Yesterday, it was announced that Seb Morris would taking the start of the 2017 Daytona 24 Hours as the latest winner of the Sunoco Challenge. As James Newbold explains, it was only the icing on the cake of a stellar first season in GT racing.
Rewind back to April and the very beginning of the 2016 British GT campaign at Brands Hatch. With so much upheaval during the off-season – defending champion Jonny Adam moving to TF Sport and replaced at Beechdean by GT4 champion Ross Gunn, while Barwell wheeled out a pair of gleaming new Lamborghini Huracans – the GT newcomer in Team Parker Racing’s Bentley threatened to go under the radar. That was, at least, until qualifying.
After Rick Parfitt Jr. shaded Derek Johnston in the Am session, Seb Morris pumped in a time almost half a second quicker than second-quickest Gunn, putting the Continental GT3 on pole by nine tenths on it’s first appearance in the championship since 2014. It soon had rival team bosses muttering about the state of BOP, but after enduring a trying year in GP3, it was a perfect way for 20-year-old Morris to mark his arrival.
— Seb Morris (@SebMorris31) April 16, 2016
“I’d come off a shocking season in GP3 and naturally, even though you try not to, you do lose your confidence being in the mid-pack when you’re used to being at the front your whole career,” he said.
“Getting back in a car and slapping it on pole position made me realise that I could do it and that was what I needed really. I always knew I had it in me but it was nice to get a result like that and arrive in the series with a bang.”
Parfitt and Morris had the race in the bag when a lengthy Code 80 – observed by some better than others – cost them dearly. Despite coming out of the pits in sixth, Morris was one of few cars able to make progress past the obstinate Lamborghini of Fabio Babini and netted second when Joe Osborne was controversially hit with a penalty for overtaking under yellows.
Afterwards, Parfitt labelled the Welshman “a revelation,” although it would only be a glimpse at what was to come.
“One of my strengths as a driver has always been that anyone can chuck me in whatever car they want and I can get used to it very quickly,” he says. “The Bentley bore no resemblance whatsoever to the GP3 car I was racing the year before, but you just drive to the limit of grip you’ve got, whatever that is.
“Certainly the Bentley is a much bigger car and it’s obviously not got as much aero, but it’s got more mechanical grip in the slow corners due to the big tyres and it’s very quick in a straight line.
“Andy [Meyrick, Morris’ manager] has been incredible for me this year – he’s driven the car for three years, so not many people know more about it than he does. Whenever we had a small setup change to make, he’d have experience we could draw upon. The base setup we had was good so we didn’t have much to work on, but I seemed to gel with the car really well and everything came naturally.”
— Andy Meyrick (@AndyMeyrick) May 30, 2016
Further pole positions at Oulton Park, Silverstone and Spa were the result, but only once at Oulton Park were they able to convert their pace into victory as missed opportunities mounted.
Despite starting from the back at Rockingham after Parfitt spun on oil in practice and bent the chassis, the team were confident of salvaging a podium until Parfitt tangled with Jon Minshaw at the Deene hairpin, then had to serve a penalty for contact with a GT4 car. After the high of Oulton, the decision to go with a dry setup at Silverstone backfired spectacularly as Parfitt went backwards from the start and Morris, pushing hard to compensate, ran wide over an open drain cover which ripped the water cooler from the radiator. Then at Spa, Parfitt was hit from behind at turn one by Liam Griffin and slipped behind the race-winning TF Aston Martin of Mark Farmer and Jon Barnes, finishing less than a second in arrears at the flag.
Although they went into the Donington Decider with a mathematical chance of the title, they were too far back to profit from Minshaw’s error at the Craner Curves and ended the year third.
“I think it was a lot to take in because we had so much speed and we were inherently so fast, but not very consistent,” Morris explained. “In the last couple of races, we had no pace whatsoever, but we managed to be consistent, whereas had we had that attitude at the start of the year we should have walked it, so there were a lot of lessons learned.
“At Rockingham, although the car was all bent out of shape we were still fast enough to easily come second or third. Then the mistake I made at Silverstone was a very innocent one – we lost a tremendous amount of time at the start and during my stint I was finding it very hard to keep up with the guys in front. Perhaps if we had a wet setup on the car, I wouldn’t have had to push so hard and therefore been right on the limit all the time. I was happy doing that, but I realise from looking back at the replays that the other guys were not pushing half as hard as I was, because they had the car underneath them.
“If we had just stuck it on the wet setup for that race then we could be sat here champions, but obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing…”
Whilst it would be easy to dwell on the disappointments, Morris is understandably pleased with his first year in GTs. With his first major endurance race at Daytona to look forward to in January – following in the footsteps of former Sunoco Challenge winners Phil Keen and Jonny Adam – and a return to British GT in the pipelines, all the signs point to 2017 being a huge season for Morris.
— British GT (@BritishGT) October 31, 2016
“In hindsight I’m not too bothered that we came third because had we come first, it would have been so much so soon for me,” he admits. “I would have struggled with where to go next year because I don’t think I would have been in a works team straight away and I probably would have got upgraded to a Gold, when I shouldn’t really be at this point in time.
“Last year we tried to get something for Spa, but this year I’m very much more on the radar. The only reason I wasn’t picked by some teams to do Spa 24 last year was because I’ve never done a long race. It was a risk for them, so [doing Daytona] ticks another box on the list. Even if you’re fast enough and you might be consistent enough, they go ‘oh well you haven’t done a 24 hour race so we can’t have you along’. It’s another thing that they can’t say is not in your favour, so it’s going to be great to do it.”