British GT Championship – Donington Park
Onwards And Very Much Upwards

Saturday
There was a new look to the driver pairing for the Beechdean Ferrari at the second meeting of the season, at Donington Park. The eminently likeable Neil Cunningham joined Nigel Greensall, to create arguably the strongest driving pairing in the class. If you had to pick any two drivers to get the best out of the Ferrari 360 (especially while it was still in its development phase), you’d probably go for these two. It was a bonus that Cunningham had driven for the team last year, though that was in their none-too-standard BMW-engined MINI. The combined experience of these pilots is immense, as is the range of machinery they have enjoyed, but Nigel Greensall’s first Ferrari 360 race was the last round of the Championship and this meeting was Neil Cunningham’s first taste of the Italian marque.

“It’s great to be driving with Nigel and the car seems to have come a long way since Oulton Park, from the tales (I’ve heard) from that round,” commented Neil. “I did a couple of laps at the test on Thursday, but in the wet practice session this morning it was very good, in fact we were third fastest in the wet. In the dry though I think we still need to go back to the drawing board. We’re still playing catch-up on set-up, but realistically we’re about a second off pole-time in the dry or the wet, which isn’t bad at all. We also seem to be a bit down on power, which hurts us more in the dry than the wet.”

That was encouraging pace for a car that had not yet run a race in anything other than the most basic of set-ups. As the track dried on Saturday morning, the conditions began to suit intermediate tyres rather than wets, and anyone making the switch was thrust up the timesheets as a result. Beechdean focused on the wet tyres only, so despite being as high as fifth place during the early part of the session, the Ferrari dropped down the order and ended the session 19th overall, ninth in class, with a best of 1:25.317.

Nigel Greensall had the first half of the practice session to give feedback on where the car was relative to its pace at Oulton Park. “It was a good session, as the conditions kept changing, which made it quite exciting. It got drier as the session went on. The car is much, much easier to drive than it was at Oulton, now that we have had time to work on it. We’ve sorted the dampers out – the left front one was broken at Oulton. We’ve sorted the gear ratios as well and now it brakes on all four tyres too! Looking at the speed trap figures we seem to be down on power though. That will be our restriction, I guess, in the race, but the team has been fantastic to have made all this progress between races.”

Qualifying
The organisers decided that two fifteen minute qualifying sessions, separated by a five minute ‘break’, was still the right thing to do, despite there being a single two hour race on Sunday. The teams were free to decide who went out in each session, and driver changes during the sessions were also permitted.

Nigel Greensall was slated to start the first qualifying session, but conditions were not as the team had been hoping for. A constant breeze, plus support series action, had lifted the film of water off the tarmac and it was to be a full dry session, though times were down on last year’s dry sessions. “We missed the start of the session as we were still fitting the new Performance Friction brake discs and pads that we were running for the very first time. The first session was just bedding the new brakes in, after making sure they worked of course!” A best of 1:14.727 towards the end of the 15 minute session gave Cunningham a benchmark.

The Kiwi only did five laps, with a best of 1:15.5 before handing over to his partner, to allow him the best chance of getting the best lap out of the car he knows much better. Neil was understandably still finding his feet: “Every time I sit in the car it is a different car, because it is changing so much with all the development. If it is wet tomorrow as it is supposed to be, we should be pretty competitive, at least the power problem means we won’t be struggling with oversteer.”

Nigel only had a couple of minutes to give it his best shot, because two laps later the chequered flag came out, with just enough time for a best last lap of 1:14.265. With the best time from either session counting, the Beechdean Ferrari would start the two hour race from 20th spot, still ninth in class.

The feedback from Nigel Greensall was mixed: “The car feels very good, with a good balance and the brakes are very good now, the only problem is we seem to be down on power looking at the speed traps, which is probably down to the engine just needing a rebuild. It’s a two hour race though, so the grid position is not as important as it might be.”

