The 2016 British GT season gets underway this weekend and in recent years the series has proven to be a great spectacle, but what should fans be watching for this year?
For the past 23 years British GT has given UK race fans the opportunity to see some truly weird and wonderful machinery on these shores. It has seen the GT1 and GT2 eras come and go, it’s ridden the storm of economic crises and yet still provided us with a glimpse of exotics in some of the most far-flung corners of England.
British GT has rightly established a name for itself as the most intense and action-packed national GT series in the world. The cars often qualify within milliseconds of each other, bang wheels and doors (occasionally shedding them too) and has provided a number of drivers with a platform to build a career, while also giving some ageing race stars another opportunity to shine.
This year the season starts at Brands Hatch for the first time, and this re-jigged format will mean that for the first time in eleven years, the drivers, especially the bronzes, likely unfamiliar with their cars after a long winter or limited testing, will have a bigger and more expansive circuit for the first race of the year compared to the usual pair of 60-minute sprint races around the tight and twisty turns of Oulton Park. Teams and drivers were critical of Oulton as the home to the first round in recent years, with a number leaving with significant damage. Progressive moves like this by SRO show that they listen to their customers and hopefully we can start the year with green flags rather than yellows.
As a discerning DSC reader, we’re aware you realise that there is always a lot to watch for in any GT championship, and this year we’ve unpicked what we believe are the top ten things to watch for in this year’s British GT Championship, following on from our media day review. From first-time winners, get ready for this action-packed list this sure to create some serious GT fever ahead of the season opener:
1) Can anyone beat the Barwell Lamborghinis?
On the face of it and despite the issues that come with running a new car, Surrey-based Barwell Motorsport look like the team to beat across their two full-season entries.
The new Huracan GT3 has proven itself to be a race winner in its first year of competition and as a factory supported team, Barwell will only benefit from the widespread use of the Lamborghini across the world. Running two cars in a series also gives you flexibility to try different setups in practice and get it right for qualifying and the race across the pair of entries. Forgetting the cars for one minute, the driver line-ups are significant too. Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen have worked together since 2012 and this is now their third different car.
On the face of it, they should be championship contenders, but the same could’ve been said last year too when they ran in the Barwell BMW. Minshaw rarely struggles to get into the top five ‘AM’ qualifiers, and Keen’s credentials are well documented too. Liam Griffin has been a solid performer in previous outings in British GT, but questions over his ability to get up to speed in the all-new Lamborghini and the fact he won’t have the use of Sims for the first part of the season (from a tuition and consistency perspective – Fabio Babini doesn’t lack pace!) could be a factor.
What to watch: A healthy dose of luck and avoiding contact will see Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw figure regularly on the podium this season, but that’s quite a lot to ask for in British GT! Can Griffin master the Lamborghini and cope with switching PROs mid-season? If so, expect him to be in the title mix come Donington.
2) Fourth time lucky for Osborne and Mowle?
Now in their fourth year with the ageing BMW Z4, if there were two drivers who should be able to mount a serious title challenge in the wake of all the new arrivals of drivers and cars, it would be Joe Osborne and Lee Mowle.
Back at Brands Hatch, the scene of Osborne’s titanic scrap for the lead with Alexander Sims in 2015, you’ve got to think that the likeable pair are due at very least a maiden win together in 2016. Moving to AMD after Triple Eight shut it’s doors on GT racing means very little – Shaun Hollamby runs a tight ship and his team know all Germanic machinery like the back of their hands. Engineer Keith Cheetham joins the team this year after 16 months running the Z4 at Triple Eight, where he found a setup that gave Mowle and Osborne an ability to be front-runners last year.
What to watch: You won’t see this pairing falter too often on track, but an external factor could throw a fly in the ointment. This team perhaps more than others will be waiting with baited breath for the BOP documents from SRO prior to each round, to ensure a level playfield between the old and new GT3 machines is delivered.
3) Can Morris and Parfitt Jnr park-her on pole?
Not putting any undue pressure on Team Parker Racing’s first year with the Crewe manufacturer, but given the success of Bentley’s in Europe and in the USA, surely its about time the Bentley got a good showing in British GT? Seb Morris is new to GT racing but was no slouch in single-seaters and became a consistent points scorer and podium troubler as he matured in his career.
