Optimum takes the headlines at a bedraggled Oulton Park

Monday, April 02, 2018

This weekend must surely go down as one of those 'never to be repeated again' weekends as the 2018 British GT Championship kicked off from Oulton Park.

Firstly and certainly unfortunately, we had the weather forecasters get their predications absolutely correct for the Bank Holiday weekend and secondly we had Optimum Motorsport come away with a clean sweep of honours from the weather effected race meeting.

With Qualifying already having taken place in the relative dry of Saturday, the season's opening double header already had people salivating at the prospects of some extra-ordinary racing come the Bank Holiday Monday.

Optimum Motorsport had also already stolen the headlines by claiming top spot in the first of the Free Practice sessions before Flick Haigh secured her first (and the championship's first) pole position from a lady driver. Her team mate Jonny Adam faired only slightly worse by finishing second in his qualifying session meaning their #75 Aston Martin Racing V12 Vantage GT3 would start Sunday's two races from P1 and P2 respectively.

For race 1, the other AMR GT3 cars would be starting behind the two Team Parker Bentleys with Derek Johnston and Mark Farmer sandwiching Andrew Howard's Beechdean AMR car. Championship debutants, Graham Davidson and his Jetstream Motorsport entry would be bringing up the tail of the grid after having had all of his qualifying times deleted for speeding in the pit lane.

In the GT4 class, the two Academy Motorsport V8 Vantage's of Will Moore/Matt Nichol-Jones and Jan Jonck/Ton Wood would each start from the front end of the sizeable GT4 grid in P5 and P7 respectively.

The start of Race 1 had already been delayed by fifty minutes as an incident in an earlier race caused extensive barrier damage that needed repairing before the faster GT slot on the timetable. With rain persistently falling Race Control also elected to start the race from behind the safety car for what would end up being for the first four laps.

Next time around, the race aspirations for both of the TF Sport guys would each take a turn for the worse as (firstly) the #11 Mark Farmer would not see the late lunge up the inside into turn one from Jon Minshaw to end up being spun around into the infield of the track from where he could eventually recover himself from before later into that first racing lap, Derek Johnston would appear to outbreak himself in his #17 going into the chicane and have to take to the extremely wet grass infield route back onto the racing surface.

For those cars their race was effectively run despite the prospect of two factory drivers stepping into the cars later on.

For Will Moore in his #62 Academy GT4, the first racing lap faired no better as he would find himself being muscled out of the final corner coming into the pit straight with a BMW M4 before front wheel contact wit that car speared his Vantage heavily into the outside tyre guarded crash barrier. Being able to recover himself into the pit lane at least saved the race from another Safety Car period although that car's race was over with heavy front end damage.

With all the squabbling going on behind, that at least allowed Flick Haigh to get on with what she needed to do at the front and she soon established herself a useful 6-7 second lead over the now second placed Lamborghini with Howard also then clear in third but some 14 seconds behind Minshaw. Despite the atrocious track conditions Haigh was driving like a very experienced GT3 amateur driver as all her winter (wet weather) testing was paying her dividends.

Approaching the start of the pit window, the #33 Lamborghini of Minshaw started to pile in some successively quicker laps to gain on Haigh to a point where Haigh elected to pit just two seconds ahead of the #33, who would decide to stay out for one lap longer. For Haigh - her work was done!

By the time Minshaw had completed his stop and had swapped over to Pro driver Phil Keen, Jonny Adam was now up to speed in the #75 and retook the overall lead as Keen exited the pit lane. Drama would befall the remaining Academy car of Tom Wood towards the end of the pit window as he would be forced gently off the tarmac for an erratic ride over the grass with an unceremonious kiss with the barrier to boot, damage that would need yards of gaffer tape when he handed to car over to Jonck just moments later.

Despite the conditions, the racing on track was extremely exciting to watch. Keen was now fully conversant with the track conditions and he would put in some consistently quicker times than Adam to close the gap and to necessitate some very defensive driving from the Le Mans champion just to hold him back.

Coming through some GT4 traffic with less than twenty minutes remaining however would be decisive for the race as the chasing Keen would clip the side of a Ginetta causing himself a puncture, putting himself out of contention and giving Adam some 35 seconds of breathing space to the chequered flag.

The battle for second then became the main spectacle on track as AMR factory driver Darren Turner battled to keep his #99 Beechdean car ahead of Mercedes factory driver Yelmer Buurman in his #116 AMG.

Also, but unfortunately unseen by the TV feed, the two Danish AMR factory drivers Marco Sorensen and Nicki Thiim had each recovered their relative cars track position to P9 and P11 after their bronze driver's earlier issues.

For the remaining AMR factory driver in this years championship, Maxime Martin had a large wake up call himself as he diced with the barrier on the outside of Island Bend coming up to the Hairpin in his #47 Jetstream Motorsport he shares with GT Cup graduate Graham Davidson. Coming away just a bit muddied was a small price compared to what it could have been for the Belgium.

Coming into the closing minutes of Race 1, Adam was merely maintaining momentum having let his race lead 'slip' to just 27 seconds whilst Turner and Buurman were both fully 'at it' just metres apart but in the end Turner would do enough to hold onto second for the team.

The race win for the #75 Flick Haigh/Jonny Adam car would in itself create yet more British GT history as Haigh would become not only the first woman to gain an overall pole position but the first woman to secure an overall win AND the first woman to be awarded Blancpain 'Gentleman Driver of the Weekend' Award - an award that may now need renamed we feel!!

Race 2 was however a completely different tale and mainly for the wrong reasons.

The rain, which had over lunch relented to a point of a definitive dry line appearing on the race track had returned, but with a vengeance! Race 2 was the turn of the professional drivers to take the start but such were the conditions that even an experienced driver such as Adam aquaplaned his #75 car into a safety barrier on the grid forming lap, damage that would require a whole new rear lefthand side quarter to be replaced and would necessitate a visit for him to the circuit medical centre for a precautionary check.

Despite the race starting behind the Safety Car, the worsening track conditions forced Race Control to red flag it after only four laps in the vain hope that things would improve. the only positive was that Optimum finished replacing the damaged rear upright, toe link and brake disk to allow for Adam's car to take position at the rear of the grid should the race be restarted.

Minutes later, race Control confirmed that the remaining British GT race and other races would in fact be abandoned due to the hazardous track conditions and due to limit of laps actually completed no points would be awarded by the championship. Considering the circumstances - that was the correct decision.

So with Optimum still leading the GT3 Championship, the British GT Championship resumes at Rockingham at the end of April by which time we hope to hear what will become of the race abandoned this afternoon.

******UPDATED - Barwell are appealing the series decision not to award any points from the abandoned race this afternoon - that has now gone to the stewards to rule on.

Photo credits - Jacob Ebrey / Optimum / Beechdean / British GT / TF Sport

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