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Spa Paddock Notes

Championship battle hotting up

Things are getting interesting at the top of the championship table as the British GT championship hits Spa-Francorchamps for the fifth of its seven events this season.

With 37.5 points on offer for a race win, Sam de Haan and Johnny Cocker are just 8.5 points behind their Barwell Lamborghini team-mates Adam Balon and Phil Keen in the hunt for the title. And 31.5 points behind the leaders is the Donington Park-winning TF Sport Aston Martin duo of Graham Davidson and Jonny Adam.

Barwell team managing director Mark Lemmer is relaxed about the prospect of his two cars battling for both the title and potentially wheel-to-wheel on track, telling DSC: “It’s good fun, that’s the way we want it, with both cars in contention!”

“We had the meeting about being sensible before Silverstone after they’d been dicing towards the end of the race in Snetterton, and then the first thing that happened at Silverstone was Adam making a mistake and taking Sam out, but it’s just one of those things. They know to be sensible, the golden rule is don’t hit each other.”

Lemmer reckons the new ‘Evo’ version of Lamborghini’s Huracan GT3 is actually slightly slower around Spa than its predecessors. “It’s quite draggy and more torquey, which hurts it at the end of the straight,” he said. “But as a package, it’s better balanced and easier to drive; the pros aren’t any faster, but the arms are much faster, it’s better over a stint.”

Driver of the #72 Adam Balon told DSC that he’ll be focusing on race performance rather than thinking too much about championship points this weekend. “I have experience at Spa, but it’s all been bad experience!” he joked. “My last two GT4 outings the car didn’t turn a wheel, so I’d quite like to have a race this time! Spa is definitely great fun in a GT3, it’s quite something. There’s still stuff I need to work on to get fully comfortable, but it’ll come with time in the car. Next season I should be properly on it.”

Graham Davidson, the two Barwell crews’ closest championship rival, is also a late addition to next weekend’s Spa 24 Hours grid, in a Lazarus Racing Lamborghini (above). “The team had a driver pull out after the official test, so it was a last-minute deal, I got a cheap seat!” he explained. “What I’ve been building up to over the last five years is doing races like Spa and Le Mans, getting coaching from Johnny [Adam] this year and Max [Martin] last year, so I couldn’t say no to a chance to do the Spa 24 for an affordable price.

“The only slight fly in the ointment is that I’ve never driven the Lamborghini before. On Tuesday we’ll get out for the three-hour bronze-driver test, so I’ll try to claim as much of that as I can. In the last three years, I’ve gone from a mid-engined McLaren in GT Cup to the front-engined Aston, to the new Aston, and usually, within 15 or 20 laps I’m within half a second of where I need to be; then it’s just fine-tuning.

“I’ve always been good at adapting, so I think I’ll be fine, but racing in that environment, that paddock, on such a busy track, will be an eye-opener. I’m not going in with any expectations other than to have fun and tick the box, but I will be doing all I can to do well, get recognised by the team and the wider Blancpain paddock. I don’t want to be doing British GT for the next five years, I want to learn and progress and try new tracks in Europe, or even further afield.

Davidson remains laser-focused on the British GT title fight until them, however, and counts Spa among his best tracks, having racked up GT Cup wins, his maiden British GT win and a Citroen C1 24 Hours podium finish here. “Luckily all the remaining circuits are strong for me. The aim is to come away with a big pile of points and close the gap, whether that happens here or at Brands Hatch. Then we can go to Donington and win, that’s the approach.”

There’s a one-off addition to the series’ GT3 Aston ranks at Spa, in the shape of Tony Quinn’s M2 Competition-run Keltic Racing Vantage, shared with long-time Aston factory driver Darren Turner. The former Australian GT promoter has just taken delivery of the car and wanted to take the opportunity of racing at Spa before it gets shipped Down Under.

