Qualifying for the opening rounds of the 2022 Intelligent Money British GT Championship season saw 17 of the 18 GT3 machines take to the track at Oulton Park to put in their best lap. Shaun Balfe for the eponymous Balfe Motorsport took pole position for race 1 on his return to the championship after a year out racing in Europe.
Richard Neary of Team ABBA Racing put in a strong performance in his Mercedes-AMG GT3 to claim the top spot in GT3 Silver/Am, second on the grid overall with a well mixed melange of Pro/Am and Silver/Am competitors seeded throughout their wake.
It was GT3 Pro Qualifying where the excitement really built as a succession of Silver, Gold and Platinum drivers did their best to defeat the circuit qualifying lap record. Adam Carroll did it first but it was series debutant Jules Gounon who obliterated the lap record to claim the top spot for race 2 on Easter Monday.
In GT3 Pro qualifying it was more as we would expect with a solid block of six Pro/Am cars at the top of the table. The fastest Silver driver was Jamie Caroline, newly promoted from GT4 and showing promise for RAM Racing’s second car in seventh overall.
John Ferguson led the field out for GT3 Am qualifying and was expected to do well with a new tyre and a circuit which favours the big and grunty V8 Mercedes-AMG over more refined equipment. The RAM Racing driver was straight away quick and put in a provisional pole time but couldn’t keep hold of it for long.
Richard Neary in the old Mercedes #8 for Team ABBA put in a 1:36.324 to secure an early provisional pole but soon a succession of other drivers came along to stake their claim.
First up was Shaun Balfe, making his return to the championship after a year out and debuting the new for 2022 Audi R8 LMS EVO2 GT3. He lost out to Adam Balon in the similar product from Lamborghini, the Huracan GT3 EVO. Michael Igoe displaced the Barwell man in his Huracan EVO for WPI Motorsport then similarly lost out to Enduro Motorsport‘s Morgan Tillbrook.
At the half way mark Tillbrook had lost out to James Cottingham aboard the 2Seas Motorsport Mercedes. The provisional pole time for race 1 stood at 1:35.629.
First to attempt to topple the Mercedes was the new Paddock Motorsport McLaren 720S GT3 of Kelvin Fletcher. It wasn’t enough for the top spot but put the #11 into second place. Alas the advantage wouldn’t endure.
Fox Motorsport displaced Paddock thanks to Nick Halstead in the battle of the McLarens only to lose out to Shaun Balfe. A 1:34.946 would have been enough to usurp the provisional pole but not to keep a hold of it. Improvement on the next lap to a 34.758 assured the Balfe Motorsport team owner of the front of the GT3 grid on Monday morning.
Morgan Tillbrook’s late attempt put the Enduro car up to second place, +0.204 seconds off the Audi. He later lost out to Richard Neary 1:34.817; the two cars were also scrapping over Silver/Am pole position, a fight that was eventually settled in favour of the Team ABBA Racing boss.
A challenge from Alex Malykhin for Redline Racing Lamborghini missed the mark and the session ended with Shaun Balfe putting in a final and un-necessary improvement to 1:34.692.
The #91 machine from Century Motorsport has been one of the most hotly anticipated arrivals on the British GT Championship grid. The 2022 BMW M4 GT3 had divided opinion with its unique styling but excitement was high to see what it could do. Unfortunately Betty Chen‘s free practice 2 accident means the car is out for the day and team boss Nathan Freke is currently en-route to the continent to pick up additional spare parts so the car can make the back of both grids on Monday.
The second GT3 session was both thrilling and disappointing; thrilling in that the lap record fell not once but twice in rapid succession. Disappointing in that the blistering pace effectively robbed us of a multi-party battle for pole.
First to strike was Sam Neary, who had relieved his father Richard from driving duties and initially looked pretty good for a strong grid position. Alas, it wasn’t to be and the Silver man ended up 12th on the grid, fifth in the ‘lower’ class.
His fall did clear the decks for a battle royale among the professional drivers at the head of the class. Lewis Proctor hit first, his Greystone GT McLaren demoted by the arrival of WPI Motorsport’s Phil Keen on the top step of the timing screens. His stay was short lived too, being replaced promptly by Euan Hankey, then Marcus Clutton and then Sandy Mitchell whose 1:33.011 was tantalisingly close to a new lap record.
All eyes were on Mitchell as he improved in the early stages of his next lap, but Adam Carroll was on a charge in the Balfe Motorsport Audi and he was the first to drop below the invisible line in time. A new lap record was formed; 1:32.799.
Mitchell’s best was 0.849 off Carroll’s pace.
Then along came Jules Gounon, who took his Mercedes-AMG GT3 to a whopping 1:32.384 to obliterate the old lap record and take pole by a whopping 0.415. No one could match the pace, not even Gounon himself as the session trickled down towards its end with fewer and fewer cars in circulation and even less in the way of positional changes.
The only mystery of the session comes from the GT3 Silver/Am round by round entry from Sky Tempesta Racing. The car wasn’t expected to set the world alight, but neither was it expected to be a slouch. Possibly due to accident damage, definitely not in the teams plan, Chris Froggatt dragged a scuffed white Mercedes-AMG to pit lane after the end of the session, unable to improve on its best time.
On Monday Froggatt lines up against the M4 GT4 on the grid. I would be nervous.