The opening round of the 30th season of the Intelligent Money British GT Championship has been claimed by Audi Sport customers in both the GT3 and GT4 overall battles. Neither the #22 Audi R8 LMS EVOII GT3 of Balfe Motorsport nor the #42 Audi R8 LMS GT4 of Steller Motorsport did the job the easy way, both starting on pole, losing out early on and persevering to take the victory at the end of a thrilling hour.
Shaun Balfe and Adam Carroll took the GT3 machine to victory, the team owner fought off a tumble down the order due to an unplanned short shift at the start whilst the professional had to fight off a 15 minute onslaught from AMG factory driver Jules Gounon to keep the place at the flag.
In GT4 it was a tale of execution rather than outright speed which won the fight for Steller’s Richard Williams and Sennan Fielding. Not flawless themselves, Fielding was aided by longer penalties for rivals due to short pit stops.
GT3: Astonishing Battles Lead to Audi Victory in GT3
The race opened with a bang, or two or three and Richard Neary for Team ABBA Racing wrestled the lead of the class from Shaun Balfe by force. The assault opened the door for Graham Davidson, subbing for Simon Watts, in the #2 Team Rocket RJN McLaren along with the #77 Enduro Motorsport Mclaren, #93 Sky Tempesta Racing and #40 Fox Motorsport McLaren through over the course of the first lap.
Further back Ian Loggie was laying the foundations of a grandstand finish, bringing the #6 Mercedes-AMG GT3 of RAM Racing up into the top eight by the time he crossed the line to start lap 2. The Mercedes dragged the Paddock Motorsport McLaren of Kelvin Fletcher with him.
Five laps in and the race was settling down a bit; Neary headed Davidson and Morgan Tillbrook aboard the #77 machine. Meanwhile a double 2Seas Motorsport plus Audi battle had formed for 4th, 5th and 6th. The full season #4 Mercedes of James Cottingham held the advantage of the #93 Tempesta machine, driven by Kevin Tse and run by the Anglo-Bahraini squad.
The action started to take a turn for the more exciting at the 45 minutes on the clock mark. A battle between the #32 Redline Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 EVO of Alex Malykhin and John Fergusson aboard the #15 RAM Racing Mercedes developed and got a little too close, the Mercedes spinning out at Druids corner but luckily missing the armco and continuing on without needing a safety car.
Soon after traffic began to rear its head, the leading #8 Mercedes of Richard Neary finding Team BRIT‘s McLaren going about its business. It gave Graham Davidson something else to focus on and gave the Mercedes a small amount of breathing room; room he used to close up on the battle for 5th to 8th in the GT4 class.
Soon after a battle between the #90 and #9 Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT4s gave Davidson the break he needed from combat with Morgan Tillbrook allowinghim to close in on the leader.
Then came the talking point of the pre-pit stop part of the race. Richard Neary came across a battling pack of GT4 traffic at Hislops and Knickerbrook, tried to slip his Mercedes up the inside of the #48 Toyota Gazoo Racing UK Toyota GR Supra GT4, then changed his mind as the door was closed by Tom Edgar aboard the GT4 protagonist. Neary’s option was the right hand side of the slower car but Davidson had already seen the gap and put his McLaren in the hole.
What followed was a scary looking crash at the Water Tower for the Team Rocket RJN man, ripping the bodywork from the front left hand corner of the car, but most importantly protecting the driver. The car would spend the rest of the race tucked into the barriers well off the racing line on the approach to Druids.
Thrills and Mis-steps the Late Race Story
The pit window opened and race leader Richard Neary was the first to come to the lane. A swift handover to son Sam Neary saw the lead retained but penalties were the story of the second half of the race for the #8 car. A penalty for a pit stop infringement netted a stop and go for the car, another trip down pit lane was the Neary’s reward for their part in the accident for the #2 machine. Late race the car got given another penalty; this time converted to a time penalty after the race, we think for exceeding track limits.
Probably the most embarrassing moment of the race has to go to Morgan Tillbrook, who came to pit lane for service in the mass of GT3 runners diving to pit road early. Unfortunately in the throng he missed the Enduro Motorsport team waiting to receive him and had to do another lap. The self inflicted drive through penalty turned a possible podium finish into 8th place at the end of the race.
The pit stops also signalled a change in the feel of the race. Gone was the feel of gifted amateurs doing what they loved with respect. Instead it was replaced by paid professionals, filled with equal amounts of respect for each other but keenly aware that they are paid to win. Win they were determined to do.
Jules Gounon was the on form man, making relatively short work of the most successful driver in championship history, Phil Keen. The WPI Motorsport driver kept his nose clean, making up two places at the flag when the leader and second place cars headed to pit lane for penalties.
When the stops were over the order in GT3 stood as the #8 Team ABBA Racing machine leading from #4, the DK Engineering backed 2Seas Motorsport Mercedes. Shaun Balfe’s Audi with Adam Carroll at the wheel held third place ahead of Jamie Stanley’s Fox Motorsport McLaren and Gounon’s RAM Mercedes.
