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British GT Donington: Saturday Paddock Notes

Two championships up for grabs

The overcast and cold conditions at Donington on Saturday were lifted somewhat by the varied sight and sounds of the best mix of manufacturers the British GT Championship has enjoyed so far this season.

Not only were the somewhat-sporadic RJN Nissan and Balfe McLaren out to play in GT3, but for the first time this season we had a Ferrari in British GT, albeit a Challenge-spec car, being the sole entry in GTC.

Driver John Searle, who’s campaigned the car in Europe and raced recently in GT Cup and Britcar, explained: “We may well do this series next year, in a proper GT3 car. We’re just here to see how it goes and [after the first practice session] it’s fine so far. We’re slower than the GT3s, our tyres are around two-thirds the size and we don’t have the downforce, so we fall between the GT3s and GT4s.”

The GT3 Balfe McLaren was out for the first time in competitive action in the hands of Brands Hatch GT4 class winners Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson. The pair have tested, including at Donington Park, but are raring to go and very impressed by the car.

GT4 also sees another new entry, a toe-in-the-water exercise for Ciceley Motorsport and its Mercedes-AMG GT4. BTCC regular Adam Morgan explained: “Ciceley are looking to expand into new forms and different types of racing. We want to show that we can run in a GT paddock and gain experience. Our aim here is to have no dramas, get to the finish, show people that we’re here, that we can do this and hopefully raise some interest. So possibly we could be here next season.

“BTCC is still the priority but we’re looking at options and we’ve entered this car in the Gulf 12 Hours and Dubai 24 Hours. We have a few seats filled but we’re looking to fill the others. Next year’s calendar has a few clashes with BTCC, so it would be difficult to do a full campaign, but the great thing about the GT4 car is we can run it in so many different series. I’m a truck driver too, so it’s no problem for me to put the car in the back and take it around most of Europe!”

Finlay Hutchinson was taking to the track at Donington Park “for the first time in a GT car. I’ve raced here in Formula Renault and I think it’ll be a good track for the McLaren, so I’m really looking forward to it. There’s a lot of high speed and fast and flowing corners, which our car likes. It worked well for us at the Nurburgring last week, so hopefully it should here. There we were second in race one and first in race two, including getting from 15th on the grid to fifth in two corners, so that went pretty well!”

There are also two Ultratek Racing Team RJN Nissans back for the season finale, and returnee Stephen Johansen in the #54 370Z GT4 was a happy man as a result.

“I’m so glad to be back out there,” he said. “I haven’t even sat in the car since Snetterton, so I’m having to learn where all the buttons are again, let alone how to get on top of the car! It’s a bit frustrating, having finished second in GT4 and won our class at Rockingham, but then Jesse [Antilla] couldn’t do the next races, so I’ve been waiting for my time to get back in.

“Now I\m back with JM Littman and we’re here to have some fun, not to do anything silly, but to build up again. British GT is absolutely where I want to be. It’s a fantastic challenge and I always say about motorsport that you should be having one of two things: fun or success. If you’re having both then you’re definitely in the perfect team! The Nissan is a car you cannot just be really smooth with all the time to get the pace, it does move around and you have to be on top of what it’s doing underneath you, but it’s certainly fun!”

The Aston Martins were strong in practice and Beechdean Racing’s Andrew Howard reckoned “all of the Astons will be gunning for the win. We’ve shown pace at times this season, but we haven’t yet had the ‘perfect storm’ we need. We’ll be aiming for a podium as a minimum, but will see what we can do. The beauty of the British GT Championship is that it’s as much about consistency as outright pace. Over the years, the pace has gone up and up, so you need to be consistently quick, which makes it such a great championship to race in.”

