One ill-judged overtake not made and it could have been oh so different in the 2016 British GT Championship, two wheels not put on the grass – leading to four wheels beached in the gravel – could have seen the GT3 title go to a different home. A set of brakes not worn out and the GT4 title could have gone in different hands.
To say this season was full of long lasting split-second decisions is both very cliched and very true, as the whole season could have been turned on its head faster than you could say “Balance of Performance.” However, TF Sport’s Jonny Adam and Derek Johnston and PMW World Expo Racing’s Mike Robinson and Graham Johnson deserved the breaks and became deserving champions. Over the course of the season though, it was never so black and white.
Early form pays dividends down the line
Moving away from the traditional opener at Oulton Park and taking it to Brands Hatch was always going to cause confusion for seasoned British GT followers, and the two hour race that the Kent track played host to was about as confusing as they come.
The start of the race started off simply enough but a big incident for Phil Dryburgh’s Motorbase Aston Martin – one he thankfully managed to walk away from – saw the organisers throw a full course yellow. This seemed like a reasonable enough decision until it was noticed by some drivers that certain entries – especially in the GT4 class – weren’t able to keep to the speed limit. That meant gaps between cars were shrinking or growing as the time ticked down and with near enough the whole field pitting at the same time, early pace-setters Seb Morris and Rick Parfitt lost a lot of time as they were trapped in their pitbox in what was quite a tight Brands Hatch pitlane.
Winning big time though, in the pits and eventually the race, was TF Sport’s Jonny Adam and Derek Johnston who pitted a lap later – when the pits were silent – and got back out with a comfortable lead. When the race was red flagged a few laps later, they walked away smelling of roses.
For PMW’s Johnson and Robinson, their outright speed in the Ginetta G55 GT4 saw them power to victory and bring a big boost of confidence into the second round at Rockingham.
Claiming pole position and leading the opening lap, a tangle with a GT3 car saw them crash out – handing victory to the Beechdean AMR pair of Jordan Albert and Jack Bartholomew after a post-race disqualification for on-track winners Nathan Freke and Anna Walewska.
In the lead GT3 class, TF Sport compounded their championship lead with a monster opening stint from Johnston finished off by a superb drive from Adam to leave Barwell Motorsport’s Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw scrambling to keep up. Behind that pair, Ross Gunn’s revelatory start to the season continued as he built on Andrew Howard’s solid opening stint and just set the track alight. The speed of his stint, and his mega qualifying the round before at Brands Hatch, quickly made rivals stand up and realise that the young racer would only get faster.
Double-header broadens one title battle but shrinks another
Come the third round of the season – the double-header of races at Oulton Park – and it was clear to see that whatever higher power was controlling British GT so far fancied a bit of spice in the GT3 title battle as a decidedly average weekend for the champions to be saw their lead cut to nought.
In the first one hour race, it again went down to pit stop strategy as the second Barwell Lamborghini of Liam Griffin and Adam Carroll pitted later than the rest and just had to hold off Joe Osborne in the AmDTuning.com BMW Z4 GT3 to put a second Barwell machine into the championship hint.
However, come the second race and the Team Parker Racing Bentley of Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris – which scored a podium at Brands Hatch and had a decent Rockingham weekend – finally broke through to claim the Crewe manufacturer’s first win in British GT and install themselves as the third party in the title races for much of the season. However, third place for the Demon Tweeks crew meant they kept on turning the screw on the Aston Martin atop the tree.
GT4 had no such complexities though as PMW World Expo Racing did the first sweep of the season and looked increasingly comfortable in their double victory except for a late push in the second race by Abbie Eaton in the Ebor GT Maserati as she hustled the overweight Maserati into a cracking result considering the twisty nature of the North West circuit.
Two relatively poor results for Beechdean meant they went into the second half of the season needing to get back on the pace.
Awkward guests spoil the party at home and abroad
Come the blue riband Silverstone 500 three-hour race in June, all teams wanted was to collect as many points as they could to take to what was always a topsy-turvey summer holiday at Spa. However, the introduction of more than 20 members of the crazy gang – more commonly known as the GT4 European Series – saw chaos in the GT4 class and in the GT3 class.
Mainly the issues sprung from the fact that the friends from the continent weren’t used to sharing a track with A) quite so many cars and B) a faster class of cars. That meant that blue flags weren’t respected and overtaking GT3 cars had to do so at their own peril, as Seb Morris found out on the way onto the Wellington Straight as a Euro GT4 Maserati chopped in front of the Bentley, sending Morris into the ruts then into the air and then into retirement. Putting somewhat of a dampener on their championship challenge.
Also hitting a bump on their championship travails was TF Sport’s Adam and Johnston who lasted only four laps before the car expired and their three hour race was over inside the first 10 minutes.
In GT4, the influx of Europeans threw quite a few cats amongst the pigeons – especially with a lot of the cars running all Pro line-ups. However, that didn’t phase RCIB Insurance Racing as they moved above the chaos to claim victory ahead of Nathan Freke and Anna Walewska’s Century Motorsport Ginetta and the Beechdean Aston. To make it worse for PMW, they would complete just over half the race before retiring with accident damage.
Travelling abroad to Spa Francorchamps and there was early drama for one title challenger as in FP1 Derek Johnston hit the barriers hard at the top of the Kemmel Straight after a Euro GT4 Maserati threw up its engine oil. After some miracle action by the TF Sport mechanics, the car got out for the race.
