TUESDAY 10 APRIL 2012
BRITISH GT GETS UNDERWAY AT WET OULTON PARK WITH A PODIUM

It sure looks like the 2012 British GT season will be one of the best ever, which such a huge range of cars and maunfacturers involved. Twenty six cars made up the GT3 and GT4 field, with eleven manufacturers involved - Truly impressive.

Allan's brand new Rosso Verde Ferrari 458 GT3, the Corvette Z06R, Aston Martin Vantage GT3, Nissan GTR GT3, Porsche 997 GT3 R, Ginetta G55, Mercedes AMG SLS GT3, Audi R8 LMS and BMW Z4 GT3 would round out the top class, whilst the Ginetta G50 adn Lotus Evora would dominate GT4. in GTC, a lone Chevron GR8, yet a GT3 spec version running, by invitation.

Less can be said of the weather and in a typical English way it pelted down, yet that didn't stop Allan Simonsen from grabbing a podium in his first race of the championship.

A damp practice session saw Allan third fastest, lamenting the right setup, for not only had the MTECH 458 been fastest, Adam Wilcox had punted his old 430 Scuderia into third place.

Qualifying saw Allan in P4, the car struggling for balance.

The race report below, in italics, is courtesy of Daily Sports Car.

As race time approached, the rain was still falling at a rate sufficient for it to be deemed necessary to have two green-flag laps behind the pace car as not all drivers had taken part in the short morning warm-up and had a chance to experience the wet conditions; but as the safety car peeled off at the end of the second lap (starting the race clock in the process), anyone expecting a first corner pile-up was in for a disappointment as the entire field made it through Old Hall and Cascades unscathed.

Charles Bateman knew that leading the race in such conditions would mean a clear windscreen, while those behind would have to contend with a wall of spray, and so he was in the right frame of mind as the lights went green to ensure that he converted pole position to P1 at the first corner. By the end of the first 2.7 mile circuit the United Autosport Audi had an advantage of 2.191s over the Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage of Andrew Howard, with Alasdair McCaig third in the Ecurie Ecosse BMW Z4. In fact things were remarkably static through the field, with only minor place changes being noted on that opening lap - only Jody Firth suffering any significant loss of ground after the Team WFR Ginetta G55 dropped from 11th to 20th after a brief off-track excursion.

The Hislop’s chicane would prove to be a challenging spot on the track, with Ian Titchmarsh having much to report from his commentating booth overlooking that part of the track. Bateman had a moment there on Lap 2, but kept his lead, while Jordan Witt had a more significant moment just a few seconds later; spinning the GT3 Chevron and dropping to a distant last place. This was, in fact, the first indication of a gearbox problem that would sideline the yellow car after 14 laps.

Bateman kept his head and focussed on building his lead in the Audi, mindful that his car would have an extra four seconds to serve at the driver-change. Behind him, Andrew Howard was discovering that the Vantage was “squirrelly” in the wet and he found that his priority was defending second, rather than going after the lead. McCaig made his first move at Old Hall at the start of Lap 3, but the Beechdean boss closed the door. When the new Aston arrived at Hislops, however, it twitched and lost two places; the second of these being to the #35 RJN Nissan GT-R of Jann Mardenborough, who would prove to be a revelation on his Oulton debut and in his first ever wet race.

Further back in the field, Jody Fannin was building a very comfortable lead in GT4 in the #55 Team WFR Ginetta G50, while Zoe Wenham in the #42 Century G50 was managing to stay well clear of the two Lotus Evoras; Marco Attard and Sailesh Bolisetti enduring a baptism of, er, water, as they did their best in the appalling conditions in the still-unfamiliar car.

The ill-handling Beechdean Aston was still managing to keep several GT3s behind it, but it was clear that Howard was fighting the car more than driving it and a spin on Lap 6 dropped the car to 12th. By this point, Duncan Cameron in the #21 MTECH Ferrari had already found his way past, and was now joined by David Jones in the #22 Preci-Spark Mercedes SLS and a brace of Porsches; David Ashburn in the #31 Trackspeed 997 and Danielle Perfetti in the #11 Motorbase GT3 R. All the while, Bateman was making good his escape and had stretched his advantage beyond five seconds despite McCaig’s best efforts in the Z4.