Race
Nigel Greensall had done the work to put the car on the grid, but it was Neil Cunningham who had the job of starting the race. The team’s prayers had been answered, with steady rain in the hour or so before the start, so it was full wet conditions under dark, brewing, grey skies and spotting with rain.

Neil had already thought the tactics at the start though: “There could be all kinds of madness but we need to remember this is a two hour race, so if anyone tries anything silly I’ll just let them go, wait to tag onto a faster car once it all settles down and then go get them.”

It was almost as if he had been imbued with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, because it was a tactic that worked very well for him, whilst others spun and barged into one another throughout a relatively chaotic race.

One part of the strategy that Neil Cunningham did seem to drop more or less straight away was the ‘letting people go’ part. Super-committed as ever, he made up an impressive three places in class, to go sixth in the opening ten minutes, despite the spray being kicked up by the cars, and then latching onto Pullan’s Prosport’s twin tail pipes. “Once we got going we really got going, but people were barging and banging like it was a twenty minute race and not a two hour one, so I had to be careful out there. It’s a different style of driving, long-distance driving, you have to let people by and then stick to them and watch to see if they are making their mistakes, then hopefully nail several at once.”

Not content with battling with the other GTC cars, the Ferrari was also mixing it with the GT3 frontrunners – first a good scrap with the #33 Aston Martin, swapping positions, then getting in front and staying there, before stretching out to go on and overtake the GT3 leader, in pursuit of GTC riches.

The on-track madness continued. Numerous GTC cars had already spun, slithered and banged into each other, but a bigger incident was the most significant for Beechdean. A clash between another GT3 Aston Martin and the Dove Ferrari at Coppice also ensnared Miles Hulford and Bradley Ellis, but the Beechdean Ferrari was fortunately away from the danger zone at the time: the cautious but quick strategy moved them up to fourth in class.

Cunningham and Pullan had been holding position for a large chunk of the first hour, but Pullan stretched away to set about the double-winner at Oulton Park – Team Tiger’s Marcos Mantis. “I couldn’t pass that Prosport, it was really, really quick.” For lap after lap Beighton made the Marcos even wider than its cartoon-flared wheelarches should have been, and his defensive driving allowed Neil to stay in the frame. Once Pullan was past the Marcos, he set about the race leader and took over at the front – the conditions suiting the little Prosport better than any other GTC car at that point.

The track continued to dry and cars were visibly moving way off line on the straights to try and find water to cool their tyres. It was no surprise to see intermediate tyres being readied in the pit-lane, as the driver changes began.

Neil was having plenty of fun “especially down the Craners, boy, did you see me coming down there, sideways all the way, it was like ice-skating!”

It wasn’t phasing him at all though, because despite his WRC-style slides down the hill, he was still able to overtake on the outside at the Old Hairpin – it truly was a fantastic drive.

Gremlins claimed the leader just before it was to make its stop however: the Prosport was sidelined when the gear lever broke. Its gear problems had already given Pullan a big scare - and Neil the most bizarre moment of Beechdean’s race: “I had a moment with Simon Pullan, when he seemed to miss a gear, and I absolutely nailed him up the rear out of McLeans. I got hooked onto the back of him and we ran together like a train up the hill - a Pro-Ferrari! I didn’t want to let anyone through, so I pushed him all the way up the hill, but was still really hooked on, riding on the back of his car, so I had to brake really hard and that fired him off the front so I could turn in and make the corner.”

With most of the other GTC cars pitting first, the Marcos and Beechdean Ferrari were running first and second in class, still pounding round. Cunningham explained the wider strategy picture: “We didn’t have any intermediates so it was only ever going to be wets or slicks for us. It was too early for slicks, but it was drying all the time so I just stayed out to see what would happen.”

That wasn’t the only basis for the decision though. Nigel Greensall: “He was doing such a fantastic job that we just let him stay out there and get on with it!” Neil interpreted that, jokingly, as “Nigel’s plan was to leave me in there as long as possible, just so he could jump in right at the end and take all the glory!”