However, all the GT3 championship contenders – which at this point had filtered down to the #17 TF Sport Aston, #31 Team Parker Bentley and the #33 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini – had to keep their eyes peeled for a number of ringers looking to gain vital experience for the upcoming Spa 24 Hours. The four extra cars comprised two Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracans – one of which featured a rather rapid Hunter Abbott – and two Black Falcon Racing Mercedes AMGs.
Competing with some dedicated crews, and a Seb Morris on the absolute war path, it was TF Sport that came out on top but not the car that many had staked money on. That’s because it was the #11 of Mark Farmer and Jon Barnes who trimmed the car right down to a very low downforce setting and had enough straight line speed – and skill on Barnes’ part – that they held off the Bentley by 0.7s.
It was a race to forget for Barwell and the second TF Sport entry though, as they didn’t have the pace of the outsiders and ended the Belgian trip 6th and 7th.
In GT4, PMW World Expo Racing made back the ground the lost at Silverstone by taking a decent second place just four seconds behind the Lanan Racing Ginetta of Alex Reed and Joey Foster as Jordan Albert and Jack Bartholomew got caught in what was a very large secondary class in the Ardennes. With those results, it descended into a straight bunfight between the two crews.
Home straight sees battles descend to the best of two
Back in the UK and it was off to Snetterton for a double-header before the all-important finale at Donington Park. In the GT4 battle at least, change was afoot as Jordan Albert left Beechdean and was replaced by reigning class champion Ross Gunn for the final three races of 2016.
At a sunny Snetterton it was very much the Keen/Minshaw experience as they claimed a double victory to not just pull level at the top, but claim a handy points lead. That said, in race one they almost lost grip on the championship entirely.
With a 60 minute race, the action is always intense and with Joe Osborne on a charge it takes a superhuman drive to keep him behind. Unfortunately for Osborne and Phil Keen – who was fighting to keep hold of his lead – an underestimation of just how slow a GT4 car was going round the Bombhole saw Osborne clip the back of the Demon Tweeks Lamborghini and send Keen into a spin.
Positions reversed and both continued, but a 30 second penalty for Osborne post-race for not coming in for a drive-through left both a sour taste in the mouth of many and allowed the Barwell team onto the top step of the podium.
They repeated that achievement in the second race as Derek Johnston couldn’t quite match Minshaw’s pace in the final stint and had to settle for second place – four seconds behind – in order to do some damage control ahead of the #DoningtonDecider.
For Team Parker, it was a case of damage inflicted rather than damage control as a third and fifth – which on any other weekend would have been a good pair of results – wasn’t enough to keep them on the front running pace and they left Norfolk needing a miracle to scoop the crown.
In GT4, a bolt from the blue – which had admittedly being slowly developing all season – finally went off as Black Bull Ecurie Ecosse’s Ciaran Haggerty and Sandy Mitchell broke a spell of mechanical difficulties to claim their debut victory in race one and only lightning pace from Ross Gunn denied them from repeating the feat in the second race.
That surprise knocked the two title rivals off-kilter in race one with Beechdean having to settle for a very close second after Haggerty had enough in reserve to keep the gorgeous McLaren 570S a length ahead of the mini Aston Martin Vantage. In the second race though, the McLaren seemed to lose the element of surprise it once had and the race descended into a Muhammad Ali slug-fest between Bartholomew and Johnson with Bartholomew just about standing to cross the line first.
The titles go down to the #DoningtonDecider
As teased at the very top of this review, (good on you for getting this far down) to say the final race was tense is the biggest understatement since the residents of Troy said: “Let’s just bring in that big horse, what’s the worst that could happen?”
On race day itself it boiled down to one factor – whoever finished first got their hands on the title first. In GT3, that fight was between Barwell, who started in third place, and pole-sitters TF Sport – the Bentley of Seb Morris and Rick Parfitt needing both the Lamborghini and Aston to retire to be in with even half a chance. The same was true in the GT4 class but with only PMW and Beechdean in title contention.
Come the start of the race in GT3 and Johnston was doing what he needed to, keeping his head down and controlling his lead, allowing the race to come to him.
That strategy soon paid off, impatient to get higher up the grid Jon Minshaw tried to go three-abreast overtaking two battling GT4 cars and went two wheels on the grass. Trying to recover, he span out and ended up at the gravel at the Old Hairpin.
That allowed Johnston and Adam a gently cruise to the finish, knowing that if the Bentley ever did get close enough to make a move they could sacrifice quite a few positions before the points balance swung against them. Just over an hour later, they crossed the line in a comfortable second place after electing not to get themselves into a scrap with eventual race winners Alasdair McCaig and Rob Bell in the Black Bull Ecurie Ecosse McLaren 650S.
The GT4 title was also won by a podium finisher as Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson’s Ginetta found itself in that perfect zone allowing the pair to just get on with the job of driving the car to just within the upper-range of their comfort zone. That couldn’t be said for Bartholomew and Gunn whose Beechdean Aston was burning through brakes like no-ones business, and by the end of each of the stints they were struggling to keep up the required pace making the job of catching up a near enough impossible task, finishing down in the lower top ten.
One thing that seemed impossible was the challenge facing Ciaran Haggerty, severing a tendon in his wrist in the week of the race it appeared he would be nowhere near the pace. But nothing could stop him from powering to the front, driving and changing gear with one hand he worked perfectly alongside Mitchell to claim their second victory in three races – claiming an Ecurie Ecosse sweep in both classes.
With Generation AMR MacMillan Racing claiming a well deserved second place, Johnson and Robinson claimed the last spot on the last spot on the podium to wrap up a hard fought championship crown.