Damage nearly spelled the end of 2020 Champion Sandy Mitchell‘s race, his Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini trailed smoke for over a lap as a result of contact with Chris Froggatt who had taken over the Tempesta Mercedes from Tse. It cleared up after a small amount of time though and frankly, between the battle on the track and the battles being fought in the stewards room, there was no attention to spare for a Lamborghini finishing in 9th overall.
Those penalties included the three already listed for Team ABBA Racing. Additional penalties were for the #93 Sky Tempesta Racing car, a drive through for track limits joined to another for contact with Sandy Mitchell. The second place runner at the close of the stops, Lewis Williamson for 2Seas, landed a 5 second stop and go penalty for a short pit stop while the #11 McLaren at the hands of Martin Plowman took a drive through for track limits violations.
The list of penalties in GT3 was matched by an equally alarming number in GT4.
Having dispatched the most successful driver in the 30 year history of the championship, Jules Gounon set his sights on Jamie Stanley’s McLaren. Newly promoted to second following Williamson’s penalty, the Fox 720S GT4 put up a fair fight but couldn’t defend for ever. With Phil Keen getting back on the boot lid of the Mercedes and Fox Motorsport’s Stanley being robust in defence it had to be traffic for Gounon.
Next lap was his chance and the AMG pro was ruthless in pinning his rival and taking maximum advantage from lapping a GT4 runner.
As penalties began to be served Adam Carroll inherited the lead of the race with Gounon in second and Stanley in 3rd.
Jules Gounon’s fastest lap 1:33.910 went a long way to bringing the Mercedes-AMG onto the back bumper of the race leader with 15 minutes to spare. There was time for Gounon to do his magic, probing the defences of Carroll and working his way past. No-one told the Audi driver though, he put on a masterclass of defensive driving, out dragging the Benz down the start finish straight at one point in defence of his position.
Somehow Carroll held out and Balfe Motorsport’s return to the British GT Championship was met with silverware for the race victory. It was a thrilling finish to a great race, punctuated only by an unfortunate off for the #32 Redline Racing Lamborhgini Huracan GT3 EVO. James Dorlin had the wheel when the car went very wide at Old Hall and down The Avenue, hitting the barrier but continuing to a 14th place finish.
Only one of the cars failed to make the start in GT3, the Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT3. After a busy weekend finding parts and repairing the car after an accident in Free Practice, the car was again damaged in a warm up collision.
GT4 What Happened
By comparison to the GT3 race the hour in GT4 was relatively tame.
Benji Hetherington made an early move to get ahead of the Audi R8 LMS GT4 of Richard Williams. The Valluga Racing team boss took advantage of a botched gear change early on, Williams blaming the slip on being ‘rusty’. It put the Steller Motorsport driver in a Porsche sandwich, Team Parker Racing‘s Jamie Orton.
Series debutant Marco Signoretti was the early big mover, jumping from the penultimate row of the grid to fourth place inside the first lap. The Academy Motorsport machine didn’t make further progress and ended the race in 4th, both in GT4 overall and in the Silver Cup class.
Hetherington’s grip on the front of the GT4 pack ended on lap 7, Richard Williams getting a better exit from Lodge to claim the lead into Old Hall Corner. #42 Audi led #51 Porsche Cayman GT4 RS Clubsport ahead of an identical #65 Porsche. Signoretti was the muscle car spoiler in a field of European exotics.
It was Signoretti who made the entertainment in GT4 attacking at Old Hall on the ninth lap of the race. It wasn’t to be and the attempt served to open the door and invite attack in turn. Tom Edgar’s Toyota GR Supra GT4 made Signoretti regret his decision on the way down the Avenue.
Edgar would rise to notice again soon after as the innocent instigator of the #2 McLaren 720S GT3’s demise. An event which allowed Century Motorsport’s Tom Rawlings to win the intra-team battle with Jack Brown.
Then came the pit stops.
As in GT3 the pit stops caused a good amount of carnage in GT4. First in was Aaron Morgan in the Team BRIT McLaren 570S GT4 who completed his stop and was on his way out of the pits before the leaders had their chance to take service. Of the other GT4 cars only Academy Motorsport, R Racing, Assetto Motorsport and Paddock Motorsport eschewed the pits at the first offering.
Post pit stops all attention was on the fireworks at the head of the field so GT4 struggled to get a look in on the coverage. The stewards however were determined to give GT4 equal billing and the penalties came thick and fast.
A drive through for the #48 Toyota Gazoo Racing UK Supra wasn’t really explained but is probably due to track limits. The 6 second stop and go for the #42, now at the hands of Sennan Fielding was of more import to the race. So too was Darren Turner‘s 1 second stop and go and Seb Hopkins‘ 3 second stop and go. All the stop and go penalties were for short pit stops.
Fielding didn’t let it stop him either. Quickly the Steller Motorsport Audi took to pit road, took it’s medicine and got back to the racing. Before long he was catching and passing Ross Wylie in the Valluga Racing Porsche. Josh Miller did the same soon after in the R Racing Aston Martin for second place.
GT4 ended quietly with just a single drive through penalty applied post race for the Assetto Motorsport run Ginetta G55 GT4. Freddie Tomlinson had the wheel for what is suspected to be a track limits penalty.