British GT Championship – Pau

Progress At Pau

Less than a fortnight after Donington Park, Lotus Sport Cadena’s three Exiges were to be found in the temporary paddock of the extraordinary street circuit of Pau, in the French Pyrenees. This time they found themselves the sole GT3 cars and would have the company of eight GTC cars from the British GT Championship, plus 20 from the FFSA Super Serie. It was also evident on arrival, and from weather reports, that rain would not be a factor this weekend. The goal was simple; make progress. Here's the team to do just that.

Car #18 – Paul Whight / Chris Randall
“This is an awesome circuit,” began Paul Whight. “None of us have ever driven a street circuit before and it is very different; you find yourself watching the barriers rather than the track.”

The first chance to drive the tight, twisty, but in places very fast, track came on Friday evening, during the first of the two free practice sessions. Understandably enough, that first session was about finding the way round and getting to know the track, rather than going for quick laps. The #18 car ran reliably and without problems, and both Paul Whight and Chris Randall got some valuable and useful seat time. This was just as well, because the next time either of the drivers would sit in the car would be on Sunday.

As we will see later, car #19 had hit problems early on in the session and completed just one lap. With the 45 minutes of free practice on Saturday morning being the only opportunity to practice before qualifying on Sunday, and with the required components for the affected car still being in England, the decision was taken to put Barrie Whight and Gavan Kershaw into #18.

Again, the car performed well and, aside from minor bodywork damage, emerged unscathed. But both sets of drivers had only had half of the potential seat time and would have to find the available pace during qualifying and the race itself.

Chris Randall would have the honour of qualifying first and took full advantage of the semi-clear track (the British cars qualifying separately from the French cars).

The fastest time set by the car on Saturday was a 1:25.835. Given that this had been achieved by Lotus-meister Gavan Kershaw, for Randall to record a 1:26.310 on his second lap in a car and on a circuit that he was still getting to know, was both impressive and encouraging.

“I’m very happy with that time as it was bang on what I was aiming for,” said a relaxed Chris Randall after the session, “but there’s so much more time to be found out there; probably a couple of seconds.

“Because Paul and I have had so little time in the car here, we don’t know the corners well enough to attack them and so aren’t carrying enough speed through them. I know that there is a second to be found just by getting the first hairpin right. But we’ve run out of testing time, so now it will be a case of chipping away at the corners to find the lap times.”

Paul Whight was very happy with the way the weekend was proceeding, despite missing out on the second practice session. “The car has been superb,” said the team owner. “Because of that, we’ve had the chance to work on the set up, trying things out. The car is getting smoother and is handling better all the time. We’ve still got some issues with the track and tyre width, but the #19 car will be testing the changes out. This car will be trying out new aerodynamic tweaks.

“The aerodynamics is the area of development that has the most potential. With the car as it is, you get to 100/110 mph and hit a (metaphorical) wall. We’ll be doing more work after Mondello in conjunction with the factory.”

The Sunday race would turn out to be a good one for this car. Starting on a still very warm and sunny evening, and in front of a big crowd, it was an interesting mix of cars that crossed the line at the beginning of the 58 minutes.

Chris Randall had prepared himself well for the start of the race and, once the pack was past the no-overtaking portion of the track on the first lap, began to move forwards; “I had a great set-up and was able to take three cars on the first lap,” said Randall. “We had a bit of understeer which made it difficult to turn in to corners, but we were going well. Then the oil came down and it was a case of tip-toeing around until that was cleaned up.”

The oil spill had brought out the safety car and it stayed out for four laps. After that, Randall drove steadily and concentrated on staying in contention. He pitted with 23 minutes of the race remaining and Paul Whight took over.

Whight’s race was to prove uneventful but fruitful; “I overtook two cars, but basically drove at 90% for most of my stint in order to bring the car home.” It may not have been spectacular, but it was enough to take the GT3 win. In contrast to the other two Exiges, the #18 car was in great shape and ready for Monday’s action.

Monday morning’s qualifying session went very encouragingly for Lotus Sport Cadena, with all three cars setting a best time within three-tenths of each other. The fastest of these was the #18, Paul Whight recording a 1:25.829.

Sadly, the car’s excellent weekend would soon be over. Despite leading the trio of Exiges around for the first couple of laps (and a very impressive sight it was, too), the #18 failed to materialise at the end of the sixth lap. Whight had hit the barriers and, despite only light damage being visible to the left hand side of the car, the car could not resume.

Car #19 – Barrie Whight / Gavan Kershaw
Despite the spectacular manner of the #19’s demise at Donington, the car needed little more than a clean up after the race; “I didn’t even know the car was on fire until the team told me,” recalled Barrie Whight, “but it looked worse than it was. I’m told that oil fires are the ones that do for the engine. Fuel fires aren’t that bad in comparison.”

