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Graham Johnson: “As An Am Driver, It’s About Making Memories”

DSC catches up with the 2016 GT4 title winner, tackling 2018 in a familiar team but with a new co-driver

British GT GT4 stalwarts Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson’s longstanding driving partnership came to an end at the conclusion of the 2018 season, but both have continued in the series.

Robinson is in the #75 Optimum Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage alongside Patrick Mathiasen, while Johnson has remained in the Balfe Motorsport McLaren, welcoming a new young factory co-driver alongside him in the shape of Michael O’Brien.

DSC caught up with O’Brien ahead of this season, and we spoke to Johnson on Saturday on Snetterton to hear how the new partnership is gelling, following a successful opening round at Oulton where the pair finished second overall in GT4 in race two.

“Oulton was fantastic: after a major technical issue in qualifying, we lined up 13th, so to be second and fighting for the lead with a driver of Scott Maxwell’s credentials was rather pleasing,” he reflected. “There’s life in me yet!”

“Michael is so fast, he’s such a talent, I think he’s going to have an amazing future,” he told us. “As a pro-am pairing, we’re really strong. The goal for me is to win a second title to go with 2016’s, and for him, it’s to win his first race, that’s really important for us, but so is enjoying ourselves and taking every race as we go.

“Michael is very relaxed and analytical. We’re very similar in terms of our approach, we’re very much on the same wavelength. The fact that neither of us went out much in the first free-practice session shows that. We looked at the wet-dry conditions and mutually decided not to risk it. There’s no point when it’s neither wet nor dry; you’re only going to burn up some wet tyres or risk binning it on slicks.”

Far from lamenting the influx of young silver-graded drivers into the traditionally pro-am ranks of GT4, Johnson is relishing the challenge of benchmarking himself against their high level.

“When I started in 2015, GT4 was mostly pro-am, then in 2016 it was a 50-50 split when I won the title with Mike,” he recalls. “And you have to remember there was no time benefit for being pro-am that season. The silver pairings had to carry 30kg more and in the nicest possible way, they were still lighter than me so we beat them on pure speed!

“Then halfway through 2017 the pro-ams we’re given the pitstop advantage, which I’m definitely not complaining about, but we often have the speed to run at the front. I’ve never benchmarked myself against other am’s, I’m only interested in benchmarking myself against silvers.

“Michael is on a different level, so if I’m within four or five-tenths of him I’m happy. It’s great for the championship that someone who runs a business Monday to Friday can come here and have the opportunity to benchmark themselves against some of the best up-and-coming drivers, people who you know are going to have great careers; it’s just a privilege.

“Oulton Park was special for me for that reason – racing Maxwell for the lead of the race, I had a few moments thinking ‘his CV is rather good, and I’m all over him’. As an am driver, it’s about making memories, you’re trying to get success but also make good memories.

“Winning title in 2016 was more than I could have hoped to achieve and now I just don’t want to let Michael down. Going into my stint for race two at Oulton, I was nervous for the first time in five years; he’d done a tremendous job bringing the car up from 13th and into contention, so I was thinking ‘please don’t let me fall backwards!’. When I found myself fighting and overtaking for the lead, I was relieved. I feel huge pressure to make Michael look as good as he is.”

With that battle with Maxwell under his belt, Johnson is confident the GT4 Balance of Performance (BoP) is where it should be for the moment after Ford’s rapid pace in Oulton Park qualifying raised a few eyebrows.

“The Mustang had a tweak after qualifying and I was wheel-to-wheel with Scott for 15 minutes,” says Johnson. “Honestly, it had strengths in places, we had strengths in places, I didn’t see a tremendous difference. Priaulx is a tidy little pedaler and he got a lot out of it, I don’t see it as a big deal.

“After five seasons, I’ve come to realise that every car has its weekend, unquestionably. In the Ginetta we’d go well at Oulton and Rockingham, then we’d go to Spa and we’d be butchered. Now I go to Spa and cruise down the Kemmel Straight overtaking everything in sight!

“I don’t think the Mustang will do as well at Snetterton, that Porsche with Zamparelli at the wheel will be interesting, and the Steller Audi will be interesting. It’s hard to balance those cars that there’s only one of; their drivers may or may not be quick or may or not be playing the BoP game.

“It wasn’t being played in the early days, but we’re all doing it now. I was surprised when I saw Priaulx’s lap that no-one had shouted at him to lift off before the line, but it was an impressive lap no doubt!”

Johnson and O’Brien have qualified 18th and sixth for races one and two respectively at Snetterton.