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Oulton Park: Monday Paddock Notes

Catching up between the races

We caught up with Balfe Motorsport’s Rob Bell before the first race and although he hadn’t been holding out much hope for qualifying, we asked him if he thought it was really going to be as bad as last in GT3, nearly four seconds off the pole time.

“No, we had a problem that had been getting worse all day, we focused on some of the things it could be and that we had time to do, but it turned out to be turbo-related and we just didn’t have time to do that until after qualifying. We were a long way down on the speed traps. We should be okay for the race now but it’ll really hurt us starting at the back. Sometimes you can hope that people will make mistakes, especially in weather like this, but then often people will be really sensible and it doesn’t work out like that.”

Rob also explained why the Pro qualifying sessions on Saturday had been so static after just the opening lap. “When the tyres came out of the warmers and went on the cars, they would have been at their best on lap one. After that they’d have just been losing temperature constantlym so lap one was everyone’s best chance.”

The Balfe McLaren was in contention with others in class and Shaun Balfe was on the tail of the RJN Nissan GTR as he neared his driver change. Incidents for others moved them up a couple of places and Bell almost got to grips with the #7 Bentley at the end of the race, despite having to fend off a keen-looking Maxime Martin for much of his stint.

Invictus Racing’s Matthew George, Pro driver in the #44 Jaguar F-Type SVR GT4 had found the warm-up “even more slippery than Saturday. It was a lot worse and there were a lot of cars off in the wall. I think when it’s properly dry we’ll probably be about a second off the pace, but that isn’t down to the car. We’re carrying an extremely large amount of weight through Balance of Performance. Our test for balance of performance at Paul Ricard was snowed off, so I don’t think we have a fair representation of the Jaguar yet and I think that can only get better for us.

“The guys have been working around 20 hours a day for the last month and we have been testing of sorts, but not proper performance testing, we did our first-ever setup changes on Friday! It means we’ve got a very good car out of the box.”

The Jaguar did prove quick at times, particularly the #22, but the Invictus machines were down at the tail end of the field by the time the flag fell. A double finish was a good start though for the new outfit and the first race experience in the cars for their amateur drivers in particular.

Elsewhere, Andrew Howard was content with second in race one. “It was very greasy out there and it’s so competitive this year when you look up and down the grid, with a lot of good racers. I’ve not done much wet running, I find the best thing for me in the wet in practice is to stay out as much as I can and if I’m lucky, get to follow a Pro and learn a few good lines.

“My priority was to get past the Bentleys as soon as I could, because we knew from this morning that when the Bentleys tyres came in we would struggle, but luckily when that happened I was ahead of them. Then Darren took over and what a Pro he is. All credit to the lad in the Mercedes [Buurman] too, they both demonstrated through the traffic how good and professional they are and that is what racing with a Pro is all about for me.”

Charlie Kemp, team principal of HHC Motorsport, explained how the initially class-leading #55 Ginetta fell out of contention in the class in race one. “Because we’re a silver-silver combination, we knew we’d drop down after the pitstops to the Pro-Am cars, because we’ve another 12 seconds on our stop compared with them. So we were expecting to lose a chunk of places, but then Patrick ran wide and for some reason the car switched off and he had to restart it, which lost us around another 20 seconds.”

Ben Tuck was in mixed, but generally positive, mood after a fine second-place finish in race one. “Well, it was a good start after the second corner! The last time I drove here was two years ago and that was in the dry. Before that it was wet, my first race here and I was taking Cascades round the outside so that was the only information I had. I tried it here and it didn’t work and I went off. After that I was able to pick them off. I couldn’t believe the pace of the BMW in the wet, BWW have done a good job with the car and Century have done an even better job setting it up. Without going off we would have won, which is annoying, but it’s a good start.”

Unfortunately for Tuck, his car’s pitstop was quicker than the minimum permitted time, so they were demoted to sixth place in a stewards post-race decision.

Even happier, but completely relaxed as ever, was race one’s winner Jonny Adam. “Phil [Keen] was coming, and into Clay Hill there was a Ginetta that moved to the right into the corner, so I could get through and I knew he had come through, too. It was only towards the end of the straight that I realised he had a puncture and was dropping back, but then I knew I had a big enough gap not to take any risks. The track was changing constantly and GT4 cars move onto and off the line, so you have to be careful.

