It’s difficult to properly surmise what we learned from the British GT Championship’s overseas trip to Spa-Francorchamps, thanks to a live stream that missed the first lap fracas and showed about as much of the commentators’ bemused faces as the frenetic battle for the lead between TF Sport and Team Parker Racing. But when the checkered flag dropped, it was the Aston Martin driven by Jon Barnes and Mark Farmer which took their first win of the season, incidentally 2008 champion Barnes’ first victory since his title year. Here’s what we learned.
1. Barnes rolls back the years
It had been a long time between drinks. Fabio Capello was the England manager, Gordon Brown the Prime Minister and Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Dance Wiv Me’ top of the UK charts when Barnes took his last British GT win with the Brookspeed Viper at Brands Hatch in 2008. Eight years later – and with a few budget-induced seasons on the sidelines – Barnes reminded everybody of his talent with an accomplished display to ward off the attentions of Seb Morris and deliver a win that rated highly in the feel-good stakes.
— TF Sport (@OfficialTFSport) July 9, 2016
After qualifying third, Farmer took advantage of contact at the first corner between Liam Griffin’s fast-starting Lamborghini and the pole-sitting Bentley of Rick Parfitt – which in turn collected Alasdair McCaig’s McLaren – to lead at the end of the first lap. Although Farmer would be overhauled by Hunter Abbott’s Grasser Lamborghini and Abdulaziz al-Faisal shortly before the pit window, a slow stop for Black Falcon meant only the Lamborghini now driven by Rolf Iniechen stood in Barnes’ way. He made short work of the Swiss and set about managing the gap back to Morris, who was unable to launch a concerted challenge in the closing laps due to the relentless GT4 Europe traffic.
Their first win as a partnership was also Farmer’s first-ever win at this level, having only started car racing in Caterhams two years ago. Having become the fifth different winners of the season so far, can they now kick on and gatecrash the championship contenders the final three races at Snetterton and Donington Park?
2. Bentley just won’t go away
Though Morris and Parfitt will be disappointed not to have won after taking their fourth pole position from six races, they return home knowing that this could be a pivotal day in the championship battle.
Following a DNF at Silverstone, the Team Parker Racing duo needed to bounce back at Spa and having also topped the Spa 24 Hour test last week, there was little doubt that Morris intended to do just that. When rain caught out Iniechen and brought the Pro qualifying session to an early conclusion, the Welshman found himself almost a full second faster than everybody else.
— Seb Morris (@SebMorris31) July 9, 2016
On this occasion however, pole didn’t count for all that much in the end. Parfitt was fortunate to keep going after his altercation with Griffin – for which the Barwell Motorsport driver received a penalty – and took it steadily in traffic to pit from fourth place.
After the stops, Morris worked his way past Iniechen and chased gamely after Barnes, but would have to settle for second, just 0.6 seconds adrift at the flag. But with closest rivals Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen only sixth, the Bentley is right back in the thick of the title battle once again.
3. Abbott could be an in-demand Bronze
A few eyebrows were raised when BTCC racer Hunter Abbott announced that he would be making his return to GT racing at Spa alongside Rolf Iniechen, one of several drivers to use the event to get extra tracktime ahead of the Spa 24 Hours.
Having never previously driven a GT3 car in anger, Abbott was keen to downplay expectations ahead of the event, but lapped competitively against the gentlemen drivers in his qualifying session and took full advantage of the first lap mayhem to climb from ninth into second.
Pretty happy with qualifying P2 in my first go in a GT3 car – Jesus they’re quick! We’re actually starting P9 for… https://t.co/Pj6IbMZ7Pu
— Hunter Abbott (@HunterRacing) July 8, 2016
As the gaps ebbed and flowed through the traffic, Abbott eventually caught and passed Farmer, before pitting from the lead. Although the Silver-rated Iniechen was unable to hold on against the fully-fledged Pro drivers and faded to fifth behind the two Mercedes of Dani Juncadella (sharing with Oliver Morley) and Miguel Toril in the closing laps, Abbott could be delighted with his day’s work.
Assuming he retains his driver grading and his touring car schedule allows, Abbott could find himself in demand with plenty of Blancpain Pro-Am teams looking for a speedy Bronze…
4. Championship fight is getting tasty
Since the guesting Lamborghini and two Mercedes were both registered for points, the next best of the title contenders would only earn points for sixth place.
A 20-second pitlane penalty for their victory in the last round at Silverstone meant Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw would have a battle on their hands to salvage a result, a task made even more difficult by qualifying only 16th. But a clean race meant that despite the penalty, they still outscored the championship leaders Jonny Adam and Derek Johnston, who were somewhat fortunate even to make the start.
— Jonny Adam (@JonnyAdam) July 8, 2016
Oil left by a GT4 Europe Maserati at Les Combes in FP1 left Johnston with no chance and also caught out the second Team Parker Racing Bentley of Callum Macleod, which took no further part in the meeting. A mammoth repair job by TF Sport meant the Aston made it out in time for qualifying, although bent steering after contact with a GT4 car meant they could only take seventh from the race.
After their disastrous opening to the race, a trademark charge from Alexander Sims meant Griffin’s championship challenge lives to fight another day. Now fully up to speed with the Huracan, Sims showed what might have been by setting the fastest lap of the race and passing Joe Osborne for eighth on the final tour.
With a 24.5 point deficit to make up, Griffin knows he can ill afford any more slip-ups, so a return to Snetterton – where he and Rory Butcher won last year – couldn’t have come around at a better time.
5. McLaren GT4 fast but fragile
With 29 GT4 European cars entered in addition to the usual 15 British GT4 cars, it was statistically highly likely that the British runners would be crowded out by the European runners, but Ecurie Ecosse McLaren duo Ciarian Haggerty and Sandy Mitchell were having none of it. After a quiet Brands Hatch, the Scottish pair were particularly impressive at Rockingham and took their first pole of the season at Silverstone, but nobody quite expected them to repeat the feat at Spa against such stuff opposition, not least by an entire second…
Come the race, Mitchell held on well against his more experienced European counterparts and was still comfortably the leading the British championship runner when a fuel pump failure left the 16-year-old stranded on track. Lanan Racing’s Alex Reed and Joey Foster were the grateful beneficiaries, ahead of championship leaders Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson in another Ginetta.
— Ecurie Ecosse (@Ecurie_Ecosse) July 9, 2016
Despite it’s obvious pace, the 570S GT4 still represents the risky option for potential customers, with cut-price alternatives from Aston Martin and Ginetta offering proven performance at a manageable cost. But if McLaren can improve their reliability, they will have a truly potent weapon on their hands – that first win will surely come sooner rather than later.