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Embassy Racing – British GT – Donington Park – April 3
First Race For The Embassy Porsche

Jonathan France’s Embassy Racing arrived at Donington Park fresh from a successful Monza FIA test and ready to face the home-grown competition in the opening round of the 2005 British GT Championship. That competition was keen to take a good look at Jonathan’s new team as well, and the Yorkshireman was so proud to show just how far his team had come over the winter.

The hospitality awning seemed to have grown in every possible direction, yet Jonathan did a sterling job in terms of keeping it full all weekend, entertaining sponsors new and old, as well as friends of the team.

The big news is about the racing however. It is impossible to notice that the distinctive Corvette that the team raced in last year’s championship has been replaced by an equally striking Porsche 911 (or as some would say, “996”) GT3-RSR. “We looked at a number of options, including the Nissan 350Z, but in the end we went the obvious route to winning a championship, because that is our aim this season.” The RSR is a tried and tested winner and this very example, the ex-Cirtek, Frank Mountain car, is no exception, having already won the Nurburgring 1000kms.

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Other changes to the team include a new raft of highly experienced, behind the scenes, technical people and some new additions to the team of mechanics. More on these people, their roles and influences to come as the season unfolds.

The final significant addition is to the driving squad – former Ascar champion Ben Collins. Ben drove for Embassy at the Thruxton round of the 2004 season - to great effect, giving Embassy its most successful race weekend to date. No wonder Jonathan was so keen to secure his services for the whole 2005 season, alongside the other Embassy Galactico – Neil Cunningham.

With the scene set, a relaxed Jonathan France found himself contemplating the start of the season, on a cold and hazy Saturday morning. “We had two days to work at a time in Italy at the FIA test, but today we only have an hour and ten minutes,” was a fair summary.

The immaculate Porsche rolled out onto the pit apron early in the session, and Ben Collins tried to make the most of the 70 minutes available by getting straight down to the kind of fast lappery the team expects. After just four laps he was sitting pretty at the top of the times, whittling his best down to a 1:10.815.

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With only fifteen minutes of the session (season) gone, it was immediately obvious how tough the next seven months or so will be for everyone in the GT2 class, but fortunately France’s team was right up there amongst the likely title protagonists – Scuderia Ecosse, LNT and Eurotech confirming their status as the other pre-season favourites. Andrew Kirkaldy, driving once again for Scuderia Ecosse, set the pace with a 1:07.623. The pace of this combination would be a feature of the whole weekend.

Embassy’s precious time became ever more so after a red-flag paused proceedings, with just 26 minutes gone, Ben having now posted a 1:09.604. On the restart, the striking blue and red Porsche seemed to cross the line rather too slowly on its first pass, and was that a hint of hazy smoke from the rear? Indeed, the car crawled around Redgate and moments later ground to a halt at the side of the track, forcing the organisers to throw another red flag.

That was to be the end of the practice session for Embassy, the team facing the ignominy of having the car delivered to the wrong end of the pitlane, on the back of a truck. A broken driveshaft seemed a cruel introduction to Porsche ownership.

As the mechanics installed themselves under the car and began the disassembly, the session resumed. As the garage floor filled with more and more hot Porsche components, it was clear that Embassy was not in a position to fight back as the times began to tumble: still being sixth at the end session was hardly a disaster.

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Owing to the driveshaft-enforced curtailment to practice, Neil lost the opportunity to get behind the wheel on Saturday morning, so was left to reminisce about his epic surf session from Easter weekend. While looking for a picture in a surf magazine, to show how big the waves had been, he failed to realise that the Embassy boys had made some slight modifications to his literature…

“Ben knows what the car was like this morning and we have made a few changes as well as fixing the driveshaft, so he needs to do most of the qualifying session to see if those changes are in the right direction. You know me though, I’m not too excited about qualifying, I just can’t wait for the lights to go green!”

