The blue-riband event for British GT is the Silverstone 500 – so named because that’s about the distance travelled by the GT3 cars in miles during the race. For GT4 cars it’s more like the Silverstone 436-ish. It’s a three-hour race with three designated pit stops, which involved refuelling, tyre changes and driver changes. Of all the races we do, this one has to be the most strategic and if you make a small mistake with the strategy, or get some bad luck, it’s magnified significantly.
All week the BBC weather app had shown the outlook for race weekend getting better and better – it looked like it was starting to behave itself at last!
We left the previous round at Snetterton with silverware, lots of Pro-Am championship points and a car we knew was fast and reliable. We also left with big grins and a happy team.
This was my third Silverstone 500 and it hasn’t been kind to me on my previous two attempts. In GT4 with Luke Davenport in 2015, an accident put us out of contention and in GT3, also with Luke in 2016, a wet/dry race left us on the wrong tyres at the wrong time. It would turn out that 2017 wasn’t going to be any kinder. The racing gods had pre-determined this wasn’t going to be our weekend and we left with our tails very firmly between our legs.
Given the length of the race, we had the unique opportunity to test on the Friday. It was only an hour long, but combined with FP1 and FP2, it gave us a total of three hours to finesse setup and, in my case, get into the rhythm of the driving weekend.
We hadn’t changed the car, but a Balance of Performance alteration meant we were carrying even more weight and an increased front ride height. Everyone moans about the BoP and we’re no different, but the car with a full tank of fuel and driver was now up over 1,700kg. That felt like a lot to drag around the slow corners and we were starting to worry about the effect on the durability and safety of the tyres. Perhaps more of a concerned observation than a moan!
We had some new/old competition as well. Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson had switched from Ginetta to McLaren and had only taken delivery of their car four days before the race weekend. They’re a very quick pairing, run by a very good Optimum Motorsport team, but even for them it looked like a rather steep learning curve.
During race week, I had read an article from Graham about how he and Mike race, and two things really resonated: Firstly, he said that above all you should have fun. Agreed, but maybe I don’t always have as much fun as I should. Secondly, he pointed out that gentleman drivers too often have a ‘gentleman attitude’.
I talked to him about this over the weekend. His point was that too often a gentleman driver assumes it’s him and his driving that are the problem, because ‘the pro has set a great time’. In his eyes, gentlemen should be demanding a car that’s set up so they can drive fast, not inheriting a less-than-perfect car setup that the pro can drive around with ease. A great point and I resolved to be a bit more unreasonable with the team. Even though Chris (Tolman, whose team run the car) is physically much bigger than me and frankly a bit intimidating!
It also made me think more generally. Gentlemen seem to be able to find a whole new chapter of driver excuses because of what they are. In my case, I use age, inexperience, lack of engineering understanding and lack of ability as my stock excuses. It finally dawned on me that for me to continue to progress, that needed to change.
It’ll be interesting to see how Joe, my pro co-driver, and the team, cope with a new ‘excuseless’ gentleman driver. Actually, it’ll be really interesting to see how I manage without that buffer. Bizarrely my new resolve was tested in the first session on Friday.
The session was late afternoon and I’d got there at about 11.30am. The team were relaxed, everything was set up and they were raring to go well in advance. I waited for the pre-session briefing… and waited, and waited. Joe was busy coaching one of his other clients and Rob, our engineer, wasn’t sure that we needed to go through too much. I felt a bit uneasy, but we had a successful test at Silverstone a few weeks before, so thought I’d obviously remember every nuance of every corner, gearchange, steering angle and braking point once out on track.
Joe went out in the car, a couple of setup changes were made, the car was good, and then it was my turn. It was a nightmare. I felt like I didn’t know what to do in three of the corners, my times were dreadful and no matter how hard I tried they don’t get any better. From other drivers’ times we saw the track was slow, but even so I was miles away from where I thought I needed to be.
Through the session, my feeling of unease beforehand, turned into full ‘pissed-offness’. With my new resolve, I forcefully explained my ‘disappointment’ to Joe and Rob. ‘Hands up’ simultaneously happened from them both and planning for the rest of the weekend properly started. Learning: the feeling of unease will in the future be a cue for a ‘non-gentleman attitude’.
The two free practice sessions came and went. On old tyres, the car was moving around under me and I was struggling to manage lap after lap at a quick pace.
It was becoming clearer to me what I’ll need to do to get to the next level. I was faster than the slower cars and slower than the faster cars. To continue to progress up the grid, driving a ‘moving’ car consistently fast, is going to be the next major step.
Qualifying arrived in a flash. Ten minutes of flat-out on new tyres. I queued up in the fast lane just before the green flag. Joe talked to me about the cars in front, but I was picturing the lap to come. I heard “Ginettas”, “Nissan” and “15 to 20 seconds”, but it didn’t really register. There was a quick Aston behind me, but I decided to keep him there. The Nissan in front in my head was being driven by that nice man Tim Eakin, who I’m normally about on par with. So I gave the Nissan room on the out lap, the Aston dropped back and I was in what I thought would be three laps of clear air.
The first lap turned out to be mega. Fastest time of the weekend, over a second quicker than the previous new-tyre run and more to come – and it was compromised by a spinning Ginetta at Beckets. But the Nissan in front was now looming large and I couldn’t get past it. It turned out to be the other Nissan that I’m normally a little quicker than. The Aston behind had also closed up. I aborted lap two and dropped back to leave time and space to go again on lap three. I didn’t leave enough space and got compromised for the last third of my final lap. Still, lap one was fast and lap three was nearly as fast.
