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Onwards & Upwards: The GT3 Transition

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Take three situations. First, that of the young 2014 British GT4 Drivers Champion and a high profile BRDC SuperStar. Then there’s one of his impressive ‘amateur’ GT4 rivals and close championship runner-up. Thirdly, the British GT4 Champion from 2013 who had chosen defence of his title and more seat time before stepping up. All were converts to GT3 for the British GT series in 2015, each having a different journey through their first season in its senior category.

As the year drew to a close we took time to reflect on the challenges, their progress, and in some cases what could have been.

Catapulted into success through the Beechdean AMR team’s inaugural GT4 programme, Ross Wylie’s 2014 GT4 driver’s title looked a relatively unflustered achievement for him and his team mate Jake Giddings. Aston Martin backing for the team combined with a wealth of success and experience with their GT3 car brought confidence and consistency from the get-go. Now in 2015 the spotlight was firmly on Wylie, the young Scot being fast-tracked for hopefully greater things through McLaren’s Young Driver programme (left below).

Ross Wylie & Andrew Watson

Cue a move into a McLaren 650S with VonRyan Racing: factory supported, in the right hands the car potentially a game-changer in the GT3 ranks. Getting to grips with its hi-tech attributes however, combined with some controversial misfortune on track (through no particular fault of his), would present a startling challenge for the shiniest of the 2014 British GT4 graduates

“Having finished last year on such a high the expectations are certainly great, both for yourself and those working with you,” Wylie confides. “It has been a character building year though with lots of different issues: a tough one, but you make your choices and learn from the outcome, which hopefully makes you a better driver. I always try to find the positive, even though there have been one or two situations earlier in the season where that has been hard. It’s part of the learning curve I know I’m on and have to take the experience forward.”

A continuing involvement with Aston Martin this year meant familiar territory for Tom Ferrier’s TF Sport outfit, the team deciding to strengthen its British GT3 presence with a two-car entry. Pairing previous Aston Martin Challenge Champion Andrew Jarman with emerging pro Devon Modell had been an exercise in nurturing upcoming talent last season that came close to netting the GT4 Drivers Championship. With Modell moving on to drive in the Blancpain series the ‘amateur’ half of the pairing, Jarman, got to work funding TF Sport’s second string GT3 entry, commendably bringing in a high profile sponsor (Eurostar) as part of the equation. Aside from the team’s budget this was something of a coup for the British GT brand too, but also meant expectations were suddenly different:

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“Other than some preliminary work at Monteblanco we had done no testing at all with the Aston Martin GT3. Our development with the car has been entirely at race meetings in Free Practice”, Andrew explains. “That puts the pressure on a bit as there are many other aspects to a race weekend that are a necessary distraction, particularly as you gain sponsors. We work hard on our corporate commitment, which is crucial to why we are able to be here. So it takes time, and that assumes you are having fairly untroubled performance.”

2013 GT4 Drivers Champion Rick Parfitt Jnr. understands the sentiment: “I was only ever here to see how far I could take it, and it always had to be fun. I’ve had amazing sponsors who have stuck by me forever, but the commercial reality is that in helping me into GT3 they’ve had to put a lot more money in. And that does take a bit of the fun away from it because you are under pressure to deliver. But like anything it takes time.”

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“Ginetta have actually done a great job; the car has been a bit temperamental but when it’s been right it has gone extremely well. I truly think that we are the Minardi of the pitlane – the company doesn’t have millions of pounds to develop their cars like the Astons have and yet we have been knocking on their door. It’s a shame I couldn’t deliver what I wanted to this year but my sponsors see the potential.”

Seat time being limited away from race meetings, nobody expected quick results. Ross Wylie took the plunge with different machinery, but in a series which fields two classes how much does familiarity with a make and chassis actually ease the transition from one to the other? All our drivers took time to get to grips with GT3, but of the three it was Andrew Jarman’s improvement that was most visible as the series unfolded. Steady progress from further back on the GT3 grid earlier in the year would eventually deliver poles and podiums for the affable Milton Keynes based driver who, with pro partner Jody Fannin, slowly but surely gained consistency and confidence with their Aston Martin package.

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“Prior to last year I’d had the experience of the Aston Martin Challenge so there was good familiarity going into GT4. However, with the GT4 Aston it was a struggle to get the maximum out of the car consistently,” the TF Sport driver explains, “It is basically a road car and you are always trying to equalise that performance, carrying the speed through corners to string a lap together, whereas with the GT3 car it’s much more ‘point and squirt.’ You’ve also got much more consideration with aero and working all those elements together. That’s a big improvement over GT4, but it can take a while to get comfortable with the power / aero combination and the feedback to find the set up.”

Ross Wylie is fairly open about the challenge to his self assurance: “At the start of the season I thought my pace was good, but getting wiped out by my sister car [at Rockingham] affected my psyche a bit afterwards. And when you’re down and in a new situation with what is a very complex car it is tough going. My team mate Andrew Watson and I have improved as a pairing despite those setbacks though and the car will come good. You understand that it is a team effort no matter how difficult things might be. We’re both still fairly new to GT’s and it is a very technical car to set up but, as I’ve said before, when it’s right it’s awesome. It’s cutting edge, a different driving experience to say an Aston Martin. Perhaps stepping into the McLaren was a bold transition for me, but we’re all learning and the car has huge potential if we can harness that more consistently.”

Having more than proven his ability with a GT4 Ginetta G55, the jump to its GT3 variant would seem a reasonable prospect for Rick Parfitt Jr., but how have they really compared?

