So much for the improved Bank Holiday weather; it was bloody freezing at Oulton Park on raceday morning as a thick fog covered the circuit and appeared highly reluctant to relinquish its grip. More positively, a very large crowd was pouring through the gates as British GT warm-up began at 09:00; and even more positively, all 15 GT4 cars had survived the preliminaries to make the grid for the first of the day’s two one-hour races, due to begin at midday.
Bradley Ellis headed the class in the 10-minute session in the #46 Twisted Team Parker Ginetta G55 on 1:45.287, with Jamie Stanley second in the #48 Fox Motorsport Ginetta on 1:45.443 and the Quantamatic Racing Aston of Terry Langley and Mike Hart third on 1:45.717. “We’ve learned some lessons from qualifying and the car felt good this morning,” said Langley. He and Hart join the series after several seasons in Caterhams, so what brought them to GT4 in an Aston Martin? “I did five years and Terry did three, and we’d both really hit the ceiling of what could be achieved in Caterhams,” explained Hart. “Luckily, our sponsor wanted to move up and he’s a big fan of Aston Martin, and with the Vantage GT4 being a proven package, it was a no-brainer really.”
How were they finding the bigger car? “The biggest difference is that in a Caterham you can feel everything, while in the Aston you can’t,” said Langley. “So there is an adjustment to be made. But we’ve done about 2500km of testing over the winter and we’re getting there.”
The GPRM Toyota GT86 was running in the Invitation class for this round, but the expectation was that it would be fully homologated in time for Round 2 at Rockingham at the start of May and it was running at Oulton in full GT4 spec.
Regular driver Stefan Hodgetts was pleased with the car’s pace so far this weekend, and also by his new full-season co-driver, Richard Williams. “The guys at GPRM have worked really hard over the winter and we’ve got a great car,” he explained. “It’s a good sign when both drivers are disappointed by the fact that they’re not a second quicker, because the car’s so good.” The deal to get former Trackspeed racer Williams into the car came late, and just in time; “I’m here because of these two guys,” said Williams, pointing at Hodgetts and GPRM boss Gary Blackham. “I had no intention of coming back to racing, but Stefan saw me recently and asked me to join him and then Gary talked me into it. My last race was in the Porsche Supercup in Abu Dhabi in 2009, but when I phoned the MSRA to ask about a licence, it turned out that I had a 2010 race licence, which meant I was within three days of the five-year limit. Otherwise, I’d have had to start from scratch with the ARDS test!”
Over at the ISSY Racing Lotus pit, it transpired that pole-setter Oz Yusuf had not been idle over the close-season, as teammate Gavan Kershaw explained. “Oz has done a phenomenal amount of work over the winter and has basically spent the whole thing driving.
“He always had good one-lap pace, but he’s been working on his racecraft and fitness and I think we’re going to see a big difference this year. My dad [Dave Kershaw] has been mentoring him and I think he’s almost become a surrogate to Oz over the past few months!”
Despite predictions, the fog had lifted only slightly by the time midday approached and the colourful British GT field assembled on the grid for the first race under ‘traditional’ Oulton Park Easter skies; but there was a real buzz around the circuit as engines were fired and the combined grid of 34 made its showy way round the tight 2.7 mile International Circuit. Yusuf was ready as the lights changed and the #77 Lotus led the GT4 field round Old Hall Corner in assertive fashion.
But while the first corner – so often the scene of early carnage – was successfully cleared by the entire grid, it was a different story at the equally notorious Cascades, and Yusuf found himself having to take avoiding action as two GT3s headed towards the gravel. Will Moore in the second-placed #61 Academy Motorsport Aston found himself with nowhere to go and ended up joining the two GT3s in the kitty litter, but James Birch fared better and emerged in the lead in the #43 Century Motorsport Ginetta.
Before Yusuf was able to respond, the Safety Car was scrambled to allow the extraction of the stranded trio.
The caution ended at the end of Lap 3 (Moore having returned to the pits) and the fight for the lead resumed. Yusuf stayed with the lead Ginetta and made his move round the outside of Old Hall at the start of Lap 5. Such a move would not have happened in 2014 and this spoke volumes for the progress made by Yusuf during his intensive training.
Further back, Richard Williams found a way past Jamie Chadwick’s Beechdean Aston on the same lap to put the Toyota GT86 third on the combined GT4/Invitation class, but his attempt to pass Birch for second two laps later ended in disaster; the GPRM car limping back to the pits and into retirement with rear-end damage. Also making progress was Graham Coomes, who took his AmD Porsche into sixth on Lap 5 at the expense of Paul McNeilly in the #48 Fox Ginetta, while further back Chloe Edwards was also claiming her first British GT scalp as she passed Richard Taffinder’s #53 UltraTek Lotus in the #51 Stratton Aston.
