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British GT: Brands Hatch, GT3 Report, TF Sport Wins, Incidents Overshadow Opener

TF Sport started 2016 where it left off in 2015, with Derek Johnston and Jonny Adam taking victory in an attrition-filled opening round of the 2016 Pirelli British GT Championship that saw no more than an hour of racing from the planned two hour race.

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The Aston Martin drivers overcame the early challenge of Team Parker Racing’s pole-sitting duo Rick Parfitt Jnr and Seb Morris, to lead home Lee Mowle and Joe Osborne (AMDtuning.com) with the Bentley pairing taking third.

Parfitt Jnr led the field into Paddock Hill Bend for the first time and quickly built a 3s lead from Jon Minshaw’s Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini Huracan, who had a 2-second cushion over Johnston’s TF Sport prepared Vantage.

However, the order would quickly change as Minshaw departed the race on lap nine, the sole victim of an error by GT4 driver Wilson Thompson who, after seemingly keeping right to allow the Lamborghini through, moved across to hit the right rear of the Demon Tweeks sponsored Huracan on the approach to Clearways, snapping part of the suspension and breaking the right rear wheel. Minshaw did make it back to the pits, but given the length of the race and the time to fix, his Barwell team retired the car.

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Parfitt Jnr looked comfortable at the front of the field and was now picking off backmarkers with a healthy nine-second cushion over Johnston. Barwell ace Liam Griffin was just one second behind the TF Sport Aston and a hard charging BMW Z4, driven by Mowle, was hot on the heels of the Lamborghini having made an important early move on Alasdair McCaig’s Black Bull Ecurie Ecosse McLaren.

Behind the enticing battle for second, Ryan Ratcliffe was up to sixth from twelfth in the Optimum Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3, and on lap 22 the Welshman eased past McCaig for fifth. At this point, Mark Farmer was seventh in the second TF Sport Aston Martin, and reigning British GT3 Champion Andrew Howard eighth, up from fourteenth.

On lap 22 a monumental accident occurred on the run to Pilgrims Drop that saw Phil Dryburgh in the Motorbase Aston Martin Vantage GT3 and the GT4 Aston Martin of Matthew Graham bump wheels. The contact put the Motorbase driver up on his two left wheels, while Graham slid underneath the GT3, launching Dryburgh into a series of nose-to-tail flips in the air, with the Scot landing in the barriers to the left of the circuit. Graham’s Generation AMR MacMillan Racing Vantage careered to the right of the track, clipping the rear of Nick Jones’ Ginetta G55 GT4 in the process and removed him from the race too.

The scene after the incident looked reminiscent of an aircraft crash, but thankfully all drivers escaped unharmed, testament to the strength of modern GT3 cars and the rapid response of medical staff at the Kent circuit.

The subsequent ‘Code 80’ period whereby all cars adopt a set speed of 80km/h (the first in British GT history) was to change the race, we just didn’t know it or expect it at the time.

Race leader, Parfitt Jnr, watched his 10s lead disappear while stuck behind a GT4 car not travelling at the optimal 80km/h, while Johnston, Griffin, Mowle and McCaig (not a firm of solicitors) were able to hit the speed.

Understandably unhappy with this, Parfitt Jnr remarked, “I feel robbed. We had a good start and I put my head down and built up a gap, then it was all about maintaining it; we were driving to target and the race was going to plan. Then the Code 80 came into affect and I had around 10s as a gap, but by the time I pitted I had a 1s lead. It needs to be looked into, because it clearly doesn’t work. Then to add insult to injury the GT4 Maserati was parked at 45 degrees with its door open and we couldn’t get onto our fuel rig. The positives are we came here and wanted a top six, and got a podium. We brought a British marque back and also took pole, and starting a race with nobody in front of me was a real honour.”

While the majority of GT3 cars pitted as the pit window opened after 50 minutes, Johnston stayed out in the TF Sport Aston, duly following the set speed limit still.

While rivals including the Team Parker Racing Bentley and the Ecurie Ecosse McLaren got held up in the pits, Barwell’s Fabio Babini (in for Griffin) and AMDtuning.com’s Joe Osborne (in for Mowle) exited in a more spritely fashion, but when Johnston finally pitted at the end of lap 30 to hand over to reigning British GT3 champion Adam, the Scot was in the lead of the race and clear of GT4 traffic ahead.

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Babini, Osborne, Morris (in for Parfitt Jnr) and Beechdean-AMR’s Ross Gunn, all got held up by the Ecurie Ecosse Mclaren GT4, which was circulating at a slower speed (60-70km/h according to who you asked), which subsequently gifted TF Sport’s Adam a handful of seconds and the race lead.

The race went green on lap 37, but not as the leader crossed the start line, it was at the rear of the GP loop. Osborne made light work of Babini for second with a bold move on cold tyres and former British GT Champ Jon Barnes (in for Farmer) coolly passed Will Moore (in for Ratcliffe) for sixth.