The start of the Pau weekend mirrored the end of the previous meeting for the #19, with the car quickly succumbing to problems. There was no inferno this time, just a failed driveshaft. “It was a temporary fix that didn’t work,” said Whight. “The replacements will be arriving on Saturday afternoon.” Just one lap had been completed and so the two drivers commandeered the #18 car for the second free practice session.

Gavan Kershaw was first out and was quickly getting to grips with the track. Barrie Whight’s session was less productive, however; “I was a bit too anxious to make up for lost time and had a small contact with the barrier. Fortunately, there was only slight bodywork damage and when I came back out I just took it easy, to get my confidence levels back up.”

By the time qualifying arrived on Sunday morning, the newly arrived driveshaft had been installed and the car was feeling strong. Kershaw was on duty that morning and fair bundled the car around the track. A 1:24.152 was testament to his efforts; fastest in GT3 and fifth of the British runners. “It’s nice to get some seat time,” smiled Gavan afterwards.” The driveshaft went in okay and the car feels strong.”

With just the Exiges in the GT3 category at Pau, what was the goal for Gavan Kershaw this weekend? “We just want to learn more about the car,” he replied. “We’ve got a wish list for things that we want to try out on this car; for instance, we’ve got different dampers and wishbone geometry on this car. If it works, we’ll roll it out to the other cars. However, we’ve got to segregate the list into those things that are for the team and those that are for the manufacturer.”

Kershaw was less positive about other aspects of making the trip to the south of France. “Because we’re the only cars here, we’ll only get half points. The really ridiculous thing, though, is that we’ll get ballast if we finish and be penalised for racing against ourselves! The logical thing to do would be to race for most of the distance and then retire shortly before the end,” he said with a rueful smile.

The only thing Gavan Kershaw had on his mind later that day, however, was racing.

Starting from 12th in the combined pack, he made an excellent start and was past both of the RPM Porsches on the first lap (“Who said you can’t pass round here?”) and was now trying to bridge the gap to the Morgan ahead. However, the car’s progress would be dramatically slowed just a handful of laps later.

A French Porsche dropped oil the whole way round the circuit and the race authorities were too slow to react for Gavan Kershaw; “It was ridiculous that we had to stay out there at racing speed while the oil was going down. I ran over it twice before they did anything about it,” he fumed. The oil caught him out before the oil flags were even shown and a spin cost him a lap. The safety car came out too late for the #19.

Kershaw recovered his composure and got on with the job of recovery. However, with just under half of the race remaining, the car snapped sideways on the driver and hit the barrier; “We think an upright broke, which then broke a wishbone,” said the driver. “There was nothing I could do.” The car’s retirement meant more work for the Lotus Sport Cadena mechanics, and no chance for Barrie Whight to get more seat time.

The required repairs were once more carried out by the enthusiastic team and a fit and healthy car took to the track at 08.30 on Monday morning. If Barrie Whight was nervous at the start of his session, he didn’t show it and, given that his experience of the track extended to fewer than six laps, set a very good time of 1:26.196.

He made the most of his session and it was a very much more relaxed driver who sat on the grid awaiting the start of the second race in the late afternoon.

With his two sister cars directly ahead, Barrie Whight was not going to try any ambitious early moves; but as they both hit early trouble, the #19 driver found himself alone amongst Porsches.

He was now enjoying himself and having a great battle with Miles Hulford in the #4 Trackspeed Porsche, a battle that lasted for the majority of his stint. Barrie Whight defended well and only yielded track position on the lap before he pitted, with 34 minutes of the race remaining. “I’m very happy with that stint,” he said, “and I was so glad to get some pace at last.

“It was chaos on the first lap, but I survived that and was going well. Then Sam (Blogg) had a moment with a Porsche and I saw the #18 in the barriers – Lotuses were dropping like flies! I then found some space and had a great fight with Miles.

“It took me a while to realise that I was focused on him and not on the track and was going slower than I needed to; it’s easy to do that round here.”

With Gavan Kershaw now installed, we were at last treated to the sight of an Exige making rapid progress – it was like 2004 (and the legendary #88 Elise) all over again; “I got my head down and just passed whatever was in front,” said Kershaw.

He was soon scything through the field; hunting down Phil Burton’s JMH Porsche and passing in a breathtakingly brave move amidst a pack of five cars on the approach to the first corner.

The car didn’t miss a beat and Kershaw brought the #19 home for an emphatic class win and ninth overall (of 29 starters). In the end, it was just 29 seconds off the winning GTC Porsche.

“This isn’t what today was about,” said Gavan afterwards, indication the winner’s trophy in his hands. “Today was all about the fact that the car is beginning to show its potential.”

