A look back from Matt Cowley on his first season in GT racing

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Every year we see many young, ambitious race car drivers move up the ladder or change formulae to compete in GT racing in various racing arenas around the world.

One such driver taking that 'big leap' this season was Matt Cowley who moved across from having raced in single seaters in North America to compete in a brand new (and then an as yet unproven) Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage GT4 with the Academy Motorsport team in the GT4 European Series.

Reflecting on what was a tough GT audition for him, these are his words as he looks back on 2019.

After my two years of racing in the USA I was looking to return to the UK and change to racing in GT cars and open up future opportunities in Europe, the USA and beyond.

My journey to the European GT4 series started with a discussion with Graham Brunton and his daughter Rachel, now Rachel Adams, at the Walter Hayes event in 2018.

After testing in the Aston Martin Vantage in November at Oulton Park and having the opportunity to try it on two occasions, I decided I wanted to race in the car and have a shot at becoming an Aston Martin Academy driver with a prize of being selected as junior driver for the 2020 season. With the decision made on the car, the next was whether to race in the European or British championship. Having raced on some of the great UK and USA circuits, the appeal of racing on new to me, iconic European circuits, along with the large GT4 grids racing in their own meetings swung it for me.

The season commenced in April with an outing to Monza. We were hoping for good weather, but that didn’t happen with the weekend being very wet through torrential rain. With the poor conditions, getting used to the new car and the potential of crash damage, I was probably a little over cautious in my approach to the first race of the season. However I should not have worried about crash damage as I incurred some through no fault of my own when I could not avoid parts coming off a Pro Sport Vantage in front of me on the back straight just before the Curva Parabilca. The team and I were happy with the consistency of pace and where we ended up at the end of the meeting. However, it did show how the balance of performance (BoP) would influence our season. To have the opportunity to drive around Monza and its famous corners like Lesmo, Ascari and Curva Parabolica was absolutely amazing and unforgettable. It was also great to have a familiar face at the hotel sharing a room and having dinner with Kush Manai, Formula Renault EuroCup series driver, who I train with extensively. 

Race 2 was back on home soil at Brands Hatch. Whilst I am familiar with the National circuit from my Formula Ford racing, I was less familiar with the GP circuit. However, I got to grips with it quickly and in qualifying on a drying track managed to post a sequence of purple sectors, putting myself in a provisional pole position for a number of laps. On my last flying lap, I got held up in one sector which meant I was pushed back to 9thon the grid which, in my only second qualifying in a GT4, I was happy with. The start of the race went well, and I managed to bring the car in for a pit change in P5. Unfortunately, Will, my team mate, had a couple of incidents which ended with us not returning the results we anticipated. Race 2 we managed to push forward, however a good result was scuppered due to having to serve drive through penalties due to track limit excursions in Will’s first stint. We came away from Brands Hatch feeling good about the car and that we had a BoP, qualifying and race pace which allowed us to compete at the sharp end of the grid.

Next we moved to the South of France, to circuit Paul Ricard. What a fantastic place to be and location for a track. We carried through the pace that we had established at Brands Hatch giving the opportunity to qualify P10 on the grid a slower car again getting in my way despite having let two other quicker cars through. I had a good start and managed to get up to P6 before I was collected on the apex of the chicane by a car returning in an unsafe manner after they had an off track excursion. Unfortunately, this caused damage to the car and whilst I could have carried on at a slower pace, following pit stops to check things through, we were two laps down and so decided to retire the car. In race 2, Will did a solid job and we were making progress. I took over and with only 3 laps to go in a good points scoring position, we had a terminal mechanical failure leaving me stranded on the track to watch the last few laps of the race. It was great staying as a team in a villa found by Fiona James who was driving the team’s branded Walero car, where we were all able to relax in the evenings having barbecues and using the pool.

Back to Italy for round 3 at a very hot in Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli. Mum, dad and I arrived there a couple of days early to help with getting things set up and also to give us a bit of a break on the fantastic Adriatic coast. The weather was fantastic with temperatures in the high 30’s, giving us a great opportunity to spend time on the beach, eat pizza at beach side restaurants and swim in a very warm Adriatic. Practice began well, however, we had an engine issue and had to retire the car. A fantastic effort was made by the team who worked through the night to replace the engine. This the first time a Vantage engine had been moved and replaced away from workshop facilities. Despite herculean efforts we had a similar issue in the morning practice session which unfortunately meant our weekend was over pretty much before it began. On the up side, it was great to meet up with Charlie Eastwood to not only get some coaching but spend some social time with him.

