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Embassy Racing – British GT – Thruxton - Monday, August 30
Bank Holiday Race Day – Onwards and Upwards

Race 1
Neil Cunningham was the start driver for race one and he had to be up super-early (relatively speaking, these are racing drivers after all) to see the cars in the paddock at ten to nine in the morning. Needless to say the Embassy car was ready and waiting before anyone else, as a result of Jonathan “I get up before I go to bed” France’s preparations. There would be no dramas today, just good planning and some excellent racing.

dailysportscar.comIt was a good thing that Neil was in a racy mood too, starting from eleventh on the grid would give him plenty of work, especially as Embassy now had the maximum twenty second penalty to be added to their pitstop time due to the strength of the driving duo.

Away from the rolling start and the Jones twins’ Porsche was quickly despatched on lap one with the Tech 9 cup class example also receding in Neil’s mirrors. At the front the unhindered leaders were already stretching away and the pressure on Neil was really on.

Two laps later and he brought the blue Corvette up behind Dan Eagling, going it alone in the Peninsula TVR. Eagling was balked at the exit of the chicane as Ricky Cole in the Xero Corvette swung back onto line, after having a look at the Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari ahead, Neil pounced, easily outgunning the TVR and having a good look at Ricky Cole, first left then right. Ricky showed Neil what he knows already – the Corvette is a wide car. They fought through the lap and with grim determination to get to the front Neil made his move stick at the chicane next time through for sixth place. Half way to the front in six laps - not bad going.

Chris Niarchos was Neil Cunningham’s next target but was some four seconds ahead, not really a problem as Neil was among the fastest cars on the circuit at this time. As it turned out, Niarchos would have to wait as Neil capitalised on Mike Jordan’s problems and Kinch having to stop to get grass removed from the Ferrari’s cooling grilles. Now Embassy were fourth and looking good for a podium – so again Neil charged on and the Corvette was now the quickest car on the circuit.

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Just 12 seconds behind the leader on the track translated to 32 seconds once the 20 second penalty was factored in, so he kept up the fight with Niarchos once the two leaders pitted in. Corvette touched Ferrari but Cunningham emerged as the overall leader, giving the new boy a hard act to follow when Neil pitted at the half-way mark. “He drove like Montoya in the Grand Prix, making every move stick,” summed up team boss Jonathan France.

‘New boy’ Ben Collins drove a steady but quick stint, while pulling back some of that twenty second penalty. He started gaining on Mark Sumpter straight away and no sooner had he caught him than he was past, but with only fifteen minutes of the race left and a tricky 12 seconds behind Pearce in the Mosler, it looked like fifth was as good as it was going to get. “I wasn’t going to get messed up trying to pass people or fight people unnecessarily, I just wanted to keep the pace of the car to the end of the race. All you can do in a race like that is drive your own race, it isn’t worth doing anything else. I saw I was catching a car at the end [the Rollcentre Mosler] but then suddenly I wasn’t anymore, not because of me but I think because he must have quickened his own pace. I hadn’t had the best of the tyres, especially as Neil had been experiencing oversteer and pushing on, so in all fifth is not a bad result.”

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It looked like he might have nicked fourth though after Balfe lost time in the pits having his battered Mosler checked over - and then returning to the track, only to spin out of the chicane whilst sandwiched by the already waving chequered flag and the Embassy Corvette bearing down on him. Fortunately for Balfe, the Mosler ended up pointing the right way and he floored it over the line just over two seconds before Ben thundered through.

Jonathan France was relieved to see the car home more or less in one piece (if a little battered from Neil’s early, enthusiastic, exertions). “The tyres held up ok, we swapped them left to right at the pitstop as well so they lasted well. It’s the first time we’ve run that set-up and it worked, both of them were flying! From where we were at the beginning of the race and the twenty second penalty added on too, it was a lot to make up so it’s hard not to be pleased with that.”

