Balfe Motorsport, regular campaigners in the International GT Open series, is set to run a multi-class McLaren British GT programme in 2018 after confirming both a 650S GT3 and 570S GT4 for the upcoming campaign.
While team owner Shaun Balfe partners McLaren Automotive factory driver Rob Bell in the senior category, the Grantham-based squad has also been contracted by PMW Expo Racing to oversee the 570S driven by 2016 GT4 champions Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson.
It will be Balfe Motorsport’s first British GT appearance since a one-off outing at Rockingham in 2013, and the first for a 650S since Bell and former co-driver Alasdair McCaig claimed victory at Donington Park’s 2016 season finale.
Balfe and Bell return to British GT as International GT Open’s reigning Pro/Am champions, while their new team-mates also claimed domestic GT4 Pro/Am honours last season with Optimum Motorsport after switching from Ginetta to McLaren mid-season.
But despite enjoying success on the continent Balfe believes British GT3 will provide a stern test this year.
“We’ve had a couple of great seasons in Europe, winning the Pro/Am title and finishing second overall, but now it’s time for a new challenge and British GT most definitely provides that,” said Balfe. “Yes, Rob and I have been racing the 650S for the last year-and-a-half and we enjoy a great Pro/Am relationship, but there’s a lot of unknowns this season and we expect to start on the back foot.
“We’ve never raced on the Pirelli tyres and the circuit temperatures will be very different to what we’re used to in Europe. Plus British GT’s race formats, with one, two and three-hour durations, add variety and place more emphasis on the team as a whole.
“Then there’s the competition: the Ams are so competitive and know the championship inside out, while this year’s GT3 Pro driver roster is incredible. The established teams will have the upper hand at Oulton so we’re just aiming for a clean opening weekend before building on what we’ve learnt from Rockingham onwards.”
Johnson and Robinson have never finished outside the GT4 championship’s top-two since making their British GT debut in 2015, but felt a change was required after enjoying three years of success with Optimum.
“Dave Eden, global motorsport commercial and brand manager at McLaren, introduced Mike and I to Balfe Motorsport in November last year, and when we looked at the team’s long list of successes, we were of course impressed,” said Johnson.
“Thankfully that positive impression continued when we visited Shaun [Balfe] and his team’s first-rate facilities near Grantham. And having factory driver Rob Bell as part of the team is of course invaluable too. We came away from that first meeting understanding why McLaren had pushed us towards Balfe. Mike and I wanted to sign on the spot!
“We’re very grateful to Optimum Motorsport for their efforts over the last three years, but in joining Balfe, we’re joining a team with more experience working with McLaren and that has ambition to not only compete for both British GT class titles, but also at legendary races such as Le Mans. Mike and I share those same goals.”
Renowned Chief Engineer Geoff Kingston, who started working with Johnson and Robinson during their title-winning 2016 campaign, also joins the duo at Balfe Motorsport this season. And Johnson is confident his signing will prove vital to mounting another championship challenge.
“We’re delighted Geoff will still be part of our team. Mike and I are convinced that we can mount a serious challenge for our second overall British GT4 title in 2018 with the combination of Geoff’s engineering ability and Balfe’s preparation and management skills. We’re in this again to beat the kids and to prove that we remain the best driver pairing on the grid.”