Aided by former Bentley works-driver Andy Meyrick, Morris should acclimatize well and could raise a few eyebrows amongst the ‘Pro’ ranks. Then there is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Rick Parfitt Jnr. That statement is meant in the kindest regard, for Rick, who is correctly a bronze-graded driver, but has the ability and race craft on his day to challenge at the front end of British GT. Stuart Parker’s squad is one of Britain’s finest teams with astute engineers that know how to bring on talent. There challenge is similar to Barwell in that it is a new car to the team, but with more miles under its belt, the powerful and wide Bentley could spring a surprise or two with Morris and Parfitt Jnr.
What to watch: Getting the Bentley to qualify high up the grid will eliminate the mid-pack rough and tumble, and that surely needs to be the aim of the game in the opening races.
4) Freezing out the competition – doing the unthinkable
It’s not been done before, and the man in question certainly likes a challenge, but can Andrew Howard successfully defend his British GT title? With long-term driving partner Jonny Adam jumping ship to TF Sport, Howard welcomes reigning British GT4 champion Ross Gunn up to join him in the GT3 Vantage V12.
Much will depend on how quickly his co-driver can adjust to GT3 racing and qualifying alongside his tutor Adam, and the likes Alexander Sims, Rob Bell, Phil Keen and Joe Osborne, all vastly more experienced in the art of GT3.
What to watch: Can Gunn mix it with GT3’s finest? And if so, how quickly? Will Howard maintain his fantastic pace and ability with Adam no longer in the team? Questions are plentiful, but the team, car, and know-how are answered.
5) Tyne to shine for Johnston
After almost three seasons in British GT, former motorcycle racer and metal magnate, Derek Johnston is well placed for his best season yet. Finishing 2015 on a high by taking a win alongside fellow-Geordie Matt Bell in the TF Sport Aston Martin, Johnston is eager for the season to begin. Speaking to the likeable AM at the series media day, it’s clear confidence isn’t an issue, and that is further enhanced by the arrival of Aston Martin factory driver and reigning British GT Champion, Jonny Adam.
Over the past few years, Johnston has never been short of pace, but Adam will bleed even more from him. However, Johnston is a fiery (but fair!) competitor and will need to ensure he uses that in the right way and avoids a scuffle when a win is on the table, just like he did when he took the GT Cup title in 2012 and his numerous Radical victories before that.
What to watch: Can Jonny Adam mould Derek Johnston back into a consistent performer, similar to Andrew Howard? The speed is there, but the consistency and focus lap after lap needs to be galvanized to make him a championship contender once more. You cannot afford a DNF in British GT anymore, keeping it clean and making it home with points will be critical for this pair in 2016.
6) Tol(l) charge? Ginettas gunning for greatness
It was 2011 when Ginetta debuted the first iteration of its G55 GT3 and much has changed with the car since that time. Could this also be the year that Ginetta overcomes the technical gremlins that have been an ever-present with the G55 since it’s debut? With the new era of GT3 cars starting to emerge, that will most certainly need to be the case. This season Tolman Motorsport will run a pair of G55 GT3s and you’ve got to say that this represents one of the best line-ups they’ve ever had in British GT.
Luke Davenport showed himself to be a strong qualifier and racer in the GT4 variant of the G55 last season after wrestling the car to a series of strong SuperCup displays in years past. If Davenport is Skywalker, Michael Simpson is surely Ginetta’s Yoda; just with a Yorkshire accent. David Pattison and Davenport make a solid and exciting partnership to watch on track, with Davenport a dab hand and getting them into contention in the latter stages of races. For Simpson, getting former British GT racer Stinton back into the racer he was alongside Nathan Freke several years back will mean they can be top-six challengers.
What to watch: As we’ve mentioned elsewhere in this piece, the key part of the puzzle here is how quickly the PROs can develop their AMs. Ian Stinton is a consistent performer, but by his own admission at media day, he hasn’t been able to dedicate time in recent years to racing, but could warm-up just in time for the Silverstone 500. Similarly, the step up for David Pattison might be a quick one, or it could take time. One thing is for sure that it’ll be fun watching these solid Pro-Am pairings get to grips throughout 2016.
7) Silver bullets or firing blanks?
It was only four years ago that British GT was trying to get to grips with the overwhelming amount of Silver-graded drivers trying to feature on the grid alongside other Silver drivers, but this year, just twelve months after creating the Silver Cup, there is just one GT3 Silver/Silver pairing, that of Ryan Ratcliffe and Will Moore in the Optimum Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3. Subject to tougher BOP than Pro-Am pairings, the appeal of driving with a fellow Silver has been suitably curtailed by the organisers to protect its Pro-Am status, but where have the Silvers all gone?
