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Embassy Racing – British GT – Knockhill – May 21-22
Saturday Race - First Victory For The Embassy Porsche

Fresh from a second in class finish at the Silverstone round of the FIA GT Championship, it was back to the British GT Championship for Embassy Racing and a trip north of the border to Knockhill, just outside Edinburgh. Two years ago Neil Cunningham, spurred on by the spirits of his Scottish ancestors, won a historic Cup Class victory in the Morgan at this tight and twisty little circuit – he went even better this time, helping Embassy Racing secure its first ever outright victory.

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Leading up to Saturday’s lunch break, “4” had been the predominant figure, that being the Embassy Porsche’s final position on the timesheets for the practice and both qualifying sessions. This was “slightly disappointing” to Jonathan France, who hoped that the curse of the “4” would be washed away with the arrival of the typical Scottish downpour which immediately followed the second qualifying session.

Practice
dailysportscar.comAt the ungodly hour of 8:50AM, Neil Cunningham began the free practice session. Sadly, despite the combination of a full 60kg complement of success ballast and an undulating track, Andrew Kirkaldy was still ominously fast in the lead Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari. The pattern of the season so far reared its head yet again – Scuderia Ecosse leading (though the Niarcos/Mullen car took its time to join its sister) with Embassy, LNT and Eurotech all thrown into the mix thereafter. LNT suffered engine problems with both of their TVRs, with series newcomer Andrew Thompson also embedding his car in the gravel, causing a red flag roughly halfway into the session. Neil’s efforts from the first half saw Embassy third, with a 51.950. “We haven’t put any new tyres on it yet, so hopefully that should shock the [something] out of them!” summed up Cunningham in true tribal language. “The Cunninghams originated not too far from here actually and they were the real Hell’s Angels of their day. If someone wanted a war starting, it’s the Cunninghams they’d go to…” Perhaps that line of thinking wasn’t too far removed from Jonathan France’s reasoning two years ago…

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When the session resumed, Neil had another brief stint, handing over to Ben Collins with half an hour to go. Ben had a steady session, building to post a 51.652 by the end, exactly 6/10ths down on the quickest time. Unfortunately, Mullen had by then resumed the normal ‘red-cars at the front’ service, so the finishing order was Ferrari, Ferrari, TVR, Embassy Porsche, Eurotech Porsche, TVR, Eurotech Porsche. Ben Collins’ view was that “the car is really good, but I don’t think we will know where we are until qualifying, when we both get some new tyres. I locked up into Seat towards the end of the session and went off a little bit.” A little bit perhaps, but enough to give the Embassy boys a job to do before qualifying – fitting a new splitter.

Jonathan France seemed content: “We’ve made some changes to the team since Magny-Cours and we are really gelling together now. It is great to be pulling right up to the Ferraris for once.”

Qualifying
Qualifying (with a new splitter and new tyres fitted) was actually quite a difficult prospect, as Ben Collins explains. “I know we can definitely can get pole around here if we get lucky with the traffic, but then the Ferraris are still looking very good. Looking at the traces from practice, there was hardly a lap when it wasn’t locking a wheel at least somewhere round the lap and we need to be careful and make sure we don’t ruin our race tyres. It will be hard to know how much to push, but we should be OK.”

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Neil’s prospects looked rather better than “OK” as he took the opening qualifying session, setting his start position for Saturday’s race. Both LNT TVRs were absentees from the holding area and the Thompson TVR’s engine maladies meant it wouldn’t take to the track for the rest of the day. Pat Pearce’s example did eventually join the session and made an immediate impact, trading times with all of the top guys, heading the times at one point and ending up fourth, just a tenth ahead of Neil’s best and a hundredth behind Jordan’s Eurotech Porsche. Neil’s best of 51.984 was only 3/10ths off Kinch’s pole time, but he was still disappointed. “It felt like I should have been in the mid 51s at least, I mean it felt fine, like it was going pretty quick, I don’t understand it really. The traffic was unreal, every time I held back and then thought I had a clear lap, I’d come up on a GT3 trying for a time.”