“The fact I had that gap though was largely due to Flick’s first stint. She gained a lot of self-confidence knowing what she did with pole in the dry on Saturday so to translate that to the wet is great. She’s driving really well, calm and with confidence now and it’s just great to see. The Lamborghini is the one to watch in these conditions, it has good aero and a nice balance but our car did feel really good. Let’s see what race two brings, we’ll just have to watch the weather in between as some are saying it will rain, some are saying it won’t. It’s good to get 25 points this early in the season. We’ll have additional [10 seconds] time in the pits for race two because of our win but I think if we finish in the top four or five in race two that’ll be job done.”

Academy Motorsport’s Tom Wood had a rather too-exciting stint in the #61 Aston Martin. “Our sister car was hit by a BMW into the wall and then I was up to fourth place when I was overtaken by a quick BMW. At the end of my stint, I made a mistake at Druids and went into the wall, but as walls go it was quite a nice one and I was able to get it back out again! I pitted a lap earlier than planned so we get the car checked and then Jan [Jonck] did a good job.

Jonck added: “The Aston is a tough car to drive here when it’s greasy, I knew that from last year because it was the same. We were struggling for traction so to end up P6 in class and P10 (GT4) overall that isn’t bad, because this isn’t an Aston Martin track. We just want solid points from the first two or three rounds, then the other tracks should suit us better.”

We also caught up with Robin Liddell, who believes he last raced here in British GT in 2004, the year of the monster downpour crash at Knickerbrook. This year he isn’t racing, rather he’s managing race affairs for the three-car Barwell Motorsport team. “I haven’t done much in Europe for years, I have spent 10 years with Stevenson Motorsport, which is a really good run and I was contracted as a driver to the end of 2018, too. I was looking forward to 2018 with Stevenson, we had a tough time with the Audi programme and a tripling of our spend in GT3 and we weren’t happy with that.

“We looked at going back to General Motors and it was what we wanted to get back to really, especially as I have been contracted to GM for five of my 10 years in the States. We got the latest SRO-sanctioned Camaro, but we got it a bit late and missed the first two Continental races, but then won two of the six we did compete in. We thought everything was looking good, but then Jonny, the team owner, died in October last year and everything was sold off.

“I spoke with Mark [Lemmer] at Barwell about opportunities and although he had nothing on the driving front he offered me a team manager role for British GT and maybe Blancpain too depending what they do with their cars. As an ex-driver I think Mark senses a value of what I can bring as an overview across the whole team. I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

“My US period has been a really nice window but I’m not ready to stop driving yet, I enjoy the driving, the racing and working with teams. For now though, I’m really pleased to be here with Barwell as a long-standing and very successful team with a good reputation. This is a new experience for me and it is tough but I’m enjoying the challenge. I’m not the frustrated racing driver saying ‘I could do better’ – that won’t help anyone, but I would love to drive in this championship and these are really cool cars to be around.

“I have still got the pace and am not ‘over the hill’ but a lot has changed in the driver market over the last 10 years I have been a pro in the States. US budgets are so high and the model now is that the pro drivers are coaching-type drivers who have their arms around someone with a chequebook and that is how they go racing. Budgets in the US are $2.5m to $3m and there just isn’t the possibility of many paying pro wages on top of that, so things are starting to struggle in the US. I’ve been part of Pro-Pro racing in the US for 10 years and that just doesn’t happen in Europe. I’m a gold-rated driver, so I can’t step in as a third driver in the longer IMSA races, where people need silver-rated drivers, but I have joined a lot of other professional drivers looking for a drive and perhaps need to be better known back in Europe.

“I’m working on doing GT4 in IMSA Continental towards the end of the season but that is taking a lot of time to get together and I’m working on it on a consultancy basis at the moment. I think GT4 is the growth class at the moment, the manufacturers just can’t build the cars quickly enough for demand and the truth is that it’s just more affordable. Manufacturers are changing their approach too, it’s kind of what Porsche have been doing for decades: let the decent privateer terms carry a lot of the cost for you and subsidise your marketing and exposure, they don’t need full works efforts as much as they have perhaps focused on at times.

“So I’m really happy to be coming to the tracks, working and using my experience to make a difference, but this isn’t me retiring from driving at all.”