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Group C Racing: Silverstone Classic, Race Report

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Group C Racing’s 2013 Silverstone adventures began with an excellent qualifying session on Friday evening, with the crowds being entertained throughout the 35 minutes as Day 1 of the classic meeting came to a close.

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Getting underway just a couple of minutes later than its scheduled 18:55 start – testament to great organisation of a very busy schedule – Nic Minassian couldn’t wait to get going in the sole-surviving Jaguar XJR14 and was first out of the pits when the lights went green, with his first flying lap being an impressive 1:56.151; but he was about to get much faster.

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21 C1 and C2 cars followed the 3.5ltr C3 (Invitation) Jaguar out onto the 5.9km circuit in the dry and sunny conditions, but while Gareth Evans set a 1:56.539 in the so-far-dominant Mercedes C11 on his second flier, Minassian had lowered the bar to 1:50.855. But other cars were also breaching the two-minute barrier in these opening stages of the session, with Mike Donovan briefly heading ‘the rest’ on 1:59.390 in his #111 C2 Spice SE88C before being leapfrogged by the C1 Spices of David Mercer (#41 SE90C – 1:58.063) and Adrian Watt (#15 SE89 – 1:58.106). Steve Tandy was also getting the #27 Nissan R90CK warmed up with a 1:59.199.

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The timing screens soon became a blur of green as more and more cars improved their positions. Aaron Scott leapt up the order with a 1:58.058 in the #170 C2 Spice SE86 (owned by Tommy Dreelan, who was himself driving the #14 Leyton House Porsche 962), but all the while the former Peugeot works driver was getting ever-quicker in the Jaguar – 1:48.151 being his latest effort; and we still had 20 minutes to go!

Two cars had returned to the pits soon after the start. Jonathan Fay was unfortunately destined to remain there for the duration as his #112 Tiga GC287 refused to cooperate, but Japanese racer Katsu Kubota was back out in the Jota Historic-prepared #25 Nissan R90CK after five minutes and jumped to second overall with a 1:55.837 just before the 15-minute mark.

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Mercer, meanwhile, had improved to 1:57.958, but dropped down again as both Kubota and the #17 Jägermeister Porsche 962 of Christophe D’Ansembourg (1:57.776, followed by a 1:56.703) improved.

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Roger Wills – in the midst of a busy weekend that would also see him racing a March 701, a Lotus 16 363, a McLaren M1C and a Lotus Elite – breached the two-minute barrier in the #5 Lancia LC2 at the halfway point, and he was joined in this particular club by the #10 ‘Frikadelli’ Porsche 962 of Klaus Abbelen and Sabine Schmitz a couple of minutes later.

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After a short hiatus, the leading times started to come down again. Kubota lowered his best to 1:54.807, while the Mercedes went round in 1:55.399; the team having changed tyres and adjusted to the rear wing. The FROM-A Nissan was also speeding up, with Tandy improving to a fifth-quickest 1:57.586. Moments later, however, Evans made a huge improvement to take the C11 round in 1:51.796. This was still 3.6s behind the XJR14, but three seconds clear of Kubota’s Nissan; the Japanese driver’s now-third place also coming under pressure from Tandy who went fourth with a 1:55.804.

Further back, other drivers were also upping their pace – Eric Rickenbacher’s Cheetah (2:03.561), Richard Eyre’s Jaguar XJR16 (2:04.235) and Chris Catt’s Spice SE88C (2:06.732) all improving as the session entered its final ten minutes.

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But Evans’ efforts to close the gap were hugely undermined by a staggering 1:46.428 by Minassian; and, indeed, the Mercedes wouldn’t be able to dip into its deficit to the Jaguar, which now stood at 5.368s.

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Even though pole had been cemented, there was still all to be played for elsewhere in the field before the grid was finalised. Aaron Scott improved his time by eight-tenths to clinch C2 pole – Mike Donovan improved before the end but not by enough.

As the session neared its end, and with half of the field already in the pits, it looked as though it was fizzling out; but far from it – there were still a few surprises to come.

Steve Tandy had already improved to a 1:54.950, but a final push saw the yellow C1 go third with a 1:54.149 to cement an all-R90CK second row; while the #17 Porsche 962 went fifth on 1:55.786 and Adrian Watt took sixth – and top Spice honours – with a 1:56.429.

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Nic Minassian: “That was fantastic. This is a brilliant car and it just wanted to go faster and faster. I did my time on old tyres.”

