Barwell : Gulf car challenges for the podium

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Barwell Motorsport returned to the Belgian GT Championship last weekend, for the final two one-hour races of the season at Zolder. Our regular Belgian GT Aston Martin DBRS9 featured a couple of changes for this event, with usual driver Eddy Renard being joined by highly respected Belgian pilot, Maxime Soulet, and the car now sporting a fabulous new look in deference to the famous blue and orange colours of new sponsor, Gulf Oils – one of the legendary names associated with GT and sportscar racing. Indeed, this means that Barwell now looks after two Gulf cars – separated by nearly 40 years in age! – with the 2009 Aston joining the glorious 1970 Porsche 917 that is also in our stable. At Zolder Renard and Soulet had the striking Gulf V12 DBRS9 on course for a podium in the first race, before a rude nudge from a rival stole third place away on the last lap.

Eddy Renard has been improving his performance in the Aston all season, and learning well from the experience of competing in events such as the Spa 24 Hours. With two recent test days at Zolder under his belt, he therefore arrived at last weekend’s event confident of putting in a good performance. Although Maxime was making his debut race in a DBRS9, he had quickly got to grips with the car during testing, and so we were very hopeful of showing well at Zolder.

There was an added complication with the Belgian GT series at Zolder, in that the final round of the FIA GT3 Championship was being run simultaneously on the track. Thus we had over 40 cars on the circuit for qualifying and the races would be split into two grids, with the FIA GT3 cars departing first and then a time delay before the Belgian GT start. Making matters even more complicated, and frustrating for us, was the fact that the FIA cars were running on the latest soft compound Michelin Tyres and the Belgian machines on our usual hard compound Michelins. The difference in performance was estimated at around an average of 1.5 seconds on a qualifying lap, which was highlighted by the fact that the top professional driver in the Belgian series Audi R8 was two seconds slower than his counterpart in the same car on the FIA tyres.

With the two grids being separated, however, we could at least start from our proper Belgian GT positions. Eddy put in his best qualifying performance of the season, coping well with a greasy track that only had a narrow ‘dry line’, and no margin for error. In the ‘amateur’ session, he posted the sixth fastest time, and in the ‘pro’ session Maxime was an impressive third. He was annoyed about a small mistake he made on his best lap, though, which he reckoned cost him around half a second and thus a place on the front row of the grid.

Eddy immediately got into the groove at the start of Sunday’s race one, which was started on a wet track with all of the Belgian cars on wet tyres. He picked off the Coens/Bouvy Ferrari on lap two to take fifth place and settled into a great stint which saw him produce many lap times on par with the leaders. The track was drying all the time, and as the driver change window opened after 23 minutes some teams brought their cars in and changed onto slicks. We waited a little bit longer before calling Eddy in, however, and this proved to be the perfect call as when Maxime took over the track conditions were just right for slicks. Eddy’s strong pace at the end of his stint meant that we had moved up to third when Maxime rejoined, just two seconds behind the Longin/Verbist Porsche and eight seconds behind the leading Audi.

Our charge for victory received a major set-back, however, when we received a ‘drive-through’ penalty for speeding in the pit lane after Eddy was just a fraction too late pressing the speed limit button as he came into the pits. This didn’t gain us any advantage, as there is a minimum time we have to spend in the pit lane anyway (including the pit stop), but the drive through is an automatic penalty. Maxime thus came straight into the pits and took the pain, blasting back out in fifth place a little way behind the Westbrook/Lamot Porsche and the Bouvy/Coens Ferrari.

A clearly fired-up Soulet then hunted down this battle for third place and latched onto the back of Westbrook as he attempted to pass Bouvy. The Porsche eventually made it past and left Maxime to attack the Ferrari, but shortly after this Westbrook slipped back behind both cars, promoting Maxime up to fourth. The Barwell Aston was crawling all over the back of Bouvy’s Ferrari, but passing was difficult due to the track still being greasy off the racing line. Despite this, Soulet pulled off a cracking move down the inside going into the first corner on the last lap and took third place. Unfortunately his hard work was immediately undone, as Westbrook tried to follow him through and the Porsche got out of control and clobbered the back of our Aston. This pushed Maxime wide and dropped him back behind both cars, and he had no time left to recover the positions.


The second 1-Hour race on Sunday was started just before dusk began to fall and in dry conditions. Unfortunately Maxime was on the receiving end of some highly questionable driving from a rival again, this time even before the startline, when the Wauters/van Hooydonck Viper pushed him wide at the final chicane and barged its way through into third place. This was very frustrating because the Viper then held the Barwell Aston up as the Ford GT and Porsche leaders made their escape.

After 15 minutes the darkness descended but also with it came rain, which got heavier and heavier. There was then an incident which meant that the Safety Car came out just as the driver change window opened, and so all hell broke loose in the cramped pits as 40 cars arrived together to change both driver and also onto wet tyres. Unfortunately this turned the race into a bit of a lottery as some cars gained hugely as others got blocked in during the pit stop melee. We were on the losing end of this and when Eddy rejoined we had slipped down to sixth place.

With the two grids of Belgian GTs and FIA GT3s now completely mixed up, in darkness (which many drivers had never experienced before) and difficult track conditions, the circuit became a very treacherous place. There were many collisions and incidents and the race became more about surviving to the end intact. Eddy was holding station in sixth, but it was clear that the track was drying again quickly and with around 15 minutes to go many cars came in to switch back onto slicks. If the track continued to dry then those cars on slicks at the end would be able to make up huge chunks of time. We decided to pit Eddy and the Barwell crew performed a fantastic four-wheel tyre change to get him back out still in sixth place. With half the cars on slicks and half on wets, however, this added to the danger as the slicks became the tyres to have in the last 10 minutes and some cars on wets were now going very slowly. Unfortunately Eddy came upon one of these with five minutes left and was forced to take to the gravel in avoidance, ending his race.

Although the luck just didn’t come our way at Zolder, this had been a highly competitive showing from the Renard/Soulet partnership, and one which under the right circumstances could have produced a race victory. The 2009 Belgian GT season is now finished, but Eddy and the Barwell Aston are set to return in 2010, when they will line up as one of the favourites for the title.
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