“We’ve probably only explored 50% of the potential,” added Barrie Whight. “For instance, we’ve learnt today that the traction out of slow corners is unbelievable; much better than a Porsche’s – that will be a major advantage at Mondello. We’re only just getting to know the car.”

Gavan Kershaw ended by paying tribute to his team mate’s efforts; ““When you consider that Barrie had had virtually no seat time in the first three days of the meeting, to then set a qualifying time as fast as the others and then to race as well as he did today; that made the weekend possible.”

Car #20 – George Mackintosh / Sam Blogg
The third of the Lotus Sport Cadena Exiges was the ‘base car’; i.e. it would be running in factory-fresh spec, with none of the tweaks being tested on the other cars. It would receive these as the season progressed as and when the improvements were signed off.

But this lack of development in no way detracted from the buzz that George Mackintosh was getting from driving at Pau; “It’s an extraordinary circuit,“ he enthused, “and such a privilege to be able to drive here.”

It certainly wasn’t an easy circuit, but the London-based entrepreneur was enjoying the challenge, despite a less than satisfactory start to proceedings; “I was psyching myself up for the start of Friday’s session and was very nervous. Then the (Trackspeed) Porsche put the oil down and they red-flagged it on the first lap! I could have done without that. But it’s a very bumpy and tight circuit, very different to where we usually race; at places, we are literally two metres from someone’s front door!”

His team mate in the car, Sam Blogg (who was celebrating his 21st birthday later in the week), was taking things in his stride; “The car’s relatively new and the track is new, but we’re getting quicker every time we get in the car. We got 20 minutes in each free practice session, but there’s not much we can do about the car’s pace.”

“The engine’s pretty much maxed out,” added Mackintosh, “but there is so much potential in the car’s aerodynamics; that is where the improvements will come from.”

By the end of the first qualifying session, Mackintosh was feeling a little more grounded; “That was an uneventful session for me,” he began. “I improved my time from yesterday but could have done with an extra ten laps.” His 1:29.599 would mean a start from the back row of the grid.

The advantage of this start position was that he would be able to see any first lap dramas coming and react accordingly, but it was when the oil was dropped early in the race that things started to get uncomfortable; “I was two cars back from the offending Porsche and could see the oil coming down and splashing around,” said Mackintosh, who also confirmed Gavan Kershaw’s assertion that the cars did a second lap at racing speed on the dropped oil.

As the safety car was being deployed, George Mackintosh found himself suddenly lapped by the much more rapid (Pirelli-shod FFSA) Vipers, with the result that he was the filling in a Dodge sandwich as the SC peeled off. “It was bumper cars at the restart, with me being bumped,” said an aggrieved George. “They had no patience and were trying to barge me out of the way instead of going round; on more than one corner I was ‘assisted’ round.”

And things got worse for the #20; “Then I lost radio-contact with the pits; when you have it, you come to rely on it.”

Despite these dramas, George Mackintosh completed his stint and handed the battered car over to Sam Blogg. But things weren’t going to get any easier for the youngster.

A great opening part to his stint was soon ended by the onset of gearbox trouble. “An engine mount failed and the engine was resting on the gearbox,” explained George Mackintosh afterwards. “It meant Sam couldn’t select a gear properly.” After a late stop to get this checked out, Blogg resumed to try and get to the end; achieving that aim, but with smoke pouring from the back of the car. This didn’t signify anything serious, however, and the drivers could celebrate a hard-won second in class.

The next morning, Sam Blogg qualified the newly repaired Exige in between the two sister cars with a 1:26.141 on new Avon rubber. “The car felt good,” said Blogg. “We only stopped to check the tyre pressures, but apart from a minor (and quickly sorted) misfire, we had no problems.”

The car started in 20th position for the second race, but it was destined to be no easier for the two drivers. Just a handful of laps in, a Porsche on the road ahead of Blogg had a moment and contact couldn’t be avoided. The stop to repair the bodywork (with masses of gaffer tape) lost them two laps and effectively put them out of contention straight away.

It was now just a case of bringing the car home and George Mackintosh did just that after taking over from Sam Blogg with 26 minutes remaining. The car’s second podium of the weekend (18th overall) and the points that came with it meant that Blogg and Mackintosh now headed the GT3 driver standings. It also meant that they had a 100% finishing record from the first three races.

Valuable progress had been made at Pau by Lotus Sport Cadena, and much had been learnt about the car. With so little time until the next meeting in Mondello Park in Ireland, there will not be the opportunity to do much to the cars in the intervening period and so they will be racing in pretty much the same spec.

But the Exige’s potential is really starting to show now and Mondello could very well be just the place to further illustrate it.
Mark Howson

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