Forget about bunnies and fluffy chicks, British GT is set to deliver 35 of the best this Easter; the high-octane roar of mighty GT3 and GT4 machines breaking the silence across this normally tranquil part of hidden Cheshire that signals the start of the Battle of 2018. And what a battle it looks set to be.
In GT3, reigning champion Rick Parfitt jnr returns to defend the title he won with Seb Morris in the Team Parker Racing Bentley. Morris has since moved-on to Blancpain but Parfitt is reunited with Ryan Ratcliffe to resurrect the partnership that won them the GT4 crown in 2013. With an all-new car and the same old tenacity, Team Parker Racing are sure to work hard and fight even harder to keep Bentley at the top of the rankings.
British GT Championship 2018 Entries 36 cars No. of Manufacturers Total of 10, with 6 in GT3 and 8 in GT4 (and 4 represented in both classes – Aston Martin, Merc-AMG, McLaren, Nissan). No. of Drivers 72 (46 in the Pro/Am class) No. of Races 9 races at 7 venues (with double-header rounds at Oulton Park & Snetterton)
But this is a season unlike almost any. The Bentley is an outstanding car, as is the Lamborghini (Huracan), and the McLaren (650S), the Nissan (GT-R Nismo) and the Mercedes (AMG GT): All are exceptional, yet even on the best of days, they live in the shadow of Aston Martin. The Vantage GT3 has proved to be the car to beat in British GT. It’s been winning races since its introduction in 2012, claiming its first championship the following year. And with growing success, both at home and on the international stage, a prolific band of world-class driving talent has been assembled to launch the marque ever forward.
And here we are, at the start of this new season, with perhaps the strongest line-up this championship has ever mustered. TF Sport’s garage sees the arrival of ‘The Dane Train’; the 2016 World Endurance Championship winning pairing (GTE Pro) of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen. They’ll partner Mark Farmer and former champion Derek Johnston respectively and are sure to spearhead the renewed ambitions of Tom Ferrier’s squad and all at Aston Martin Racing (AMR).
The interest in seeing AMR’s gauntlet thrown in this way has been immense and the response from competing teams puts us in line to witness racing and showmanship like never before. Returning to the grid is former champion Andrew Howard in the Beechdean Vantage (cover photo). He’ll partner Darren Turner, the man who has come to symbolise the modern era of Aston Martin Racing. Oh, and then there’s Jonny Adam. Consistently the quickest driver in British GT for the last five years, Adam moves to Optimum Motorsport to join Flick Haigh in the #75 car. Haigh will be the first to admit that despite several seasons of top-class (and successful) GT racing, she still has much to learn from Adam, but as the season progresses, I can see them getting closer and closer to the podium.
Of course, it would be wrong to assume that the Aston Martins are going to have it all their own way.
Barwell have once again upped their squad to present three stunning Lamborghini Huracans. Leading pair Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen have been knocking on the championship door for several seasons now and Keen’s pace, whether in clean air or chasing-down, can always be relied on to propel the Demon Tweeks car forward. This year, they’re joined by Jonny Cocker to partner young Dutch amateur Sam De Haan, whilst the third Pro/Am-entered Huracan will be driven by Patrick Kujala and 2006 GT3 Drivers’ champion Leo Machitski, both of whom were part of Barwell’s 2017 Blancpain GT Series squad. Kujala and Machitski ‘flew’ at the Media Day test and I can see this car being amongst the front-runners at almost every round.
Elsewhere, we have a sole McLaren entry from Balfe Motorsport, pairing Shaun Balfe and Rob Bell in the beautiful 650S. Last time out (Donington 2016), Bell guided his Ecurie Ecosse car to a famous win at the season finale, and with the experienced hands of Balfe alongside him, this is another car that can be expected to mix-it up at the front.
The two remaining cars are the ERC Sport Mercedes-AMG of Lee Mowle/Yelmer Buurman and the Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 of Struan Moore and Devon Modell. Buurman arrives in British GT with the backing of the AMG factory, being a part of this year’s winning Dubai 24 Hours squad. Before that Buurman’s single-seater career featured spells in GP2, Formula Renault 3.5 and Superleague Formula. And although 2018 marks his British GT debut, the Dutchman previously raced on the same event package in 2006 when he finished fourth in British F3.
Fan favourite, the GT-R NISMO, makes its full-season return for the first time in four years with the grids only Silver/Silver pairing of Moore and Modell. RJN, who run the car, have worked relentlessly to take NISMO to the top of the standings but it’s going to be a tough call as they’ll be forced to carry extra ballast to compensate for not having an amateur driver in the line-up.
As it currently stands, I think we’re going to see the title returned to Aston Martin. Of the two TF Sport cars, I can see the Farmer/Thiim pairing edging their teammates, but I also think that they’re going to find Howard and Turner the car that all too often is in front.
GT4 Looks Swell
With 25 cars assembling on the GT4 grid at Oulton Park, you’re going to have to excel in qualifying to stay out of mid-pack trouble. 2018 sees this championship grow ever stronger, particularly amongst young pro-drivers who are leaving single-seaters to build careers in the world of GT and Sports Car racing.
With so much talent and experience to choose from, I have to confess that this is probably going to be the hardest and most fought-over prize of any. Just as with GT3, car choice looks to be the most significant factor, and without a doubt, this year I’m going to put my money behind McLaren. The Woking-based manufacturer has worked harder and spent more than anyone to refine the 570S; its agility and pace now seeming sure to keep it ahead of the challengers.
There are six such cars lining-up against the might of BMW, Ginetta, Aston Martin, Mercedes-AMG, Toyota, Nissan and Jaguar, and there are race winners and rising-stars in abundance behind the wheels. Experience in GT endurance racing counts for as much as raw pace, and with full grids lining-up at some of the most difficult circuits to overtake (Oulton Park and Brands Hatch in particular), the winning combination will need a solid and fearless approach (to manage battling traffic) as well as a sharp right foot.
For now, I’m going to point to Michael O’Brien and Charlie Fagg as the two most likely to emerge with honours, but careless dnf’s will be ruthlessly punished and the experienced hands of Tolman teammates David Pattison & Joe Osborne, and the ever-present pair of Graham Johnson & Mike Robinson, this year racing under the Balfe banner, will always be primed and ready to seize any opportunity.
* * *
The British GT Championship starts this weekend at Oulton Park, Cheshire. There are two one-hour races (rounds 1 & 2) on Easter Monday and tickets are available on the gate.
And we’ll be bringing you some of the best images from the weekend with ‘SkiddMark’s Top Twenty’ feature, together with reports on the cars and their stars.
* * *