Also scratching his head was Jonathan France. “I’m not quite sure where some of the cars got their times from, given where they were yesterday and this morning, but I think we have a very good chance from fourth. Whilst I am slightly disappointed, that is not to say anyone has done anything wrong, I think the drivers both got the best out of the car. Scuderia Ecosse’s qualifying advantage is not particularly good either, as they have done so much more testing here than anyone else. If I’d done that much testing here, I’d be disappointed with that.”

Both qualifying sessions were real tactical battles, with drivers trying to create space ahead of them by slowing at the end of the lap, ready to attack on their next. Ben’s session was particularly difficult, and it was only towards the end that he managed his best of 51.501. He provided some early spectacle however, by making things difficult for a charging Kirkaldy, the pair dicing around the lap, as if Ben was telling the Scot not to expect an easy ride on his home turf. Ben’s session ended with a more familiar pattern, behind an all Ferrari front row and once again behind the sole surviving TVR. The margin was however rather more, Kirkaldy making the success ballast look rather redundant by finishing six-tenths ahead of anyone else.

Leading up to the Saturday race, both drivers were happy with the car, with discussions only going as far as how stiff the front anti-roll bar should be. The rain looked like it was setting in for the afternoon however, so the day’s running so far might not have provided the team with the set-up they would ultimately use. Jonathan France echoed the view of his drivers though. “I don’t care what the weather does now, we’ll beat the Ferraris wet or dry!”

Race
As the cars took to the grid, all the focus and interest was on the tyre choices. Representatives from the full range of wets, intermediates and slicks adorned various cars. Embassy’s choice, based on Ben’s recommendation, was to comply with the minority and go for slicks, but of course it was Neil who would have to cope with treadless tyres on a greasy track.

The dry line was just established enough in places for Neil to feel moderately comfortable and despite the mixture of low and high clouds, with obvious showers in the distance, it looked unlikely to rain again, at least until the pitstop window. The weather changes very quickly in Scotland, but Jonathan France had to take something of a gamble. “We couldn’t do what everyone else was doing, because we were starting fourth. We had to do something different from everyone else so that we didn’t just end the race still being fourth, because that isn’t good enough for us. So the choice of slicks was always the right one.”

Neil Cunningham describes the start of the race: “I had no grip at all, even on the warm-up lap, so I was dropping it down to first and spinning the wheels, trying to get as much heat in the tyres as I could. As we came up to the start line, it nearly spun on me even though I was going in a straight line! For the first few laps, I was in serious trouble. I could see what tyres the guys ahead had on and as all three of them started going away, I was under some serious pressure from behind, so I just let two of them go and sat biding my time...”

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The ”three getting away” were a storming Jordan, demoted Kinch and hungry Hughes, all on inters and determined to make the most of them whilst they would still hold an advantage – it wouldn’t be long. Also making the most were Chris Niarchos in the second Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari and David Jones in the second Eurotech Porsche. Without grip, Neil was powerless to defend their advances at the Real Radio hairpin.

By as early as lap four however, the track was drying fast, those slick tyres were warming up and starting to pay dividends and with the leading trio’s initial savage battle resolved, all six leaders were neatly strung out into a tight line. Embassy were no longer going backwards, they were holding station. Within a lap, Neil was ready to show just how good the tyre choice had been.

An excursion from Patrick Pearce at Scotsman’s meant fifth was handed to Neil, but he also managed to nab fourth from David Jones out of Clark and had a good look along the outside of Niarchos’ Ferrari into the chicane. The Embassy Porsche was looking exceptionally racy. Both Ferraris succumbed in swift succession and Jordan’s lead was instantly decimated, Cunningham taking the lead into the chicane on lap 10.

By the end of the same lap, Neil had pulled out a convincing lead of four seconds and by lap 13, the other slick shod cars were causing surprises – Bryce Wilson taking RJN’s Nissan 350Z into second overall and Dimitris Deverikos, miles ahead of the rest of the GT3 runners, was challenging the struggling GT2 Ferraris.

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Neil Cunningham held his lead over the Nissan, Wilson only able to gain when the Embassy car was caught up in traffic. The cars on intermediate tyres fell further and further from the leading duo’s pace, such that on lap 21, Deverikos took Mike Jordan and inherited third place overall. Things were looking pretty much perfect for Embassy. That is not to say Neil was having an easy time out there – the short lap meant that “the GT3 cars were like a minefield! I didn’t want to end up ruining their races and there were a lot of them fighting for their own positions, but I have to say they were all very good, I didn’t get blocked too much at all.”