The TF Sport drivers were all enjoying themselves in the first practice session. #11’s Mark Farmer remarked that Nicki Thiim’s first-ever flying lap of Donington Park was the same time as his fastest ever (pole) lap here. Marco Sorensen hasn’t driven here “since 2008, it was like learning a completely different circuit, although it only takes a few laps to do that. It’s a very nice flowing track and suits the Aston, although it’s a shame that they’re so hard on the track limits in this championship, because without them it would be even more flowing and there’s a lot of grass alongside the track, so there isn’t really any advantage to be gained. It would just make it nicer to drive.“

TF Sport Team Principal Tom Ferrier had clearly considered the title permutations for the #11 car, whose drivers sit third in the championship, just one point behind the #33 Lamborghini. “We know we can win the race and if we do, then we’ll have done everything we can. It’s actually quite a nice position for us to be in, if we win the race then we could win the title, but unless Flick and Jonny have an absolute disaster, it’s all theirs. British GT has thrown up some strange things over the years, though. We have to watch the Lamborghini, too; it’ll be wet tomorrow and Jon [Minshaw] is good in the wet, as is his Lamborghini.”

Minshaw’s co-driver Phil Keen was confident that his Barwell Lamborghini will work well here in all conditions. “We already have a good sensible balance in the car in the dry and we should have that in the wet,” he said. “The Astons will be fast, they take a while to get the heat into their tyres and it’s warmer here than it was at Oulton Park. It’s difficult to overtake here, too, so qualifying is important and we need to get on the front row. We don’t want to get bottled up behind Jonny and Flick; they have a 20-second penalty, and we don’t want Mark and Nicki to get away, either. I think Yelmer [Buurman] will be quick here in the Mercedes, too. Basically Jon needs to bring it in to me with a huge lead so I can just drive around hoping Jonny [Adam] can’t finish better than seventh, so it’s all up to Jon really!”

Points leader Adam (#75 Optimum Motorsport Aston Martin) was in something of a quandary. “I want to get a podium for the Vantage in its final race, but we have to keep one eye on the picture for the championship. Donington has been good to me, it’s where I got three championships for clients and two for me. We have a different situation here, because we’re not behind and in fact have a bit of a gap. The pace looks good for the race and for later today where I think we can challenge for a front-row place in qualifying. It’ll be a case of common sense really, but I would love to bow out with a good result after driving this car for seven-and-a-half years in what’ll be my 90th start in a Vantage.

“Flick is going well, too, and I think a lot of people don’t really know about the effort she’s putting into this year. She was at Base Performance again yesterday on the simulator, she has put 26 hours in there this season and I think she’s done more testing than any other amateur driver, so you can’t fault that commitment. She knows the experience that the seasoned amateurs have in this championship, so she knew that’s what she had to do to compete.”

The championship permutations are even wider in GT4, with five crews having a chance at the driver’s title. Ben Tuck and Ben Green sit second in the table going into 2018’s last hurrah in their #42 Century Motorsport BMW (now carrying an extra 20kg through a Balance of Performance adjustment) but Tuck was allowing himself to dream a little.

“It has all come a bit too quickly, it seems like only yesterday that we were being announced in the BMWs!” he said. “But then it has been too long since the last race; six weeks is a long time and we haven’t done any testing in between, so today was the first time in the car since Brands Hatch. It was a bit of a struggle at first, but we got up to third on pace [in FP1] so it looks okay and we’re both feeling good about the weekend.

“It took us a couple of weekends to get the base setup. The BMW was entirely new to the championship and new to all of Europe, so although BMW had done a great job, all the teams running them were doing the development for the car. At Snetterton and Silverstone, we got the magic setup that makes the car work, and we know how to adjust that to make it work anywhere, so Century and BMW have done an excellent job.

“In a position like this, you have to tell yourself to treat it like another normal race weekend, but I’m allowing myself to think about the championship. I’m confident enough to do that and I want to go for it, to absolutely try to smash it this weekend and if it doesn’t work, at least I can always know that I tried.”

Century #43’s Jack Mitchell is the current points leader however, and due to a mid-season co-driver change, he carries that lead entirely on his shoulders. “It’s a tricky one, in an ideal world I’d think of it as just another race weekend, but there’s the championship and anything can happen.

“I’m focused on doing a good job in qualifying and the race and I’ve got everything in place. I have a great team and a great team-mate, so we should be looking good. The points gap from first to second at 10 points in this series is a big one. It’s what got me to first in the points but it’s easy to lose the points in the same way by not winning and of course my lead is only 10 points. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Asked about any team orders within the Century Motorsport garage, Mitchell added “it only goes as far as whoever’s in the lead will have the choice of when they want to come in for the pitstop, but then the #43 car has a 15-second pitstop penalty, so I don’t know how that will play into it.”