The British GT Championship celebrates its 25 year-anniversary with another full grid of 32 cars descending on Oulton Park this weekend, including 12 high-quality GT3 entries confirmed for the season. But while continuity is the key in GT3, as each of the top four crews from last year remain unchanged, it’s all change in the GT4 ranks where no less than six McLarens are entered by four different teams. The new-for-2016 570S GT4 was the car to beat by the end of the year, but will stacking the deck necessarily ensure McLaren title glory? James Newbold explores.
Since its arrival 12 months ago, the McLaren 570S has had a profound effect on GT4. Priced at the very top end of the market around £160,000, mid-engined and based on a carbon tub, the 570S redefined what a GT4 car should be and has initiated a manufacturer arms race, with BMW, Ford, Chevrolet, Mercedes and now Audi flooding the market with new machinery.
In the hands of Scottish rookies Ciaran Haggerty and Sandy Mitchell, the Ecurie Ecosse/Garage 59-run McLaren took two wins from the final three British GT races of 2016 and would likely have added another at Spa until mechanical problems forced them into retirement.
For McLaren GT Sporting Manager Bas Leinders, the car’s developmental year was an unmitigated triumph, generating interest from the UK, Europe and even further afield in the US-based Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“We were out there because McLaren wanted to show that straight away this car was good and I think we succeeded,” Leinders told Racing.GT at the Media Day.
“It is a very good, reliable car, that’s what we proved especially towards the end of the year. There are a lot of cars sold and some of them we still need to build, because the demand is so big that we can’t supply everybody now.”
Those that do have a 570S GT4 at their disposal have plenty of reason to be upbeat, but none more so than Mitchell and the fit-again Haggerty, who wore a cast on his right hand for six weeks after a hacksaw accident which almost ruled him out of the Donington season finale.
With a full season more than anybody else with a McLaren and now fully up to speed with GT racing after switching from single-seaters, Mitchell admits a title challenge this year will be expected.
“Last year was a good year, we were fast right from the start but we didn’t have the consistency – once we put it all together it worked really well and it was nice to have a few records along the way,” said Mitchell, who became the youngest British GT race-winner in championship history at Snetterton aged 16 years and 169 days.
“If I can take my experience now and go back to the first round last year I think we’d be right up there. Looking at the data from the start of the year to the end of the year at the same track, our times were a lot quicker and I think that’s a mixture of improving the car, and Ciaran and I improving ourselves as well. The car should be in a better shape for the start of the year and so should we.”
The two youngsters worked with experienced test driver Chris Goodwin to develop the 570S, which British GT stalwart Joe Osborne considers to be the most gent-friendly GT4 car he’s ever driven.
Osborne, who won the 2009 European GT4 title in a Ginetta G50, has stepped down from GT3 to join David Pattison at Tolman Motorsport and believes the smart money is on McLaren to bring home the bacon.
“If I was a betting man, I’d put money on the McLaren, purely because there are six of them and all six are strong,” he told Racing.GT.
“I know David is multiple seconds faster than he ever was in his Ginetta GT4, which is really down to the drivability of the McLaren. They have pulled out all the stops on this car in terms of thinking about everything that’s important to a gent. I think a lot of factories lose their way a bit when they develop because I don’t think any of them do it with an Am in the car, it’s always what the Pro says.
“You need a strong-minded Pro to develop a race car with an Am in mind and from the cars I’ve driven, this is five-fold the best Am car I’ve ever sampled. It’s easy to get in and out of because of the carbon tub, the air conditioning is good and all this stuff makes for a more pleasant experience, which in turn makes for more pleasant laptimes.”
McLaren may be the bookies’ favourites, but in a performance-balanced formula like GT4 racing will never be allowed to run away unchecked. BOP is set to be a hot topic as the SRO are left with the unenviable job of pegging the 570S back to a level comparable with the venerable Aston Martin Vantage and last year’s championship-winning Ginetta G55, but with six cars in the field, Osborne acknowledges that there ought to be greater consistency than was possible with only one McLaren to supply data in 2016.
“We’ve seen over the years that if you’re the single car of that make in a championship and the Pro isn’t quite as quick, then the car is BOP’d to make him as quick as the quickest guy, which then brings the Am up so they are unfairly quicker than the other Ams,” he continued.
“You can also sandbag when you want to, the ball is in your court. Every manufacturer will have discussions about sandbagging, but it’s never going to work with six cars. I’ll play the game if they want to, but one of the kids won’t because they’ve got to make a name for themselves – I’d be the same in their position.”
Indeed, while greater numbers suggests a greater probability of success for McLaren, it also means more cars that can take points off one another. Add the usual menagerie of Ginettas, a pair of RJN-run Nissan 370Zs and the Academy Motorsport Aston of Matt Nicoll-Jones and Will Moore into the mix, and Haggerty and Mitchell will have a tough job to match their end-of-season form.
“It’s going to be a tough fight this year,” agrees Haggerty. “The Ginettas especially were very fast last year and the Astons as well, I don’t think it’s going to be a walkover for McLaren.”
So can Ginetta pull off a successful title defence? The Yorkshire manufacturer’s hopes will be firmly pinned on reigning champions Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson, who swept both races at Oulton last year and are entering their third season as a partnership with Optimum Motorsport.
Robinson is optimistic that the continuity will pay dividends in the early rounds, but as the season goes on knows he will have to draw on all his experience to keep the baying pack of McLarens at arm’s length.
“That’s a big advantage for us and it was last year as well,” he said. “We know the car inside out, but our competitors in this championship are quick learners, so it will be important for Graham and I to try and maximise good results over the first couple of races.
“If we go to the first round at Oulton Park and there are six McLarens in the top six, then the reality is that they’re probably going to change the BOP, but if there’s just one at the front and the others aren’t so close then it’s always difficult. In 2015 there was one Lotus Evora that was extremely quick and a couple of others that were not so quick, so that’s where it becomes a real challenge to BOP the cars.
“The important thing is that when you know you’ve a good BOP for the weekend, you’ve got to try and maximise it and not take too much of a hit on the weekends where it doesn’t quite go your way.”
For their part, Ginetta has responded to the challenge posed by McLaren by supplying teams with an extensive upgrade package. A higher compression piston and tweaks to the exhausts will produce an extra 33 horsepower, with traction control and ABS set to reduce the gap between the Pro and Am drivers.
Anna Walewska will be joined by factory driver Mike Simpson in the expanded Century Motorsport operation and is confident that the revised G55 will be up to the challenge.
“The car definitely feels better as a whole and I think the biggest thing for us will be the strength under braking, especially when it comes to the wet,” she said.
“Our cornering speeds have always been good, so the Ginetta as a whole is a very competitive car and now this is going to give us that edge on top of it.”
“I’m sure the McLaren on certain weekends will be strong and I’m sure the Ginetta will,” adds Simpson, who returns to the GT4 class for the first time since 2012. “We all have our strong and weak circuits, so it’s just a question of who does the best job team and driver-wise.”
Now the talking is done, we’ll be a little nearer to finding out this weekend.