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British GT: Rockingham, Race Report

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It’s perhaps not the best loved circuit in Britain, but the Rockingham Speedway in Corby has been the scene of much drama over the years as its unique sweeping banked corners and tight infield combine to produce drama and excitement. And it was no exception in 2015, as the first of the two-hour British GT races was fought out on this particular field of battle.

With the torrential rain that had swept across the circuit earlier in the morning (prompting Andrew Howard to describe conditions during warm-up as ‘horrendous’) having long ceased, the BGT grid formed up under blue skies and with the temperature having shot up to 18°C. The track was still slippery, but slicks were the only sensible option (no intermediate tyres being allowed) and the opening stages were sure to be tricky for the ‘Am’ drivers in these unfamiliar conditions.

As ever with the first lap at Rockingham, breaths were held as the 31-strong field barrelled down to the tight and tricky Deene hairpin seconds after the lights turned green, but discipline prevailed and all emerged unscathed. Andrew Howard had the better line on the exit of the corner and the Beechdean Aston took the lead from Marco Attard’s #1 BMW before the pair reached Yentwood. Ahmad Al Harthy was now pushing hard for third in the #2 Oman Racing Aston, with Derek Johnston fourth in the #17 TF Sport Vantage. Jon Minshaw, meanwhile, had taken the #63 Barwell Z4 up to fifth at the expense of Liam Griffin’s #6 Oman Racing Aston.

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Before Howard could do anything about pulling away from his pursuers, however, the Safety Car was out and neutralising the field, following a most bizarre and unfortunate incident that had befallen the two Von Ryan Racing McLaren 650S near the end of the first lap; Salih Yoluc in the #12 having harpooned the blameless #10 sister car of Ross Wylie at a speed totally inappropriate for the entrance to the Brook chicane. Both cars were out on the spot, but Wylie happily escaped serious injury; “It’s obviously quite a sore topic,” said the Scot later. “Slightly frustrating as the team did such a great job all weekend. We had better qualifying than we did at Oulton, got through the first half of the lap and to be honest it all happened a bit too fast. I took quite a knock to the head and I was feeling a bit dizzy and sick, I’ve got to praise the medical staff here who looked after me. I need to wait until I’ve seen the video footage, but there was nothing I could do. I’m proud of the team for how it has handled it all, hopefully we can have a better one at Silverstone.”

It also soon transpired that the #12 car had made contact with the rear of Lee Mowle’s #888 Triple Eight BMW earlier in the lap and bent the exhaust, and the young Turkish driver’s continued participation in the series must now be in some doubt.

The first lap was considerably less traumatic for the GT4 field, with Jamie Chadwick holding on to her pole position in the #407 Beechdean Aston and completing the first 2.05 miles with a three-tenths advantage over the GPRM Toyota GT86 of Richard Williams. Will Moore was third in the #61 Academy Motorsport Aston, with Graham Coomes’ #49 Porsche now in fourth having started seventh. Aleksander Schjerpen had gained two places in the #43 Century G55 to hold seventh behind Paul McNeilly’s #48 Fox Motorsport G55, while a good start from David Pattison took the #56 Tolman Ginetta from 12th to 10th.

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The Brook carnage kept the Safety Car out until the end of Lap 6, after which hostilities resumed in earnest. Howard kept his lead, but the four cars immediately behind were all clearly eager to make progress.

One driver who was making progress was Rick Parfitt in the #44 Team LNT Ginetta, taking sixth from Griffin soon after the restart. The 2013 GT4 champion was by some way the fastest man on the track at this point, but his pace slowed dramatically towards the end of Lap 8 as the alternator began to fail. After another slow lap, Parfitt had no choice but to pit. Soon afterwards, he was joined in the pitlane by Steve Tandy after the #32 sister car suffered gear-selection problems exiting Brook and was hit by a taken-unawares Aston, adding a puncture and suspension damage to his woes.

On Lap 11, Attard finally got close enough to Howard on the banking to make a move at Deene; the BMW going through into the lead on the inside of the hairpin and winning the drag race down to Yentwood. A lap later, the Beechdean GT3 drifted wide at Graceland and Al Harthy pounced to grab second. Worse for the #007, Johnston saw his chance and stuck his nose in front before Howard could close the door and the erstwhile leader was now fourth. No such issue for the ‘junior squad’, however, as Chadwick continued to build her lead over Williams’ Toyota; the gap now up to six seconds.

