HOW ASTON BLITZED BRITISH GT
THE STORY OF A BRITISH SPORTSCAR SUCCESS
This year’s British GT season was a tale of two battles – the first being the on-track scrap for supremacy, and the second the internal fight between the classes, the outcome of which may well decide the future direction of the championship.
On track there was a tight contest between TF Sport Aston Martin crew Derek Johnston and Jonathan Adam, the Barwell Lamborghini Huracan of Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen and the Team Parker Racing Bentley handled by Rick Parfitt Jr and Seb Morris.
The title went down to the final race, with Johnston and Adam nicking it in what would be a record-setting milestone for AMR factory man Adam, who became the first driver ever to defend the British GT3 title.
Off track, the continued growth of the more affordable GT4 division placed larger questions than ever upon the future of GT3 racing in Britain, as grids in the more expensive, but also more spectacular, top class dwindled toward the season’s end.
GT3 v GT4
It’s been a slow burner since its introduction in 2008, but the growth curve of GT4 hit new highs this season, and in doing so dominated much of the talk about the championship’s future beyond this year.
The changing of the guard in terms of British GT’S most popular class threatened to overshadow the actual fight for the championship. Mention British GT to anybody in the paddock over the course of 2016 and the topic of the series potentially heading down an all-gt4 route was never far from the surface.
The year began with a near 50-50 split between GT3 and GT4 at Brands Hatch, with 14 GT3S running alongside 16 GT4S. But, as the year progressed, those numbers shifted, as did attitudes towards the classes.
It didn’t help that the numbers were skewed by both the Silverstone and Spa-francorchamps grids sharing with a multitude of European GT4 Series runners. It led to people seeing huge GT4 flocks, with just a scant handful of GT3 runners in comparison. In fact the entry between the two classes of the British championship were never more than a handful of cars apart.
However, GT3 did shrink over the season as cars and teams fell by the wayside. The season finale at Donington featured just 11 GT3 cars – a six-year low – as opposed to 18 in GT4.
The issue surrounding GT3 in Britain is the sheer cost of it. As the racing and the teams have become more professional, budgets have naturally risen to the point where they teeter on the unsustainable for a national series.
British GT has always thrived from its Pro-am format, with well-funded gents sharing with pro or semi-pro drivers. But as the competition has increased that has led to an expensive arms race of who can buy the best seats in the best cars and also afford to hire the fastest driver to partner them. That’s not a healthy format for the long-term, and has put a lot of gentlemen drivers off entering the championship.
In comparison, GT4 costs are substantially lower – around a third of the £300,000 plus estimated to run a competitive GT3 operation – and the class can cater for a more varied selection of drivers. GT4 has now truly become the first step into GT racing it was always designed to be, and as such attracted a host of rising talents looking to learn their craft in GTS.
GT4 is the perfect place for that, as GT3 has largely become inaccessible to all but the wealthiest of young semi-pro drivers, and in those cases the lure of top-line single-seaters often proves too strong. To win in GT3 you need a factory or true professional driver, and there are only so many of those around.
In GT4 you find silver-graded semi-pros sharing the bills with gents, or drivers of a similar background and grading, and it works. Grids are on the up and the racing has been top class. There’s little or none of that budget sharing in GT3.
Series organiser SRO recognises that the current pigeon-holed GT3 format isn’t working and has taken steps to attract more of those younger silver-rated drivers through a widespread GT3 class and format change for 2017, which has been cooked up with the help of the current teams. Next year will have more Pro-am classes, catering better to silver drivers.
The fact the paddock is drawing together to fix a clear issue is promising for the future of GT3 in Britain, but only the final entry list next April will tell whether it is enough to lure the customers back. Organisers are targeting a minimum of 15 GT3 entries.
TF to the top
The story of TF Sport’s rise to the top has roots far beyond just the start of this season.
Tom Ferrier’s squad may be new compared to some of the outfits in the paddock, but it is built on solid foundations. Having been part of the championship since 2011, when Ferrier helped run the frontrunning Scuderia Vittoria outfit, the team boss has assembled a crew of experienced engineers and took the final step by adding Johnston and Adam to the fold.
Johnston was many people’s tip to be top Am this year due to his experience, and having an active factory driver in Adam alongside him opened the door for a review of the way TF’S Astons were run.
TF had already made great strides in its set-up knowledge of the Vantage GT3, having taken two consecutive GT3 poles and a maiden race win at the end of last season, but having Adam added an extra dimension.
“Jonny knows the Vantage GT3 as well as anybody can, so having his experience has been key,” says Ferrier. “When he first tested with us we immediately found further improvements with the suspension, tyres and brakes – the little things that make the car that bit more comfortable and gives a driver that bit more confidence.”
TF was also helped that the Vantage GT3 began the season with very few homologation upgrades. It wasn’t a similar story for the rival Barwell team.
Having successfully run BMWS for the last four seasons, the squad’s move to Lamborghini came as a bit of a surprise last winter.
The key driver to the deal was support from the factory Squadra Corse operation, making Barwell more than just a usual customer team.
It did however mean a steep learning curve ahead of this season. Being one of the new-generation GT3 cars, the Huracan handled and performed in a very different way to the Vantage as it has been designed with far more aerodynamic dependency.
“The Huracan’s performance is all mid-corner as it has so much downforce, it almost behaves like a formula car,” says Barwell head Mark Lemmer. “It’s a different prospect to older GT3S, which were more about sheer power. The Lambo is designed with minimal drag and maximum downforce, so the Pro drivers love it, but it can be tricky for the Ams as there’s less outright power to call on and it’s about carrying speed.”
Barwell and its drivers tested extensively with Squadra Corse in Europe in an effort to be ready for this year.
