It certainly felt unusual starting the British GT season at a venue other than Oulton Park, but Brands Hatch in April though lacking something of its leafy summer character what was we had. The narrow, swooping Kent circuit was to be no less of a challenge though for new teams and an increasingly youthful looking GT4 driver line-up.
Also different was the race format for the season opener: two one hour sprints had usually thrown caution to the wind, but Brands would retain its usual two-hour endurance format, perhaps in a bid by the organisers to ease the pressure first time out. However, the race was effectively halved as incidents nevertheless conspired to deliver just one hour’s competitive racing.
Sunny but chilly conditions contrasted to the overcast and occasionally damp weather in which Anna Walewska and Nathan Freke had planted their Century Motorsport Ginetta G55 on GT4 pole position.
A considerable gap to the back of the disappearing GT3 grid ahead meant the green lights were largely unsighted, but Walewska held her nerve to lead into Paddock Hill Bend having got the power down first at the rolling start. Graham Johnson, alongside Walewska in the PMW/Expo Optimum Ginetta, commented “I saw her go, so I thought I’d better do the same..!”
Jack Bartholomew, one of the new ‘juniors’ aboard last year’s title-winning Beechdean Aston Martin squad, managed to get the jump on Johnson into the blind crest of the right hander, but Johnson had the measure of the Aston Martin, using the line out of Druids hairpin to muscle through on the inside into Graham Hill Bend and take back the place. Walewska led the first lap, but was steadily reeled in and overhauled by Johnson’s PMW World Expo / Optimum Racing Ginetta on the second. From thereon, the distinctive orange and black #50 entry was never really challenged, Johnson keeping his head to manage a lead of around 1.5 seconds until yellow flags intervened and the pits beckoned.
The Beechdean Aston Martin was on an early charge though, Bartholomew’s pace a little better than Walewska’s to gain second and start targeting the leader again. Johnson’s lead yo-yo’d for a couple of laps as the young Aston Martin debutant pushed and the increasingly experienced Ginetta ‘Am’ driver responded.
Behind the early scrap in the top three the field was digging in. Matty Graham’s #42 Generation AMR Aston Martin had passed Will Phillips’s #45 RCIB Ginetta at the start to take fourth, while the stunning looking all-new Black Bull Ecurie Ecosse McLaren 570S, Sandy Mitchell in his first ever British GT stint, had wrestled sixth from the #40 Century Ginetta of Sean Byrne and then deposed the #45 RCIB / Team HARD Ginetta from fifth.
Making its presence felt (and something of an emerging fan favourite) was the new Ebor GT Maserati GT MC GT4. A big car that wouldn’t look out of place in the GT3 field, Marcus Hoggarth was showing good speed and had improved to eighth from his eleventh place grid spot. Catching Byrne’s Ginetta he soon made it seventh. Further back, 2015 GT4 Champion Jamie Chadwick was recovering from the grid penalty handed out for her alleged corner cutting in qualifying, the #44 Generation AMR Aston Martin on a mission through the tail-enders.
GPRM’s Toyota GT86 had got off to a flyer in the hands of Stefan Hodgetts, gaining four positions to tenth. But way too soon the car was in its garage. The power steering problem that had plagued the team all weekend had not been cured, meaning the car was retired with just over five minutes’ race running, denying the team the finish it had worked hard for and young stand-in driver Ollie Chadwick his first British GT race. In that though, he would not be alone.
Meanwhile, Matty Graham’s #42 Generation AMR MacMillan Racing Aston Martin was emerging as a strong contender, closing up to Walewska’s now third placed Ginetta and having a look into Paddock on the eighth lap. Elsewhere Will Phillips was having a good dice for fifth with Sandy Mitchell’s McLaren, the spritely Ginetta G55 harrying the back of the much fancied Ecurie Ecosse ‘junior’ car through the corners.
Things were just starting to shape up as the race caught its first full-course yellow:
The #75 RCIB/Team HARD Ginetta was in the gravel at Clearways after tangling with John Minshaw’s GT3 Lamborghini and coming off worse. Young Will Thompson was at the helm and had been clawing his way from the back after a big accident in qualifying had meant the team had been up all night on repairs. This had been a hard start for one half of the Team HARD garage, and Thompson was visible in his frustration out of the car at being punted off so readily by the rapidly closing GT3 machine. The Ginetta was recovered and retired with rear suspension damage, meaning team mate and former WRC campaigner Rob Barrable would not get to drive.
