Eclipse Motorsport braved a race of attrition that delayed much of the premier class to score victory in the 2011 Britcar 24 Hours by a full 13 laps.
Despite the very comfortable winning margin the win was far from assured for much of the race and the trio of Michael McInerney, his son Sean and Phil Keen suffered their own scares and delays over the course of a day of hard racing conducted in far from typical Britcar 24 weather.
“It was a rollercoaster like every time we do this race,” Sean McInerney told The Checkered Flag moments after his father climbed from the car beneath the podium. “In most cases we've normally had bad luck and it's stayed that way but we've had a couple of breaks with things happening to other people to give us an opportunity to get back into the race. We're over the moon, can't complain at all.”
He continued; “these guys – the team have worked incredibly hard to get this car ready so however, good it feels for us it feels equally as good for them. They're the ones who have been up having sleepless nights getting prepped for this. They're the ones who have made it happen getting us out there.”
Though the team – Britcar regulars, the McInerneys also perennial runners in the 24 Hours – were among the early leaders the fifth hour of the race brought them into the pits after contact with another car going through the new arena section of the track.
The stop, the team assessing the Ferrari's tracking as well as taping up the damage, dropped them to fourth, five laps behind the Aquila CR1, leading at the time.
The yellow car had dominated the early running after starting from pole. Taking the first stint Bob Berridge moved clear into the lead, with Calum Lockie in the Strata 21 Mosler and Scott O'Donnell in the ARC Bratislava Porsche in increasingly distant tow.
A drive through penalty took the car out of the lead, falling several laps off the lead before Australian hot-shoe John Martin took his first stint in the car. Martin had set the pace in qualifying and in a three hour stint that pushed the boundaries of maximum driving time he hauled the car back into the lead with unmatchable pace that put car four laps in the lead after Eclipse's problems.
However, while the Aquila has enjoyed a much improved 2011 season over its troubled 2010 outings reliability remained the Achilles Heel for the Danish car with a pair of apparent drive shaft failures punctuating their race with lengthy stays in the garage. To their credit the Nigel Mustill headed team continued to repair the car to see the end of the race, claiming ninth overall.
A cracked exhaust manifold took out MJC – last year's winners unable to repeat the faultless display of a year previous. The team had been delayed almost from the start with a broken seat. Whilst on track the seat slid backwards – and only backwards. The delay, which the team fix with a part created in the garage allowed them to climb back into the top three after lying outside the top twenty.
However, the Sunday morning hours brought more troubles for the team of Witt Gamski, Keith Robinson, John Gaw and Phil Dryburgh and this time they were terminal. Their Ferrari 430 developed a cracked manifold and though they initially raced on – Keith Robinson taking a double stint as the problem became apparent. However, soon the problem became too great, and with the crack too big to fixed the team called time on their efforts to retain the title.
The end of MJC's race left the battle for the lead to Eclipse Motorsport and the Topcats Racing Mosler MT900 of Andrew Beaumont, Henry Fletcher, Julien Draper and Freddie Hetherington.
Initially the team maintained vigil a handful of laps in arrears to the leading Ferrari. However, the lead swung to the Topcats crew when Phil Keen spun, bringing out a safety car. The car was towed off the track, before limping back to the pits under its own power with a right-rear puncture. There was further delay in the pits a broken rear roll bar found beneath the car – potentially the cause of the puncture – before the team returned to the race, now four laps down on the leading Mosler.
Despite being long time entrants in Britcar competition Topcats Racing have only won the showpiece event once – when it was shortened to six hours in 2009 to cut costs during the recession – but as the race turned for home on Sunday afternoon the team had a comfortable margin in the lead with Freddie Hetherington at the wheel of the black and grey Runnymede Homes backed Mosler.
Unfortunately with the young GT driver aboard the car suffered a stuck throttle on the Wellington Straight, pushing Hetherington straight on at Brooklands. The wedge-fronted Mosler submarined under the tyre wall and though Hetherington was unharmed in the accident the front of the car destroyed, leaving Eclipse Motorsport to take the win unchallenged for the final four hours of the race able to maintain a sedate pace.
The late retirement of the Mosler typified the race for Topcats Racing. Once more the team had entered three cars in the race – two Marcos Mantis alongside the Mosler and when MJC and the Aquila both dropped from the top ten with their problems all three ran in the top ten on the Sunday morning before problems began to rain down on Warren Gilbert's team.
First the no.27 Marcos – by then almost guaranteed Class Two honours – suffered ignition troubles with Caterham racer Jamie Orton at the wheel, fixed after a brief stay in the garage. However, once Neil Huggins had taken over the green highlighted Mantis more serious problems struck. Huggins – a regular for Topcats Racing – described being “sideswiped” as he exited the pits after taking over car, damaging the suspension in the Marcos. Finally opposite the new pits the car ground to a halt, the repairs dropping the car out of the top ten at the time.
Early race driveshaft problems had put the no.53 Marcos – running in Class Three – several laps off the pace, but the car – driven by an all-Japanese team of Yosuke Shimojima, Ryu Seya, Masashi Kakiuchi and Yasushi Kikuchi – was faultless from that point on. They were the last of the three Topcats charges to break into the top and eventually completed the class podium.
In many way the Class Three battle was the best of the race as the top two classes disintegrated. The class was won by the Nicholas Mee Racing Aston Martin Vantage – one of the few teams that can claim to have had a trouble free 24 Hours, with the only long stay in the pits being a brake pad change.
The Lotus Evora, entered – slightly confusingly – by Marcos Racing International for a driving quintet led by Dutchman Cor Euser shadowed the Aston for much of the race. The pair exchanged the lead on several occasion, often but not always down to differing pitstop strategies. The turning point – if you can single out one split second choice that decides a 24 hour race came in the thirteenth hour when Euser brought the Evora into the pits.
