In our next feature, in line with our look back on Episode 3 of the show, Nick Smith takes a look at the 2019 British GT Championship race at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. The race was a thriller with one of the moves of the year, if not the decade, deciding the second and third podium spots at Eau Rouge. Here is how the race went:
GT3: First ever Silver Cup Overall Victory
Several major stories came out of the 2019 visit to Stavelot in the Ardenne. The one that had everyone talking was the three way fight through Eau Rouge for the podium, but the one which had greater historical significance had to be the Pole followed by the win for the #96 Optimum Motorsport Aston Martin V8 Vantage AMR GT3 of Bradley Ellis and Ollie Wilkinson. Until the Optimum crew achieved this feat, the series had not seen a Silver Cup entry on the top step of the podium overall.
Racing at Spa-Francorchamps is always an energetic affair but the British GT crews took that to heart straight away. After qualifying on pole, Ollie Wilkinson timed the start perfectly, heading off into the distance whilst the rest of the pack were left to deal with a messy start. Points leaders Adam Balon and Phil Keen netted a stop and go penalty for mechanics working on the car too late, then was slow pulling away from the grid. The #72 would only make it 14 laps into the race before a strange accident at Blanchimont saw Balon in the wall, a radiator broken and the car retired in the garage.
Barwell Motorsport team mate Sam de Haan was left facing the wrong way in his Lamborghini Huracan GT3 EVO. The rotation wasn’t De Haan’s fault, he was clipped by the JRM Racing Bentley Continental GT3 of Rick Parfitt Jnr. who picked up a 10 second stop and go for his trouble.
Further disappointment for the raging bull came in the form of a drop from the outside of the front row to fifth place for Michael Igoe in the WPI Motorsport Lamborghini he shared with Dennis Lind. It was expected, given that the Am driver Igoe was surrounded by Silver graded drivers, and that the wet qualifying had made for a grid which didn’t represent outright pace.
Of course Lamborghini’s loss was other marques gain, Ian Loggie moved forward for RAM Racing, the Mercedes-AMG shot past the Team Parker Racing Bentley Continental GT3 of Ryan Ratcliffe to make a 4th place start second by the Kemmel Straight.
The rest of the first hour was relatively smooth running for the top class, until Loggie was spun at the first corner of Spa, La Source. He was clipped by the back-marking G-Cat Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R. The spin let Graham Davidson in the #47 TF Sport Aston Martin V8 Vantage AMR GT3 through on the tail of Ratcliffe and followed by the Balfe Motorsport McLaren 720S GT3 of team owner Shaun Balfe.
The pit stops were the RAM cars saving grace, both Davidson and Balfe had success seconds for performance at Silverstone which would rejig the order again.
The battle for second was reduced to three cars by a penalty for Jonny Adam, the TF Sport pro paying dues for an error by his team mate Davidson just prior to the stops. It gave the #22 machine a clear path to the podium battle and led to one of the most amazing moves of the decade.
McLaren caught Team Parker Racing Bentley, dragging the RAM Racing Mercedes along in its tracks, all three came together, fighting for the same piece of track on the way out of La Source. By the pit exit they were three abreast and they stayed that way through Eau Rouge.
A wobble for Callum Macleod in the RAM machine still resulted in the Mercedes taking the lead of the battle, Glynn Geddie held on to third place by the skin of his teeth from a charging Rob Bell in the #22. It stayed that way to the end.
Of course the leader and eventual winner of the race at Spa was the #96 Optimum Motorsport machine, Wilkinson’s good work at the start of the race continued through the stops, Bradley Ellis picked up where his team mate left off and was not only never headed, but was rarely seen throughout the hour as battle was joined behind.
In fact the only real issue on the Optimum Motorsport radar was a fluid spill on the exit of the Bus Stop Chicane from a GT4 clash on the final lap. Exceptional car control from Ellis not only looked like something more akin to Formula Drift than GT racing, but averted disaster and allowed the #96 home to take its first win.