The penultimate race of the season was, for me, a return to the seaside track of Zandvoort in Holland, where back in 2016, I raced in a round of the British National Formula Ford championship. Qualifying here was difficult when trying to find space on the track. However, I managed to put us in P11 for race 2. I got away well at the start gaining three places, however due to the massive incident that occurred behind me, which included our sister car being driven by Fiona, the race was red flagged. Fortunately, despite the severity of some of the impacts, all the drivers walked away from their cars. Following the red flag we were restarted under the safety car. At the restart I made an error, passing a car before the start finish line which gave me a drive through penalty dropping me back down the order. A mistake I will not be making again. A drive through penalty for Will, for too short a pitstop pushed us further down the order with both our errors leaving us in a position which was frustrating for the team and us as drivers because we were capable of having a much better result. It was good to have my sister Abbi and her partner Aaron visiting from Australia and a friend from America, Kaylen Frederick, who is racing in the BRDC British F3 series and flew out from the UK to spend the weekend with us. 

For the last race of the season we were off to the famous Nurburgring on the GP circuit. We decided to drive there to make it more of a trip rather than the usual fly in/hire car/fly out. We collected Kush, who was also racing at same meeting, on way to Folkestone where we stayed overnight before catching the Eurotunnel train first thing in the morning. Thank you to Eurotunnel for the opportunity to be able to use the Flexi+ facilities, which were really welcome for breakfast and waiting before departure. By splitting the journey with a stop over in Folkestone, the road trip was great, with the only real traffic issues going through Brussels, which was an interesting and a picturesque city. Arriving at Nurburgring was quite an experience with the amount of hotel and conference facilities at the track, very different to others we have been to. Thursday evening was great, going to a restaurant for a team meal. Late finishing on track on the Friday and Saturday meant that the team wouldn’t finish going over the cars until late so we ate at the track. Mum and dad barbequed chicken and a variety of German sausages which we had with German bread and sauerkraut. Well, we had too really being in Germany. Qualifying was tricky with car heavily impacted by the BoP and yellow flags on my laps which should have been quickest as tyres came on. With so many compromised laps I ended with my worse starting position of the season, very disappointing for us as a team and particularly me when on my Base Performance simulator runs I had been quicker than one of the AMR factory drivers. Following the start with a move around the outside at turn 1 and a bit of a squeeze into turn 2, I managed to make up 6 places. Making up more places became harder as, whilst I made up ground with the cars in front in the braking zones and through the corners, they drove away from me down the straights. A mechanical issue about 10 minutes before the pit stop window caused us to retire the car and taking away the opportunity for my new team mate, Finlay Hutchison, to be able to get into the car. Race 2, due to the driver change post qualifying, meant that Finley had to start at back of the grid from which he made good progress enabling me to take over in P22 with us finally finishing the race in P18, having the same problem of being able to get up behind cars in the corners but not being able to keep up down the straights.

Well what of the season?

It has been a tough one for the team and myself. We came into this with high expectations, with a good Silver/Silver driver pairing and a car that performed well in testing. Whilst I was too cautious at Monza, this caution left me at Brands Hatch. With my starting and track positions there and at subsequent circuits and acknowledgement of my pace from David Addison and others, it showed that we had the opportunity to compete well within the top 10, but it’s the results that are seen. Mechanical issues, on track incidents and drive through penalties cost us the opportunity to show exactly what we could achieve. GT racing required a change in mind set from my single seat racing. No longer was it, that once on track, it was only myself that could affect the outcome. As co drivers we worked for the results accepting that things outside your stint in the car influenced the results for the team.

In my first year in a GT car I really enjoyed myself as a driver and part of the team. I have learned a lot this season, both in and out of the car, which I will carry forward in my racing career. It was great to be able to drive on such fantastic tracks across Europe. Racing an Aston Martin has provided me with opportunities to be involved with and promote the brand at dealerships, meeting great people along the way. It has given me the opportunity to meet with and be coached by some of the best GT drivers, driver development professionals and a gold medal winning Olympian and World Champion. I have also continued to promote and had great social media support and encouragement from the mental health charity The Shaw Mind Foundation, of which I am an ambassador and its publishing company Trigger Publishing, the music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins and the USA based, global additives and lubricant company Justice Brothers, thank you to them and everybody who have helped me in this journey to date, which are many.

A big thanks to Academy Motorsport and their team for their unstinting efforts throughout the season and AMR for the opportunity and support in the Academy Driver programme and the development opportunities that has brought.

Source material - Matt Cowley

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