Yusuf’s pace was enough to take him rapidly clear of the chasing pack, but the fight for places behind was intensifying. Birch was managing to keep a safety cushion between his Ginetta and Chadwick’s Aston, while Graham Johnson, who had closed rapidly on the Beechdean car in the #50 Optimum Ginetta, found himself coming under increasing pressure from Coomes as Chadwick defended her third place. Terry Langley was at the end of this particular battle in the #71 Quantamatic Aston, and his pursuit of sixth place was rewarded on Lap 10 when McNeilly spun down the order at Druids. Ade Barwick was locked in battle with David Pattison for seventh at this point, and the Tolman Ginetta found its way past the Twisted Team Parker G55 on Lap 11.
On Lap 13 the pit window opened and Yusuf was straight in to hand over the #77 Lotus with a lead of almost 10 seconds. The Safety Car had just been scrambled, owing to a GT3 misunderstanding, and it looked at this point as though the ISSY Racing car might just emerge with a lap in hand. However, as the remainder of the GT4 pack pitted and rejoined under new ownership, a confusing picture was emerging. According to the timing screens, the Century Ginetta now led in the hands of Aleksander Schjerpen, with Mike Robinson second in the #50 Optimum car and Shaun Hollamby third in the #49 AmD Porsche. Somehow, the Lotus of Gavan Kershaw had dropped to sixth. More significantly, it was showing as being almost a full lap down. No correction was made to the timing screen and that was how things stood as racing resumed.
Just 16 minutes of the race remained as the yellows were withdrawn, but Schjerpen was not to enjoy his lead for long as a message from Race Control indicated that the #43’s pitstop was too short (by 0.7s) and that the Norwegian was invited to visit the penalty box to make amends. Schjerpen obliged soon afterwards, dropping to fifth in the process and handing the lead to Robinson.
Capitalising on this stroke of fortune, the Optimum driver put his foot down and pulled out a small gap over second place, which was soon occupied by Mike Hart’s Quantamatic Aston; he and Ross Gunn in the Beechdean Aston having passed Hollamby’s Porsche. The fight for second would subsequently allow Robinson to pull away. 18 year-old Gunn tried all he could to overcome Hart’s resistance, but all was to no avail and the order remained unchanged to the flag; the winning margin being almost five seconds.
“I think before qualifying we thought we might get a win, but neither Mike nor I had a great session and we were where we were,” said Graham Johnson. “We’ve both been racing a long time and that experience showed today. We had good pace, and although I didn’t know we’d get a win, we looked strong when I pitted and it looked promising for a podium. I think when we saw we jumped a place in the pit stops; we knew then that Mike could win because he was quicker than the guy in front. As it happened, he got a penalty, which made it even easier, but I think we would’ve done it anyway.”
“Graham did a fantastic first stint and did a lot of the hard work for me,” said Mike Robinson, “then Optimum did such a great stop for us. I looked in the mirror as I left the pit and saw we’d just got the jump on the Beechdean Aston; I knew they’d done a fantastic job and I couldn’t let them down with any mistakes. Thankfully the car was good, it felt nice and consistent and I got my head down and built up a lead. Really pleased with the result, more of the same hopefully in race two.”
“I was struggling to get heat into the tyres for the first six or seven laps and dropped back a bit,” said Quantamatic’s Terry Langley, “but they started to come in from Lap 8 and just got better and better. I handed over to Mike in P5 and then he really did the business. It’s a good, steady start and more than we were expecting from the first race. Now we just need to improve on this result.”
“It was chaotic to say the least,” said Beechdean’s Jamie Chadwick. “I was thinking it was my first GT race and I was definitely aiming to keep my nose clean, manage the situation and avoid any mistakes and incidents. But of course once you start racing all that clever thinking kind of goes out of the window..! So we got a good start, up to third and we just tried to get into a rhythm. The Toyota went off in front of me onto the grass, which I fortunately avoided and made good progress so I was able to hand a good car over to Ross, who did a mega job.
“As we got in for our stop as part of the Safety Car period I narrowly avoided too much pressure with GT3 traffic, but it’s all part of the race craft that I’ve got to learn and get used to. It got a bit processional towards the end but we were delighted to bring it home. It was tremendous fun, I really enjoyed it.”
Shaun Hollamby brought the AmDtuning.com Porsche home in fourth in its first race, while Aleksander Schjerpen had to be satisfied with fifth for Century after the stop/go penalty. Not at all happy in sixth, however, was Gavan Kershaw; “Oz really got his head down and came in with a 10 second lead,” said the Lotus driver. “We had no problems at the stop, but I came out behind the Safety Car with the leader two cars behind me. I waited for the wave-by but none came and that was that!”
