Beechdean AMR pairing Jonny Adam and Andrew Howard ensured Aston Martin claimed both British GT opening round victories at Oulton Park following the success of Oman Racing Team duo Rory Butcher and Liam Griffin earlier in the day.
As is tradition, the 2015 British GT Championship kicked off on Easter weekend with the opening two rounds of the championship taking place at Oulton Park; free practice and qualifying taking place on Saturday with the races following on Easter Monday.
After 6 months away from the race circuits, the years first sound of a Grand Touring car never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Witnessing the 34 car cast of the 2015 rendition of the series thunder up Deer Leap during the opening moments of free practice 1 brought a smile to my face; it is difficult to argue against the view that this is the best national GT series on the planet.
Whilst missing some of the GT3 variety of previous seasons, there being no Porsche, Audi, Bentley or Nissan presence on the grid, a much bigger GT4 field more than fills the void. Two fully competitive classes is exactly what the doctor ordered which should both be ultra competitive following some changes in the regulations for 2015. Reiterating that Amateur drivers have a key part to play was made clear by the banning of gold/silver crews and, similar to the Blancpain series, ensuring Bronze drivers enjoy more track time in free practice sessions. British GT is now a strictly Gold/Bronze, Silver/Silver driver combination series.
Free Practice / Qualifying
Friday rain had left the crews facing a damp track for the first free practice session where Jon Minshaw made the most of the drying conditions to go quickest with his final lap of the session. The Demon Tweeks man, once again paired with the rapid Phil Keen and this year in a Barwell Motorsport BMW, will be many peoples favourites for the title; the duo quickest again in the fully dry 2nd session to reiterate this view.
As is often the case though, qualifying did not follow suit with the ten minute sessions giving little time to string together the perfect lap. While Minshaw was only able to register 9th quickest time, Liam Griffin in the Oman Racing Team Aston Martin claimed pole for race 1 with a scintillating 1:35:858. Dave Bartrum appearing to have pulled off another master stroke of a driver signing following the loss of Michael Caine as a result of the driver grading regulation changes.
Race 2 qualifying saw the Pros take to the wheel for what promised to be a classic 10 minute showdown starring the likes of A1 GP winner Adam Carroll in the FF Corse Ferrari and BMW works driver Alexander Sims in the Ecurie Ecosse Z4. It was Jonny Adam however who starred, claiming pole with a stonking time of 1:33:877 on his first flying lap and showing exactly why he is a works Aston Martin employee. The FF Corse Ferrari would join the Scotsman on the front row to match the efforts of team-mate Gary Eastwood in the earlier AM session with the BMWs of Phil Keen and Alexander Sims filling row 2.
Just like the predicted weather forecast race day was set to be a cracker with the remainder of the top ten separated by less than a second!
In what is becoming a more and more popular series with the fans, large crowds had gathered to take in the race-day action. And with the sun yet to burn through, it was pole sitter, Liam Griffin, who maintained his advantage after an early safety car period with Gary Eastwood, Andrew Howard and Andrew Watson in hot pursuit.
From fifth position on the grid, Watson in the #10 Von Ryan Mclaren had made an excellent start, getting as high as second before going off the road at Island bend following an over enthusiastic attempt for the lead on lap 7; An unfortunate end to what could have been a race winning car.
Griffin was not able to break away however and the top ten were covered by Just a handful of seconds before carnage broke out. The delayed #12 Von Ryan McLaren seemed determined to have a say in the outcome of the meeting, causing the leading group to bunch up as they tried to put another lap on the 650s. And just as Andrew Howard thought he was getting passed at Hislops chicane Salih Yoluc turned in on the Wycombe Wanderers Chairman sending the Aston into the tyre wall, with Ahmad Al Harthy also becoming caught up in the incident. Both were out of the race and the safety car was deployed for the second time.
Meanwhile a big accident had occurred on the run down to Cascades. Alistair McKinnon in the RAM Racing Mercedes tagged the Derek Johnston piloted TF Sport Aston in an attempted passing manoeuvre causing both cars to head to for the crash barriers at high speed; the Aston Martin bouncing back across the track and left stranded in the middle of the road. The two following Barwell BMW’s had nowhere to go; Minshaw running into the back of Attard as he braked hard in an attempt to avoid the stricken TF Sport machine. Somehow Attard was able to get the Ecurie Ecosse machine back to the pits, however Minshaw, Johnston and McKinnon were all additions to the retirements list!