At the re-start Will Phillips finally pulled the move he’d been looking for, the #45 Ginetta pulling away from the Ecurie Ecosse McLaren, which then fell into the clutches of Jamie Chadwick’s Generation AMR Aston Martin, still working its way up. The advancing #45 car then closed on Walewska’s Ginetta for third, setting its fastest sector times before passing the #73 Century car. Walewska was having none of it though and fought back to reclaim the place out on the Grand Prix loop.
With nearly half an hour gone Jack Bartholomew was in touch with race leader Johnson, who had been “Dive bombed by Ryan Ratcliffe [GT3 Audi R8] which lost me time.” The top four compressed in traffic, this would be the closest they would run; covered by just over a second. Johnson however would regain time and pull away, the fight now visible for second to fourth. A couple of seconds away Mitchell’s McLaren and Chadwick’s Aston Martin were tied together in their scrap for fifth.
The decisive element of the race was then to follow. Contact between the Motorbase GT3 Aston Martin and the Matthew Graham pedalled GT4 Aston sent the GT3 car barrel-rolling towards the bridge at Pilgrims Drop. Most importantly, no-one was hurt in this huge accident. The consequences were significant too though for Matty Graham’s #42 Generation AMR car which was running in a solid fifth place and which also ploughed straight off the circuit and out of the race, clipping the #66 Simpson Ginetta as it did so, the G55 made it back to the pits for what appeared to be fairly cosmetic repairs as the second full-course caution was given.
Matty Graham told DSC later: “From P5 on the grid I had good race pace. I was comfortable I had it under control and was letting the race come to me. It was disappointing because I was starting to catch the Beechdean car when I had the incident. I’d been on the radio and was thrilled to find out I had plenty of time to catch him – we could definitely have been on for a podium.”
“The GT3 Aston had caught up with me on the run into Clearways, but I was battling with Jack (Bartholomew / Beechdean Aston Martin GT4) and it was probably hard for him to find a way past. Then the GT3 driver made a mistake in one of the following corners and I think he was starting to get a bit frustrated at losing time. On the exit of Surtees, the left hander, I came up on the GT4 Ginetta. He had stayed right, which is the usual racing line, but he was running quite slowly and I had to brake and take the tighter line to avoid him – I felt the back of the car step out as I did. Next thing I knew the GT3 car was trying to make the move up the inside of me. It was a perfect storm really; three into one wouldn’t go. He caught me and his car lifted. I’ve had some shunts in single seaters, but that was a huge accident.”
Controversially, some cars slowed to the statutory 80 kph sooner than others, while some clearly didn’t understand the procedure. It seemed as if the British GT Championship was not fully prepared for this situation, which was intended to freeze the running order and relative track position. That is struggled to achieve this consistently suggests a review.
As the wreckage out at Pilgrims was assessed and barrier repairs commenced it was inevitable the caution period would extend well beyond the pit window. And as the pit lane opened it was down to the pit crews to make a difference. Mike Robinson was belted in to the #50 Ginetta, the car still retaining its lead, though Graham Johnson commented, “We lost a few seconds as someone went under the speed limit – they’re not supposed to. It’s nice to be leading, but we’re sorry to see the accident. We’ve learned how to manage the GT3 traffic so we’ve lost less time than others.”
The main beneficiary of a slick turnaround was the #73 Century Ginetta, which had dropped a couple of places before pitting but resumed fourth on the road, Nathan Freke now aboard.
The #59 McLaren 570S was in hot water however. Sandy Mitchell brought the car in and stopped on a mark that prevented its GT3 team mate from taking its rightful place. The GT3 car then stopped at 45 degrees to its box, meaning the GT4 car, Ciaran Haggerty now aboard, had to be wheeled back. This lost time for both cars, and a place for the #59 car which now sat in sixth as the caution period rolled on.