Sabine Schmitz: “The 962’s a very interesting car to drive; a bit hard to find the right gears, but hopefully we’ve got the ratios right now. It’s a bit uncomfortable – we had two shakedown runs before coming here and I hurt my knee and elbow against the frame because of the vibration [shows scribe huge bruise on right elbow] – but it’s really big fun.

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“It’s taken me some time to learn the circuit as I’ve not raced here on the new layout, but I’m getting there.”

And would the car be going round the Nordschleife any time soon? “Yes, in two weeks!”

Steve Tandy: “I think third is realistically the best I can hope for here. The Jaguar is just going to run off into the distance and the Mercedes has a big five litre engine and all the torque that goes with it. The aim is to be best Nissan.”

Mike Donovan: “I struggled with the low sun during qualifying, particularly round the back end of the circuit, but I’m comfortable with how it went. It’s good to have people like Aaron along as it lets you benchmark your own performance.

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“We had a misfire at the Nürburgring that we never really got to the bottom of. The car’s running fine here, so we think it was down to altitude and climate; we’re running on the original ECU and probably couldn’t get the mixture settings right.

“I’m looking forward to the race – it should be a good one.”

Sadly, two cars would be taking no further part in the meeting. Jonathan Fay’s Tiga had suffered a broken gearbox that couldn’t be repaired on site in the time available….

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….while the #51 Kenwood Porsche 962 – driven solo by Hervé Regout after Stéphane Verbeeck was unable to attend due to business commitments – suffered an engine problem and was withdrawn after a team consultation; the conclusion being that a failure was likely if the car raced.

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Scott Couper’s qualifying session, meanwhile, had been affected by his Tiga being reluctant to start; but although the team hadn’t fully identified the cause, the purchase of two new batteries seemed to have done the trick.

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There was an excellent atmosphere in the Group C Racing compound near The Wing, as there was throughout the circuit as the many thousands of spectators revelled in this festival of racing, but the main topic of conversation was, ‘what time will the rain get here?’ Heavy rain had been forecast for the area from noon onwards, but it wasn’t until six o’clock that the sight of some very heavy grey clouds made it clear that the prolonged dry spell was about to come to an end.

The first downpour lasted for about an hour, leaving large swathes of standing water on the track, but this coincided with a scheduled break from track activity ahead of the two evening races. It was decided to push ahead with the racing, but with the Piper Heidsieck International Trophy For Pre 1966 GT cars reduced to 45 minutes from an hour and with Group C pushed back to 20:45. However, further prolonged heavy rain – as well as a significant reduction in light levels – forced the organisers to cancel the Group C race n safety grounds just before half-past eight. This was hugely disappointing for drivers, teams and spectators – many of whom were still onsite despite the truly appalling conditions (a month’s worth of rain falling during the evening, according to reports) – but fully understandable, and the decision met with no protest.

Sunday dawned with cloudy skies, cooler temperatures and blustery winds, but through the day things started to improve; the clouds dispersing and letting the sun through – which also drove temperatures upwards. By the time the Group C field began to fill the assembly area in the International Paddock, conditions were just about perfect – not too warm and with a bone-dry track.

The events of the previous two days had left the field with just one two-driver car – the #10 Porsche 962 of Abbelen/Schmitz – and a short pitstop window had been built into the extended race to accommodate the German visitors. Each car would have to stop for two minutes in a window that would open at the start of the 18th minute and close at the end of the 22nd; i.e. five minutes.

At 13:30, the cars went through Garage #1 and down the pitlane to begin the first of two pace laps (there being no time for a grid-procedure), with the race clock counting down at the start of the second one. But things began in disastrous fashion for Paul Stubber as the Veskanda ground to a halt at pit exit with master-switch failure and had to be hauled back, eventually rejoining four laps down; while Scott Couper found himself a long way back from the field after pitting at the end of the first pace lap due to an open door.

Paul Stubber VESKANDA

The pace car pulled off with three of the 42 minutes having already elapsed and we were away; Nic Minassian immediately pulling away from Gareth Evans, who was himself clear of the two Nissan R90CKs behind. But Katsu Kubota immediately took the fight to Steve Tandy and forced the FROM-A car into a lock-up as it tried to defend third. This resulted in a flat-spotted tyre and a vibration which compromised Tandy’s ability to properly judge the apexes and the blue and white #25 was soon past.

