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GT1 Tales: Tim Sugden, Racing With Steve O’Rourke In The EMKA McLaren

Part 1, The British GT Championship

Tim Sugden arrived in the British GT Championship in 1997 as the recently ex BTCC Touring Car Pro to Pink Floyd manager Steve O’Rourke’s Am.

O’Rourke a long-time hugely enthusiastic Gentleman driver whose adventures had encompassed GT and prototype racing at Le Mans with his own EMKA Racing concern (the team name a conflation of the names of his daughters (EMma and KAtheryne). One of the EMKA Aston Martins is shown left.

The pair combined beautifully to take the GT2 title in their first year in a well prepped Porsche 911 GT2, but for 1998 O’Rourke, who sadly passed away in 2003, had other plans, Tim Sugden takes up the story:

“We’d done the year before in the Porsche, which was fantastic, Steve had been recommended to me by a combination of Alistair McQueen and Michael Cane from GTC.

“Between them, they sort of rescued me from touring cars and gave me a GT opportunity and we’ve had a fantastic year one together where we won British GT against all the odds, really, in the Porsche 911 GT2 which was an epic car looking back.

“Steve said to me that we were going to do something bigger and better next year.

“At the time I was fairly naive about GT racing about what the possibilities were, my world had been touring cars for the last seven or eight years and I really didn’t know much about GT racing.

“So I remember Steve ringing me and he says we’re going to have a McLaren. And I remember thinking wow, that’s so much better than I was dreaming of and yeah, we got the car, it was one of the Gulf cars from the year before that had been involved in a crash at Spa.

“It had taken some damage in that accident but then was further damaged by a mistake from the rescue crew that had dropped a jib onto its roof! I always remember that repair.

“We first drove it – I think at Silverstone. And I remember there were two things I was worried about: I’d never driven a sportscar that quick. And then also the gearbox went the wrong way. You know, the gearbox was a sequential that was famous for going forwards instead of backwards to change up so I was thinking is only a matter of time before I put a rod through the side. I just thought just don’t do it on the first day!

“I remember like it was yesterday, you sit in the middle. It used to make an amazing noise us almost like a fighter jet when you spun it over on the starter before it fired. It had a whirring whine reminiscent a little bit of an aeroplane when it starts.

“But then as soon as you set off down pit lane I thought this just feels so nice, everything about it just felt absolutely right. Certain cars, as soon as you set off down the pit lane you think this is going to be perfect.

“Everything about the way the car operated, the weight of the steering, the gear lever, the pedals. Just the general body language of the car was just right from the minute you drove down the pit lane.

And then you accelerate and that engine was just phenomenal. I mean, that engine was just amazing. It just pulled so beautifully from so low down, it was such a fantastic engine.

“And so confidence-inspiring, the rear hardly ever moved. It had understeer, but not terrible understeer by any means.

“I don’t remember it ever breaking down. I mean, I’m sure it did, but I don’t remember anything ever going wrong with it. So it was fantastic. Steve absolutely loved it.

“The British GT Championship evolved massively in that little period, certainly ’98 was good, but ’99 (pictured below) was better.

“If I remember rightly, at one point in 1998 there were three McLaren’s briefly and certainly there was Chris Goodwin with his orange car and obviously the Listers and then there was Magnus Wallender with his GT1 Porsche, we did have a fantastic grid in that period.

“Spa in 1998 turned out to be a really important race for us, not the final round, but a really important race to sort out the Championship.

“It had really, by then come down to the Championship being between us, and the Lister that had Julian Bailey and Tiff Needell but for Spa they brought Anthony Reid in to replace Tiff.

“We wanted to win the championship but Lawrence and Lister REALLY wanted to win the championship.

“There was one point fairly early in the race where there was suddenly a safety car and Steve had been holding everybody up really well. Clearly the thing to do at that point was that you had to pit at that point and get the driver get swapped over (in the 50-minute races the pit window opened after just 15 minutes). I couldn’t understand why the Lister didn’t pit so it lost all that track position and I went on and won the race and effectively sealed the championship.

“I was laughing about it on the podium afterwards and Julian, my old team-mate from Touring Cars was having a massive sense of humour failure.

“I found out later that there had been a lot of money bet on the Championship, and that result had cost them a serious pay-out! The reason they hadn’t pitted was that the radio wasn’t working, and the reason that the radio wasn’t working was that there was no power on the pit-wall and the radio system was being powered by a generator, and Listers had run out of fuel! – So god knows how much that half a gallon of petrol had cost them!

“Steve was amazing to me. He wasn’t the quickest, but so enthusiastic and he wanted to win.

“I’d qualify and we used to put him in the race at the beginning always in the hope that there would be a safety car so he always dropped right back, hopefully not lose too many places, then we would dream of a safety car where we could then pit.

“There were days where it did work for us and the car was so good and you know, I’d like to think I was driving it well, but the car was fantastic.

“And I could come back through the field and it was such good coming back through the field.

“People say, Oh, it must be soul-destroying having a slower teammate, and I always said, No, not at all. I loved it, because he gave me the opportunity to launch a GT career and he gave me an opportunity to drive an amazing car and it was fun and the feeling actually of having a good result when you’d been far behind at the beginning was wonderful.

“To me the that was the spirit of GT racing that you had your wealthy amateur and you had your Pro. That was fantastic. I genuinely loved it. Everything about the team and the car and the championship at the time was great.”