British GT Championship – Mondello Park

Beating The GTCs

Despite not yet entering the FIA GT3 championship, Lotus Sport Cadena now has the distinction of being the most widely travelled GT3 team, the trip to Ireland making it three countries in three meetings so far. With homologation for the international series still some way off, this would of course be a short lived distinction. But with each race comes valuable data for the development of the Exiges.

After Pau, the decision had been made to develop the #18 T-car further and so just two cars made the trip from Hethel to Ireland - numbers 19 and 20. But the team had also enlisted some extra help for the trip across the Irish Sea, and it was a familiar face to the British GT scene; “We wanted to get another viewpoint on the project,” explained Barrie Whight. “It’s so easy to get sucked into the nitty gritty at race weekends that you sometimes miss the big picture. That’s where Graham comes in.”

An old friend of Paul Whight’s, Graham Nash was bringing his huge wealth of experience to Ireland on a consultancy basis, to oversee the engineering side of the operation. Initially for this meeting only, the arrangement may be extended further into the season if the team deems it to be a useful exercise.

Friday testing went well with the full three hours being utilised by both sets of drivers. The conditions on Friday were warm, sunny and dry; but Saturday was very different with a heavy drizzle being the main item on the menu for the 75 minute free practice.

Car #19 – Gavan Kershaw/Barrie Whight
Warm-up was a subdued affair for Barrie Whight and Gavan Kershaw, with the car finishing up 13th of the 16 runners; their best time of 2:03.515 was some eight seconds off the fastest GT2 car and also 2.5 seconds slower than the #20 Lotus. But there was no cause for concern, with the time difference being simply down to tyre choice, the #19 running on full wets.

In fact, there had been an issue with the tyres, this being that Avon simply hadn’t brought enough intermediates along for the meeting. The tyre supplier would thus have to hand-cut some slicks in order to make up the shortfall, but the team rejected the first ones supplied on the grounds of poor quality.

But neither of the drivers was concerned with the situation, reporting that the car was running well throughout the 75 minutes.

The weekend started in earnest after lunch, with qualifying for the two races. First up was Gavan Kershaw and his session was on the one hand remarkably routine, with no heroics being necessary to obtain a decent start position for Saturday’s race; but on the other hand it was also hugely impressive. After the initial slow installation lap, Kershaw found his pace right away and stayed there for the full session. His first flier was a 1:58.992 (which in itself would have qualified him sixth on the grid), but his consistency thereafter was extraordinary. Of his six subsequent laps, the slowest was just two tenths slower, and his fastest – 1:58.670 – was just three tenths quicker; and good enough for fifth on the grid. No other driver was as consistent, and Kershaw’s pace was a good omen for the race.

Shortly afterwards, Barrie Whight found himself in the driver’s seat and about to qualify for Sunday’s race. The start of his session, however, wasn’t as promising as Kershaw’s had been and he was struggling to get below two minutes; “I just couldn’t get any heat into the front tyres,” said Whight. “For most of the session I couldn’t go any faster, but then I decided that I had to hang it all out and just go for it.” Go for it he did, and he finished his penultimate lap an astounding 4.5 seconds faster than his previous best; “And it would have been quicker, except that I got it so sideways at one point that I almost stopped,” he smiled.

Whight’s banzai lap propelled him up the grid to sixth, just a couple of tenths behind the Team Tiger Marcos. “The adjustable traction control really came into its own out there,” revealed Whight. Kershaw, meanwhile, felt that qualifying could have gone better; “We still haven’t got the best set-up,” said the Norfolk driver.

With the track having dried by the start of Saturday afternoon’s race the intermediates would no longer be an issue, as the full grid would be racing on slicks. Gavan Kershaw took up his grid position, behind the two GT2 cars in the race and two of the Trackspeed Porsches; but he was looking a lot further ahead.

As the lights turned green, Gavan Kershaw gunned it and headed immediately for the inside. In a stunning move, he beat all but one car to the first corner and as the field exited the second turn, the #19 car was second only to the LNT Panoz.

With the GT2 Panoz easily pulling away from the field, Kershaw found himself in clear air. With no immediate challengers behind, he just concentrated on finding his rhythm; and again his consistency was amazing. The majority of his laps were in the 1:48s (only rising above 1:50 on his in-lap), and with each one he increased the gap over the GTC cars by a few tenths. He could do nothing about the Panoz, but this time –and for the first time - the impressive Exige had the measure of the GTC runners.