Having started from the back of the pack following a gearbox failure that prevented his car from qualifying, Phil Burton had been making good progress in the #12 Predator Ferrari Scuderia and was up to 17th by the end of Lap 4. However, the car’s rear diffuser had somehow begun to come adrift and he was shown the black/orange flag requiring him to pit for repairs, which he did on Lap 6. He was joined in the pitlane by Ian Stinton, whose #14 Stark by Hepworth Ginetta G55 had suffered a damaged rear-left wishbone following contact. Both cars would rejoin, but well down in the field.

On Lap 8 Hector Lester managed to move the #3 Rosso Verde 458 up to eighth at the expense of Jon Minshaw in the #33 Trackspeed Porsche, and he was almost immediately able to close the ten-second gap to Perfetti, owing to the deployment of the safety car following a double spin for Ron Johnson in the #4 Speedworks Corvette Z06 R; “Ron ran onto the grass and spun, which left him with grass on his tyres and a lack of grip that caused him to spin into the gravel at Druid’s,” explained Speedworks boss Christian Dick. “Ron was able to drive back to the pits, but it wasn’t worth running the risk of their being a stone in a pulley somewhere, so we opted to clean everything down and have another go in Race 2.”

For Charles Bateman, this was exactly the scenario he didn’t want – his advantage having been wiped out with the pitstop window looming – but when the race went green again at the start of Lap 12, he took full advantage of the #98 Chevron being behind him in the queue and made his escape; McCaig having to wait until crossing the line before being able to pass the backmarker. As the Audi started Lap 13, it had stretched out a 4.383s lead.

For the GT4 leader, Jody Fannin, his advantage over the second-placed car was such that he was the only unlapped car in the class when the caution period started, and as a result the WFR Ginetta found itself with a full lap’s advantage on the rest of the field as the pit window opened.

With Bateman and Matt Bell both being Silver drivers, an early stop was unlikely for the lead Audi, but several drivers – Ashburn, Perfetti, Minshaw, Lester and Howard amongst them – headed immediately pitward to hand their cars over to their professional teammates.

A new rule had been introduced at Oulton, instructing all cars to stop at 45 degrees to the garages during the pitstop. However, there appeared to be no rule for leaving the pits and several hairy moments ensued, thankfully with no consequences.

McCaig and Mardenborough ended their excellent stints one lap later, leaving Jones in second, and both Olly Bryant in the Z4 and Alex Buncombe in the GT-R rejoined before Matt Griffin reached Old Hall; the BMW crucially gaining some ten seconds on the Nissan in the process.

Bateman eventually brought the Audi in from the lead on Lap 16, having done enough to allow Bell to retain the lead, while Jones handed the SLS over to brother Godfrey one lap later; the Merc rejoining just ahead of Buncombe, Griffin and Richard Westbrook in the #31 Porsche.

With all stops completed and the pit window (just ten minutes this season, as opposed to 14 previously) once again closed, Bell led in the Audi by five seconds from Bryant, with a further 11 seconds back to the Jones/Buncombe/Griffin/Westbrook train that was about to welcome the Ferrari of Allan Simonsen to the party; the Dane having just taken seventh from the #11 Porsche of Michael Caine.
At the head of the field, Bryant was keeping Bell honest but could seemingly do no more than hold the gap at around five seconds. As the race entered its final third, however, it was clear that Griffin and co would have to quickly get past Jones and Buncombe if they wanted a crack at the win; and neither the Mercedes nor Nissan driver was willing to give up his place without a fight.

In GT4, while Warren Hughes was unchallenged in the Team WFR Ginetta, a highly entertaining scrap for second was taking shape, with the Evoras of Alistair Mackinnon and Phil Glew and the Ginetta of Mike Simpson nose to tail.

On Lap 21 the status quo in the fight for third was finally broken. First Griffin had a go at getting Buncombe – the brand-new Nissan running a slightly too-soft set-up in the wet – at Old Hall, but was repelled; and then the MTECH driver lost fifth to the Rosso Verde after a passing move that Griffin would later describe as ‘very brave’. One lap later, Richard Westbrook pulled a blinder to get by both Ferraris at Hislop’s. However, the Trackspeed driver was once more back in seventh as the cars ended the lap; what had happened? “I lined them up beautifully and nailed the move,” said Westbrook. “But then on the run-up Clay Hill a GT4 moved over to let us through and ended up baulking me, which allowed the others by again; I’d already done all the hard work!”