At the start of lap 39 Adam lead by almost 3s and the Aston Martin racer had the Vantage’s Pirellis warmed up nicely, overcoming a brief caution period for a stray GT4 at Paddock Hill Bend, and delivering a 1:24.695 lap of Brands, that was 1.5s quicker than second-placed Osborne’s time.

Osborne’s attention soon switched from attack to defence for the remainder of the race, a situation not dissimilar to last year’s titanic battle for the lead with Alexander Sim’s BMW. On lap 40 British GT new boy Morris passed the factory Lamborghini racer Babini, and reeled in Osborne rapidly, eliminating 0.9s of the AMDtuning.com driver’s cushion on lap 42 alone.

Optimum’s Moore finished off a torrid debut weekend in British GT by exiting the race backwards at Paddock Hill Bend, but the exciting battle between Osborne and Morris continued until lap 52, when the race was halted indefinitely due to the catalytic converters in Luke Davenport’s Tolman Motorsport Ginetta G55 GT3 catching fire.

It was by no means a raging fire of the ilk of Colin White’s at Oulton Park in 2013, but the decision was made to end the race and many around the Kent circuit breathed a sigh of relief for the rate of attrition was high and the final 20 minutes yielded potential for yet more still.

Adam returned to the pits to meet an exuberant team-mate Johnston with Osborne, Morris, Babini and Gunn in tow. Having stretched his gap to Osborne and Morris to almost 6s on lap 45, Adam finished with little more than 4.6s between his Aston and that of the two English aces.

Post race, when asked what factor gave him the win Johnston quipped, “We were quick!” He then explained: “We had a good start and the car felt good with a heavy tank of fuel and the brakes were good. Half a dozen laps in I lost the rear end, I was using the ABS a lot and I just had to hang on, then five or six laps later it came back to me, and it felt really good. We decided to stay out and run a bit longer when the caution was out and see what happened; we rolled the dice and it turned out in our favour.”

Team-mate Adam who had a largely uneventful stint cautiously remarked, “I got caught in traffic, but the car had a great balance and I think our pit strategy really worked for us. It’s nice to get a good first result, but let’s see how the season pans out.”

Babini, who struggled to adjust to the bitterly cold and green tarmac of the GP circuit was a further 10s back in fourth with the eager GT3 debutant Gunn just a second off his Lamborghini. Had the race run to it’s full two hours, it’s highly possible that the 19-year-old Aston Martin factory driver would have joined Osborne and Morris in a three-way scrap for second, something this DSC writer would’ve loved to have seen.

Barnes and Farmer were sixth in the other TF Sport Aston Martin and it was a solid first weekend of the year for the pair; both drivers look more comfortable in the Vantage and a podium beckons if they can just hook it up in qualifying.

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The lone McLaren 650s GT3 was seventh in GT3 and McCaig mentioned post-race that there were lessons learnt and quick fixes that will likely see them have more fortuitous weekends in the near future. Team-mate Rob Bell was just getting into his stride as the race was ended, and this will be an exciting pairing to watch this year.

Jody Fannin and Pete Littler had a reasonable weekend finishing eighth, but both will be keen to push on in both qualifying and race pace. These drivers are ambitious and motivated for different reasons, and this should see PFL Motorsport’s Aston progress in forthcoming races, however a significant step change is required to make them frontrunners and podium challengers in 2016.

Familiar to these pages is the name of Martin Short, and it was a great to see him back in British GT this weekend, although finishing ninth displeased the Rollcentre man significantly. Ensuring he was the fastest man in warm-up showed there is no less spirit in ‘Shorty’, but the team have work to do to unlock the potential of the BMW Z4 GT3, given its relative performance to the AMDtuning.com variant also in action. This factor and how soon Richard Neary can progress to the average AM pace will dictate their season. If they can act quickly, Rockingham will prove a happier hunting ground, but we imagine Silverstone will be the event where Short and Neary get an opportunity to shine.

After promising practice times, it was a tough weekend for the second Tolman Motorsport Ginetta too. Mike Simpson did, by his own admission, one of his best laps round Brands and was 1.4s off pole, hinting again that maybe not all was right with BoP for the first race of the season. Significant contact from the Motorbase Aston of Dryburgh on lap one put Simpson’s team-mate Ian Stinton into the left-hand wall on the exit of Druids. The car got back to the pits and was freshened up, but a suspension failure from the earlier contact ended their race prematurely.

David Pattison / Luke Davenport Tolman Motorsport Ginetta G55 GT3

Overall the opening round of the British GT season was a positive affair, but once again it was overshadowed by unnecessary contact and a sizeable accident, questions over BoP across the numerous marques and the delivery of the new ‘Code 80’ caution control amongst the teams.

SRO’s UK arm and Championship Manager Benjamin Franassovici has a history of getting things right in the long run and listening to customers, so it is hoped that things are corrected in time for round two at Rockingham in ten days time.

NOTE: Post-race officials deemed Osborne’s overtake on Babini at the restart to have taken place under yellow flags, and results were switched by way of a 10.68s time penalty to allow the Babini and Griffin to take third, promoting Morris and Parfitt Jnr to second. Osborne also received three penalty points.

RACE RESULT >>