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The most spectacular start came from Klaus Abbelen in the #10 Porsche 962, with the German passing the Spices of David Mercer, Adrian Watt and Aaron Scott, as well as the 962 of Christophe D’Ansembourg, on that first green lap to go fifth behind Tandy; and he straightaway latched onto the yellow Nissan. Although passed by the Frikadelli Porsche, Watt ended the lap with a net gain of one position having himself passed both Scott and D’Ansembourg. Elsewhere, there were gains for Eric Rickenbacher, Richard Eyre (#3 Jaguar XJR-16) and Georg Kjallgren (Courage C26S).

Georg Kjallgren COURAGE C26S

Minassian ended the first lap almost five seconds ahead of the C11 – evoking memories of the 1991 World Sportscar Championship race at Silverstone, when Teo Fabi’s #4 XJR-14 started Lap 2 with a similar lead over the rest of the field (including Martin Brundle’s #3 Jaguar – the car now driven by Minassian – which had missed a gear on the pace lap) – and continued to pull away at a similar rate henceforward. But this wasn’t the case for Evans, who quickly came under pressure for second (first in C1) from Kubota. The Mercedes seemed unable to react to the threat and the Japanese driver took the place at the end of the Wellington Straight.

“The car felt really strange,” said Evans after the race. “It wasn’t running right in the first part of qualifying, but new tyres and an adjustment to the wing sorted it and I went four seconds quicker. But in the race I had massive understeer – I could barely keep it on the racing line! I’ve since found out that we raced on the those first tyres from qualifying, so it could be that they are the cause, or it could be the wing; we just don’t know yet.”

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Tandy meanwhile had his mirrors full of black Porsche, but held on to fourth despite several serious challenges from Abbelen.

The Jägermeister Porsche was through to fifth at around the same time as Kubota’s pass on Evans, leaving us with the wonderful sight of four of the five Spices in the race running virtually nose-to-tail.

Argo

Mercer had just taken the #41 C1 SE90C past Scott’s C2-leading SE86 – reducing his class lead over Mike Donovan to just over half a second – but it wasn’t long before Adrian Watt began to fall back with smoke pouring from the right hand side of the car; “The front bodywork was rubbing on the tyre and my cockpit filled with smoke,” said Watt. “I had to back off and lost several places, and it only stopped smoking when the tyre had been worn down to the canvas! After that it felt okay and I was able to recover some ground, but I couldn’t put a new tyre on at the pitstop as I’d have had the same problem again.”

On Lap 6, Abbelen finally found a way past Tandy and was up to fourth; and things weren’t going to get any easier for the vibrating #27 as the #17 Porsche and #10 Spice began to loom larger in its mirrors.

Towards the rear of the field, Chris Catt was growing uneasy with the way the #104 Spice SE88C was feeling and decided to head for the pits. This was before the pit-window had opened and once he arrived in the pitlane the car seemed okay and he headed straight back out without stopping. This dropped him to last-but- one place (the much-delayed Veskanda now seemingly circulating healthily), but things hadn’t improved and the car was retired after ten laps with suspected head-gasket failure.

When the pit-window did open, Minassian’s lead had stretched to a mighty 46 seconds the fight for second was much closer, however with Evans having hauled Kubota back in and the Mercedes was now just a couple of car-lengths behind the #25 Nissan; but any potential passing manoeuvre would have to wait until after the stops and the two cars joined the lead Jaguar in the pits on Lap 10.

Not all cars had pitted by this point and places were still being traded out on track. Christophe D’Ansembourg was on a roll and took Steve Tandy’s Nissan on that same lap.

His next target was Klaus Abbelen, but the Belgian driver perhaps got a little carried away and his passing attempt on the German at Village was certainly optimistic. Alas, contact was inevitable, with the #17’s front left meeting the #10’s right-rear with some force and sending the Frikadelli car into a spin. Both cars made it back to the pits – the Jägermeister 962 able to rejoin the race after the administering of copious amounts of tank tape – but a wave of the hand from the team indicated that the Havoline-liveried Porsche was out. A waiting Sabine Schmitz resignedly took off her helmet and gloves (a great shame for the crowd that they would be denied seeing the Queen of the Nordschleife in action), while Abbelen was clearly unhappy with how things had transpired.

Klaus Abbelen/Sabine Schmidt PORSCHE 962

With the window now closed and with 15 minutes of the race remaining, the order on Lap 13 was 8, 25, 31, 27, 170, 41, 111, 15, 5, 60, 14, 33, 3, 28, 71, 17, 106 and 21.