One only has to look to the re-emergence of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB and the opportunities on the TOCA support package, which has seemingly gobbled up talents like Dan Cammish, Tom Sharp, David Pittard, Charlie Eastwood etc. Last year’s victors have moved on from the series, and it will be important to show a progression path for Silver Cup entrants if this is to continue as a viable career route.
What to watch: Time will tell if this is a good thing or not, but it will be interesting to see how close the organisers ensure the Optimum entry can run with the Pro-Ams given the dirth of competition for it in the Silver Cup. Ratcliffe and Moore are quick drivers and Optimum prepare a good car, so given half an inch this pairing could take a surprise win.
8) Bullish McLaren performance in 2016?
The return of McLaren in 2016 was a little unexpected by some in the British GT paddock. While it’s an obvious choice for a British manufacturer to go into its national series, the past few years haven’t given much cheer for the Woking-based marque. Alongside Dave Ryan’s Von Ryan Racing outfit, the team delivered much better results, but with Ryan now heading up Manor F1, it’s the Black Bull Ecurie Ecosse squad supported by Garage 59 that will work to give the new McLaren its first British GT win since Silverstone last year.
Rob Bell needs little introduction on this website and will give the team a stable, fast, footing as it develops throughout the year. Alisdair McCaig has been the main driving force making this deal happen, taking the Ecurie Ecosse name to work with McLaren for the first time in its history. In respect of driving, McCaig is no slouch, but to expect immediate results would be unfair, and competition in British GT has stepped up since he last raced here with Olly Bryant in 2012.
What to watch: How quickly can the team make this car a front-runner for both drivers? Bell has always had a unique ability to get the best from whatever he drives, but ensuring a setup is found to make McCaig a challenger against some very strong AMs will be key. This is being viewed as a multi-year project, but let’s not under estimate anyone’s desire connected with this project for it to be a hit in 2016.
9) Team ABBA’s Super Troupers to make the podium
Never did this DSC scribe think he would write that Martin Short would be a bronze-ranked driver. A bastion of British motorsport, be it as a regular club driver or representing Britain at Le Mans, Short is well known and his abilities to hustle a car into contention, and this year, in a fully-homologated car (for once!) Short and driving partner Richard Neary embark on their British GT challenge with a proven race winner, the BMW Z4 and come into the season fresh off winning the Silverstone 24 Hour race in a BMW M3.
The team have spent time going testing to find their own setups for the Z4 and have Barwell data from previous years as backup; that puts them in a pretty strong position. Neary has shown himself to be a quick learner, and he’ll need to be this year as the lack of bronze duos means they will need to be picking off Pro-Ams to race with. That should be achievable if they can contend with the Z4’s requirement to make moves under braking, due to it often lacking the straight-line speed of the other GT3s. Brands proved a happy hunting ground for Z4s last year, so this could be one of the best races of the year for the pairing – they just better come out of the box all guns blazing.
What to watch: How this pair qualify will dictate the fortune of their race weekends. If Martin Short can wade into the mid-pack of GT3s in his session, then their aggregate times will mean they’re actually able to race with more than just the tail end of the field. British GT is a war of attrition though and the Team Abba crew (consisting of a lot of Rollcentre Racing staff) should ensure this pairing don’t meet their Waterloo and can have a good challenge for a podium – especially in the longer races.
10) Bartrum’s boys to spring a surprise?
Motorbase’s David Bartrum is a shrewd man, and if he has decided to British GT this year given the team’s activities elsewhere across the globe, he’ll have done so because he believes he has a good chance of winning it. Ross Wylie is a known quantity and the Scot showed flashes of pace and ability last year in the McLaren. Similarly, Phil Dryburgh, formerly the driving partner of Aston Martin Racing boss, John Gaw, is an able AM, albeit not the quickest given past outings. On the face of it, you can’t see the Motorbase Aston challenging for pole week in, week out, but consistency is key in British GT and you might see more of this car than you initially imagine when looking at the other GT3s in the class.
What to watch: Can Phil Dryburgh up his one lap pace to boost the qualifying fortunes of the car and can Wylie keep a clean nose in the heat of battle? Those two points will be crucial. One thing is for certain; Motorbase deliver fast and reliable racecars; it’s down to the drivers to make the most of it now.
Follow our coverage over the course of the Brands Hatch weekend, as we bring you the news, views and action from the GT3 and GT4 championships.