After a tough weekend in the FIA European F3 championship at Spa-Francorchamps, Ben Barnicoat didn’t stick around for the 24 Hours. All the optimism of a third podium visit in his rookie season had evaporated after two non-scores, one resulting from a formation lap stall and the other from lap one contact while contending for second.
In that moment, the Blancpain Endurance Cup couldn’t have been much further from the 2014 Formula Renault 2.0 NEC champion’s mind. But time moves fast in motorsport and just two short months later, following a successful test at Barcelona, Barnicoat was on the end of a phone call from WRT asking him to race in the Nürburgring season finale.
It was never likely to be much more than a flying visit for a driver whose path to the top is carefully managed by the Racing Steps Foundation. It was a marriage of convenience, with Vincent Vosse needing to fill a slot in the No. 4 car after Peter Kox signed to lead the development of Acura’s new GT3 NSX, and on the face of it, little more than a curious footnote to the enthralling title battle.
True enough, in years to come there probably won’t be many people that remember his run to a lapped 29th place finish – just holding off champion-elect Come Ledogar’s McLaren – but the 19-year-old will have gained a huge amount from the experience, even if not all of it will be immediately applicable in single-seaters.
“It’s a lot different to what I’m used to with the ABS and all the weight – driving here in F3 last week was probably more a hindrance than a help because they’re so different. I probably tried a little bit too hard!” he said after his first laps in free practice.
— Ben Barnicoat (@BenBarnicoat) September 17, 2016
“I was lucky enough in Barcelona to do a race run and that was the first time I’ve had to do any tyre management, which I’m sure if I progress to GP3 or GP2 will then come back to me. I’m always open to learning new things and the more you learn, the better racing driver you become.”
Maro Engel is well-placed to expand on the subject. After a highly successful 12 months in which he became the inaugural winner of the FIA GT World Cup in Macau and prevailed in the closest Nürburgring 24 Hours in history, the German was announced by Venturi as Stephane Sarrazin’s new team-mate in the all-electric Formula E championship.
Many regarded it as a left-field move – Engel has not raced a single-seater since he exited Formula 3 in 2007 – but stop to think about it and it does makes some sense. His speed is well proven, but he also has experience of working with a manufacturer and strong technical acumen from developing the Mercedes-AMG GT3.
As Engel’s example shows, GT racing is not simply an end in itself, but can also serve as a shop-window for drivers to earn further opportunities in other areas of the sport.
“GT and especially GT3 racing has become incredibly competitive over the last few years and you can see when the DTM and the Formula 1 guys come in, they’re not going straight to the top,” he told Racing.GT.
“All of these professional drivers that come into GT3 realise that you have to be spot on with your performances to be up the front. Because of that, teams in other series are taking note of who is doing well in GT racing and it’s creating opportunities for the top drivers.”
— Maro Engel (@MaroEngel) September 6, 2016
Engel certainly isn’t alone in this regard – since winning the 24 Hours of Daytona, Spa and Nürburgring, Rene Rast has gone on to race in LMP1, Formula E and DTM, while Richie Stanaway fulfilled a life-long dream by signing a deal to contest the Supercars Championship enduros after consistently impressing with Aston Martin in the WEC.
So what skills do GT drivers develop that sets them apart?
“It’s obviously a very professional environment, you’re working with big teams, big manufacturers and you’re also working with different drivers,” continues Engel. “You have another driver jumping into the same car as you and you get his video footage, you get his data, which is something that really helps the young drivers come along and learn.
“It’s a very complete form of racing nowadays – you have sprint racing and endurance racing, which is similar to sprint racing too because you’re flat out for the duration of your stint, which is over an hour on average. The other thing especially in the Blancpain Endurance Cup is that you’ve got a huge amount of cars, so you really learn to deal with traffic, to overtake, to defend where necessary and to make smart calls – it’s a good way to mature.”
As for Barnicoat, single-seaters remain the number one priority for now, but he’s smart enough to realise that his GT cameo will have added more strings to his bow that could open doors in future.
“It’s all about getting connections,” he agrees. “Racing with Formula 3, we’re on the DTM package with Audi, BMW and Mercedes, so maybe racing with Audi in a GT car could help me for something in DTM in the future – you never know.
— Ben Barnicoat (@BenBarnicoat) July 31, 2016
“Single-seaters is what I want to do as a future but it’s always hard to get a career in that. I’m in my first year of Formula 3 so I’ve still got time, but I want to be a professional race driver, so to be given this opportunity at early stage in my career is absolutely great.
“This might be the one and only GT race I do for one or two years, but at least I’ve got an experience so if there is a point in my career where I have to go down the GT route, I’ve already got a good foundation to start with.”
As the likes of Barnicoat and Engel are demonstrating, GT racing is becoming fashionable again. And that can only be a good thing.