Oz Yusuf had taken fourth from Graham Coomes on the restart lap, but was now once more coming under pressure from the AmD Porsche. The #49 took the place on Lap 12 – the ISSY Evora dropping to seventh in the process; contact? – but a lap later suffered a spin out of Tarzan and the Porsche was down to ninth with it all to do again.

After a sluggish start, Liam Griffin was getting back into his stride in the #6 Oman Aston and was back into his start-position of fifth after taking the BMW of Minshaw. The Demon Tweeks boss responded and remained just half a second shy of the Aston for the next few laps, but overshot the Deene hairpin on Lap 16 and dropped to 10th behind the TF Sport Vantage of Andrew Jarman. At around the same time in GT4, Chadwick was lapping the #53 UltraTek Lotus of Richard Taffinder.

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As the first half-hour of the race elapsed, the two leaders were separated by just half a second and six seconds clear of the third-placed Johnston. Three seconds behind him, Andrew Howard was only too aware of the presence of Griffin’s Oman Aston and the run down to Yentwood was the scene of a further demotion for the Beechdean car on Lap 20. A minute or so later, Minshaw regained ninth place from Jarman at Gracelands.

Arguably the most impressive drive at this point of the race was coming from Lee Mowle in the Triple Eight BMW; the #888 having been harried by the #30 Ram Racing Mercedes of Alastair Mackinnon from the restart. Despite this constant pressure – the two cars seemingly tied together round the track, the Triple Eight boss refused to yield and was driving flawlessly and defending cleanly. More impressively still, the two cars were closing on Howard ahead; and while no further progress was made, Mowle held off his challenger right up to his stop on Lap 33.

Griffin’s pace carried him through to third on Lap 23 at the expense of Johnston, but Al Harthy’s challenge on Attard was muted slightly after the Omani racer was requested to stay within track limits by Race Control. This resulted in the BMW enjoying the luxury of a two-second lead for the first time in the race, which by now had passed the 40-minute mark. This was merely a temporary state of affairs and the gap was soon back down to just below a second; the two leaders putting on a spectacular show of assured and assertive traffic management as their fight continued through the GT4 field. And these are the ‘Amateur’ drivers, let’s not forget!

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As soon as he had completed his mandatory 50-minute minimum driving stint, Ade Barwick became the first of the stoppers when he pitted to hand the #46 Twisted Team Parker Ginetta G55 GT4 over to Bradley Ellis; the highly distinctive car having risen to tenth in class after starting from the pitlane as a result of missing qualifying. A minute later, the two overall race leaders were trundling down the same stretch of tarmac for the same reason, with the majority of the field following suit soon afterwards.

While nobody had been able to do anything about Jamie Chadwick’s immense lead in GT4, the #407 Aston staying out until the 56th minute, Richard Williams had kept the Toyota in a strong second and was one of the first to stop to hand over to Stefan Hodgetts. Alas, the GT86 ground to a halt at the end of the pitlane as its new pilot attempted to rejoin the race and a good chunk of time was lost before he managed to coax it back into life; the car returning to the pits after a slow outlap. Aleksander Schjerpen was the last of the GT4 drivers to stop and he came down the pitlane at the same time as the overall race leader Derek Johnston; himself the final GT3 stopper.

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It was now time to wait and see how the success penalties (each five seconds longer for this race) would shake the order up. The answer, after one hour of racing and 38 laps, was that Daniel Lloyd led in the #2 Oman Racing Aston, by 3.243s from Alexander Sims in the #1 Ecurie Ecosse BMW. Rory Butcher was nine seconds further back in third in the #6 Aston, with Matt Bell fourth, 25 seconds off the lead, and Lewis Plato fifth in the Ram Mercedes. Joe Osborne had had to wait for emergency repairs to be completed on the #888 BMW before rejoining and found himself 10 seconds adrift of the sixth-placed FF Corse Ferrari of Adam Carroll, as well as just half a second ahead of Jonny Adam in the #007 Beechdean Vantage.

Ross Gunn led GT4 by a mere 54 seconds from the #50 Optimum Ginetta of Mike Robinson and the #43 Century G55 of James Birch. The two Academy Astons were fourth and fifth, Dennis Strandberg in the #61 ahead of the #62 sister car of James Harrison, while Jamie Stanley held sixth for Fox Motorsports in #48.

