British GT Championship – Rockingham

Reaping The Rewards

The Lotus Sport Cadena squad debuted its third brand new Lotus Exige GT3 car at Rockingham Motor Speedway near Corby over the weekend, and celebrated with a 100% finishing record.

The new #18 car finally replaces the Lotus factory development car campaigned so far this season by Paul Whight and Chris Randall. Whight would be joined at Rockingham by GT debutant Russell Treasure, another graduate from the Mid-Engined Sportscar Championship, following in the steps of George Mackintosh and Sam Blogg.

Friday Practice
The new for 2006 GT3 class initially enjoyed a five car entry with a pair of Porsche 997s joining the trio of Exiges, but a broken gearbox for the #15 RPM 997 would leave the Exiges battling against the crack Tech 9 squad with, rather unusually, the driver pairing of Leo Machitski and Jonathan Cocker, more usually seen aboard a Barwell Motorsport Aston Martin. This pair was on a mission to take points in the GT3 class, the 2006 title still very much up for grabs. For the Lotus boys it was the usual story of pace vs development: the battle to bring a brand new race car up to speed adds immeasurably to the challenge of finishing races quickly and reliably.

Delivered only the previous evening - “We got the car at 10:30 last night” - the Friday morning session was interrupted by the almost inevitable new car niggles but once the team had dealt with those the car proved to have excellent pace in the afternoon session. Gavan Kershaw tried the car for size and immediately got down to some highly impressive lap times, before climbing back aboard his regular #19 mount and all but matching his times in #18 - as Paul Whight and GT debutant Russell Treasure found their feet with the new car.

Kershaw would go quicker still in #19, until his session was rudely interrupted by the dry sump plug coming loose, stranding the Exige by the roadside and forcing a red flag with half an hour of the afternoon’s 90 minute session remaining.

The #20 car meanwhile was having an (almost) drama free day, a minor coming together with a Ferrari in the afternoon session the only interruption of a lengthy test and practice session for Sam Blogg and George Mackintosh.

The unique (for the UK) banked turn one was proving to be something of a telling factor for many teams – who could take it flat and who couldn’t being something of a test of driver mettle and, crucially, the capabilities of the cars.

The Exiges were “fully flat” through the banking, according to Barrie Whight, once again underlining the traditional benefits of a light and nimble car against the heavier and often more powerful opposition.

Team Manager Graham Nash concurred: “The car’s at its best through the fast corners, such as Turn 1 here and Coram at Snetterton.”

Saturday Qualifying
The new #18 Exige was in early trouble with its new bodywork causing problems, fouling the rear tyres on both sides of the car, but Paul Whight still managed to post a competitive time before the session closed.

Things were going far better for Gavan Kershaw in the #19 car, 1:24.690 good enough for third fastest overall behind only the two leading GT2 cars.

There was good news, and good form too, for Sam Blogg. He was encouragingly close to Lotusmeister Kershaw’s time with a 1:26.024, second in GT3, sixth overall and, critically, ahead of Leo Machitski’s Porsche.

The second session would see Barrie Whight making an excellent start, a 1:25.081 good enough to better Porsche man Jonathan Cocker’s early efforts. The 2004 British GT Champion though would grab back the advantage late in the session, but his time was still slower than Kershaw’s class pole time for the first race.

Saturday – Race 1
Gavan Kershaw was looking very racy at the start of Race 1 on Saturday afternoon: he had a grandstand view of some argy bargy between the two leading GT2 runners, but that clash barred his way ahead, and instead he was left to chase down Phil Keen in the #3 Trackspeed Porsche who had passed both the Lotus and the GT2 Panoz before the second turn.

Kershaw was past the Porsche by the end of Lap 1 (the Panoz having already re-passed Keen) with a deft duck up the inside through the squiggly complex before the pit straight.

Gavan Kershaw’s pace soon saw the GTC class car fall well behind with a substantial advantage in hand over the Sam Blogg pedalled #20 Lotus, the youngster fending off Machitski’s Porsche 997 in a spirited battle.

But at the end of lap 7, all of Kershaw’s hard work came undone, together with the silencer on the #19 car’s exhaust. The black and orange flag was shown and an enforced early stop saw the GT3 lead swap from #19 to #20, Kershaw rejoining almost exactly a lap later, now fourth and last in class - Sam Blogg now heading GT3.

Blogg strengthened his hold on the class lead after Machitski had a quick spin, damaging his Avons in the process: Sam though had his own moment just a lap or so later and by the end of lap 13 the pair were right together once again.

By now the brand new #18 car, Paul Whight at the wheel, was closing in on the Porsche and was setting some impressive lap times in doing so.

It was all about to change again though. Sam Blogg’s car had developed a minor misfire and that was all that Machitski needed to get the Porsche by the battling little Exige, Paul Whight going second just a lap later.

The pit stop window now loomed and the Porsche was the first of the four GT3 runners to make a routine stop, after 17 laps. Paul Whight then led the class, so all three Exiges had therefore done so in the first half of the race! Sam Blogg followed in second with the recovering #19 car still in the hands of Gavan Kershaw half a minute or so behind in third, and fairly storming along.

Six laps later and all four GT3s had completed their routine stops. Slight delays for the #18 and #20 cars meant that the task of chasing down the Porsche now fell to Barrie Whight in the delayed #19 car.

Sam Blogg: “It’s good to be in the sharp end of the race now the car is beginning to really find some form. I got a good start but five or six laps in developed a misfire, but still stayed pretty much in the hunt.”

Paul Whight (exiting the car, left): “The car felt strong but the grip after the early laps was non existent. Tarzan (Hairpin) was impossible I just could not get the power down. I had great fun out there though. I drafted the (JMH) Ferrari for three laps and finally got past. My first ever NASCAR style overtake!”