The resuming positions and drivers were:
- #50 Mike Robinson – PMW World Expo / Optimum Racing Ginetta G55 GT4
- #407 Jordan Albert – Beechdean AMR Aston Martin Vantage GT4
- #45 Jordan Stilp – RCIB/Team HARD Ginetta G55 GT4
- #73 Nathan Freke – Century Motorsport Ginetta G55 GT4
- #44 Matthew George – Generation AMR Racing Aston Martin GT4
- #59 Ciaran Haggerty – Black Bull Ecurie Ecosse McLaren 570S GT4
- #51 Joey Foster – Lanan Racing Ginetta G55 GT4
- #40 Aleksander Schjerpen – Century Motorsport Ginetta G55 GT4
- #60 Abbie Eaton – Ebor GT Motorsport Maserati GT MC GT4
- #70 Robin Shute – Stratton Motorsport Lotus Evora GT4
Trailing outside the top ten were Jake Giddings’ #47 JWB Aston Martin; having an unusually low-key weekend, David Tinn’s #71 Stratton Motorsport Aston Martin; easing its team in gently at the back of the field, and the #66 Simpson Motorsport Ginetta; single-seater ace Scott Malvern now aboard after the car’s repairs.
At the Green Flag Nathan Freke planted the throttle to take Stilp across the line for third, but found himself bottled up behind the Beechdean Aston Martin. Jordan Albert lost second though as he tripped up in traffic. The young Aston Martin rookie found himself in the gravel at Paddock, telling DSC after the race “I don’t know what happened: I was in traffic and felt a bump from behind, the next thing I’m on the exit and in the gravel. I don’t know who it was that hit me..?”
The #40 Century Motorsport Ginetta had also spun backwards into the Paddock Hill Bend tyre wall, sustaining terminal rear end damage. Aleksander Schjerpen: “I don’t know what happened: a car turned in on me into Paddock.” Draw your own conclusions.
Mike Robinson’s lead extended to a comfortable fifteen seconds over Nathan Freke, who now had Jordan Stilp’s Ginetta looking at his rear wing. “There were areas he was quicker than me and areas I was quicker than him,” said Freke of Stilp’s efforts. “But those were places he couldn’t really mount a proper attack.” Jordan Stilp concurred:”I definitely had the pace to catch Nathan. At the re-start I had a chance but then we had the GT3’s on us and it got more difficult. He had really good speed down the straights and we tried to work back the gap but it was hard.”
This fight closed the gap to the leader, though the #50 Ginetta still looked quite comfortable eleven seconds up the road: “I was hoping the Beechdean car was going to hold Nathan up longer than he did,” said Robinson.”The gap was decreasing, though not too alarmingly. I was trying to manage the car and the GT3 traffic and bring it home first.”
Matthew George was now fourth in the #44 Generation AMR Aston; Albert’s recovering #407 Beechdean car fifth and looking slightly dusty. Ciaran Haggerty had the #59 Black Bull McLaren pegged midway between the Beechdean car and Joey Foster’s #51 Lanan Racing Ginetta G55 in seventh, which had made a steady, untroubled mid-field run without drawing attention.
But with twenty three minutes to go it was all over. A fiery Ginetta GT3 was in a dangerous position and it was decided the Red Flag was the solution, possibly to protect the rest of the meeting’s timetable rather than for safety reasons specifically.
Barring mechanical issues it seemed unlikely the win for Johnson and Robinson would be under threat, but we were denied the battle for the podium positions that were likely to follow and any conclusions that might have been drawn from a full race distance.
Valuable points though for some new teams who deserved early reward for their efforts and a couple of rising stars in prospect.
Post race quotes:
Mike Robinson: “We’re an experienced pair and know each other well. After a good start last year we are here to fight for the title this year.”
Graham Johnson: “The full course yellow gained us a bit of time, we stayed at 80 kph’s when others didn’t. We pulled a bigger gap as a result.”
Nathan Freke: “After our testing we came to the weekend thinking a podium was possible, but straight away the car felt great and we thought maybe we could be on for a win. Anna did a great job yesterday with the red flag in the session and still getting pole. I just drove as hard as I could. We could have been on for the win if the race had gone on, but I don’t know. We’re a brand new pairing and things can only get better.”
Anna Walewska: “Talk about pressure..! I have a great team and a great team mate in Nathan. I just need to take this forward and step up and get quicker. If I can carry on handing a good car over to him we should be a strong pairing.”
Will Phillips: “Coming from Mini Challenge into this is incredible. We weren’t expecting a podium; to get some points would have been good enough, but this is fantastic.”
Next Round: Rockingham, 30th April – 1st May.