“The car has been easy to drive, but pushing on was the big deal. You can drive the GT3 car with a modicum of natural improvement but learning the aero and working with the brakes was a big thing for me. With a GT4 car you brake very early in comparison to this: you settle the car to dance it through the corners and the braking is all about self-ABS’ing, whereas with GT3 there is no finesse in braking at all. You literally get to a ludicrously late braking point, hit the pedal with eighty pounds of pressure and it just stops! It doesn’t lock up – the first time you do it, it’s incredible! But I think it flatters driving styles in that everyone can brake late. For me it loses a bit of braking opportunity. Everyone is braking at the same point and at the pace you’re travelling you can’t actually take that extra yard. It’s good and bad in equal measure.”

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“You need to have more faith in the car than you do in GT4, in which it’s more down to you and the car and what you can do together in total. It’s interesting; GT3 is a more like getting the car to do you what you tell it to. The aerodynamics are incredible: I was testing at Donington and went down through the Craners, turning right into the Old Hairpin and I thought it was understeering. So I told the crew and they just said I wasn’t going quick enough, even though it seemed like seventy mph quicker than I’d ever been through there. But sure enough I went in harder, closed my eyes mid corner thinking I was going to have the mother of all shunts and it stuck! After a while that just becomes second nature and there is a slightly different mindset that has to be taken. GT3 is such an awesome class – the cornering speeds are phenomenal. This morning in warm up I was charging around with the sun coming into the cockpit and the engine just screaming and you’re carrying so much speed into the corners… you just stop yourself and think, ‘this is incredible..!’ But it’s all very serene and comfortable because you reach a level where you have confidence in what the car can do.”

But while his hard-charging approach at the wheel remained very much in evidence, results in 2015 were harder to come by for the 2013 GT4 champion:

“It has been a really tough season and reliability has been a big issue. At the beginning of the year we showed really good promise: we went from eighth to pitting from the lead at Oulton. Then at Rockingham I flew from mid-field, setting fastest lap – and that’s not one of my best circuits – and we had an alternator failure. That has been the story of our season; something’s always hampered our progress. The regularity of that sort of thing can be challenging.”

A common criticism from drivers in GT4 in the past has been the driving standards of the GT3 field. Apart from developing their physical affinity with the car, have our newcomers changed their opinion?

Andrew Jarman: “GT3 really is a different package. I was chatting to Andrew Howard and he was explaining that to me before the season started. As well contested as GT4 is, GT3 is serious racing with no quarter given. Last year in GT4 we had a good group of drivers that all knew each other and overtaking was easier in as much as there was more consideration of space and the type of performance with a GT4 car we were all used to – you drive accordingly and fight for position knowing how things can go wrong. With GT3 there is more speed and less space. The cars are wider and the opportunities come at you quicker and you have to take them. You have to adapt.”

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Ross Wylie: “Interestingly for me there has been more focus and consideration away from the track this year with things like that – it’s a different mindset. GT3 gives you more power, more downforce. That soon gets your feet back on the ground; mentally you have to hit the reset button. With the front engined Aston Martin GT4 it was all about rolling the speed through the corners. The McLaren is a rear engine car, and what a difference! You encounter traffic differently and have the tools at your disposal to deal with it very quickly. Some can adapt, some can’t. It’s not easy.”

Rick Parfitt: “Actually I think the driving standards in GT4 are probably a bit higher than GT3! As the season developed we realised we lacked a bit of torque; we have the smallest engine on the GT3 grid and have really started to feel that now. The top end is fantastic but coming out of corners it’s lacking. When you’re in a dogfight and trying to cut through traffic that is a big issue. There is no margin for hesitation.”

So with success and failure divided by a fairly blurred line, how would our GT3 rookies assess their experience with hindsight and in taking that forward?

Rick Parfitt: “For me this year was a good test to see where I’ve got to. I think I’ve shown that I have good ‘Am’ pace and have continued to run at the front. It has been really nice that people have been noticing that, which I’m quite humbled by. To take third on the road in the conditions at Snett (fourth after the countback) was a definite highlight for me. It was back to my karting roots, driving through the field and sliding the thing around in the wet… I was having a lovely time; I don’t know what everyone else was doing…”

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“In retrospect there’s been quite a lot of heartache, but with the benefit of hindsight it has been a really good learning year for me. I feel like I can drive a GT3 car fast, and that’s what I set out to achieve. Sure, the results have been frustrating for me and my sponsors, but I think we’ll come back stronger next year. Whether I will be with Ginetta remains to be seen – I’ve been very flattered by the offers I’ve had up and down the pitlane.”

Climbing the ladder there are also considerations of where privateer drivers spend their hard earned sponsorship. Parfitt concludes by airing a concern:

“The future will be where the strongest package is,” he alludes. “I do want to put a package together now where I can be with a team for a couple of years and build a proper title assault. GT3 is a fantastic class, but it’s horrifically expensive. I don’t know how they could do it, but the costs of GT3 racing need to be brought down because I think the market for GT3 – certainly in the UK – is dwindling, especially because of the success of the GT4 class. The GT4 cars are becoming more sophisticated and they’re driver friendly so they are attracting a hell of a lot more interest. The costs need to be looked at as it’s in danger of becoming a bit of a millionaire’s day out. And it’s such a purist racer’s class – GT3 is exactly what everybody wants as a wonderful step towards the ultimate goal, which is Le Mans.”

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“I love GT3 though and I don’t want to be going back, I want to be going forward. It’s been a steep learning year, but Le Mans 2018 is still a viable target.”

The closing thought from Ross Wylie: “I’d like to think we can carry our experience and the progress that has come with it into next year but that depends on many things. I am a great believer in needing to tick the box before you can move on. So don’t write us off, it’s all part of the game… I’m still doing what I love to do.”

Martin Little