By the afternoon, the haze had dispersed and it was quite possibly the nicest day of the year so far: it was even warm at Donington Park for once – as long as you stayed in the sun that is…

Some of the pressure on the sharp edge of the grid was relieved due to the well-sorted Khan and Sugden Porsche sitting out the session while undergoing an engine change. After an installation lap, Ben called back into the pits briefly, to check all was well, and then headed out to get the job done. Finding chunks of time, he hustled the 911 round the lap, keeping it in the top three while trading times with LNT and Eurotech, “I got blocked three times by the same car on my quick lap.”

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Ben brought the car in with a best of 1:09.155 under his belt and handed over to Neil for the last eight minutes. “I had the race rubber on, so I couldn’t do too much on them,” explained the Kiwi. Hence Embassy dropped a few places to sixth, with late charges from both LNT TVRs and Tim Mullen in the second GT2 Ferrari.

There was an evident air of disappointment around the Embassy camp. Any possible (unlikely) complacency within the team had certainly been wiped away, but there was room for optimism. “If I’d had a clear lap I think there is half a second in the car, but at least we know we have a car with a good race pace, even if we are running out of time to fine tune it. It’s disappointing when you don’t get what you set out for, but we’ve got two hours to do that tomorrow,” was Ben’s summary.

Jonathan France was “disappointed not to be the fastest Porsche, but we know that was because of traffic and Ben couldn’t just carry on, because we had to let Neil get his three laps in.”

And so to race day. The strain on the driveshaft appeared to have been caused by a broken engine mount, possibly dating back to Monza, and the team had pulled together on Saturday evening to carry out a precautionary engine change, to make sure everything was in perfect alignment ready for the race. Jonathan had a more optimistic perspective on Saturday’s events, having slept on that sixth place qualification.

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“We haven’t had any new tyres on it yet and we haven’t done a low fuel run. It’s the first time Geoff Kingston, our new Technical Director, has seen the car on track as well, so we aren’t too unhappy. We have to be the fastest Porsche though, first and foremost. While we can’t take away how long Jordan and Eurotech have been around, compared to us with just three months, the experience in our team should count for a lot.”

There were no issues for the team in the warm-up, and then it was just a long wait (and cool down) for the afternoon race.

It was a great sight to see such a fine looking collection of GT cars finally assembled on the grid. A trolley of wet and intermediate tyres was wheeled alongside the car in case the grey skies turned any more menacing, but that was as far as any thoughts of rain got for the day. With the grid cleared of personnel and VIPs, sixth place suddenly seemed very close to the front of the pack. Besides, having a few cars ahead didn’t upset Neil and Ben last time they raced together at Thruxton, when the duo took the 2004 Corvette from the back of the grid to that best-ever Embassy second place.

True to that same form, as the pack exploded over the line in a spectacular rolling start, Ben made more of the green flag than anybody else and pushed all the way round the outside of Redgate, taking the scalp of both TVRs and the wayward Niarchos Ferrari - and moving up to second when Michael Caine had very early problems in the Eurotech Porsche, bringing it back to the pits with a loose wheel. “It was a really good start and I made some good progress early on, we were looking really good.”

As expected, Kirkaldy was trying to stretch an early lead as far as he could and at Donington at least, the combination of Ferrari, Kirkaldy and Kinch was unstoppable.

Six laps in, it looked like only Embassy could have challenged for the lead as Kirkaldy and Collins both began lapping the backmarkers. Ben was having to do all he could to chase the Ferrari though and attracted the attention of Race Control – he wouldn’t be alone though, it seemed all a driver had to do was flatten a blade of grass on the inside of a kerb to be welcomed by a black and white flag next time they crossed the stripe.