On Lap 22, Simonsen finally broke down Buncombe’s defences and found a way past the Nissan, with Griffin following suit lap later; and the Rosso Verde driver took third from the Mercedes at Lodge on that same lap. But when Griffin went for the place at Old Hall at the start of Lap 24, there was contact and the SLS spun and dropped to eighth; “I was on the inside at the corner – the marshal’s report says I was fully alongside – when he started to move across on me,” said Griffin. “I stood on the brakes and tried to pull out, but he kept coming across and I clipped his back end.”

But the action wasn’t confined to just this sector of the front, with the #9 JMH Nissan of Benji Hetherington fighting off Andrew Howard and Tim Harvey for ninth and Nick Tandy in the #10 Motorbase Porsche about to take 12th from the #32 997 of Joe Osborne; the Trackspeed driver struggling with the not-inconsiderable handicap of traction control failure, that would also cost him a place to the #5 Scuderia Vittoria Ferrari of Aaron Scott. Meanwhile, in GT4, Glew found a way past Mackinnon for second. Their fight was constantly interrupted by GT3 cars coming through, but it was very much a race of equals, as evidenced by the two drivers’ fastest race laps – 1:58.583 vs 1:58.653. The #48 of Glew would, however, ultimately prevail in this duel.

As the final minutes of the race ticked away, Simonsen had pulled away from the fight for fourth – which saw Griffin under immense pressure from Westbrook – but in no position to do anything about the two cars ahead of him. With nine seconds remaining on the clock, Matt Bell crossed the line to start his 32nd and final lap of the race.

But just a few moments later, there came reports that the Audi was slowing! This was immediately confirmed by in-car messages from Bell, who was reporting a fuel pick-up issue and – almost unbelievably – he had no choice but to pull off the track and stop; an assured and fully-deserved victory evaporating in that awful instant.
But United Autosport’s misfortune became Ecurie Ecosse’s triumph as Olly Bryant passed the stricken R8 and completed the final lap to take the chequered flag – a win for the reborn team on its British GT debut and also for the Barwell Motorsport-prepared BMW Z4 on its first race in the championship.

“I thought maybe he’d taken the flag the lap before and I’d got it wrong and there was another lap, but I carried on past him," said Bryant. "Not great for them having led from the start, but good for us. Really looking forward to race two, mixing it with the other guys and dealing with the spray.”

The Audi’s retirement meant that the podium was completed by the Rosso Verde and MTECH Ferraris.

“For once we had the car well sorted for the wet, which gives you a lot of confidence," said Hector Lester. "The restart was fine, I was three abreast at one point and it all got a bit mixed up. I had a good battle with Hetherington and Perfetti, which was fun before that. I hope the second race is wet, I’ll even take a shower of sleet!”

“It was very tense and hard out there," said Matt Griffin. "Myself, Allan and Richard were effectively all on the same piece of track. We’re all at the top of our game and factory drivers in various guises, so it was good. Westie got past me into Knickerbrook, and Simonsen made a very opportune move when a GT4 car baulked us both. It was then just qualifying laps in the rain. Westie was really putting a lot of pressure on me and I think he had more in his tyres than us. Duncan did a fantastic job. We’ve got a really good team at MTECH and a third place is a really good start to the season for us.”
Team WFR recorded an emphatic victory in GT4 – just like they had done so often in 2009 when they won the title – while the two Evoras completed the podium. Mike Simpson had a last-lap off that ripped the bodywork off the nose of the Century G50, but he completed the race to take fourth.

“I had to guess my braking point for the first few corners and just paced myself," said Jody Fannin. "I saw that the gap was building, and got a bit lucky with the safety car. The others got caught behind it, which was a bit of a bonus. This gave us an extra cushion and I handed over to Warren, and he did a great job.”

“It was a massive learning curve for me," admitted Sailesh Bolisetti. "It was raining, it was a new track, I couldn’t see and was a bit confused. I could only see the blinking red lights in the distance. The rolling start was ok, I was quite comfortable and it will get better by the next race.”

While things didn’t go so well for the GT3 Chevron, the GTC class GR8 of David Witt and Ray Grimes finished the race just behind the Century G50, with Witt enjoying getting stuck into the GT4 cars in the opening half of the race.

So an intriguing race had ended in dramatic circumstances, but had delivered a very popular – if largely unexpected – result. The teams now had a little over three hours to ready their cars for the second of the day’s races.