With the pit window now open several crews took the opportunity to get their Pro drivers behind the wheel under saferty car conditions and remarkably Adam Carroll, now in the FF Corse Ferrari, managed to steel a march on the Oman Racing Aston of Rory Butcher to emerge from the pitlane in the lead of the race, with Joe Osborne in the Triple Eight Racing BMW now in third.
Indeed it was the white BMW who looked most likely to challenge for victory when the track returned to green with just 16 minutes remaining. In fact Osborne was soon passed Butcher and in pursuit of the 458, however GT4 traffic would soon catch out the BMW pilot allowing Butcher back into second. And with the order remaining the same at the chequered flag it seemed the Italian Marque had taken victory.
However several hours after the race, Carroll and Eastwood were demoted to second following a successful appeal by the Oman Racing Team squad; the FF Corse Ferrari penalised for blocking the #6 Aston as it exited the pits, leaving Butcher and Griffin to take maximum opening round points.
Meanwhile in GT4 it was the #50 Optimum Racing Ginetta of Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson who emerged victorious following a battle with the #407 Beechdean Aston and the similar car of Terry Langley and Mike Hart. Alongside Ross Gunn, second place represented a great result for 16 year old Jamie Chadwick on her British GT debut.
With Oulton Park now basking in glorious afternoon sunshine it was pole man Jonny Adam who lead the field away, with FF Corse Ferrari pilot Adam Carroll heading the chase from the Demon Tweeks BMW of Phil Keen and the LNT Ginetta of Mike Simpson.
Carroll was on a charge, and perhaps keen to make up for his race one penalty managed to pass the Beechdean Aston early on in the stint at Old Hall. Adam would not have been too concerned however, knowing the Italian car faced a 15 second longer pitstop courtesy of their race one ‘victory’; the Scotsman managing to keep the Northern Irishman in sight throughout the remainder of his stint.
The Demon Tweeks BMW had been holding a strong third place, but would find itself in the wrong place at the wrong time again on lap 14; this time taken out by the Preci Spark Mercedes of Godfrey Jones and ending race 2 in the Cascades gravel trap. Things can only get better for the Barwell prepared machine.
Following the lead team pitstops it was, as anticipated, the Beechdean Aston, now in the hands of Andrew Howard who assumed the lead of the race, with Lee Mowle in the Triple Eight BMW, Liam Griffin’s Oman Racing Aston and Steve Tandy’s LNT Ginetta just behind; the FF Corse Ferrari dropping to sixth as a result of the success penalty.
But just as it looked like being a close fight to the finish, Howard, Mowle and Griffin were all judged guilty of short pit stops and given drive through penalties as a result. This appeared to put Tandy in the driving seat for victory, however, such was Andrew Howard’s pace in the afternoon sunshine that he managed to maintain the lead!
And so while Howard cruised to victory, Tandy was left left to fight a rear guard action against the fast approaching Ecurie Ecosse BMW of 2014 champion Marco Attard and the recovering Liam Griffin. But try as Attard and Griffin might there was no way through leaving the LNT Ginetta to take a fine 2nd place.
Further back the Issy Racing Lotus Evora made up for being caught out by the safety car in race 1 by utterly dominating the GT4 class in race 2. Oz Yusuf and Gavan Kershaw finished the race in 12th place overall with a class winning margin of 26 seconds over round 1 winners Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson.
And so after 2 rounds it is the new Oman Racing Team pairing of Rory Butcher and Liam Griffin that lead the championship courtesy of a win and a fourth place. I am not sure many would have predicted this outcome at the start of the weekend but on this evidence they are likely to be title contenders. As expected the racing around the tight Cheshire track was close, with driving standards at times dubious and on occasion shocking. It was good to see the #12 Von Ryan Racing McLaren excluded from the meeting for blatant ignorance of the blue flags and generally causing chaos. This is Sportscar racing Mr Yoluc, the Touring cars were at Brands Hatch!
Next up for the British GT teams is a trip to Rockingham for a 2 hour mini endurance race around the Northamptonshire track. I however will most likely catch them at Silverstone for round 4 in late May where I will be hoping the wider track will create racing more akin to round 2 than round 1.
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All images © Paul Commons (Paul Commons Motorsport Photography)