By the time the pitstop window opened, his lead over the #3 Trackspeed Porsche was 13 seconds; and on lap 15, Kershaw found himself leading the race overall, following the Panoz’s stop. The Exige led for two laps before it headed pitwards, Kershaw’s lead over the Panoz being 28 seconds at the time.

It was now up to Barrie Whight to bring the car home; but he had a problem. An engine mount had failed and the engine was leaning on the gearbox, causing the driver all sorts of problems; “The car was changing gear on me coming out of corners,” recalled Whight.

He dropped the pace to around the 1:54 mark and waited for the GTC cars to catch up; but they didn’t, much to Whight’s amazement; “I couldn’t believe that we stayed ahead of the others, given the state we were in.” Mechanical maladies and grip issues had slowed the pursuing cars to such an extent that the gap actually increased over the course of Whight’s stint.

The #19 survived to come home second overall, much to Gavan Kershaw’s delight; “Getting up the inside at the start got me the race. It was a case of getting through and hanging on tight – just like in my old oval-racing days,” he smiled. “It’s the first weekend we’ve been able to worry the GTC boys and the direction we’re going in is good.”

The team added an extra brace to the engine mount overnight to prevent a recurrence of the failure, and warm-up on Sunday morning was an opportunity to test the repair’s integrity. The test went well and the car’s time (slowest of the cars taking part) was not an indication of trouble.

Starting sixth on the grid for Sunday’s race meant that Barrie Whight would be lined up on the outside and so not in a position to even think of emulating Kershaw’s first lap heroics. In fact, the absence of the withdrawn Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari meant that the Team Tiger Marcos could move up into the gap, and Keith Ahlers was able to follow through in the Morgan. Having lost a position on the road, Whight got his thoughts together and set off in pursuit of the Morgan. However, no sooner had he begun to reel in the Aero 8 than his efforts became academic; the safety car was out.

Two Porsches had crashed at the first corner and were stuck in the gravel. The field was thus forced to circulate slowly behind the safety car while the lengthy recovery took place. While still under these conditions, the pit window opened and Whight had no choice but to pit, along with the majority of the field. Gavan Kershaw took over and resumed, still in sixth.

When the green flags were eventually waved again, with 26 minutes remaining, Kershaw was the first to react; challenging the Morgan through Dunlop Corner at the end of the lap and making the position stick when the cars reached Honda at the other end of the pit straight. He carried his momentum through the next couple of corners and attacked Chris Beighton’s Marcos through corner, deposing the orange car with a classic move on the inside.

He hadn’t finished there and was poised to claim his third victim of the lap at Devaney’s, approximately two thirds of the way round. This time, however, he got it wrong; “I clipped the (#5 Trackspeed) Porsche as I was overtaking and began to spin,” admitted Kershaw. “Then I hit him again with the front of the car; but fortunately that knocked me back in the right direction and I didn’t lose much time.” A big smearing of yellow paint on the front of the Exige was evidence of the second contact.

Despite the spin, Kershaw quickly recovered his pace and caught and passed Oliver Bryant’s Morgan with 21 minutes to go. This time, the Lotus driver made no mistake while going past Jonny Lang’s Porsche and he was now fourth overall.

He was no lapping more than a second a lap faster than the two GTC cars ahead of him. On lap 23, he got by Chris Beighton for the second time and then quickly reduced the gap to Ryan Hooker in the #3 Trackspeed Porsche; taking the place on lap 26. By the time the race ended, Kershaw’s gap over the next car had risen to six seconds.

So ended a very satisfactory weekend for the #19 Lotus Sport Cadena Exige, with the two victories meaning something more than winning a class of two cars; this time they had beaten the GTC field in a fair fight – and convincingly. Enjoy that champagne Gavan.

#20 George Mackintosh / Sam Blogg
The weekend started well for the drivers of #20, with the fastest time in free practice on Saturday being some 2.5 seconds faster than that of the #19. What did they put it down to? “Tyres,” said George Mackintosh; “The driver,” smiled Sam Blogg.

“We had a good test yesterday,” said Mackintosh. “It’s a very technical circuit that takes some getting to know, but the car’s great and we have had no issues so far.”