The Tolman Ginetta of David Pattison and Luke Davenport was seventh (Davenport claiming the fastest lap of the race – 1:43.674), and the #47 JWB Motorsport Aston of Kieran Griffin and 2014 co-champion Jake Giddings eighth. All 15 GT4 cars finished the race.
No sooner had the first race ended than the sun broke through and transformed the day. Thus it was that the grid assembled for the second race three hours later under blue skies and warm sunshine. All the GT4 cars were in attendance, as was the Toyota GT86, this time in the hands of Stefan Hodgetts.
As the field moved off behind the pace car, however, Mike Hart found himself having great difficulty getting the #71 Aston off the line and when he did the car was apparently stuck in limp-home mode. He managed to clear the problem on the formation lap, but was by now dead last.
As the pace car peeled off and the race began, Luke Davenport had absolutely no intention of relinquishing his pole position and made sure that the door was well and truly closed to near-neighbour Bradley Ellis as he guided the #56 Tolman Ginetta through the crucial first few corners.
Once again, a first-lap kerfuffle led to the Safety Car being deployed, but remarkably it was back into the pitlane by the end of Lap 2 and the race was back on. Having lost a one second lead to the caution, Davenport set about rebuilding it and largely succeeded. As Ellis tried to keep in touch in second in the #46 Twisted Team Parker Ginetta, Kershaw was closing and breaking clear of the battle for fourth between Hodgett’s Toyota and Jamie Stanley’s #48 Fox Ginetta. Close behind them were Ross Gunn’s Beechdean Aston, Mike Robinson’s Optimum Ginetta, Dennis Strandberg’s #61 Academy Aston and Jake Giddings’ #47 JWB Vantage.
Kershaw made his move on Lap 5 and took second from Ellis, but at the same time the first GT4 retirement of the day was taking place as Shaun Hollamby returned to the pits with terminal damage to his Porsche after contact on the opening lap; “That obviously wasn’t the way we wanted the weekend to end, and it’s disappointing that being punted off in a racing incident cost us a finish,” said the AmD boss. “However, we have to just put that behind us and look at the positives there are from the weekend.
“We knew that Oulton Park wasn’t the best circuit on the calendar for the Porsche as we are being hampered a bit by the Balance of Performance that was placed on the car last year. Despite that, we were able to make the most of the opportunities that presented themselves in race one to take fourth place; showing the importance of good strategy even when you don’t have the quickest car.
“Graham did a good job this weekend and we’re really pleased with his performance. It was his drive in race one that set up the result, and now we’ll aim to build on that when we head to circuits that should be better suited to the Porsche.”
Over the next few laps the field began to string out. Kershaw was kept at arm’s length by Davenport, while Gunn continued to fend off Robinson. The status quo was broken only on Lap 9 when the Toyota slowed on track and began the long crawl back to the pits with a serious suspension issue. The top two were now separated by just two-tenths, but clear of third by three seconds. Hart, meanwhile, had recovered to 10th in the #71 Aston, having just taken a place from the #62 Academy Aston of James Harrison. Jamie Wall had earlier taken position in the #54 UltraTek Lotus from Jade Edwards in the #51 Stratton Aston, which would soon be making an unscheduled stop.
The fight for fourth continued to be close, but was finally resolved on Lap 12 as Robinson took advantage of lapping GT3s to find a way past Gunn.
The pit window was soon open, but there were few takers in the opening few minutes. Schjerpen was the first to stop, handing the Century Ginetta to James Birch in 13th, while Wall handed his Lotus over to Tim Eakin soon afterwards. The real flurry began at the halfway point of the race when Davenport ended a mightily impressive stint by handing the #56 Tolman Ginetta over to David Pattison. Kershaw, Ellis and Stanley stayed out for another lap as Robinson and Gunn headed for the pits.
By the time all the stops were complete – and factoring in the success penalties from Race One – the order was now 56, 77, 48, 46, 61, 407, 50, 47, 71, 43, 62, 53, 54, 51 and 86 (the Toyota being back in the race in the hands of Richard Williams but 10 laps adrift of the GT4 field).
Pattison’s lead as the window closed was around half a second, but with a super-motivated Oz Yusuf breathing down his neck in the rapid #77 Lotus, it was obvious that things would not remain unchanged, and Yusuf again took the lead with a move round the outside of Old Hall.