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It didn’t take long before Sims was greedily eating his way through the gap to the leader and by the middle of Lap 38 it effectively no longer existed. But Lloyd held his ground and the BMW works driver had to earn his keep; Sims time and again being denied at key spots like Chapman. Could the Aston driver keep this up for another 45 minutes though?

Bradley Ellis’ stint lasted less than 20 minutes and ended when the Twisted Ginetta came into contact with the #49 AmD Porsche of Jake Hill at Gracelands. Both cars were able to make it back to the pits, the Porsche with a damaged rear left wheel, which was replaced and the car sent back out, and the Ginetta with front-right suspension damage, which wasn’t repairable. As the #46 went behind the wall, Rob Garofall was bringing the #41 RLR G55 down the pitlane with a puncture.

Lloyd’s defence of the lead came to an end only on Lap 52, when traffic at Deene caused him to overshoot the hairpin and gift the lead to the BMW driver; “It was so tough out there,” said the Oman Racing driver later. “We knew Alexander was quick all weekend and we had an extra 70 kilos we had to deal with. We had a really clean pit stop, came out of the pits, and I went on the radio and said I had to let him pass because he was just so much quicker. I didn’t want to cost myself any more time. But I started defending and it was difficult coming through the back markers, some of whom were helping, but in the end it was the GT4’s that cost me the position. I had two choices: I could have lifted and Alexander would have had the momentum and got me anyway, or I could have kept flat and gone round the outside, which is what I chose to do. But there was just so much rubber and pick up as soon as I touched the brakes into the hairpin it just locked up and that was it. I think it was inevitable though, I’d asked my engineer how long there was left when I was under pressure and he told me “fifty minutes” and I thought ‘Oh my God…’”

With 40 minutes remaining, the race had finally settled down to the point where on-track battles were few and far between. Sims pulled away at a rapid rate in the fresh air now available to him, while Gunn’s lead in GT4 had stretched beyond a minute. Phil Keen’s #63 BMW had earlier taken ninth place from Jody Fannin, but the TF Aston driver was now serving the second of two stop/go penalties arising from the #27’s pitstop; the first being a second long for a too-short stop (too short by 0.062s), and the second being of 10 seconds duration for a refuelling infringement, a fate that also befell the #11 22GTRacing Aston of Jon Barnes.

This stasis ended on Lap 60 when the #62 GT4 Aston of James Harrison ended up in the Tarzan gravel and caused the Safety Car to be summoned for a second time. The Academy car had been left with nowhere to go after the battle for sixth overall between the #30 Mercedes of Plato and the #18 Ferrari of Carroll came through; the FF Corse car squeezing the Aston onto the grass with the lightest of contact. The stewards took a dim view of the move however, and the 458 would later be black-flagged; its driver storming away from the car after parking. “Not the greatest situation to be honest,” said Carroll’s teammate Gary Eastwood. “Adam went into the corner and left room for the slower car, but was committed on his racing line. He ran out of room and had the slightest contact, but because the Aston was on the marbles he’s ended up in the gravel. It was in no way the aggressive move the stewards charged us with, which was a Pro driver getting heavy handed with a back marker, it was a genuine racing incident, and we feel pretty hard done by.”

But even though the field bunched up during the four laps behind the Safety Car, which actually picked up the leader! Lloyd was unable to attack for the lead at the restart owing to the presence between he and Sims of the UltraTek GT4 Lotus of James Nash, which had very little pace even in the hands of such a talented driver, and the #2 Aston was compelled to follow the GT4 across the line before overtaking, by which time the leader was 3.7s further up the road. Nor had the GT4 battle closed up, with Gunn’s lead actually extending beyond a lap during the caution.

The soon-to-be-departing Carroll moved up to fourth at the restart, but Plato’s demotion of Matt Bell on the same lap would see the Ram car up to fourth when the black flag took its toll. Further back, Joe Osborne’s defence of seventh had been made harder by the caution, but the presence of the Demon Tweeks BMW in his mirrors at least meant that Jonny Adam could not concentrate fully on pressing home his attack in the Beechdean Aston.