As soon as the pitstop window opened, Jordan and Niarchos dived in, desperate to rid themselves of grooved rubber and get the sticky slicks they had yearned for over the last 22 minutes.

This put some pressure on Ben when he finally took over from Neil, but at least he had inherited a decent lead. By the time Collins emerged onto the circuit, he was 12 seconds ahead of Kirkaldy but the Scot was on fresh tyres and on a charge that was taking two seconds a lap out of Embassy’s lead. “The boys on the wall did a great job though, telling me when I needed to push and when I didn’t.” Right now, they were telling him to push, and the response was the fastest Embassy laps of the race, helping Ben hold the gap to Kirkaldy more or less steady.

There was a dash more rain with 20 minutes to go, but the showers did not become strong enough to disrupt the order or undermine the superiority of slicks over intermediates. “It’s always worse when you are leading into a shower though,” said Collins. “When you are on slicks and you are the first one to meet a slippy track, it is always stressful.” Warren Hughes in the LNT TVR had closed on Ben and was keen to un-lap himself, so #55 let him go, not wishing to risk a misunderstanding or an unkind nudge, especially with Kirkaldy less than ten seconds behind and very much in pursuit mode.

“The TVR went off shortly after unlapping himself though and there were about three cars that had basically come to a grinding halt on the track when I came across them. They all just decided to get going again, not bothering what was coming up behind and I had nowhere to go.” Collins was looking left and right on the run down to the hairpin, but the bluff rears of the TVR and Nissan were forming a rolling roadblock, gifting Kirkaldy a full two seconds. These were tense times in the Embassy camp.

The tension was relieved in the dying minutes of the race when the clerk of the course imparted drive-through penalties on both Scuderia Ecosse Ferraris, for changing tyres whilst the driver-change was in progress. An oversight which Jonathan France thought “was probably caused because they race in different series with different rules from one weekend to the next. Still, oversights are the kind of things that cost race wins.”

It is a very short pitlane at Knockhill however and Kirkaldy was not going to roll over just yet. His deficit of 15 seconds would need a huge effort to overcome in the last ten minutes, as Ben scythed his way through the backmarkers beautifully for three consecutive laps, the Scot’s chance was gone. It was in the bag, but this wasn’t enough to calm Neil Cunningham any: “Don’t they have shorter hours in Scotland?” he quipped over the race radio, “can’t they just end the race now?”

Ben was still enjoying himself, particularly as the word from the pitwall was that he no longer had to go at 10/10ths. “They told me in no uncertain terms the moment I didn’t have to push and it was a relief because this is the kind of circuit where you don’t want to risk everything and push everywhere unless you absolutely have to. It is really easy to make mistakes though once you back off, so I had to concentrate pretty hard.”

Neil Cunningham and the rest of the Embassy crew could not believe how long that last sub-minute lap could possibly take, but it all came good in the end. As the blue and red Porsche swung through the hairpin that one last time for one final blast up the hill, Jonathan France realised that his new team, after taking just three race starts, had won.

Ben reckoned it was “a great result, for the boys mainly. Neil did an absolutely brilliant job out there and it will be very interesting to see where we are in tomorrow’s race now. We all had a bit of a quandary about tyres before the race started but I know that it had to be either slicks or wets, and just before the race it definitely wasn’t wets. It’s a terrible place to lead though, for at least one lap in four it will go sideways at the chicane.”

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The mood in the Embassy camp after this great result was not perhaps what you would initially expect – there were plenty of smiles of course, and the champagne glasses were being distributed very quickly indeed, but there was a sense of meeting expectations rather than the achievement of a remarkable result. That is the atmosphere that anyone who knows how much Jonathan France is committed to winning would expect.

“The re-structuring of the team has certainly helped us today and I’m really pleased that it has all come together. I can’t really take any credit for the result – Geoff, Doug, Neil and Ben all did a great job today. We’ve always had the right ingredients to bake a cake, all we needed was a bit of luck and that’s what we got today. We lost the monkey off our back at Silverstone last weekend and that’s really spurred us on for this result. We’ve proved that we have the strategy and the pace to win, so we’ll see if we can do it again tomorrow.”
Paul Slinger

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