Shaun Balfe and his team – Balfe Motorsport – are all set for their first full season racing with the McLaren 650S GT3, with their sights set firmly on the GT Open title after finishing runners up in 2016.
But it won’t be easy. The 2017 International GT Open grid is shaping up nicely, with a good selection of European teams and drivers representing a wide variety of marques set to enter once again. For the campaign though, Balfe Motorsport has a fresh look to it, with McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell joining Balfe as a second driver for the season.
The ability of Bell behind the wheel coupled with the team’s experience with the car should still put them firmly in the driving seat and make them a title contender once again.
“Being in this situation, with a McLaren and Rob (Bell) was a surprise to us really,” Balfe said in conversation with DSC. “It was a situation that arrived unexpectedly. We had planned to change from the Ferrari at the end of the season early last year, so we had been window shopping and talking to manufacturers.
“Then we found Salih Yoluc and Euan Hankey and that TF had a car to sell after they heard that we were in the market.”
After changing car at the Silverstone round – switching to the 650S GT3 – Balfe and his 2016 teammate Phil Keen then continued their title charge, which went down to the wire. It was a risk moving over to racing with a McLaren, which according to many drivers isn’t the easiest car to get up to speed in on the fly. But it was a successful second half to the season, and Balfe feels it was the right move.
“The McLaren has a very different drive to the Ferrari,” he said, comparing the team’s old 458 GT3 to the newer 650S GT3, “and you can certainly feel the aero differences between the two cars. I think the electronic aids are also a lot more advanced, they’re a notch up on the 458.
“Driving feel, style, everything is different. There was also a lot of bad press around the 12C, and as a result not been enough good press about the 650S GT3, which is a shame, it’s an incredible car.
I just hope we can lift the bar from where we finished last year, which was runner up and first Pro-Am pairing in the standings
“There’s a lot of things to like about the 650S and I took to it fairly well. People tried to make me cautious about it because it was supposedly not the easiest car to drive for a gentlemen drive. But the gap between me and my pro drivers was a smaller gap in the McLaren than it was in the Ferrari which was great.
“The 650S has been an incredible turnaround. It’s a step up that factories like Ferrari could only dream of, and because of that I feel glad to be a part of the journey.
“I felt comfortable reasonably quickly and therefore feel confident going into this year.”
This year with Rob Bell gives the team a real chance of winning multiple races. The Englishman just last year won the Blancpain Endurance Cup with McLaren team Garage 59 and almost won the overall Blancpain GT Series Driver’s Championship too.
He was an unexpected addition to the team though. Balfe didn’t meet Bell until very recently, when he jokingly asked McLaren GT’s managing director Andrew Kirkaldy at a gala if he could nab him for 2017. In the end, Kirkaldy put the plans in motion, and he did!
“Having Rob as part of the team too picked the morale of the team up ahead of the season again,” Balfe explained. “McLaren putting him in our car sends a big, strong message. A manufacturer offering up support by handing us a contracted pro driver hopefully means we’ve been doing good.
“I just hope we can lift the bar from where we finished last year, which was runner up and first Pro-Am pairing in the standings. We’ll do our best, but it will be tough.”
Despite having a single-car entry to the series, Balfe feels his outfit are part of a three-car team, as McLaren’s Garage 59 crew and his often work together during race weekends. It’s a relationship which he says works for everyone.
“At race weekends it works well having the three McLarens there, we working together. I get on well with their am drivers Alex (West) and Michael (Benham), we have a laugh, the pro drivers share their data between one another, and the engineers mix in too. Why wouldn’t you? That’s why we are in the garage next door. We want to be part of the McLaren team and able to capitalise on everything.
“Having that relationship fast tracked our learning curve with the car too, because they were so welcoming and opening with sharing everything.”
There’s a real professionalism to it in the way GT Open treat us and in the way it’s policed
Because of this, the choice to stay in the GT Open for another season was an easy one. It’s a series which has a loyal customer base, which is no coincidence, as Balfe reveals that the organisers go the extra mile to ensure that their paddock is a place that people keep coming back to.
“My relationship with GT Open goes way back to the Spanish GT championship, and a lot of the staff are still there now, 13 years on,” he said. “There’s a real professionalism to it in the way GT Open treat us and in the way it’s policed. The GT Open organisation fits in nicely with us, a family run team.
“You get treated well and the racing is always good too. That’s why the grids are good, and this year it again looks like it’s going to be a good field. There’s about 14 full-season cars confirmed, and I imagine there will be more too.
“In terms of our season preparation, we weren’t at the Barcelona test, but we feel we didn’t need to go,” he continued. “We’ll be doing an airfield shakedown with Rob, but not much more, I don’t believe in doing lots of testing.
“We do just fine without it.”
Rob Bell and Shaun Balfe images courtesy of Jakob Ebrey Photography