The real action was now taking place in GT4 where the remaining two podium places were changing hands rapidly. Dennis Strandberg had been eating into Mike Robinson’s advantage before the caution period and was able to attack the Optimum Ginetta at the restart. The #61 Academy Aston was now up to second, while the #50 would soon lose further places to the #43 Ginetta of James Birch (albeit briefly, as the Century car immediately slipped back to seventh) and the Fox G55 of Jamie Stanley; a brake issue being the cause of Robinson’s demotion.

But it was the pace of Jake Giddings that was turning heads. The 2014 GT4 champion had worked his way up to eighth before the caution and now took advantage of the bunching to take the #47 JWB Aston first past the #77 Lotus of Gavan Kershaw (the Evora a shadow of its Oulton self following a brutal BoP adjustment), then the Ginettas of Birch, Luke Davenport, Robinson and finally Stanley to take third.

At the head of the field Sims was away and clear, but Butcher was suddenly closing on Lloyd as the minutes ticked away. The gap between the two Oman cars had shrunk from three seconds on Lap 70 to just half a second by Lap 75, but Lloyd dug in once more and kept the Scot behind. Plato had also joined in the fun and the three were nose to tail through Pif Paf on the penultimate lap.

But Rockingham belonged to Ecurie Ecosse on this day and Sims took the flag after 78 laps to his and Marco Attard’s delight.

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“We’re really pleased,” said the reigning champion. “I went deep at one point and Andrew [Howard] got past me, but he returned the favour later so I was able to take advantage. Then I could hand over to Alexander and didn’t have to worry about it because he’s just the best!”

“It all felt pretty good in my little bubble!” added Sims. “Fair play to Daniel, he did a really good job defending so the first 20 minutes were great fun. After I got through it was pretty plain sailing, so I just got my head down and pushed on.”

The two remaining podium spots went to the two Oman Racing Astons, with Lloyd completing a great drive in second.

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“It was really tough,” said Ahmad Al Harthy. “My stint was very tricky in drying conditions; the track was really greasy and it was about trying to stay with the guys in front without doing anything stupid. We had the pace and kept pushing. I tried to put as much pressure on Attard as I could and he drove a perfect race; we were just pushing each other and it was great as the gap went up and down as we came up on GT4 traffic until we came into the pits together. Daniel did a great job to keep the BMW behind him for as long as he could, but Sims was quicker. But today we’ve been able again to prove our speed and it’s really encouraging for the team. We have to be patient: it’s not easy racing in British GT and the challenge has changed again for this year. It’s my first time with a new team mate and to have taken this position today is very good for everyone, great teamwork.”

“Somehow our third place here seems even better than the two we had at Oulton!” said Liam Griffin. “The car was really good and Rory and I make a pretty good team! It was a great race, really exciting and a great spectacle for the championship.”

And Lewis Plato was happy after his race, even though he was just a third of a second away from a debut podium visit; “Definitely a great result, not a podium but we’ll take that today, especially from P10 on the grid. The car felt right all weekend, as it did at Oulton Park, but it’s our first solid points scoring performance so far. Hopefully we can continue that at Silverstone. Alistair did a fantastic job today and gave me a good car in a good position. If we can just improve our balance during qualifying and start a little way further up the grid we know we can make our challenge a lot earlier in the race and challenge for podiums. Silverstone suits our car as we have the power on the straights and we’re looking forward to the longer format, so after today we’ll go there with higher confidence and it should be good.”

The Team Toon TF Sport Aston came home in fifth, Matt Bell being left with a very sore thumb having lost several layers of skin in his efforts to control his gripless car under pressure from Joe Osborne, with the Triple Eight BMW holding off the Beechdean Aston to take sixth. Keen, Fannin and Barnes rounded out the top 10.

Tom Oliphant’s race ended in the Gracelands gravel right on virtually the final lap, but the #44 Team LNT Ginetta was already 35 laps down by this point after its earlier problems; “We went slightly the wrong way on set up for Quali, but I knew that the car on low grip was one of the fastest out there,” said Rick Parfitt. “So that was the plan; to be on it from the get go. It felt absolutely mega and I managed to take two cars in the first three corners. And then I was right behind Salih Yoluc at the incident, the least said about that the better, but I was able to stay out of it and set off after Liam and the top five. The car was absolutely flying, we were really excited, and then we ran out of battery power, the alternator failed. So, another weekend of ‘what could have been’: I thought I’d be fighting midfield but I know now I’ve actually got the pace to be challenging towards the front, so I’m kinda happy. Aside from all that, I just can’t believe I’m in GT3, it’s brilliant.”