After struggling with oversteer he believed he had a problem with the car and returned to the pits after just 15 laps only for the team to find nothing. Euser and the team lost nearly 10 minutes in the process.
The stop saw the Class Three battle swing – over the course of an out from a lap advantage to the Lotus squad to a four lap lead for the NMR quartet – Dan de Zille, Kartsen Le Blanc, Christiaen van Lanschot and Robert Nimkoff. It was a gap the Lotus squad were unable to close back up fully, though they came with a single tour at the finish. Their final strategy roll of the dice came inside the final hour when both cars came in on the same lap to install their final drivers – Le Blanc and Hal Prewitt. Ultimately the Evora men had to settle for third overall.
“We turned up on Thursday and the car felt good, good testing times, we weren't pushing too hard to save the car and stuff,” said Dan de Zille after celebrating the class win with the rest of the team on the podium. “We got into the race, Karsten did a really good opening stint and once we got into the night time I put my foot down and made my way through the pack and then from threr it was trying to maintain that position. We were helped by a couple of cars taking each other off and catching fire and things and it all came good in the end.”
“The car was awesome but the guys in the Lotus really made us work. My last stint I went out before the last hour and the order was basically match their times, match their times and I pretty much killed myself doing it. There was a race on, it was just such a long term race it was hard to see.”
Though Class Three held up to the rigours of the race better than the two premier classes it was not without its high profile retirements.
Optimum Racing had set the class pole through United Autosports drive Joe Osborne, but was a victim of a very early accident. According to the team the contact – with an Aston Martin – had damaged the car. Now sliding from the rear the driver lost control and slid through the grass, clogging up the radiators at the front of the bright yellow G50, leading to terminal overheating and an early retirement.
British GT outfit Scuderia Vittoria where – for obvious reasons – among the favourites for class glory and ran well early on, overcoming the lowly starting position that came with the engine problems of qualifying. They however, were ruled out by chassis damage as dawn approached Silverstone.
Another of the G50s in the class was involved in undoubtedly the scariest accident of the race. In the first hours of darkness the Daniels Motorsport Honda Civic hit oil went off at Becketts. Marshals attended to the Class Four machine to try and recover it from the gravel trap. Unfortunately the Jemco Racing Ginetta struck the same oil and followed the same trajectory as the Civic striking one of the marshals working on the car. He was loaded into an ambulance during a 51-minute safety car period – in the absence of the standard fog the longest neutral period of the race – and taken to a Northampton hospital with a broken leg. At the time of writing it is know the marshal is recovering well.
The battles in Class Three also included a fight for the final podium spot. The Intersport BMW team, led by Kevin Clarke and Wayne Gibson was chasing down the Topcats Marcos – nicknamed the 'Orient Express' – in the final hour. The BMW team – twice champions in the Britcar Production ranks – believed they could claim third – based largely on the belief the Marcos crew would have to execute a final stop in the last 60 minutes.
Not only did that belief turn out to be unfounded, but a recurring steering pin brought the BMW into the garage for a final time. The same problem had already halted the crew once, as had a loose alternator wire.
Clarke, Gibson and co-driver Mark Radcliffe and Alex Hayes claimed fifth overall and fourth in class, one place ahead of the Motionsport Lotus Elise.
Class Four winners Brunswick Automotive claimed seventh place, after another trouble free run, benefitting to problems that befell the quicker cars over the course of the race.
For much of the first half of the race the class was dominated by the diminutive Lotus Elise of CTR Developments.
The early pace was set by Alex Osbourne in the APO Sport SEAT Leon who led out the Britcar Production championship leaders. Osbourne completed a two-and-a-half hour stint in the car holding the lead throughout. However, driver Guy Parr outbraked himself, becoming part of a multiple car accident and delaying the team. The final moment came with another accident due to brake failure that left the car seriously damaged during the night.
It was then the Elise moved to the front, pushing into the top ten with a four lap advantage over familiar tin-top name Mardi Gras Motorsport, represented in the 24 Hours by a Honda Integra, bit both team would fall by the wayside before the checkered flag dropped.
CTR were the first to drop, a wheel bearing failure stranding the car at Abbey during the night. Mardi Gras briefly held the lead after the Lotus' retirement before being overhauled by the Mark Griffiths led Brunswick team.
They maintained second in class, though the BMW M3 ahead extended their advatange hour on hour until the closing hours of the race and a driveshaft failure that dropped them from the podium places.
Their late race problems allowed the Cox family run BMW onto the podium. The team – Michael, Jason and Dave Cox joined by Paul Stubber – had easily set the pace in qualifying, but had fallen back within the first hour – cue a 23 hour fightback finally putting them back into the podium spots with just two hours to go.
They finished the race 12th overall, one place ahead of the Carvell Motorsport VW Gold MkIII which completed the race on the fewest number of pitstops – 11 – of any of the finishers in a fine showing for the underdog squad. The best of the three Mazda MX5 finished sixth in class behind the Mardi Gras Honda. The team of motoring journalists turning in a solid performance where both the armed forces team in the similar team and the GT model in Class Three had suffered problems throughout the race.
Eighth overall was the Class Two leading Topcats Marcos. The class fell apart in the early running to the extent that the Marcos was the only one of the six entries to complete the 50% of total laps necessary to be classified.
ARC Bratislava had set the early pace before being stopped for exceeding the noise limits. Rectification cost the team an hour in the garage before they could start climbing back up the order. A clutch problem stopped the Porsche for good.
One of the dark horses for the race – the Rollcentre Racing Ginetta G55 looked capable of living up to that lofty billing. The team, which included Lawrence Tomlinson, Martin Short and Colin Turkington ran as high as second overall before an ECU issue stopped the car after just three hours.