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Embassy Racing – British GT – Brands Hatch – October 2 - Part 1
Out Of Trouble But Off The Podium

The Brands Hatch Indy circuit had proved a rather controversial choice for inclusion on this season’s domestic GT racing calendar - but there it was as the season finale, and there was no way Embassy Racing would be missing out on the chance to bag another podium.

Although the drivers championship was sealed for Gruppe M’s Jonathon Cocker at the last round, he was still out for ‘total domination’ and wouldn’t be backing off at all. Andrew Kirkaldy wanted to win the most races in the season and to further bolster Scuderia Ecosse’s impressive season statistics. This would be no walk in the park for Embassy then, in a race that would in all likelihood be something of a lottery.

“There is no point looking for the perfect set-up for a perfect lap around Brands Indy, because they could be in traffic by about lap 5 so we need to have the car sharp and racy – ready to pass on the left and the right – traffic will probably decide these races,” explained technical man Dave Beecroft.

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The impressive pace that the Corvette had shown early in practice (Cunningham, in the damp of Satyrday morning) was not the be-all-and-end-all then - “It needs sharpening,” was Beecroft’s summary. Still, it is always good to know the general pace is there.

Worried about his own pace was new-to-Embassy Richard Hay – “I haven’t had as much time in the car as I would have liked but the car certainly feels very good. It’s a lot different to the TVR Tuscan I am used to, especially the brakes – I still have to get my head around how late you can brake in the Corvette! Basically, the car is very fast and I’m not at the moment…”

“He knows how to handle a big powerful rear-wheel drive car though, and he’s really looking forward to the racing,” was Neil Cunningham’s seal of approval on his team-mate.

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Qualifying hadn’t mattered much to Embassy at Thruxton, a drive from the back of the grid netting them their best ever position of second, but it made sense to start at the sharp end of the grid for these races – they would be intense enough, without having to pass the whole field for position.

Hay would start the first fifteen minute qualifying session (as the less experienced driver) and Embassy’s tactics of getting him out first on the track may have helped him to emerge onto a clear track for his first flying lap – but the other competitors were still pouring out of the pit exit as he came around to start his first flyer.

With a third of the session gone it was clear that traffic was dictating the grid as much as the machinery and talent driving it: despite being bone dry (and pleasantly warm for October) there were a host of Cup Class cars well up the timesheet, a comfortable looking Hay down in seventh. Just when it was looking as though Richard was going to turn the heat up and work his time into the mid 48s….. it was red flag time, after a hefty shunt into the barriers from a Cup 360, off on oil.

“At least I brought it home!” summed up Hay, tenth with a 48.713.

The six foot wide slick of oil, freshly drained from one of the RSR TVRs, took a while to clear up and with some tyre wall repairs needed too, Neil had a much longer break than usual before his fifteen minutes of fame began.

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They must have been nervous moments – how would he know whether the oil dust had done its work? Throwing the car into Paddock the first time would be a heart in the mouth moment – in fact would the drivers in session 2 be able to match the times set in session 1? “Well, I’m first in the queue so I’ll be first on the oil, it’ll just make it more exciting! Hope I’m not first off on the oil as well though!” joked the Kiwi.

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Neil capitalised on being first out by making sure his time stayed at the top for a short while, as he was already battling his way through traffic.

dailysportscar.comThe Gruppe M and Scuderia boys were tactically trying to find space – crawling almost to a halt on the Cooper Straight, where other teams couldn’t see them from the pitlane, and then exploding into the space they had created – it worked for Sugden with a 47.662. Whether Embassy had seen the games going on or not, Neil chose the option of just keeping his head down and going for it. Holding fourth position, despite an exceptional 46.675 from Kirkaldy, things looked good, until word of the Ferrari’s laptime spread. It was clear that the oil was no longer a limiting factor and responses from the new Tech 9 N-GT car in the hands of Adam Jones, plus Greensall in the TVR, knocked Neil back to sixth place. “I wanted to start on the outside anyway…” The second half of the session then showed little improvement to times, but fortunately there were no incidents either.

Race one was surprisingly incident free, yet full of interest: perhaps it was just the novelty of seeing so much of the cars very, very often, but it was a race of high intensity, that should have been played out in front of a bigger crowd.

The first corner saw Chris Niarchos skating across the gravel but powering through it and emerging at Druids – lots of positions lost, including one to the Corvette. Hay kept it steady and stayed out of trouble, but Niarchos was able to haul him back in and draught by at Paddock with ten minutes gone.

Richard Hay was keeping a watching brief on a pack of cars ahead, but the leaders were streets ahead at the front, coming round to lap Hay before the halfway point in the race. Problems for the Tech 9 Porsche and GKR Elise promoted Hay to seventh overall though. “I couldn’t get the car working the way it should be: it turned out the tyre pressures hadn’t come up the same, giving me a bit of a handicap.”

The inevitable Safety Car period was brought about by Tech 9’s Cup Porsche, ‘trying a Niarchos’ through the Paddock gravel, but stopping just short of the track, in a dangerous spot. With the Safety Car on immediate standby, Embassy got Hay straight in, the leaders doing the same. The Safety Car was then thrown out into the mix, the newly enthroned Cunningham just getting caught behind it – if he had made it in front, he could have unlapped himself and got into a very useful position. As it was now, only another safety car period could help, because he had a full lap before the next car ahead. Still, a lap is only 45 seconds or so after all, and Neil is never there to make up the numbers….

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He wasn’t going to let Tim Mullen put another lap on him without a fight when racing resumed, the Irishman wiping the snout of the Ferrari all over the Corvette’s rump down Cooper Straight. Places were made up through the Cup cars with some hard charging, plus some key N-GT cars falling by the wayside (the Ultima and Kirkaldy’s Ferrari) helped the Embassy cause too.

Neil was on a major charge now, with race-leading Tim Sugden behind him and with no answer to the Corvette’s pace. “We thought Neil could have been leading because the timing screen hadn’t shown his pitstop so might not have updated properly with such a short lap. If we could absolutely, positively have trusted it, fine, but with even a slim chance he might have been leading and able to take a win, we had to keep him charging,” explained team owner Jonathan France. “Besides, GruppeM must have been having doubts too – why else would their guys be telling us to let him past with five minutes of the race to go, bearing in mind they were leading by about 30 seconds?”

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“There was no way I was letting him by anyway, it was great fun and we put on a real show didn’t we? It’s not like I was holding him up anyway, and the only blue flags I saw were for the cars I was passing!” said Cunningham, making any discussion on the timing situation rather rhetorical in any event.

His pace was bringing him closer to Mullen now but there just weren’t enough minutes left in the race and in the end it was a hard fought sixth for Embassy, whose efforts were all concentrated at coming back from the Safety Car disadvantage.

It was a great show though and with the tyre pressures adjusted for the second half of the race, had shown yet again what a powerful combination Cunningham and the Corvette are, with front running pace right through to the closing laps.
Paul Slinger

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