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Race 2
Ben Collins reckoned at the end of race one that “there are a lot more improvements to come and we can find some before the second race I’m sure. I think we can still get through the field and get a podium.” He was only bang on right…

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Taking the start for the late afternoon race (right at the back), Ben powered past all but one of the cup class cars in the first lap (“it was a busy lap, but good fun”), no fewer than ten cars relegated to looking at the four round lights on the rump of the Corvette. Not that he was concerned about what was behind him – it didn’t matter. What did matter was the fact that eighth to fifth were presented in front of him perfectly and enticingly. Eagling made a move on Sumpter and Collins followed the TVR through, and with no further regard to Eagling for unsettling Sumpter, he soon passed the TVR as well for good measure. This was exciting stuff, sixth place from 20th on the grid in just six laps. The car and driver were at one.

Ben then made good inroads into gap to the Rollcentre Mosler and the Jones Porsche, just before the safety car made its first outing of the day for the GTs. This was not the greatest news for those like Embassy with a twenty second penalty added to their pitstop, because all Ben’s efforts at pulling away from those behind were undone. It is worth noting that only ten minutes or so had passed by this point in the race!

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Undeterred, Collins made the most of the fact that those ahead were closer than ever and shouldered past the Mosler as soon as racing resumed, with 37 minutes left on the clock. “It was a bit physical though, I got halfway alongside it and he just pushed me onto the grass. I thought ‘do you just want me to disappear into thin air or have a big accident’ so I just kept on it and we hit, but if I had done anything else we’d have been off.” The Jones twins proved a tough obstacle straight after the Mosler incident: “It was weird, the team were just on the radio warning me that they could make it difficult for me and just as they said it he turned in on me – I couldn’t believe it!” The Corvette came off best and survived until the next safety car period at the halfway mark. Another car had stopped out on track, oddly enough in exactly the same spot the Noble had stopped, which had caused the first safety car…

For once this worked in Embassy’s favour – with the pack controlled by the safety car, it wasn’t such a disaster to lose the extra twenty seconds in the pits. Everyone else had the same idea of pitting during the safety car, but Jonathan France was still delighted to see Neil sitting behind the safety car, Kinch and Cocker – yes, he was third with just under a twenty minute sprint to the finish once the safety car dived back into the pits.

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Initially holding back as the two title rivals began to squabble, Neil realised that Jonathan Cocker was unlikely to do anything silly, given that bagging third in this race would give him the 2004 crown. “I still had to push hard though, giving it everything. I found out Church isn’t flat though, I had a go but it changed direction about three times, I think I saw three churches!” Pressuring Cocker, Kinch made a move out of the chicane and Neil hung onto the Ferrari’s wing tails and swept alongside the Porsche over the line, before pulling off one of the proudest overtaking manoeuvres of his career.

“I went for it on the outside of Noble, I just knew it was the place to do it but if I got it wrong I’d have been in the wall hard. I don’t know what Cocker must have thought – Michael Caine calls me ‘mad dog’, maybe he’s right!” Porsche-worrying complete, he hassled the Ferrari for a couple of laps, trying to unsettle the youngster Kinch. “I was trying harder and harder but was making more mistakes, so I actually lost some of the ground I had made up.” As the race entered the final five minutes the Ferrari was looking slightly more compliant than the Corvette over the kerbs and Neil was having to keep a close eye on Cocker behind him – right behind him. “He had enough steam to catch me but I don’t think he had enough to get past.”

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And so it remained – the cheers from the team proof enough that the elusive podium was an excellent result – especially from 20th on the grid. The cheers and applause from other teams and onlookers were also louder for Embassy than those provided for the winners, and even for Jonathan Cocker’s title-clinching third place. Popular as ever, Jonathan France has never experienced such joy whilst his eyes hurt so much – that was an awful amount of champagne Neil had doused him with. “It’s been a long time coming and we are going to make the most of it,” concluded the team owner. Doubtless this means he will be doing everything he can to keep the feeling flowing all through the Brands Hatch season closer in October.

Ben Collins won’t be there owing to Ascar commitments, but had nothing but praise for the car and the team: “To come straight in and onto the podium is really cool. We didn’t luck into the position or hang desperately onto it, we were there on pace and there is still more to come from the car, even just on set-up. Jonathan deserves to be very happy with the effort he has put into this team.”
Paul Slinger

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