Credit where credit’s due, SRO worked wonders to deliver a revised British GT calendar (following lockdown) that avoided clashes with its other major European series’. And this not only gave organisers but also its teams and drivers the chance to work a little magic on the telephones and help to secure a healthy grid for the season opener, despite the loss of Aston Martin from GT3, as early casualties of the pandemic.
Indeed, some 22 cars lined-up at Oulton Park, representing nine manufacturers. This included the much awaited debut of Speedworks’ Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Supra GT4, but it was McLaren that stole the show, winning in GT3 with Jenson Button’s Team Rocket RJN in Race 1; winning in GT4 in Race 2 (seeing Mia Flewitt add to the championship’s tally of first ladies); and leading everyone across the line in race 2 in the shape of the safety car.
New for 2020 is title sponsor Intelligent Money. New too are the Pirelli tyre compounds for both classes. This is Pirelli’s fifth season as sole tyre supplier to the championship and the uprated P Zeros (DHE for GT3 and DHB for GT4) have been welcomed by teams in testing, showing much improvement at higher speed circuits where degradation is a key factor. By all accounts, the new rubber is not only more consistent but delivers better front-end grip in fast, heavy-loaded corners, and this could well be a key factor in determining the eventual championship outcome. Previously, Silver class cars (required to carry extra weight) would often experience a significant drop-off in performance towards the end of a race. Moreover, for the GT3s, having to manage traffic by passing large numbers of GT4 cars, deep in their own battles, would often add to the toll. This year, we have more durable tyres and less GT4s, so don’t be surprised if silver turns into gold.
Qualifying in GT3 saw the front row separated by just 1/1000th second; Optimum’s Lewis Proctor taking pole in the McLaren 720S, whilst late entrant Jordan Witt in the 2 Seas Motorsport car lined-up beside him. Angus Fender in the second 2 Seas car started in P3 whilst James Baldwin, the eSports graduate was in P4: All four cars McLarens were separated by just 1/10th.
Proctor got away well and held the lead for the duration of his stint, despite relentless pressure from Witt, who was hardly ever more than a car’s length behind. But when he stopped to hand over to Ollie Wilkinson, Witt continued in an attempt to deliver the undercut for his co-driver Jack Mitchell.
Sure enough, the 2 Seas car gained the advantage and Mitchell emerged in the lead. Meanwhile Fender had spent his stint with the world’s fastest gamer (Baldwin) always within striking distance. In turn, he was pursued by gritty ex-touring car racer Rob Collard, who had manoeuvred his Barwell Lamborghini into contention. When these three all dived into the pits to make their stop, the race was between the crews and it was the highly polished Jenson Team Rocket RJN squad who sent Baldwin’s co-driver, Michael O’Brien, on his way, just ahead of Dean Macdonald in the 2 Seas car and Sandy Mitchell in the Huracan. All three emerged right behind second placed Wilkinson who found Mitchell’s pace too strong to match . . and then came the dreaded message from Race Control that Mitchell’s #10 McLaren had received a 10 second stop-go penalty for a pit stop infringement.
Wilkinson, no stranger to GT success, then had a moment to forget, bouncing high across the Brittens chicane kerbs and leaving enough of a gap for O’Brien to say ‘thank you very much’. After this, it was almost a straight run to the line, although a late safety car period required the leader to successfully manage the restart, taking him to victory on his GT3 debut.
Wilkinson was second and MacDonald was the best of the 2 Seas cars after Mitchell was penalised again, this time for speeding in the pit lane.
Barwell’s #78 Huracan of Collard & Mitchell was the highest placed non McLaren in P4, whilst in the battle of the Mercedes-AMGs, Sam de Haan & Patrick Kujala just headed Ian Loggie & Yelmer Buurman, the latter winning class honours in Pro-Am.
In GT4, it was business as usual for TF Sport. Connor O’Brien got his head down to build a substantial nine-second advantage over the debuting Speedworks Toyota. This was extended further after the pit stops, the Toyota being penalised for a hasty changeover.
This left most of the action to take place in the race for the remaining podium places. The HHC McLaren of Patrik Matthiesen & Jordan Collard, TF Sport’s second Vantage with Dan Vaughan & Jamie Caroline and Academy’s new Mustang with Jordan Albert & Matt Cowley all traded places and all looked likely until Cowley lost traction exiting Cascades.
By the flag, Patrick Kibble had matched O’Brien’s early pace to bring the #95 Vantage home by a substantial margin, Collard and Caroline holding positions to complete the top three. But all credit to Sam Smelt & James Kell (despite their team’s pit stop gaff), the speed of Supra still managing to race to P4 after serving it’s penalty.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Phil Keen is one of the most outstanding drivers of the modern GT3 era. It’s truly sad that Jonny Adam is missing from this year’s line-up, but even the Scotsman’s presence would have been unlikely to have stopped the Barwell man from delivering a stunning pole position lap that would see the fastest McLaren relegated to P6.
As the red lights went out, Keen’s Lamborghini and the second placed Barwell car of Sandy Mitchell immediately stretched their legs, joined for a while by a beaming Marcus Clutton who audaciously launched his JMH Auto Huracan past both RAM Racing’s Mercedes-AMGs as they surged through the first corner. This helped the lead duo to build their lead whilst the raging RAMs found an unlikely green giant halting their pursuit.
Eventually, Buurman would find a way past but by now, it was clear that barring something unforeseen, the only race left would be in the pit stops. Barwell swapped Mitchell for Collard once the pits opened but left Keen out to lap quickly, calling him in with just over three seconds of the window left remaining. It was exceptional timing and looked set to deliver a climax worthy of any title race, but soon after Adam Balon took over the #71 car’s lead, contact between Nick Jones’ Team Parker Racing Bentley and Race One’s GT4 winner O’Brien (that also took out Angus Fender’s 2 Seas McLaren) not only left all three cars stranded in different locations, but an under-resourced recovery team unable to clear them safely within the race duration.
For 25 minutes, first the safety car, then Balon headed the field, and that was the way it ended. Collard was second whilst a pit stop infringement penalty saw RAM Racing’s Loggie & Buurman demoted down the order and the sister car of Sam De Haan & Patrick Kujala finish third.
In GT4, there was Pro-Am success for the Balfe McLaren of Mia Flewitt & Euan Hankey.
Hankey started on pole but Jamie Caroline in the #97 TF Sport car soon found a way past. Nevertheless, Hankey had enough pace to keep the Vantage in his sights, whilst holding-off the threat of Patrick Kibble in the second TF Sport car. As silver pairings, the two Aston Martins would face extended pit stops and this allowed Hankey’s teammate, Mia Flewitt, to take the lead for the second stint. The advent of the safety car never allowed the chasing pack the time needed to make their challenges and so Flewitt crossed the line to become British GT’s latest female winner.
Nobody can deny Balon & Keen, Flewitt & Hankey their victories but I sincerely hope that more efficient recovery resources are in place when the championship arrives at Donington Park in a few weeks time.