British GT Championship Mid-Season Review: GT3

by James Broomhead
Avon Tyres British GT Championship (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

For the last two seasons the Avon Tyres British GT Championship has rewarded consistency yet it has been the inconsistent, feast of famine nature of the season so far for the three car Trackspeed team that has shaped the season, and the points standings so far in 2013.

The team’s three Porsches account for four wins in the six races so far this year, plus another where Phil Keen crossed the line to take what would have been his second win of the season only to be pushed back to seventh when he and co-driver Jon Minshaw were penalised for overtake under an early safety car.

Though Trackspeed team leader David Ashburn and Porsche works driver Nick Tandy are the only pairing to have won twice so far this season three scoreless races, including two of the longer ‘refuelling’ races of the year which come with additional points, have helped keep the championship close.

Ashburn and Tandy began the year on top, leaving with a second and a first from the Oulton Park weekend. Their points tally, which gave them a comfortable lead away from the Easter Weekend at the Cheshire track, could, or even should, have been larger. Ashburn was expected to enter retirement before the start of the season, so the entry at Oulton Park was billed as a one-off entry. Thus when Tandy and Keen fought past long-time race leaders Fortec Motorsports late in the first race Tandy ceded position to the full season entry.

Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw won the first round of the season, but have struggled for points since (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw won the first round of the season, but have struggled for points since (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

Though Ashburn held off United Autosports’ Mark Patterson in a sprint finish to the day’s second race after a dramatic fire for Colin White’s Ginetta G55 GT3 elsewhere the frustration had already started for his Trackspeed teammates.

Minshaw crashed out late on, while Richard Westbrook, sharing with British GT returnee Gregor Fisken had been taken out of race winning contention by a slow pitstop after a first half of the race spent chasing down pole sitter Allan Simonsen. In the earlier race Fisken had triggered a lap one, turn one accident, that resulted in he and Richard Westbrook being excluded from the result.

There was welcome relief for the duo at Rockingham, though their race win would turn out to be their sole finish of the first half of 2013 as well as scant reward for a race which the Trackspeed cars started 1-2-3.

Keen and Minshaw had led early in the race, but succumbed to throttle issues in the second half of the race. Ashburn – continuing on despite pre-season retirement announcements – was spun by Marco Attard in the first half of the race, the damage to the car great enough for Tandy to retire the car once he had taken over driving duties.

After a number of incidents at Oulton Park, including the crashes of Fisken and Minshaw driving standards had come under scrutiny and with Attard excluded for the contact, which came under yellow flags, and Andrew Howard demoted from a third place finish for passing under the same warnings Rockingham did little to hush debate.

Neither did the following round at Silverstone.

With nearly 50 cars on the grid – even once the Jones brothers’ new-for-2013 McLaren MP4-12C had been ruled out of the weekend by a practice crash – the Silverstone Grand Prix was always likely to be a crowded place but two long safety car periods in the first hour of the 180-minute feature turned the mood sour. Nowhere was the mood worse by the time the safety car returned to the pits for the second time than in the Trackspeed garage.

Jon Minshaw had been one of the drivers to pit under the first safety car, scrambled for a three car crash involving Mark Blundell, Richard Sykes and Derek Johnston, so Phil Keen was racing back through the field when he came upon Gregor Fisken, limping back around Aintree corner with a puncture. The car directly ahead of Keen dived right to avoid Fisken’s ailing Porsche, leaving Keen with no way to avoid his teammate and an embarrassing accident that put both Porsches in retirement.

Under the resultant second safety car Ashburn took the opportunity to pit for the waiting Tandy but a lapse of concentration in the pitlane entry left the veteran drive with only three wheels on his Porsche after crashing as he searched for the speed limiter.

All three Trackspeed cars out the race settled down into a discernible rhythm. Ferrari drivers Simonsen and Matteo Bobbi went past Fortec Motorsports’ Mercedes – the single seater specialists again leading a race in their maiden GT campaign – to begin a battle that would end only when Simonsen pitted for Hector Lester to take the car back over.

Bobbi would also pit, leaving Jay Palmer in the lead. However a spin then a pair of unrelated punctures would give the race win to Ecurie Ecosse driver Olly Bryant and Attard.

Honours at the Silverstone 500 went to Ecurie Ecosse (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

Honours at the Silverstone 500 went to Ecurie Ecosse (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

The 37.5 points for the race win would help the pair enter the summer break, after the June weekend at Snetterton in third place, just 1.5 points down on Ashburn and Tandy, who won the second race at the Norfolk track to retake the championship lead by just half a point over Patterson and Matt Bell in the Audi R8 LMS ultra.

Having taken three podiums in the first half of the season, including the third place they gained at Andrew Howard’s expense at Rockingham, and suffering just one non-score the Audi pair have proved one of the most consistent teams of the season so far, outperforming their McLaren driving teammates despite the MP4-12C looking unbeatable on UK soil after its mid-2012 arrival.

Unsurprisingly the other team using consistency to their advantage are the 2012 champions. Michael Caine, now with Ahmad Al Harthy as co-driver in the Motorbase Porsche, are the only team to score points in every race. Having not won on their way to the championship Caine finally took a deserved race win after Keen and Minshaw were excluded from the first Snetterton race, though he still waits to celebrate a first race on the podium.

Caine and Al Harthy lie fourth in points. Despite their scoreless Oulton Park Jonny Adam and Andrew Howard are only ten points behind Ashburn and Tandy, one of a number of capable teams yet to win in 2013 and still within striking distance of the championship lead.

Of course, second in points Bell and Patterson are able to challenge for race wins, as they have done already this season.

Fortec Motorsports is one of three new teams that have challenged for wins thus far this season. In the team’s Mercedes SLS Benji Hetherington and Jason Minshaw have combined for the season after starting the year in separate cars – have led at both Oulton Park (when Hetherington was paired with Ollie Hancock) and Silverstone but only have an Oulton Park podium as proof of the pace. Likewise 888Optimum have taken podiums in the debut British GT season when the BMW Z4 looked one of the cars to have at both Silverstone and Snetterton, but have yet to take a win.

M-Sport have been one of the surprises of the year (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

M-Sport have been one of the surprises of the year (Credit: Chris Gurton Photography)

However, perhaps the biggest surprise of the season have been M-Sport with drivers Rembert Berg and Warren Hughes. In fact only having to run at Oulton Park as an invitation entry before the 2013 Audi R8 was homologated has kept the pair from being genuine title challengers after podiums at Rockingham and Snetterton.

There are four races remaining in the season with two hour races at Brands Hatch and the season ending Donington Park meeting sandwiching two hour long races at Zandvoort in early September.

Whether the inconsistency of the season to date continues or not remains to be seen.

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