Club column: James Newbold
The decision to visit a venue twice next year may seem underwhelming, but plans are afoot to add an intriguing twist to the additional Donington Park round
“I WANT TO MAKE THAT FORMAT DIFFERENT, WE’RE GOING TO TRY TO MAKE IT SPECIAL”
When news of Rockingham’s imminent demise broke, it presented national championships with an opportunity to fill the vacant slots on the calendar with something different. But these hopes proved short-lived, as British GT followed the lead of the British Touring Car Championship in opting for a second visit to a track already on the schedule, in its case plumping for Donington Park for the June 22-23 weekend. Yet this apparently unadventurous decision has a streak of logic to it that could outweigh the novelty of change. Aside from a one-year experiment with switching the season opener to Brands Hatch in 2016, the British GT calendar has been fairly stable in recent years, with Oulton Park and Donington bookending the season and Spa established as the championship’s one overseas round since ’14 after visits to the Nurburgring (’12) and Zandvoort (’13). But while returning to one of those famous circuits on the continent would have injected some spice into the calendar – and appealed to gentleman drivers with a keen appreciation for history – it would have driven up costs still further for a national championship that already has to face questions year on year about value for money in GT3. Several paddock figures have voiced concerns to Autosport about a works driver not being enough to win anymore, with a healthy testing budget also required to figure at the sharp end. Also of concern was that adding another overseas race would require the amateur drivers who are the bedrock of the series to take more time off work for travel. One of the key benefits of racing in British GT over the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup is that free practice starts on Saturday, rather than Friday. Although variety is welcome, it comes at a cost. On the flipside, one driver’s suggestion that British GT should drop the seventh round altogether with a view to reducing costs was swiftly dismissed by championship organiser the Stephane Ratel Organisation. In 2016 SRO reduced the number of Blancpain Sprint rounds from seven to five, which saw a dramatic increase in grid numbers from 21 to 38, but that also coincided with a rule that manufacturers had to enter cars in both the Sprint and Endurance Cups to be permitted an entry into the flagship Spa 24 Hours and be eligible for a $150,000 per race prize fund, which had a greater effect than any cost reduction. “Most of the teams are professional, they run a business and they need to go racing,” explains British GT championship manager Benjamin Franassovici. “we try to control costs, but it’s difficult – would it suddenly make a difference? I would have the reaction of people saying, ‘you can’t do that, we need seven rounds. ’i think seven rounds for a national championship is necessary – six is a bit on the low side.” So that left SRO with the question of which UK circuit could replace Rockingham, which had the advantage of having room for teams to refuel. This isn’t the case at Oulton Park and Snetterton, which as a result run one-hour sprints. Rejecting the short hop across the Irish Sea to Mondello Park or a return to Thruxton on this basis, Franassovici chose Donington, a drivers’ favourite that usually produces excellent racing in its two-hour season finale, over Silverstone, venue for the only three-hour race on the calendar. Two-time series champion Andrew Howard was among the leading drivers who welcomed the move, but called on SRO to be “brave” and make the round an “ambassadorial” one for the championship. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see what he means – night racing. “I think the key is to mix up the format,” he says. “the most important thing is that it’s got to be different, so if we go into the night – awesome. From a championship point of view, it brings a new dynamic to it without being massively expensive.” The motion was also received positively by team bosses. “it’s endurance racing, so doing something in the dark makes sense to me,” was the response of TF Sport’s Tom Ferrier at Brands Hatch. For its part, SRO is working behind the scenes to bring about a different format to differentiate the round from the two-hour finale, although the finer details are yet to be ironed out. “MSV [circuit operator] are helping to make that second Donington visit exciting – I’m working behind the scenes to get the format right,” says Franassovici. “i want to make that format different; we’re going to try to make it special.” While at first glance the return to Donington could be viewed as an opportunity missed, the logical choice doesn’t have to be underwhelming.