“It’s literally brand-new, I’ve just been bedding in some brakes,” Turner told DSC during free practice. “There are still a few things to get sorted. Tony has never been here before, so he needs to learn the circuit and M2 have never run a GT car before, so they have to learn a lot as well. For Tony, this weekend is about enjoyment, experience and staying out of the way of people fighting for the championship.”

In the Team Parker Racing garage, Ryan Ratcliffe was sporting a new ‘low-downforce setup’ having recently ‘braved the shave’ for Macmillan Cancer Support, raising a superb £14,000 for the charity in the process. “I’m actually really happy with how the haircut turned out!” he said.

During free practice, the team was working to uncover the cause of a 10kph top-speed deficit to the rest of the field for the #7 car (above).

“We’ve put the exhaust system from the Blancpain car on, as it doesn’t have the baffles we have to fit to meet the British tracks’ noise limits,” Ratcliffe explained. “But the Bentley engineer doesn’t think that on its own could be causing the deficit, so we’ll see.”

Meanwhile, Ratcliffe’s fellow Bentley driver Rick Parfitt Jr raised more than few smiles on Friday when he announced a new sponsor on the #31 JRM car in shape of Whyte Bikes (image above tweeted by Parfitt).

Its logos have taken the positions on the car previously occupied by the now-infamous energy-drink brand, successfully sued by Whyte for copying its logo, that has just ousted its bearded CEO in a dramatic sequence of moves over the British Grand Prix weekend.

“I’m very happy to be working with a great innovative British brand, it’s a great fit with the Bentley,” declared Parfitt, who currently sits seventh in the driver’s standings with co-driver Seb Morris.

“We won the opening round, and have been on for podiums a few times,” he said. “This deal came together very late for us, so I had very little time in the car. I’ve spun twice during races; both times I was following close behind a car and lost grip. It’s learning little things like that where more testing would have helped.

“The Bentley has taken a step forward, but so have all the other latest-generation cars. It definitely works well on the faster flowing stuff, so we should go well here.”

Turning to GT4, DSC caught up with Academy Motorsport Aston Martin’s Alex Toth-Jones (above), who’s stepped up to British GT this year after three seasons in the Ginetta GT5 Challenge.

“It’s not been too bad, I think I’m adapting quite well to the car and the championship,” he said. “Obviously it’s very different to Ginettas. I think we’ll admit that we’ve struggled with the car and with a couple of incidents; we haven’t got the most out of it or got the results we wanted. We were on for a good result at Donington but picked up a bit of damage in the first stint when we were hit by a GT3 car, so we were really unlucky there.”

“As the season’s gone on, we’ve been making steps, though. Obviously, it’s a new car for the team as well. I think we’re in a good place now, we’ve got a nice BoP this weekend, or better than before anyway, so all being well it should be good.

“For next year there’s a lot of options still on the table. I’m part of the AMR Academy, so I want to win a factory drive; it would be lovely to win that and that would set next year up, but if not I’ve got to have plans. It’s still quite open; the goal is to get to Blancpain and eventually Le Mans. If I was to make the jump to GT3 next year, that would be mega, but if I do another year in GT4, I wouldn’t be complaining, it would be another year to develop a bit more.”

Elsewhere in GT4, there’s a new face in the #58 HHC McLaren (above) alongside Luke Williams in the shape of Ruben del Sarte. The Franco-Dutchman has plenty of Ginetta Junior and GT5 experience under his belt, but the McLaren, the GT4 class and the Spa-Francorchamps circuit are all new to him this weekend.

“[HHC director] Charlie Kemp knew me from when I raced with them in Ginetta Juniors, so he asked if I wanted to join for Spa when they found out Tom [Jackson] wouldn’t be continuing the season,” del Sarte told us.

“Of course, we knew it would be a challenge: GT4 is new to me, Spa is new to me, so it’s a big challenge, but it’s good to learn and we’re improving. It’s really exciting; the power, the car, the competition is really nice, a bit tough for me, but we’ll get there. I’m not sure whether I’ll continue in the Ginetta GT5 series this year. I’ll have a view after this race, and maybe see out the season in British GT.”