Ross Gunn completed an utterly dominant lights-to-flag victory for he and Jamie Chadwick in the #407 Beechdean Aston, with Dennis Strandberg and Jake Giddings completing an all-Aston podium.

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“Jamie definitely made my job easy!” said Gunn. “She put in really consistent lap times so it was just a matter of maintaining the gap. The pressure came on a bit with the safety car, especially with so much dicing around us. I was so pleased to cross the line at the finish.”

“Ross and I knew we had the pace this weekend but we really had to work hard to make sure we managed the tyres effectively,” added Chadwick. “I brought the car back with a healthy gap and then Ross absolutely smashed it in his stint. We just had to bring it home from there.”

“After a really bad weekend at Oulton Park this is a really great result for the team,” said Strandberg. “It’s not a win but it feels like one. The car has found its feet and so have we. We were never in touch with the Beechdean car but we knew this was what we could do and delivered our best. I’m happy this has come quite early in the season. “

“I am still a bit surprised at the way the opportunity came to us today,” said Giddings. “We didn’t have a particularly fast car, but we were handed an opportunity under the safety car and I managed to make the best of it. In the last twenty minutes we pushed really hard. There was a lot to do in traffic, slower cars not getting out of the way, but we just hung in there and stuck at it. I’m really pleased, I don’t think we expected this result so early in the season.”

“A fantastic stint by Jake,” added JWB teammate Kieran Griffin. “We got a bit of luck from the safety car, which bunched things up and enabled us to take fourth and he just pushed on. Obviously the Beechdean Aston Martin is the benchmark and they have something we don’t, but our car’s felt great all weekend and we know now we’re able to contend. I had a solid opening stint but for me it’s all brand new; learning what to do and what it’s about, Jake’s a great help with all that given his experience.”

The three Astons were followed home by the four Ginettas of Davenport, Robinson, Stanley and Birch, with the ISSY Racing Lotus eighth, the AmD Porsche ninth and the Stratton Aston of Jade Edwards and George White 10th (despite a 17 second stop/go penalty for a pitstop infringement).

“Despite the frustration at the end we’ve been really pleased with our weekend,” said Jamie Stanley. “Paul has really improved as a driver, which shows in his times. We feel really comfortable, the car is working great and we’ve carried a lot of knowledge over from last year, which was a learning year for us. Paul did really well in the opening stint and handed me a good car that I was able to push and challenge for a podium, just as we did at Oulton.

“We got into traffic and I had Jake (Giddings) closing in on me. We had a great fight; very fair and room given. He got the better of me and that’s fine. What I don’t get though is how other drivers with much more experience can ignore waved flags and defend being lapped so aggressively like it was for position. I got badly held up and lost places as a result.

“Despite the moan, we believe our car is going really well and we look forward to Silverstone. The podiums we now know we are capable of will come soon.”
The next British GT encounter is the three-hour race at Silverstone on May 31st, with the points situation going into that event being as follows:

Race Result >>

GT3

Griffin/Butcher 64 points
Attard/Sims 60.5
Mowle/Osborne 40
Howard/Adam 37
Mackinnon/Plato 26.5
Eastwood/Carroll 26

GT4

Johnson/Robinson 58
Chadwick/Gunn 55.5
Yusuf/Kershaw 39
Pattison/Davenport 36
Griffin/Giddings 30.5
Moore/Strandberg 27
McNeilly/Stanley 27

All still to play for then. Will the order still be the same after Silverstone?

MH/ML

I would just like to end on a personal note. Commitments away from motorsport mean that Rockingham will be my last visit to a British GT round for the foreseeable future, ending a virtually unbroken run stretching back to 2003. In that time I have seen the series wax and wane, but leave it at arguably its strongest ever point and potentially on the verge of greatness. 

I have made many friends covering the series and seen more racing talent than I can shake a stick at, and while I won’t be there in person, you can be sure that I’ll be following from afar. DSC’s coverage will now be anchored by Martin Little, with support from the team, so rest assured that the quality will not drop one iota (and will probably go up). Many thanks for reading my blatherings over the seasons – hope they’ve not been too boring!

Best regards,
Mark Howson