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Embassy Racing – British GT – Thruxton - Sunday, August 29
Welcome, Ben Collins

There was a new look to the Embassy driver line-up at Thruxton for the penultimate pair of 2004 season races. Reigning Ascar champion Ben Collins was delighted to return to (conventional) circuit racing and was relishing the “different experience of turning right as well as left”.

Neil Cunningham also looked ‘newish’ with a haircut and a renewed energy to get the results that this quick and consistent pairing was surely capable of. It was a team that would deliver on that promise, with Embassy’s first ever podium finish, in runner up spot, having challenged for the lead. “And all that from nearly last on the grid.” Yes indeed, team boss Jonathan France was certainly not the only one to notice that…

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It had been a late call-up for Ben but the decision was an easy one and expectations were immediately high from both sides. “Ben had the lion’s share of the two hour Friday test session as it was the first time he had been in the car. Neil only had about 15 minutes, but we wanted to get Ben as familiar with the car as we could. He has won in every class he has raced in apart from prototypes, but then he has led Le Mans.” justified team boss Jonathan France.

Sunday practice saw Neil set an early 1:16.377, fourth quickest, when he handed over to Ben with 50 minutes still to go. “I still need to get used to the feel of the car over the bumps” explained Neil, “besides it feels a bit odd anyway because we have moved the pedals 8” further forwards now we don’t have to worry about Paula’s legs, and I’m now driving with my legs straight instead of tucked up under my chin!”

Ben had a steady, yet impressive further familiarisation session with the car, working his way through 1:18s, 1:17s and into the 1:16s himself, proving Jonathan’s claim to “have the best pair of drivers in the series”, most of the other pairings having a second or so gap between their quickest and slowest drivers.

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A 1:16.088 was their best time by the end of the session and put them sixth on the timesheet, but with both drivers agreeing on the same direction there was hope for improvement. “We are going stiffer, much stiffer,” was the verdict of Jonathan France, Cunningham, Collins and technical man Dave Beecroft.

That hope would be dashed in first qualifying later in the afternoon, with traffic and “a significant imbalance in the set-up” being to blame. The racing gods chose to watch a dry F3 qualifying session and a soaking wet GT one, so as the last F3 car peeled into the pits the rain started to fall, then it fell harder and harder until the surrounding countryside disappeared along with the tarmac, hidden away behind ever deepening puddles and rivulets. Not ideal conditions to head out in with a fundamental set-up problem…

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“I knew I should be able to go faster as the track started clearing,” said an exasperated Cunningham, “but I knew if I pushed any harder I was going to go off, the car definitely wasn’t right.” It didn’t look right on the timing screen either as his fourth place in the wet slumped as he just couldn’t find the extra time needed as everyone else capitalised on a drying track: he was dumped back to eleventh on the grid for Monday morning's race, with a 1:27.569.

Ben Collins’ interpretation of the problem was even quicker and even more condemning. “The suspension is broken or there is a wheel broken,” he radioed in, heading back to the pits after the opening of his qualifying session. The change to intermediates as the track dried eradicated the problem both Neil and he had suffered and despite it “now going like a train on the inters,” in Ben’s words, it was all too late. Jonathan France told the story of woe: “With the inters on that was everything sorted and I thought it was a really good call - and it would have been. Once we’d wasted a bit of time putting them on we couldn’t get the car to start until there was 34 seconds of the session remaining – and then of course it was too late.”

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Indeed it meant the chequered flag was out by the time Ben crossed the line after his out-lap, but at least the set-up problem had been resolved without any lengthy investigations being necessary. With no definitive times recorded it was a hugely disappointing 20th out of 22 cars for Embassy – at least the TV cameras would be watching closely on Monday afternoon…
Paul Slinger

 

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