After a hugely successful 2016, winning the Asian Le Mans Series GT title and Blancpain Endurance Cup Drivers title, McLaren works driver Rob Bell’s 2017 season had a very different outlook, that was at least, until he won the 2017 International GT Open Pro/Am title with Balfe Motorsport.
In the Blancpain GT Series with Strakka Racing, it was a tough time, not just for Bell, but the entire team, which suffered from a lack of raw performance and multiple on-track incidents, which resulted in a disappointing outcome.
But, the 650S GT3, which is set to enter its fourth year of competition in 2018, is still capable of winning races and titles, as Bell proved with team owner Shaun Balfe. The duo went toe-to-toe with some of the best Pro/Am teams in Europe in the hotly-contested GT Open championship, a year on from the car’s incredible 2016 season, in which statistically it was the most successful GT3 car, globally.
“It wasn’t an easy season, that’s for sure,” Bell told DSC. “But with Balfe, we proved that there’s still life in the old 650S GT3, and that it’s still as competitive as it was last year, when it won Bathurst and multiple championships across the world. In Blancpain, there were issues, partly that the BoP didn’t favour our car, and frankly, that was to be expected in some ways after being so successful in 2016.
“But the main issue,” he said, “was with the tyres. This year’s Pirelli tyres just weren’t as compatable with the 650S GT3, and to be fair, with mid-engined cars in general. But while Lamborghini and Audi adapted and improved over the season, Strakka just couldn’t get them to switch on with the 650S GT3 in qualifying.
“That wasn’t the car’s fault by any means though, as we proved in GT Open, winning multiple races with Shaun (Balfe) on the Michelin tyre the series uses.”
Prior to this season, Bell had only dipped his toe in the GT Open championship, and therefore was highly motivated to take on the full season. Not only was he pretty new to the series, he was placed in a completely new team in Balfe Motorsport, which switched to racing with McLaren mid-way through the 2016 season.
I get a lot of satisfaction as a factory driver, parachuting in, and bringing my knowledge to an established customer team, and helping them achieve their goals
The transition to racing with someone new though, Bell says, was made easy by the professionalism of the team.
“It was a superb year for us,” Bell said. “It was an odd feeling, I didn’t know what to expect going into the season, as I hadn’t driven with Shaun before, or the team. But I get a lot of satisfaction as a factory driver, parachuting in, and bringing my knowledge to an established customer team, and helping them achieve their goals.
“It was a very new experience getting involved with the team, which had already campaigned the 650S GT3 for half of last year, when the team opted to switch manufacturers mid-season to boost their title chances. But I never felt uncomfortable.
“I was pleasantly surprised when the season started, as it was immediately clear that everyone was up to speed before I arrived, which was especially impressive considering the team has such a limited testing programme. Before the season, we completed a shakedown test at Snetterton and one of the pre-season official GT Open tests. Yet everyone was raring to go and we got an overall podium at the first round.”
Everyone in the Balfe team was up to speed before I arrived, which was especially impressive considering the team has such a limited testing programme
Over the course of the season, en route to the Pro/Am championship, Balfe and Bell took three class wins and two overall pole positions. Consistency was key over the 14 races, Bell stating that Balfe’s performance in the second half of the season made the difference in the title race.
“As a driver,” Bell continued, “Shaun is really impressive. Shaun will go months without racing due to other commitments outside of racing, but he has extremely good race-craft and was right on the pace early on.
“He stepped it up a gear later in the season, notably with his performances at Silverstone and Monza and were the difference between having a lead in the title for the finale, and chasing the competition.
“And the competition was fierce all year. I knew it would be a quality grid, but I didn’t realise just what we’d be up against until the first round. But the racing was fair, and it meant that races were decided by the strengths of the drivers and cars, and in that scenario, the 650S GT3 stood out.
“It meant we headed into the final races at Barcelona with confidence, despite being under pressure to perform. Race 1 was up and down, and we actually got caught out by a safety car which meant we had a dogfight with our title rivals to seal the championship, which we did with a third-place finish. That meant we could attack the final race with no pressure, and really enjoy it.
“And that was it, another title for the 650S GT3,” Bell concluded, “which since its inaugural appearance in the Gulf 12 Hours in 2014, has proven, globally, that it can fight with the best.
“I have a lot of memories from this season, I hope I can continue racing with Balfe Motorsport in the future.”