It’s a hard thing to say but we need to look beyond Jenson Button this weekend.
There are titles to be won, careers to be forged and hard-knocks to be endured. The battles between the mighty McLarens and Lamborghinis will extend far from Silverstone’s locked gates, thanks largely to the live broadcast feed from Sky Sports’ F1 channel, yet despite the dominant presence of the GT3 machines, it’s the GT4 class that looks set to deliver the edge-of-seat drama.
One of the impacts of COVID-19 is that grid numbers have been hit hard this year. Nevertheless, the rivalries that have emerged over the course of the season have become ever more intense. Leading the way have been the two TF Sport Aston Martins of (#97) Dan Vaughan & Jamie Caroline and (#95) Connor O’Brien & Patrick Kibble. On one-lap pace, for almost the entire duration of the year, they’ve been inseparable; Kibble’s smooth flowing lines contrasting widely with Caroline’s hard-edgy style, yet always resulting in pretty much the same . . which is why the inevitable happened at Brands Hatch when both cars, having side-swiped their way past Ben Green’s BMW, found themselves scrapping over the same piece of tarmac going into Paddock Hill bend. Kibble had found a way past Caroline, but then left a small gap as he launched into the corner; Caroline inevitably wanted the place back. To those of us watching, it seemed more desperate than determined but the reality was, and is, that these two cars, so evenly matched, are battling for the title, and there’s no ‘after you’ on the last lap of any points-scoring race.
What makes TF Sport stand out in the GT paddock isn’t just the quality of its engineering (which is second-to-none) but more-so the leadership from team boss Tom Ferrier. He knows racers like Kibble and Caroline well – he was one. He was fast and hard and a winner, but he also endured the sort of knocks and set-backs that take many ‘should have been’ careers into early retirement. We spoke both before and after the Brands Hatch race and his delivery was unchanged; only focused on the next round and the one after that. The disaster of O’Brien & Kibble’s retirement at the hands of their teammate, and Vaughan & Caroline’s subsequent time penalty had hurt both pairings badly, yet Ferrier and his drivers dealt with it swiftly (as every professional must) and moved-on . . which is why both cars are still very much in the title race today.
With 143 points, Vaughan & Caroline lead the standings by just 2.5 points from the HHC McLaren of Patrick Matthiesen & Jordan Collard (140.5 points). O’Brien & Kibble are in third place with 130 points, whilst Matt Cowley in the Academy Mustang lies in p4 with 112.5 points. Theoretically, still with a mathematical chance of success (but needing to not only win the race but the previous four to all dnf) is the second HHC car of Gus Bowers and Chris Wesemael.
So how do we think this remarkable encounter might play-out?
On paper, Vaughan & Caroline have to look the strongest. Their points lead might be slender but they hold the advantage of the Matthiesen/Collard car carrying a 20-second pit-stop success penalty (as a result of victory last time out at Snetterton) – five seconds longer than they are required to spend. They’ve also qualified in P2, as against P7 for the McLaren. But this doesn’t mean that it’ll be a straight run for the line: The #97 car is surrounded on the grid by three of the hardest-charging cars we’ve seen in GT4. Pole position was claimed by two exceptional drives from the Speedworks Toyota pairing of James Kell & Sam Smelt. Only the Mustang was quicker in session 1, whilst Scott Malvern in the Team Parker Racing Mercedes-AMG was the sole entry to lap quicker in session 2. There have been far too many times this year when circumstances have worked against the Supra. It’s always had the pace but has all too often been on the wrong end of a 50/50. Kell & Smelt might not be able to carry the main prize home tonight but they’ll be in the comfortable position of knowing that the championship isn’t theirs to lose, and so the points that they score might very well have a significant effect on the outcome.
As for Matthiesen & Collard, they’ve become stronger and stronger as the season’s progressed. Two wins and a second from the last three outings have catapulted their HHC McLaren into contention, a fact that won’t be lost on GT3 title hopeful Rob Collard (Jordan’s father) when the faster cars come to lap them.
Just as Brands Hatch was a difficult weekend for both TF Sport cars, it was for them too, a tyre failure sending the 570S out of the race and away from a points haul that would have otherwise seen them heading the standings now. So can they make-up the difference and claim the crown? Before yesterday, I was tempted to say ‘yes’; the consistency that each driver has shown has led them to where they are now, and over three hours of racing, the five-second pit-stop deficit to Vaughan & Caroline isn’t insurmountable, but somehow, they just couldn’t deliver the pace yesterday which now leaves them facing mid-pack battles and having to find a way past two serious rivals before they even reach the #97 car. It’s a big ask.
O’Brien & Kibble face an even tougher task. Not only do they have Matthiesen & Collard right behind them on the grid, they were also comprehensively outpaced in qualifying by their teammates. It’s probably the first time this season that I’ve noticed this gap and it will undoubtedly give both their main rivals the impetus of knowing that despite the success penalties, they should be able to manage the race and still emerge in front after the final driver change.
And then there’s Cowley. If ever there was a wild card, it has to be him in the Mustang. There’s no denying that losing Jordan Albert prior to Snetterton was a huge blow to the Academy squad. Cowley always appeared to be the quicker and harder of the two but it was Albert’s performance at Brands Hatch (from the back of the grid) that gave Cowley the position to set-up the moves that took him past Caroline and into the lead that he defended so well. Nevertheless, Will Moore, who partnered Cowley in the GT4 European Series, has proved to be a more than capable replacement and with very little to lose (and starting in P3), the Mustang will be a force to be reckoned with. It’s not as sleek along the straights as the Vantage but it holds itself well through the corners before roaring off the apex. Plus Cowley isn’t just a race winner in GT4, he’s also held two pole positions, whilst the overtake on Caroline at Brands Hatch was simply sublime, so whilst he has an awful lot of points to make-up, a good result for him and a not so good result for those ahead in the standings could still see him earn a shock result.
Sadly, I think that Bowers & Wesemael have far too few fingers to cross for them to stand any chance of success , yet they might, still, very easily come into play by helping their HHC teammates. The disadvantage for the TF Sport cars and Cowley is that they have no help to call-on in finding a way through or holding others up: Matthiesen & Collard have Bowers & Wesemael and especially after a potential post-stop safety car period, the #57 car could very easily find itself playing a strong supporting-role in determining the outcome.
There is, however, one other very significant piece to this puzzle. There are twelve GT4 cars taking to the grid and each of these, at some stage, might easily come into play. In particular, the Newbridge Motorsport Vantage with James Dorlin behind the wheel is likely to lap as quickly and race as hard as anyone. Dorlin likes to win and that is what’s going to be foremost on his mind today. Likewise, nobody was able to match the pace yesterday of Scott Malvern in the Mercedes-AMG. The Team Parker Racing man will be very aware of the championship battles around him, but it won’t stop him from making clean decisive moves when opportunity knocks.
Ultimately, this race is simply too close to call. Add-in the likelihood of maybe two or three safety car periods, and a splash or two of rain and it’s going to be down to the best drivers and best team strategy that wins . . which is how it always should be.
Watch the race live today on Sky Sports F1 (coverage from 12.25pm) or head over to SRO’s GT World YouTube channel