Turns out that what Joe had actually said was “you have two Ginettas and a Nissan in front of you. To be safe you need to leave a gap of around 15 seconds between you and the Nissan in front. Let the Aston by if you need to”. I had allowed about four seconds. More learning or just being a dick? You decide! I couldn’t even use ‘at my age my hearing isn’t what it used to be’ card, having decided to dismiss age as a reasonable excuse.
Having said that, I was fourth in Pro-Am and 10th overall, for my most competitive qualifying of the season. I had a few of the quick gentlemen as targets and I was closer to Marcus Hoggarth than I’ve ever been. Also, for the first time, and for the very good reasons stated earlier, I outqualified Graham Johnson! Adam Balon was still up the road and around the corner with one of the Nissans. Later analysis showed that my third lap was some nine tenths up on my fastest effort before being compromised. Blimey. My run of good qualifying times on the first lap continued, even if my traffic management went awry.
Joe finished third in his qualifying. He seemed a bit disappointed with it, but was the fastest McLaren by some distance and as we were to see later, he’s very quick at Silverstone. We were to start eighth overall, third in class. The team felt content and we all reckoned a good race day was ahead of us.
Then, in the early evening, we heard that there’d been a big accident at the Croft BTCC event. I somehow immediately sensed that my British GT pro driver partner from 2015/16, Luke Davenport, was involved, and it transpired he was. The video looked bad, and it was. Luke was badly hurt, the team were concerned and upset, and information was in short supply.
I’d spoken to Luke only the day before on my way up to Silverstone and he was excited about the progress he was making in the ‘big time’ and looking forward to a good, quick weekend.
Being the age I am, and having three sons of similar ages, it’s inevitable that I sort of see Luke and Joe as my ‘racing sons’. They both have brilliantly supportive and lovely families, and of course I’m not their parent. But I never want anything to happen to them. Nightmare. Through the evening we received updates from Luke’s dad. The words ‘induced coma’ didn’t help and the team and drivers really struggled. I know these things can happen, but they’re not supposed to happen to my boys. All our thoughts remain with Luke and his family.
Race day came and we had about 40 guests and sponsors arriving. It’s slightly distracting, but before they arrived we completed a really interesting 10-minute warm-up, including a practice start, two pit entries and exits and a fast lap. I really enjoyed the challenge and arrived back in the garage ready to go in the race.
Before the race, we sat and talked strategy. Joe could do up to 100 minutes of driving, which once you allowed for the three pit stops, left me to do about 72 minutes. The car won’t do more than about an hour on a tank of fuel, so the plan was for me to run as long as possible in the first stint and for Joe to run as long as possible at the end. The rest would be largely driven by the inevitable safety cars; previous experience suggested there would be at least two. We also had to add a 10-second ‘success penalty’ to our third pit stop because of the podium finish at Snetterton.
For the start, fast Adam Balon was in front of me and I needed to stay very close to his rear bumper. The team counted down to the green lights and we were off. One silver driver got past me, but that was okay. At Becketts, Marcus came from a long way back and went up the inside of me. I latched onto his rear bumper and stayed there for a couple of laps. On lap three, I did my fastest lap of the race, but the fast guys were starting to edge away. What did I need to do to stay with them? Erm, go faster I guess?! But I couldn’t seem to get more speed without feeling like I was losing the car. Back to the earlier point of needing to be able to take that next step to progress. I needed to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Driving right on the edge for long periods.
The race settled down and I had my customary battle with Nick Jones in his Porsche Cayman. My exhaust felt the wrath of his front bumper at Stowe, but I eventually prevailed. Graham Johnson went past me like I wasn’t there – it hadn’t taken him long to sort the McLaren out then! After about an hour, I came into the pits. In truth I was probably about seven-tenths a lap slower than I should have been. I was knackered, but knew I only had to go out and do about four more laps. Joe was about sixth in class, but close enough to everyone for us to get a result and some serious points.
Then it all started to unravel. Remember what I said earlier, that in a three-hour race small mistakes and bits of bad luck just get magnified? I think we had the Hubble telescope doing the magnifying for us.
Joe got a puncture, came in and the team decide not to do a driver change. Odd, and a mistake. Three laps later, Joe came in for a driver change. I did about five laps and then came in again – that was all of my time done. The first puncture and not changing driver had cost us about 30 seconds. Joe went out again, had another puncture and two more stops for wheel issues, one with a stuck wheel gun. We were then hit with a drive-through penalty for exceeding track limits. In a race where we were supposed to have three pit stops, we ended up having eight – yes, eight. We made some mistakes, but boy did we have some bad luck!
Everyone was pissed off, but this was where the team principal stepped up. Chris handled it brilliantly and in the inevitable post-mortem, we all put our hands up and all worked hard to understand why we got punctures, why we had wheel issues, why our strategy wasn’t spot-on, why we got a drive-through and why I wasn’t quite quick enough. Most importantly we all resolved that the ‘perfect storm’ wouldn’t happen again.
Almost forgotten, but there was a triumph for Tolman! Joe achieved not only the fastest lap in GT4, but set a new lap record for the class for Silverstone. So the car was definitely fast enough. It just needed four functioning, inflated wheels and tyres for it to happen.
For me, a torrid and horrid weekend. So much learned and yet so much more to do and to learn to get to where I want to be. I guess you never really stop learning, no matter how long you race for.
I drove home thinking about Luke and wanting things to get better for him and his family as quickly as possible. Also knowing that because of Luke’s accident, my long-suffering wife is going to have a point of view on my racing, and on this occasion and on this day I have a little bit of sympathy with her.
Next up is Spa. Smile on Luke and us all please you racing gods!