Those wishing to pull the Avon Tyres British GT Championship down from the lofty perch it has flown up to in recent years will, this year, like to point out that in the loss of Porsche, Bentley and Nissan the variety on the grid has thinned for 2015.
It’s true, there will be no full time representative for those three manufacturers in the GT3 class this season, but the first two races of the year at Oulton Park do herald the return of the roaring Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 to the British championship. One example is in the hands of the Jones brothers, the other brings a new team to the British GT paddock in RAM Racing.
Dan Shufflebottom’s team had been a Ferrari team in international multi-class sportscar competition. However, budget constrictions have forced a change in direction, a change in series and a change of car. Their lone entry will be shared between Lewis Plato and experienced GT pilot Alastair MacKinnon, whose last British GT involvement came on the Easter weekend of 2012 when he shared a GT4 Lotus with reigning champion Marco Attard.
Essex-based racer Plato (no relation to his touring car driving namesake) knows the scale of the leap he is attempting to make, stepping out of light, nimble Radicals into the gull-winged Merc, but he recognises the role MacKinnon has in easing his transition to the car.
“It takes the uncertainty of not knowing how reliable your co-driver is,” Plato tells www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk. Alastair is reliable, he’s also very competitive on times and he knows a fair bit about the set-ups and about GT racing. I’m learning as much from him as he is from me.”
Plato himself is an accomplished driver after two front running seasons in Radicals – the first in the Clubman’s Cup series before a move into the SR3 Challenge for last year continued the course he plotted towards GT racing, even opting to run the series as a solo driver so that he could “just myself for another year and really get to progress my driving style as much as possible before we got onto the next step which is British GT.”
“The Mercedes is very different,” he explains. “There’s a lot more power, a lot more weight and it’s been quite a challenge for me getting used to it and we’re really looking forward to it.”
However, this will not be the first time that Plato will have driven a big, heavy front engined car, which is where he links to another of the returning names to the British GT paddock – Sunoco, returning after two years away from the seires. Plato is one of three drivers on the GT grid (the others being Phil Keen and Derek Johnston) that have – courtesy of Sunoco’s Daytona Challenge – had the good fortune to race at Daytona International Speedway.
Plato’s turn came in 2014, winning a place in the Continental Tires Series’ race at the track, taking the wheel of a Mitchum Motorsport run Chevrolet Camaro.
“That helped actually because having learned to drive that Camaro really progressed the learning curve to this season so much quicker,” he says. “Jumping into the car I didn’t have to necessarily find a significant amount of time, it was more becoming confident within the car and learning its characteristics and how it handles.”
How the car handles, and the set-up of the machine is one of Plato’s main concerns as the season begins, though several days of testing have allowed the team to begin to hone their understanding of the new car..
“I like the fact we’re all starting at the same point,” he explains, “so we’re all on the equal learning curve which is very steep but we all want it just as badly as each other and hopefully that will help us to succeed this season.”
“You can never both be completely happy with the set-up, so it’s about finding the quickest set-up between the two of us. Alastair and I, we’re actually very fortunate, we like a similar handling car and I think that will definitely benefit us for this season but obviously we’re still learning what each other like and trying to improve each other’s driving through the data.”
“Maybe we might be playing catch up at start of the season, but most certainly towards the end we want to be quite competitive and up the front. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t want to go out and win races, but obviously we don’t really know where we are yet in terms of the other cars and the other teams on the grid.”
“At the moment our actual race pace is particularly good but, if anything, where we are going to struggle will be the qualifying, just with the lack of experience with myself and Alastair learning how to get the best from the Avon tyres and learning the best set-up which really takes time and we’re not in a position to just throw tyres at it every race and every test day so that will be a steep learning curve and we expect to pay the price early on in the season but by the end we can be running up the front for qualifying.”