Jonathan Cocker in the #34 Porsche looked to have the class won though. There was a glimmer of hope for Cadena when the Porsche overshot turn two (a legacy of the flatspotted rubber) – but the young Yorkshireman ensured that he gained no advantage (and took no disadvantage either) lapping the full oval and waiting to rejoin in the same position he had left the race.

Any hopes that Barrie Whight had of catching the Porsche were to evaporate with a second failure of the same bolt securing the silencer on #19, another enforced pit stop and more frustration. “We’ll push the boat out and pop rivet it for the next race,” said a rueful Gavan Kershaw.

So the #19 car had led the class, dropped to fourth, popped back up into second spot and, with a late puncture to add to their woes, would eventually come home fourth, after a dramatic 60 minutes.

For Barrie Whight it had proved to be “really frustrating, the car was quick but the two stops really cost us a class win. Aside from that I got a puncture right at the end. The rear diffuser took a bang, possibly off a kerb, and part of it bent upwards and slashed the tyre. I knew I was in trouble as early as turn two on my last lap and struggled back. I lost third in class as a result and thought I’d follow the example of a Tech 9 car a little while back at Oulton, that is come around to the start finish straight and cross the line when the chequered flag was shown. I drove off the circuit onto the grass but the team was screaming at me to go back on, I did, about two metres before the line, just as they flagged for the end of the race.”

George Mackintosh meanwhile was powering home in the still misfiring #20. He would be “pleased we brought it home and very pleased that we’re still leading the championship. There was a lot of bumping out there, way too much contact.” It had indeed been a somewhat physical race, and one incident in particular involved the GT3 Championship leading car (and the GTC race leader).

With fluid seemingly down at the tight right hairpin behind the pits, Mackintosh took his usual approach and braking point just as the GTC class leading RPM Porsche was looking for a way past. The Lotus pilot takes up the story: “I was ahead of the Porsche and more or less took my regular braking line into the hairpin. His front right hand corner hit my front left hand wheel. He got ahead as a result but the Porsche started pouring out fluid immediately. He spun on his own fluid a couple of corners later and I nearly got collected again.”

The Lotus, though very much the lighter car, was all but undamaged and finished the race third in class after recovering from a half spin, a legacy of the impact with the Porsche.

That meant the second spot in GT3 was taken by Paul Whight and GT racing debutant Russell Treasure (below): “Unbelievable, I only got my International Licence this week and to finish on the podium in my first race at this level is just fabulous. The car was great and the team are just a magnificent lot.”

Paul Whight summed it up for the team: “I’m delighted we brought all three cars home for the first time and to get two on the podium is excellent.” Here are Sam Blogg and George Mackintosh.

A major step forward then for the Lotus Sport Cadena squad and there was still Sunday’s race to come.

Sunday - Race 2
After an action packed GT3 race to open the weekend, Sunday’s 60 minute event would be a rather quieter affair, but it would mark another important milestone in the effort to develop the Lotus Exige GT3.
The #18 and #20 Lotuses started well back for this one and whilst they ran quickly and close together for much of the race, they weren’t to play a part in the outcome of the race overall.

Barrie Whight would start in the #19 Exige and he would be matched against Jonathan Cocker in the Tech 9 997. This pair was never more than three seconds apart, running in third and fourth overall. Both would lap very quickly indeed, Cocker setting the best GT3 lap of the day, a 1:25.505 on lap 3, but Barrie Whight was almost as fast (a 1:25.7 on lap 4, almost matching Kershaw’s Saturday pace).
Whight and Kershaw were absolutely thrilled with the pace of their Exige against the new Porsche: “Don’t forget that car has been a podium sitter in the European championship.”

Cocker complained later that his charge had been blunted by fluid loss from the Exige ahead, but that was roundly denied by the team. Barrie Whight: “There’s no way the car was losing fluid to the extent that Jonny claimed, we had no problems at all. Of course we’re delighted with the win. That was a good example of exactly where the car is in performance terms – that’s where we’re at.”

Whight pitted after 18 laps, and with Kershaw straight into the low 1:26s, he was catching the Porsche even before Leo Machitski got into it. A relatively slow out lap and then laps in 1:30 by Machitski sealed a comfortable GT3 win for the #19 Lotus. Fluid leak or not, the #19 Lotus absolutely dominated the second half of the GT3 race, and even had the Safety Car allowed the Porsche to catch up, the result wouldn’t have been in doubt.

That meant a third class win of the season so far for the #19 squad: they will however miss the next double-header at Brands Hatch – Barrie Whight (right) having an altogether more important event to attend. The future Mrs Whight awaits!

Gavan Kershaw: “That was a great stint from Baz. The car was perfect when I got in it and in truth that was a reasonably straightforward run. The car is really beginning to show the results of all the hard work so far this season now and it has been very hard work from the whole team. The interest in the car is phenomenal. We have had a huge number of people in the garage this weekend taking a look at the car, taking a look at GT racing. It is looking very good for the future.”

Paul Whight eventually took over from Russell Treasure in the #18 Lotus (after the starting driver had been waved through on his first attempt to pit – at the same time as George Mackintosh), and chased home Sam Blogg’s #20, these two finishing 11th and 12th overall.

So a 100% finishing record and no major reliability issues at all for the three Exige S GT3 cars, all three driver squads visiting the podium during the weekend and the class battle leading #20 squad of Mackintosh and Blogg making it there twice.

“It’s very hard indeed to race cars as you develop them,” said a tired but delighted Gavan Kershaw. “But we’ve seen this weekend that the cars are now quick and reliable. I’m very chuffed indeed to have beaten the Porsche, that is a truly significant result with the aim in sight of seeing Lotus compete in Europe once again.”

 

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