Rockingham is an interesting place – it’s a fantastic facility, and really great for the fans to spectate from, particularly with the great view of the pits. But, from a driver’s point of view, we’re almost using it a little out of context. It’s a high-speed oval with a very tight and twisty infield, meaning it’s a challenge for a big GT car like the Aston Martin Vantage GT3. It’s a fight I enjoyed, though, with some mega results.
I was so excited to be driving the V12 Vantage GT3 again. I raced it in Britcar at Brands Hatch with John Gaw and Paul White last year and it got me hooked on GT racing. When the chance arose to drive the Strata21 Vantage, which won the Silverstone round of the Blancpain Endurance Series last year, it was a no-brainer. It is a similar spec car that won the British GT Championship last year and, as a driver, it’s always a good feeling to be sitting in machinery that you know is capable of hitting the top step.
It’s not the best track to make our BGT debut in the Vantage, as it prefers leggy, power tracks like Silverstone, Spa or Snetterton. All that stop, squirt and sprint that the Rockingham infield demands doesn’t play to the Vantage’s strengths, but Paul (my team mate) and I were here to learn the car better and aimed to be mixing it up with the other Aston Martins by the end of the weekend.
Saturday’s driving was a little ‘tricky’. I did my five laps to simply bed in some brakes and then handed over to Paul. He also did a few laps but then pushing too hard he lost the rear end on a bump on the exit of a corner. He took a spin into the barrier, which rendered the Vantage a little less beautiful than it had been that morning. When it arrived back in the pits the damage looked fairly minimal, but as he and I scrutinised the onboard footage and the team starting peeling back the mangled parts we could see how bad it all was. There was a lot of damage; the front panels, aero, ‘A’ pillar and chassis leg were all pretty torn up, so it was going to be a long day.
The team from Aston Martin Racing worked flat-out and did a fantastic job but we had to miss free practice two. We were ready for qualifying though, and that’s what matters.
The car was freshly repaired and I had only done five laps, so I needed to get on intimate terms with it very quickly. The trick with the Avon rubber is to maximise the tyre ‘peak’ – that sweet spot when the fresh tyre gives its optimum performance. When they’re immediately ‘in’ and warm these Avons are worth 2.5 seconds a lap in terms of time, then immediately, they lose half a second a lap for the next four or five laps until they plateau at their race pace. So, you really have to make sure you’re “on it” for those first few laps and maximise what they are capable of delivering.
Everything works so well during those early minutes and I really couldn’t fault the car in any way. It’s mad when you consider the engine modifications you would need to make to gain that kind of lap advantage, so it’s a whole new part of my BGT learning curve, making sure I factor it in to my strategy and work the tyre percentages. I’m still appreciating how to get the very best out of it for qualifying. Getting it in that sweet spot and hooking up that one fast lap is everything.
I did a good job at doing so in qualifying and I managed to record the ninth fastest lap. With Paul’s run combined and averaged, we were 14th overall.
As the first longer race of the season, it required a different approach. Being a two-hour race, our 14th place wasn’t really an issue. It’s much easier to make up those places over a longer race, so our realistic aim was to get inside the top eight, and try to be one of the three fastest Astons on track.
Paul started and did a great job of getting us up to ninth just before the pit stops, getting a bit of luck along the way as the safety car bunched the field up. However, problem with refuelling cost us three positions, putting us back to 12th.
I went out aggressively and was able to make up two places immediately, before the safety car bunched us up again. Chasing down and passing the identical Vantage GT3s of Richard Abra and then Jonny Adam, in last year’s championship winning car, felt really satisfying. It also proved what a superb job the team had done with the repairs.
I managed to get us up to fifth on the road, but the hard drive to get us there had really hurt the tyres. My only option was to defend for the last quarter of the race, but seven years of BTCC has more than equipped me for that.
With the fourth place Ferrari being penalised, we finished fourth overall. We exceeded our aim by being the quickest Aston Martin and the first Vantage past the post, and posting the second fastest lap overall didn’t hurt, either.
As first outings with a new car go, that one certainly ticked all the boxes. Better yet, next up we have Silverstone, where this car really should shine, so here’s hoping we can stay near the front once again.