Both the Wilkinson/Ellis Aston and the Ratcliffe/Geddie Bentley were silver cup entries. It was the first time in the history of the championship that two Silver Cup cars found the overall podium in the same race.
Behind the third place Bentley, Rob Bell brought the #22 McLaren home ahead of a slightly distant #2 Aston Martin. Mark Farmer started the TF Sport machine and spun early on before handing over to Nicki Thiim who brought it home in fifth after a daring move round the outside at Les Combes on the final lap. Adam Christodoulou took sixth place in the Team ABBA Mercedes he shared with Richard Neary whilst de Haan’s first stint to forget was joined by a respectable effort by Jonny Cocker who bought Barwell some solace by taking seventh on the road.
Eighth was the reward for a troubled run by the #47, Jonny Adam bringing it home ahead of the WPI Lamborghini and #3 Century Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 of Dominic Paul and Ben Green.
GT4: Spa Brings GT4 Thriller.
As is often the case in multi-class racing, the GT4 battle was overshadowed by the excitement in GT3. That being said, the GT4 race was a classic case of long range duel with excitement to the end. As with the GT3 fight, the grid was a mix of cars that were out of position.
The #42 BMW M4 GT4 of Century Motorsport’s Mark Kimber and Jacob Mathiassen sat on pole position after braving the 4.35 miles of Spa on slicks during a wet Am qualifying session. A quick run from Patrick Kibble and Josh Price in the #95 Aston Martin from TF Sport also did better than ususal, out qualifying their team mates to take second place on the grid.
Come the start though it was all about Tolman Motorsport and the #4 McLaren which jumped up the order from 4th to lead the pack by the end of the first lap. James Dorlin took the start and held off an attacking pack which included both the TF Sport machines and his team mate, Jordan Collard in the #5 McLaren. The season long presence of the #15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4 of Scott Maxwell and his team mate Seb Priaulx.
The pole sitting BMW, started by Mathiassen dropped quickly early on, struggling to match the pace of the McLarens, Aston Martins and Ford ahead.
The race in GT4 then settled into a case of long range grappling for much of the two hour race. The GT4 highlight of the first hour was the retirement of the #57 McLaren from HHC Motorsport. Dean MacDonald was at the wheel when the car faltered at the highest part of Spa. Gravity helped get the car down to low ground and then MacDonald limped it back to the pits after just 14 laps. The car wouldn’t come out of the garage again.
Come the pit stops, success penalties for the #5 McLaren dropped Lewis Proctor out of the front running battle. It left the two TF Sport Aston Martin’s to do what they could to squeeze past the #4.
The second hour fight was mainly between the two Aston Martin team mates. Second place traded between the #97 and #95 throughout the hour until Tom Canning finally took the advantage and piled the pressure onto Josh Smith. The battle got close on the penultimate lap and Canning finally got the chance to take the move.
Spa’s Bus Stop chicane saw Canning on the outside after Blanchimont. Outside turned to inside for the left hander onto the start/finish straight. It got tight, too tight, and contact was made. What could have been a spin and continue was much worse. The radiator on the #4 was pierced and coolant was dropped all over the circuit.
The #97 went on to take the win, while the #4 limped to the outside of La Source and into retirement. Some solace was taken by Tolman Motorsport when the #5 claimed second place ahead of the #95. The TF Sport victory was the first win for the team in GT4 since 2014. HHC Motorsport had further problems after the line too, the #58 grinding to a halt just after the line.
The ramifications of the penultimate lap contact carried on, the spilled coolant caused issues throughout the field. A lurid slide for the GT3 winner was no harm, no foul but a full rotation on the slick fluid for the #22 Balfe McLaren of Rob Bell and the #44 Jaguar of Invictus Games Racing.
It was a thrilling end to a fantastic race. It also marked a turning point in the championship fight. The poor results for Barwell Motorsport and the double podium for TF Sport in GT4 changing the course of the championship fights and setting the stage with four hours of racing remaining, for a humdinger of a Donington Decider.