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20 minutes into the race and Kirkaldy was already 13 seconds in the lead, the sheer speed of the Ferrari carrying him past traffic that took Ben a few corners to get the better of. LNT’s Patrick Pearce had mined into a rich seam of form and was suddenly gaining rapidly on the 911’s rear spoiler. Ben could not do much to resist: “There was oil or something down all over the track and it affected our car really badly. Our set-up meant we had to take a particular line, and we couldn’t because of the oil, so we started losing lots of time. Once it started to clear I got back to my best efforts and put in some good times but [Pearce’s] TVR looked to be amazingly quick at that point. I didn’t want to lose track time battling for position with him so left him room at Coppice, he still banged into the side of me, which was a bit unnecessary, but it’s all part of the fun, I suppose.”

Ben latched onto the TVR as best as he could, but was soon caught out again by traffic at the Old Hairpin. Those backmarkers were getting harder to pass now, because although only 25 minutes had passed, the leaders were already lapping cars running in the top ten. This was going to be a two hour sprint race for sure. “I could stick with the TVR while he gathered his thoughts after passing me, but then he eased away a bit.”

Pearce was able to hold a small advantage over Collins for the remainder of his stint, which ended a little earlier than planned, after the Porsche began to misfire. “We were definitely looking good for third at the driver-change and we were in the right window, if only the misfire had been cured.”

For once it was Neil who would have most of the running in a session: with an hour and five minutes to go, Embassy was the first of the significant teams to pit for the driver change. “We had a bit of a lengthy stop with a tyre change, but it did seem that the misfire was cured,” said Neil. “The way he blasted out of the pits it was obvious the misfire had gone,” confirmed Ben.

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Godfrey Jones in the leading Eurotech Porsche was now running ahead of Neil in third place, as a result of Embassy’s longer than expected stop. Worse was to come though as the misfire returned, leaving Neil not only unable to retake third spot, but unable to defend his fourth from a direct attack by Tim Mullen, himself on a storming recovery drive. “The engine started going again after only a few laps, like it was going into some kind of overdrive or safety mode, it just made everything feel really flat and really down on power.”

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The Embassy car then made its second of a total of six visits to the pitlane, as the crew tried to reset the electrics to cure the glitch that was causing the misfire. Each stop cost the team at least 20 seconds. Refuelling had seemed to help, so one of those stops was used to fill the tank again, but the intermittent problem just kept coming back and always Neil was slipping further and further down the running order - until there was no real hope for anything other than finishing eighth, but at least in the points. It was a frustrating stint for Neil, whose lap times would sometimes be massively competitive, even allowing him to unlap himself from Mike Jordan, but only to be immediately followed by a laptime that was ten seconds or so down. “I had to keep trying to switch it all off and on again, and when you are looking through the narrow visor of a helmet and trying to keep it on track and on the move, that’s bloody difficult!”

The aim was clearly now just to bring the car home, but each time the car slowed, there was a realisation that it might not make the chequered flag. It was a huge surprise then to see Neil post the car’s best lap of the race on the penultimate tour – a 1:09.645 being so quick that it sucked the following Mosler round into its quickest lap as well. It was good enough to ensure Embassy was second only to the #35 Scuderia Ecosse in terms of best race lap times, a fact the whole team took some comfort from. Where did that time come from then Neil? “It was just pure aggression I suppose, I still had problems with the car but I think I just shouted the right number of swearwords into my helmet on that lap.”

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Overall, Neil was remarkably composed following such a frustrating stint. “We got some points, and we had the speed. I just hope we can find out what this problem was all about and get it sorted, because our next race is going to be three hours. We’ll be back.” There was a consolation prize for Neil though: “I reckon I got the best burnouts of the weekend,” he said whilst examining his handiwork on the pit concrete. “I should have though, I did plenty of them!”

Ben also had a positive slant on the outcome of the weekend: “It was the first race for us, a new team with a new car for us. We finished what is a relatively long race and we ran a lot of it at the front, until we had the problem. The guys all did the absolute best they could and all round it was just a great effort.”

Two hours at Donington was always going to be a baptism of fire for Embassy Racing, but now they have the direction to make big strides in France, for round 2 at Magny-Cours. Embassy Race Radio was a much-appreciated success story for those not at Donington Park.
Paul Slinger

 

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