Minassian was having the time of his life in the XJR-14 and had come within a quarter of a second of his qualifying time on the previous lap with a 1:46.712, as he extended his lead beyond 70 seconds. But things were about to go seriously awry for a couple of significant cars.

The first of these was the #111 Spice of Mike Donovan, whose hopes of challenging Aaron Scott for the C2 lead died on Lap 14 along with his alternator, while the other was the C1-leading Nissan of Katsu Kubota; the R90CK slowing suddenly on Lap 15 and yielding the position to Evans’ Mercedes before seeming to recover its pace.

Mike Donovan SPICE SE88C

Indeed, the #25 was soon back into the 1:54s and able to extend its much-reduced advantage over Steve Tandy’s Nissan. Ten minutes of the race remained (a light rain shower had briefly caused some anxiety, but it petered out quickly and the track was soon completely dry again.)

While the front of the field was experiencing its dramas, further back in the pack the two Porsche 962s of Tommy Dreelan and Henrik Lindberg were going head-to-head (a regular feature of this season’s racing) and Eric Rickenbacher’s Cheetah made this a three-way tussle over ninth place. On Lap 16 Dreelan found a way past the Swiss car to take the Leyton House car to ninth, with the Dane in the Tic Tac Porsche also gaining a spot when Rickenbacher race wide on the next lap; “That was good fun,” said Lindberg afterwards.

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“This is only the second time I’ve raced here, so you are having to learn the track while racing – and we’d each gain from the others’ mistakes. But with these cars you also race yourself – each lap becomes a new challenge as you try to get more out of the downforce! ”

Adrian Watt had retaken sixth from David Mercer on Lap 16 and his goal was now to catch and pass Scott’s #170 for Spice honours. Roger Wills, meanwhile, was having a lonely race in eighth in the #5 Lancia LC2 and seemingly not able to produce his usual pace in the gorgeous Martini-liveried car.

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Kent Abrahamsson was also on a bit of a charge in the third R90CK and would catch and pass the Cheetah before the end of the race.

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As the race approached its final five minutes, it seemed as though Tandy could do nothing about Kubota in the fight for third, despite setting ever-faster laps. Suddenly, though, the #25 slowed again – as it had done earlier – and this time it headed for the pits. Sadly, that was it for the Japanese car; an engine issue preventing any further participation in the race.

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The last question that remained unanswered was, could Minassian lap the field? He had already gone past Tandy in third and now had the C11 ahead. However, as time ran down, and with the Cheetah between himself and the Silver Arrows, he decided not to push things and took the flag a mere minute and 48 seconds clear [you can read more about Nic’s exploits – here]

With the Jaguar being an Invitation class entry, the winner’s trophy and points went once again to Gareth Evans who brought the Mercedes C11 home to victory once again in less-than-ideal circumstances; testament indeed to the pedigree of this incredible machine.

Podium

Second and third in C1 went to Steve Tandy and Adrian Watt – both having overcome tyre issues en route to the podium – while Aaron Scott managed to hold off the Applebee’s Spice on the road by just over half-a-second to take C2 honours in fourth overall; “I really enjoyed that. This is a fantastic car to drive and I want to say a big thank you to Tommy Dreelan for inviting me to race it.”

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Dreelan himself finished in ninth in the #14 Porsche, behind David Mercer and Roger Wills, with the top ten being rounded out by Henrik Lindberg and Kent Abrahamsson. Eric Rickenbacher came home 11th, while Richard Eyre brought the second Jaguar home to 12th after a trouble-free run ahead of the battle-scarred Porsche of Christophe D’Ansembourg.

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Katsu Kubota was classified 14th, while Scott Couper made it to the end in his Tiga GC288 in 15th to take second in C2.

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The final classified finisher was Paul Stubber, still no doubt cursing the master-switch on the Veskanda that had ruined his race. Alas for Georg Kjallgren, the Courage retired after 15 laps with engine issues.

The two UK rounds of the Group C Racing season hadn’t been particularly kind to its participants – only two of the scheduled four races actually taking place – but the cars had again undoubtedly been some of the stars of a very successful and enjoyable Silverstone Classic. The teams now have a two-month break before the series reconvenes at Paul Ricard in early October for the season finalé.

MH

(All images Jakob Ebrey Photography)