Britain loves a sporting David versus Goliath story, so it’s no surprise that the third round of the FA Cup is a staple of the British sporting calendar. Wycombe Wanderers chairman and ELMS champion Andrew Howard is one man hoping for service as usual this weekend as seventh-tier Stourbridge seek out another Football League scalp at Adams Park, but look hard enough and there are true underdog stories to be found in GTs too, as James Newbold found out.
Motorsport folklore is rich with tales of weekend warriors, fuelled only by passion, coffee and bacon butties, taking the fight to the big boys. Think back to James Hunt’s Hesketh holding off Niki Lauda to win in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, Derrike Cope’s shock victory for Whitcomb Racing in the 1990 Daytona 500, or Mario Dominguez leading a Herdez Competition 1-2 when CART visited Miami in 2003. However, such triumphs are a rarity and becoming increasingly so in the money-dependent world of motorsport. All three aforementioned teams would eventually fold and GT racing is not exempt either, with rising costs forcing several prominent privateers to re-evaluate their priorities.
British GT frontrunners Motorbase recently confirmed that they would be focusing solely on their BTCC programme in 2017, following a path trodden by Triple Eight last winter, while Marc VDS shut down their car racing operation – this time for good – after the ELMS-supporting Renault Sport Trophy was canned after just two years. But not every underdog story ends in glorious failure.
In the International GT Open championship, the Balfe Motorsport squad is proof that a tight-knit, family-run outfit can still defy the odds. Despite a mid-season switch from Ferrari to McLaren, the British team ended the 2016 campaign as runners-up behind only the dominant Team Lazarus Lamborghini of Thomas Biagi and Fabrizio Crestani. That’s no mean feat when the opposition included defending champions Teo Martín Motorsport, British GT champions TF Sport and Blancpain Endurance champions Garage 59.
“The team were really emotional, as was I at the end,” said lead driver Shaun Balfe, who continues to race in Ferrari-branded overalls. “My father David plays a key part as team principal, which takes a bit of pressure off me by allowing me to focus on the driving and also gives me an opinion that’s valued when decisions need to be made.
“It works really well and I’ve got a number of team members who have been with me for almost two decades. There’s one guy who has been with me since I won my Caterham Superlight championship in 1998, I’ve got a guy prior to that when I did Caterham Vauxhalls in 1997 who was my No. 1 mechanic, then I’ve got a truck driver that I went to secondary school with as a teenager as well.
“So pop my father in there and my wife and children; it’s only when you start looking at all the characters and the people involved when you start to realise what a tight-knit group we are. When we do well, it’s really personal to everybody.”
Having raced in GT Open semi-regularly over the last four seasons, 2016 was comfortably the best yet for the former British GT front-runner, who missed out on the 2003 title when co-driver Jamie Derbyshire was unceremoniously punted off in the Brands Hatch season finale.
After Balfe and Phil Keen gave the venerable Ferrari 458 one last hurrah in the Estoril season opener, a disappointing weekend at Paul Ricard convinced the team to snap up an ex-Salih Yoluc McLaren. With far more aero to play with, the 650S GT3 required a very different approach (“the Ferrari is a wrestling match from braking area to apex to exit, you are playing a physical role to get it through that process, the McLaren is much more precise”), but following an initial period of acclimatisation, Balfe reached the podium at the Red Bull Ring with Adam Carroll. Keen returned to close out the season at Monza and Catalunya and capped the season with another podium to wrap up second in the points.
“I think we’ve evolved nicely with the car, we’re really pleased with how it’s turned out,” Balfe said. “What was just as paramount as getting a good car at a good price was making sure that the manufacturer was 100% behind us. Often, manufacturers are only interested in new car sales and testament to how pleased I was with last year is down to the hard work the team put in, but also the support that we had from McLaren to make it work. They fast-tracked our learning curve and held our hands through the early days so we were able to deliver what we did at the end of the year.”
Given his giant-killing exploits in 2016, Balfe could be forgiven for entertaining grandiose ambitions on the European GT racing scene, but is instead keeping his feet firmly grounded. With the family construction firm to oversee, the 44-year-old is wary of over-reaching and conscious of the need for maintaining a balance between his livelihood and his hobby. As a result, the team has no ambitions to join the SRO’s flagship Blancpain Endurance Cup in the near future. The Spa 24 Hours remains a bucket-list event, but would swallow most of the team’s budget for a season in GT Open.
“Of course I’d quietly love to do more racing, but the reality is that you’ve got to get that balance right and taking on more racing would probably distract from things that are probably more important,” he explained. “I’m not forgetting where I’m coming from, I’m 44 and an amateur driver with a family business to play a key role in and a family back at home, so I think it’s good to keep your feet grounded in that respect.
“It’s difficult to know where GT3 is going in terms of its place for privateers and challenging for outright wins. International GT Open allows you to do that, but other than that, you get down to the national championships, so it’s getting increasingly difficult. [GT3 is] incredibly popular, but the marketplace in terms of the cost of the cars and the running of the cars is making it harder and harder for teams like us to have a place without outside backing from some sponsors or a manufacturer, so we are a little bit rare and unique in that respect.
“We’re a family-run team that tries to rub shoulders with some very professional teams and professional drivers, but motor racing isn’t a core business for us and if you move away from International GT Open to Blancpain or something like that, then you need to have a good business model and a good understanding of where you’re heading. I’m just very lucky and grateful that I get an opportunity every year to compete at such a high level with a great team around me. Every year that I’m racing at an international level is achieving another year of a bucket list.”
To that end, Balfe is planning a return to GT Open in 2017 with an unconfirmed new co-driver, as Keen is already committed to contest British GT with Jon Minshaw and the GT3 Le Mans Cup alongside Lee Mowle. Balfe has done his homework on the fledgling ACO series, which is set for a huge growth in entries in 2017, but explained that GT Open’s status as the headline event makes it preferable to operating out of awnings and using shared fuel rigs in the Le Mans Cup. As a wise man once said, better the devil you know than the one you don’t…
“We enjoy being the centre of attention and why wouldn’t we? We’d be lying if we said anything different,” he added. “I’ve spoken to the organisers, to Tom [Ferrier, TF Sport boss] and Euan Hankey to get their feedback from it and a couple of my mechanics are in the LMP3 paddock the same weekend when they’re not helping me, so I’ve got a good feel for it.
“There’s a lot of good things to be said about that championship, but for us, International GT Open cover a whole range of important factors; great tracks, a nice number of races in the year, good level of competition and the flexibility to adjust themselves to any sort of changing circumstances that happen throughout a season or a race weekend.
“We like the flexibility, the very amenable and willing role that the organisers play in International GT Open. When we’ve got things wrong, I’ve experienced the International GT Open way of dealing things and I’m very appreciative of the way they manage the teams. I don’t think it’s any secret that the ACO are a big, powerful force, and legislation and policy is critical to how they run such a tight championship, so I think that would be different.”
Whatever the future holds for Balfe Motorsport, the team will have plenty of well-wishers quietly admiring their efforts from afar, knowing we may not see many more of their ilk again.