HOW AS­TON BLITZED BRI­TISH GT

THE STORY OF A BRI­TISH SPORTSCAR SUC­CESS

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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

Pho­tos: Jakob Ebrey

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

Os­borne and Mowle won, then lost

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