With just 45 minutes to go, Chris Beighton finally pitted from the lead and handed the Mantis over to Jon Finnemore. This left Neil Cunningham in the lead, a sight that the whole team has worked immensely hard for: it will continue to put in the hours to ensure it becomes a common one.

Cunningham stayed out as long as he possibly could without running out of fuel, in order to make sure that the intended slicks would be a boost to Greensall - and not a banana skin.

The team had spent part of Sunday morning draining the fuel tank to accurately calculate the fuel used during qualifying – which was also the subject of a sweepstake for the team members. The news was very encouraging and Nigel Greensall was closest, until he was disqualified from the bet as he had been in control of the loud pedal. Had he really been sand-bagging to save fuel and win his bet? Of course not.

The excellent fuel consumption afforded the team the luxury of an extended period of time to constantly assess and re-assess strategy, and an inspired change in tactics was made as late as when Neil brought the Ferrari into the pit-lane. A few spots of rain and a heavy looking sky meant the team’s decision to take slicks was a gamble too far. “It was literally as Neil drove up to the box that we decided to stay on the wets,” explained Nigel. “It was such a good call, saving us time in the pitstop and wets were definitely the right choice for the end of the race as it turned out. The gamble was slicks or staying on wets and as it turned out we got lucky!”

With Greensall installed, the Ferrari shot out again, emerging from the pitlane just behind the Marcos, which had also retained its wet tyres, and had inherited the lead once again. The #5 Porsche, which had been a contender throughout, had dropped away after its earlier pitstop, after a decision to switch to intermediate tyres. Allison was gaining on both Marcos and Beechdean Ferrari for as long as that tyre choice remained the right one, but the rain stepped up another gear and then went into overdrive. You could almost see Finnemore and Greensall grinning as intermediates became a liability, more spins ensued and even those that hadn’t spun had to tiptoe round and make an extra stop to put the wets back on.

That situation affected the leading GT2 cars as well, so such was the advantage of Beechdean’s strategy, they inherited a phenomenal third place overall, which they held to the finish, behind yet another class win for the Mantis.

Nigel Greensall didn’t settle for second in class though, he ate into the Marcos’ lead and brought it down to a couple of seconds, but it was not as straightforward as that. “The problem was there were always cars between us, lots of backmarkers, and they were often fighting amongst themselves. I had plenty of grip, but the main problem was traffic and a lack of visibility – the spray was a big issue. The Porsches and Astons were faster on the straights than us so it was very difficult to make a move stick, just difficult to make progress really.”

At no point in those closing stages was the Beechdean car separated from the Marcos by any less than two cars, but time began to run out.

“You never give up though, even when I went onto the final lap surrounded by about five other cars, and losing a little time to the leader, you still go for the win, it’s the only way. The only time you settle for second is once you’ve crossed the finish line,” explained Nigel after the race.

And that was the way he would end the race, “pushing very hard right up to the flag. Third overall though is a fantastic result for the team and to bring the car home in good shape too was just as important. The car was handling really well in those conditions and the team made a good call on strategy, so it all worked out really well.” He had kind words for the winners too. “I’m really pleased for Chris and Jon to get the win, they are both good fellas, who work really hard, and if we are going to lose, they are good people to lose to!”

Neil Cunningham had had a good day, too. “The wets didn’t chunk at all. This was my first time racing a Ferrari and the first time in years that I’ve driven a race car with an H-pattern gearshift. I’m really pleased to have had so much fun out there and done a good job for the team, which has worked so hard for this kind of result. My only grumble would be that we finished third overall, so where’s my trophy?!"

The car is quite literally a class winner in the making. Andrew Howard and his Beechdean team remain realistic, however, and acknowledge that the closer they get to the ball-park, the harder it is to make big strides akin to those demonstrated so convincingly at Donington Park. With a bit more testing here and a little work on set-up there, they should be at the sharp end of the pack throughout the rest of the season. And that is before they even begin to think about that engine rebuild…
Paul Slinger

 

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