Statistics never lie; they just don’t always tell the truth. Phil Keen made his British GT debut back in 2005; he raced straight to the podium that day. Yet despite his obvious proclivity for speed, it wasn’t until 2013 that he was able to secure a full-time campaign, and start a partnership that would develop into one of the most formidable in the world of Pro-Am racing.
Driving alongside Jon Minshaw, the pair won their first outing in a Trackspeed Porsche. The following year, they won three times in all (more than any other car), yet only managed a championship finish of 4th overall. Then, following David Ashburn’s decision to withdraw from full-time competition, they made the switch to Mark Lemmer’s Barwell squad (and the successful BMW Z4). It was a bruising year; three podiums being matched by three retirements. Their points tally still helping to secure the teams’ title, but this was scant consolation for racers seeking the ultimate prize.
Was the Car the Star?
We’re now in 2016. The partnership between the drivers is solid: The relationship with the team is growing: What had been missing was a car capable of not only winning races, but winning consistently and providing the platform to challenge for championships. Barwell believed they had the answer: The new Lamborghini Huracan V10. A collaboration with Dallara to replace the once mighty Gallardo, the Huracan had been developed over several years of intensive testing to represent a sleek, light and agile competitor for the global arena. And what a star it became! Over the next three seasons, the #33 car would win nine out of 28 races. Measure this against the champions of 2016, 2017 and 2018 who only managed two wins, three wins and two wins respectively.
But as I said before, statistics don’t lie! And neither does the narrative, because for four times in five years, Minshaw & Keen won more races than any other driver that season, yet for each of those four times, they fell short of winning the title. So what was it that prevented the drivers’ crowns being worn by Barwell men?
Well it wasn’t the team. Barwell are winners through and through: Winners not only in British GT but in Blancpain, Britcar and in ELMS as well. And I choose these next words carefully, because despite the number of occasions that the car failed to finish whilst being driven by Minshaw, in particular the moments in 2016 when the championship was lost in the final race (the car spearing into the barrier at Donington’s Old Hairpin), or again in 2017 when he spun down the order early-on to allow Bentley to take the spoils, I won’t blame the Demon Tweeks boss either. Which only leaves circumstance, or the car..
And so ‘yes’, as much as the statistics tell us that this was a remarkable machine, it was also one of the most unpredictable. When I’m working trackside, I’m as close to each and every apex, corner entry and exit as anyone can be, and for three consecutive years, what I saw was a car that struggled with top-end speed and had to be pushed harder than most into the braking zones, where it was already compromised by instability and a lack of downforce. Through the tight stuff, it was awesome, but on long straights and through fast-flowing corners, the Aston Martins and Bentleys were often simply superior.
The Huracan GT3 was a remarkable car, and given the right set of circumstances, it could win handsomely, but as the results of three seasons of campaigning show, it simply wasn’t enough.
Which is why for 2019, we have the Huracan EVO. It’s not just a refinement but rather, a re-working of key areas of the original concept, and it’s immediately proving itself to be more than ready to take-on the might of the rest. Yes it still has shortcomings, the V10 engine in particular struggling for long-straight pace, but the work on the aero and suspension now gives far greater surety under braking and through longer, cambered corners. And it’s this surety that could just be the key to finally delivering Keen the championship he so clearly deserves. Yet ironically, not with Minshaw. After a total of 13 wins in the series, the Demon Tweeks boss decided to focus on other 2019 commitments, leaving the race for the vacant seat open to a list of candidates as long as any political leadership contest.
With two seasons of GT4 race wins behind him, and reliable hands behind the wheel, Adam Balon was an easy choice for Barwell’s Lemmer. Of course he has to bring the budget with him, but when you’re title-chasing in the strongest national GT championship in the world, the list of requirements are many, and Balon is a racer who delivers all the right ticks. And immediately, the pairing have not only gelled, they’ve excelled, winning two of the first four outings, and equally importantly, scoring well from the others. OK, so these results were at circuits that suit the car well, but it’s a start that has set them on course to finally stay the distance.
The challenge now is to secure a steady points haul from both Silverstone (this weekend) and Spa, leaving the car to battle for honours at Brands Hatch and the two Donington rounds. It’s easy to say, but in reality, it’s a challenge that requires true-grit in the cut and thrust of premier league racing, especially as this weekend will see the pair face a 20-second success penalty during the pit-stop for the 3-hour endurance.
When you’re down on speed, making-up a 20-second deficit seems an almost impossible task but this is where Barwell and Keen’s experience counts the most. Balon can be trusted to race hard and true, and the guidance from Keen will be invaluable. As Balon told me earlier this week, Keen only ever seeks to address the areas he knows the pair can improve on. There’s no hopeful wand-waving, just sensible input on set-up and technique. And you can see it working, on the track and in the paddock. There’s no swagger, just focus. Of course, the work on the track is only a part of the whole. Strategy on the pit wall is vital and this is where Keen & Lemmer can be trusted to use all their skill and experience to look for the perfect moment to bring-in the car and prepare for the charge.
Winning races is one thing, but winning a championship takes something special. You don’t only have to do everything right, you have to be in the right car and be lucky too. Let’s see what the statistics say after September’s Donington Decider.
Phil Keen and Barwell have been in the heart of some remarkable British GT racing over the last few years. Here are some more of our favourite images:
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