Team Parker Racing was also in a similar situation. Having built its reputation running Porsches, Stuart Parker’s team landed a factory Bentley deal to move up to GT3 over the winter.
It meant new tooling and adapting to the step-change in set-up between Stuttgart and Crewe. But, come the start of the year at Brands Hatch, you’d never have noticed that two teams were lacking mileage.
Parfitt and Morris scorched to pole position on their debut in what would become a bit of a theme for the Bentley. The duo often starred in qualifying, taking four poles from the first six races, but managed just a single victory, which ultimately proved costly.
On fast, flowing tracks such as Brands GP, Silverstone and Spa, the Bentley was unstoppable over a lap as its mixture of solid aero and raw power came to the fore. But in races experience proved the difference.
Parfitt established himself as one of the top Ams in the class this year, but his few errors all hurt. He was first robbed of victory at Brands by the controversial Code 80 rule, which is supposed to limit all cars to 80km/h around the track as opposed to using the safety car after an incident. Parfitt played by the rules, but some others didn’t understand them and a healthy advantage in the race was lost because of it. Code 80 was scrapped after a single race as a result of the mess.
Following that loss, not of his own making, Parfitt suffered a crash at Rockingham that put the Bentley out of qualifying, and his lack of wet running came back to haunt him when he was leading the showpiece Silverstone 500 event. Morris too wasn’t error-free in his first year of GT racing, as he ran wide in that race and split the radiator, bringing about the team’s sole retirement of the season.
The dropped points early on proved too costly as when the Bentley got to tracks lesser suited to its performance balance, Parfitt and Morris lost their shot at the crown.
That would leave two true contenders to play out a fascinating battle, during which both sides enjoyed their own spell of dominance.
The start of the year was all about TF Sport, as Johnston and Adam went on a superb, if unexpected, winning run. The pair triumphed at Brands when the Code 80 mess unexpectedly handed the car a comfortable lead, but then proved their pace by winning round two at Rockingham also, despite a 20-second pit stop penalty.
“We never expected to win at Rockingham, we thought it would be impossible going into the race,” says Adam. “That race was Derek’s coming of age if you like as he drove amazingly and his first stint won it for us. Coming off the strong early run we knew things would take a downturn at some point and it was up to us to react if it did.”
It turned out they did have to, as the tables turned mid-season and Barwell took control having recovered from its own early troubles. Minshaw was punted out of the season opener, so was playing catch-up almost all season alongside Keen. The tide turned at the Silverstone 500 when the pair emerged on top of a tough race in difficult conditions, right as TF started to struggle. Johnston had been leading the 500 early on but crashed after hitting standing water out of Chapel. That was their sole non-finish, and the points swing brought Keen and Minshaw firmly back into the game.
From then on TF had an uphill battle, as Barwell excelled. Johnston was caught up in a smash during first practice at Spa, which meant the entire front end of his Aston had to be rebuilt in a day to keep the team in the weekend. They salvaged seventh in the illhandling machine.
Worse was to come at Snetterton when Johnston was spun out in race one and forced to fight back up the order to finish fourth, as Keen and Minshaw won. Barwell then did the double when TF threw the race two lead away with a seatbelt mix-up as Adam swapped for Johnston at the routine stop. That misfortune meant the season-long pacesetters went into the final race trailing Keen and Minshaw, who were in top form having won three of the last four races before the finale.
“It was a mad end to the year,” says Keen. “We just kept doing our thing and people seemed to be handing us wins by making mistakes. We just kept things clean and we’d both gotten to grips with the car by then.”
It all came down to the last race, and things were decided when Minshaw lost control of the Huracan having been forced to avoid a GT4 car down the Craner Curves while chasing the leaders. Keen and Minshaw’s challenge ended in the gravel trap, while Johnston and Adam cemented the title with second place.
Of the other GT3 contenders, TF’S second Vantage crewed by Mark Farmer and Jon Barnes took fourth in the points after a consistent year, capped with a superb win at Spa. Farmer made rapid progress and will be one to watch next season as the pair are expected to return.
Barwell’s second Huracan didn’t have the luck its number 33 car did, with Liam Griffin suffering a string of accidents, including being hit by a European GT4 entry while running well at Silverstone. The bad luck also stifled the superb Alexander Sims, who could only fit in a part-campaign around his factory BMW commitments.
Lee Mowle and Joe Osborne suffered a disappointing season in their older BMW Z4. The car struggled to keep pace with the newer machines on bigger tracks, and when their big chance did come at Snetterton, the pair were stripped of a race one win and demoted to fifth after Osborne misjudged a pass on Keen for the lead. They opted to sit out the finale amid the discontent with the stewards.
The factory Ecurie Ecosse Mclaren of Alasdair Mccaig and Rob Bell promised much but was set back by pure bad luck.
Crash damage from both Spa and Snetterton led to three non-scores and left them seventh in the points. Victory in the final race showed the car’s pace though.
It was also a quiet year for reigning champion Andrew Howard and the Beechdean team. Howard ruled himself out of the title fight before the season after allowing Adam to join TF Sport and promoting young talent Ross Gunn to the GT3 seat.
Howard struggled to find form as he switched much of his focus to racing the Gte-spec Vantage in the European Le Mans Series.
Gunn acquitted himself well in the Pro GT3 field, but crash damage from Spa kept the car out for two rounds, meaning Gunn returned to GT4 for the final few races to help the team fight for the class title. Hopefully there will be more GT3 to come for Gunn next season. ■
Johnston and Adam took the GT3 title for TF Sport
Donington decider went the way of Aston crew
Mclaren’s GT4: game changer?
TF Sport’s swift Spa repair
Bentley was robbed of Brands Hatch win by the ‘Code 80’ rule Mixed British and Euro grids caused some issues this season Minshaw’s error in season finale cost Barwell the title