The team had not been idle since Pau and had managed to find time to make some adjustments to the ‘base’ car, a slightly wider track being fitted to the rear. But overall, the car was still some way back on the development curve than the two other cars.

When qualifying came round, things didn’t go so well for the #20 and Mackintosh struggled to get going, following a mix up on tyre choice, and ended up the slowest of the 16 car field. With there being just the two cars in the GT3 class, this had no major implications; it would certainly make the race more interesting.

With the tyres sorted, Sam Blogg was able to set a more representative time on the drying track, outqualifying Barrie Whight until the latter’s mega lap near the end of the session. Blogg’s time of 1:58.216 would mean a fifth row start (ninth place) for the Exige.

Just under three hours later, the first of the weekend’s two races began in brighter conditions and on a fully dry surface. At the back of the grid, George Mackintosh waited for the opportunity to make up for lost time; and in a repeat of what was happening ahead with Gavan Kershaw, Mackintosh took the opportunity with both hands. “That was great fun,” reflected the Scot later. “I took two or three cars at the first corner and then outbraked the JMH Ferrari into Turn 7a.” On the next lap, the #8 Hawthorns Motorsport Porsche fell victim to the charging Scot.

By this time, the rest of the pack had moved on and Mackintosh found himself in a pocket of clean air and the rest of his stint was relatively quiet. He was able to happily maintain a pace of around 1:53 and was easily able to resist the advances of a recovering Phil Burton, in the white and blue JHM Ferrari. From a starting place of 16th, the #20 was in tenth at the handover.

Unfortunately for Sam Blogg, the JMH Ferrari had managed to get by at the stop and was now being pedalled by the rapid Adam Wilcox. Blogg almost immediately upped the pace and was into the 1:51s within a couple of laps of resuming. He kept Wilcox in his sights, but soon found the grip beginning to disappear from his tyres and had to back off. With a couple of the leading GTC cars retiring from the race in the second half, the #20 was able to maintain its place on the road and finished eighth overall. For the second race in succession, both cars had made it home and Mackintosh and Blogg maintained their 100% finishing record.

The most positive aspect to Saturday’s race was that both drivers had driven faster in the race than at any point of the weekend so far; and the car was trouble free at the end.

Sam Blogg took the car back out for the ten minute warm up on Sunday morning and continued the good work, his fastest time of 1:50.941 being almost a second faster than he had previously gone.

Unlike George Mackintosh the previous day, Sam Blogg would have more than just the cars ahead to worry about at the start of his race; and he made a good start, getting past Wilcox’s Ferrari on the first lap.

With Barrie Whight having lost a place at the start, we briefly had the sight of the two Exiges running nose to tail as the second lap began. But things were not going to be easy for the next few laps; “There was a bit of fun and games at the start,” said Blogg, “but I had to then sit and wait for the tyres to come up.” With the required grip coming only slowly, Blogg was powerless to prevent first Adam Wilcox, then Matt Harris’s Trackspeed Porsche and finally Alex Mortimer in the #96 RPM Porsche from going by. Worse was to come, however; “I was braking for Dunlop Corner, when suddenly I was T-boned by a Porsche.” It wasn’t clear if the assault had come from Gary Eastwood or Phil Glew, but the result was a spin that demoted the car further. Two laps later, Glew was one of the drivers whose exit brought out the safety car.

As with the #19 car, Blogg pitted as soon as the pit window was open; it had been a very frustrating race for the young driver. George Mackintosh resumed, having lost another position, to the Beechdean Ferrari, at the changeover; but his biggest battle was to be with the car’s very uncooperative tyres and his pace was a long way off that achieved on Saturday. With such a lack of grip, Phil Burton was able to get by the Exige in the JMH car and Mackintosh could do nothing other than follow the Ferrari home in ninth place.

In contrast to the #19 Exige, the weekend had ended on a bit of a low for the #20, but it had again finished and the drivers still led the GT3 championship.

Mondello could only be viewed as a success for Lotus Sport Cadena, and another positive step on the road of the Exige’s development. The next round will take place on home turf in Norfolk at Snetterton in three weeks’ time and the team can be assured of lots of local support. But this time they will not be alone in the class, with the Ascari KZ1s of Damax joining in, and possibly the return of the Aston Martins. Will this be a reality check for the team, or could they again produce a surprise?
Mark Howson

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