Paul McNeilly was also motivated to make amends for his Race One error and soon closed the gap to the less experienced Pattison (the Tolman driver having only taken up racing three years ago); the change for second coming with 15 minutes remaining.
But what stood out on the timing screens was the pace of Jamie Chadwick in the #407 Beechdean Aston.
The extra 10 seconds that had needed to be served at the stop had left the 16 year-old with a sizeable deficit to the #61 Aston of Will Moore. Her pace, however, soon eradicated that gap and the blue and white car was up to fourth (both cars having earlier passed the #46 Ginetta of Ade Barwick) with 12 minutes remaining. The move at Old Hall, however, had involved contact between the cars and would have repercussions for both, beginning with Moore pitting the #61 and not returning to the race.
Yusuf was way off in the distance by this point – his lead being of the order of 20 seconds – but there was still plenty of racing to be done before the two other podium places were sorted.
Chadwick continued to set impressive pace and she despatched Pattison for third before quickly bringing McNeilly’s Ginetta in range. With six minutes left on the clock, the Beechdean car was up to second, but the ISSY Lotus was too far away for further improvement. More significantly, the Team Managers of #61 and #407 were being summoned to the headmaster’s study.
Graham Johnson was by now up to fourth in the Optimum Ginetta and was lapping significantly quicker than McNeilly. However, despite being able to wipe out the deficit to the Fox car, its driver clearly wasn’t in the mood to relinquish his place and he resolutely refused to relinquish his grip on the trophy. But Johnson persevered and the two cars emerged from Old Hall on the final lap almost side by side and clearly still in dispute of the position; the dust settling to reveal that the place had gone to Johnson by 0.166s.
But Oz Yusuf was already waving to the crowds on his victory lap by this point, with the ISSY Racing package suddenly looking very strong indeed.
“Everything went really well!” said the delighted Lotus racer. “We might have won the first race were it not for the Safety Car so we were pleased to get it back in this one. We stuck to the plan, stuck to a steady pace and I didn’t need to push it too hard. It would have been nice to get the double-win but there’s always next time!”
Jamie Chadwick and Ross Gunn shared the second step on the podium for the second time that afternoon, with Gunn clearly delighted by the way his GT racing career had begun; “What a phenomenal weekend. To have two second places is just a fantastic achievement for the youngest pairing on the grid. To come here and show the establishment what we’re made of is just great – we’re absolutely over the moon. The car was fantastic and it’s been a real team effort; everyone has pulled together. It was tight, but we managed to get round and avoid all the fast GT3’s: that was fine, I found the drivers gave you room. It’s not our strongest track but we’ve shown we can compete at the front and the result is really encouraging for the rest of the year.”
Alas, the smiles were to vanish from the faces of the youngsters later that afternoon as Chadwick was adjudged to have been at fault in the Beechdean/Academy incident and the car was excluded from the results. Nevertheless, the performance of the two members of the junior squad had opened many people’s eyes at Oulton; not least those of Andrew Howard, who broke off from celebrating his own win to offer this assessment of his new signings; “Phenomenal! I got to watch both of them in the first race after my car went out and the maturity of a 16 year old and an 18 year old in traffic was just unbelievable! They’ve worked hard to get this result and they’ve delivered.”
Graham Johnson’s hard fought third place – “There was a bit of bumping and barging in the final few yards and I remember crossing the finishing line at 45 degrees while whooping over the radio!” – became second in the amended result and meant that he and Mike Robinson head to Rockingham with a points haul of 43 and a healthy lead of 10 points over Yusuf and Kershaw.
Paul McNeilly and Jamie Stanley, meanwhile, missed out on a podium celebration, but had the satisfaction of a trophy to make up for the earlier disappointment.
David Pattison held on to fourth place in the Tolman Ginetta, while Terry Langley was just 0.3s adrift in fifth at the close in the delayed Quantamatic Aston.
“I am delighted with the way the car ran this weekend,” said Pattison. “The team did really well and I found some pace I didn’t have before in the first race, which was fantastic. It is also good to be finally racing instead of testing or qualifying and looking at the car in front instead of the clock.
“The second race was actually very hard though. Going out in the lead was quite a weight on my shoulders and this is my first British GT race in a car like that. The team is happy with fifth but physically, it was very hard work. The tyres were very well worked by the time I got in and the car was moving around a lot and the track was a lot hotter.”
Ade Barwick was sixth in the Twisted Ginetta, while Chris Webster took seventh in the #62 Academy Aston in the closing stages from the #47 JWB Aston of Kieran Griffin.
Rockingham is next up, with a two-hour race on a very different circuit at the beginning of May. If anything is clear from Oulton Park, it is that this is going to be a very closely fought GT4 season.