes, which looked every bit a challenger for not just the podium, but more. Plowman used all his experience to hold the Mercedes off, which was not without eventual consequence.
Cocker and Adam continued on at the head of the race, unperturbed by traffic and incident around them. The #1 Bentley of Parfitt and Ratcliffe suddenly went off the road at Stirlings, and then headed back to the pit to retire. Also missing went the #62 Academy Aston, after Will Moore had sent up a large white smoke signal from the exhaust, which Matt Nicoll-Jones could not put right. Maxime Martin returned to the pits a shaken man in #47 Aston, with a hole in the windscreen caused by a low flying object, shattering the glass, and sending the unfortunate Belgian and the Jetstream car out of the race. Thankfully, Martin was not badly hurt by the close encounter.
But, with time ticking down rapidly, the race and the title fight was blown right apart, as Keen pulled out onto the Grand Prix loop in a slowing and suffering #33 Lamborghini. Barwell’s heads fell. Not another year where luck had deserted them, surely? Keen disappeared from the timesheets and into the box, a casualty of mechanical misfortune in the heat at just the wrong moment. Nicki Thiim pounced on Darren Turner, who found his mirrors less green and more blue in a sudden moment, and stole third place.
With only 5 minutes on the clock, Jonny Adam finally abandoned caution and passed Jonny Cocker for the lead. It had been coming for a while, despite the tenacity and skill of Cocker giving him reign to pilot the #69 car gracefully round without causing grave concern for most of the second hour. But Adam had played it better – the tyres held on just at the right moment for the Aston to open a couple of seconds as the flag fell on the race. Optimum took their second win of the year and the championship lead in one fell swoop. A highly successful and sweet victory.
But that wasn’t all the drama left. Robinson kept his head to win the GT4 class for Balfe Motorsport in the #501 McLaren, but behind him things went head over heels for the remaining podium places in exciting fashion. Martin Plowman’s rapid Nissan was just holding Scott Malvern off, for a very long time. Defensive driving isn’t necessarily a fast business, which probably explains the sudden arrival with no time to go of Ben Tuck in the #42 BMW. Tuck was bold and opportunistic on the final lap. Passing Malvern first, and then at the finishing line, outdragging Plowman to take 2nd place in a “blink or you’ll miss it” finish, which the Nissan only just took 3rd place from as Malvern tried to finally get past Plowman with the BMW stealing a march on them both. It was no less than this race deserved to have thrilling climaxes in both classes.
The champagne was chilled for the victors, but nothing is sweeter than more championship points with one race left in the year. Barwell will be ruing their luck once again, as the race for the 2018 title comes to a thrilling finish. Donington, as always, will provide us with the setting for a decider of gargantuan proportion. Standing the heat is one thing, standing pressure and holding your nerve is a greater challenge altogether.
© Pete Richardson 5th August 2018