British GT Championship – Snetterton

Mastering The Challenge

A full strength Lotus Sport Cadena made the ‘long trek’ from Hethel to Snetterton ready to make battle with the Barwell Motorsport Aston Martin DBRS9s and, for the first time, the Ascari KZ1s of Damax. As well as the third Exige, the team brought along a healthy lead in GT3 to be defended and, rather less welcome, an awful lot of extra weight.

Despite the team’s support for the series (and being the only entrants in the class for the last two meetings), the organisers deemed a concession to be unnecessary and applied the full handicapping criteria. Thus, both #19 and #20 would be carrying an extra 60kg, while one of the much heavier Barwell cars would carry 30kg; the second Aston and the Ascaris would have no extra weight at all. It didn’t take a genius to work out who had got the raw end of the deal here, but at least the field of seven GT3 cars would mean that full points would be up for grabs, rather than the half points awarded at the French and Irish races. Sam Blogg and George Mackintosh arrived in Norfolk with a seven point championship lead over Barrie Whight and Gavan Kershaw, with Chris Randall and Paul Whight a further five points behind.

With the three cars being at different stages of development, Gavan Kershaw (smiling as ever, above) decided that it was time to be Mr Motivator. In testing on Friday, he drove all three cars around the track and got them all in to the 1:12s; thus demonstrating that, while nobody knows a Lotus like Kershaw, there was no major advantage enjoyed by any one car over the others. This gesture enthused the team and drivers and everyone went to work with a spring in their step. The Lotus Roadshow added to the sense of occasion at the team's local track.

Car #18 – Paul Whight/Chris Randall
The plan originally was for this car to be the third new chassis by this stage in the season, but with so much development happening on the #19 car (whereby any successful enhancements would be transferred to the other cars) the decision had been made to postpone the switch. As had been shown by Gavan Kershaw earlier, the old ‘test hack’ still had plenty of speed in it and the 90 minute free practice in the Saturday morning sun went well. Apart from one thing; “All three cars have had noise issues,” explained Paul Whight. “It’s not the volume, but the high pitch of the exhaust note that’s the problem with us.” With the ‘noise police’ insistent on changes being made, silencers had to be modified or replaced; “Our car has ended up with a length of pipe sticking out of the back of the exhaust – if the Porsches get as friendly as they normally do, they’re going to be finding holes in their exhausts!” laughed Whight.

With Snetterton being a power circuit, and very different from Pau and Mondello, there was no great expectation of running at the front of the field. However, Chris Randall was very positive about one particular aspect of the car’s performance; “The brakes are fantastic,” he declared. “What we lose in the straights, we make right back up on the brakes!”

Free practice saw the car running comfortably in the 1:14s and able to dip into the 1:13s, despite running on old rubber on narrower rears than the Kershaw car; nine inch rears compared to the #19’s new ten inch wheels. “I’ve done a 1:13 dead on old rubber. If I can get into the 12s in qualifying I’ll be happy; if not, I’ll have a very long face,” said Chris Randall.

The younger of the two Group C drivers qualified first, and he achieved his aim on only his second lap. Three rapid laps delivered first a 1:12.855, then a 1:12.639, before finally a 1:12.559. This was good enough for tenth overall and fifth in class and Randall was very happy with his pace.

Paul Whight managed to set his fastest time (1:15.543) on his first lap in the second session. However, on his second lap he pitted to have some set-up changes made and, with there being only 15 minutes available in which to qualify, found that he was unable to improve in the time left once he resumed.

But the car was in good shape and would need nothing more than tinkering before the afternoon’s race, which would begin ten minutes ahead of schedule at twenty past four, in glorious sunshine.

The weather may have been glorious, but, alas, the #18’s race was not. Chris Randall had barely found his feet when a gearbox mount gave way (in previous races a weak spot on the Exige had been the engine mounts, but these had been reinforced) on lap three. With most of the race ahead, Randall had no choice but to back off the pace and switch to a survival strategy.

His pace in the circumstances was impressive. Having got used to the problem, he managed to get the car moving again mid-stint and at one point reached the 1:14s; but he was losing ground all the while. He kept it going to the pitstop window and Paul Whight took over.

The car pitted on lap 27, but it was clear that the problem was getting worse all the time. Lap 29 was a 1:19, followed by a 1:23. Whight tried to go faster and brought the time down to 1:18, but that was more than the car could take and it coasted to a halt across the line.

It was to be a busy night for the Lotus Sport Cadena mechanics, one that saw the engine and gearbox replaced. Such was the scale of the job that repairs were only just completed in time for the second race, early on Sunday afternoon.

The one opportunity to test the repairs (warm-up) had come and gone a long time previously. But at least the car was in the race.

With the race start being shortly after lunch, the sun was at its hottest and it was very warm indeed in the car. Paul Whight was starting a long way down the grid after the qualifying issues, but it seemed to be going okay. The car was able to circulate in the 1:15s consistently, but didn’t seem able to go any quicker; and so it proved. A clutch problem was preventing the driver from changing down more than one gear at a time and this cost the car time on every corner.

Whight pitted on lap 24 and handed over to Chris Randall. Although able to go a bit faster (getting into the 1:14s), the same problem was hampering progress, much to Randall’s frustration. But worse was to follow as a CV joint failed soon afterwards and the car was out for the second time. On both occasions, the #18’s race had lasted 32 laps.

“It’s been a turbulent weekend,” mused Chris Randall afterwards, “but despite all the mechanical problems, we’ve shown the car is capable of being quick on a power circuit. We were monstering the Porsches!”

Car #19 – Barrie Whight/Gavan Kershaw
After the great leap forward that had been Mondello Park in June, the drivers of #19 were looking forward to a good tussle with their GT3 foes; GTC had been beaten in Ireland, so it was now a case of racing against their peers in the new category.

Things rarely stand still in the world of Lotus Sport Cadena and the car was sporting a number of enhancements that had been applied in the workshops in the three weeks since the last race. As well as the ten inch width rears, the car had a new diffuser, new barge boards and various other tweaks; the pace of development on the car is unrelenting.

“The car’s mechanically sound and both Gav and I are happy that what’s been done to the car is working,” said Barrie Whight after free practice; a session that had seen the car set the eighth fastest time overall with a 1:11.638. “We’re not off the pace as much as we’d feared.”

“We’re not happy that we’ve got GTC cars overtaking us on the straights,” added Gavan Kershaw, “but nobody’s going through the corners faster than us. I’ll be looking for P3 in qualifying; if we do that, we’ll have done all we can do. The one thing we know for sure is that the car is consistent over a race distance.”

Before qualifying began, Kershaw was delighted to note during the driver briefing that Barwell Motorsport was treating Lotus Sport Cadena very much as a direct competitor. The Exige may not yet be homologated for FIA GT3, but the Aston Martin team has clearly been keeping an eye on its rival’s progress over the past few weeks.

Qualifying probably did little to allay Barwell’s fears as Kershaw put his rubber where his mouth is and planted the Exige on the fourth row of the grid; third in GT3 with 1:11.763. He may have been a second off the #66 Aston Martin’s pace, but that car was carrying no ballast and no GT3 equivalency formula yet exists in BGT; in other words, this was not a race of equals.

Next up was Barrie Whight for qualifying for Sunday’s race. With the two Ascaris having their faster drivers in the seat, it was no surprise that they took the two top places in class. But things were close for third spot.

On a busy track, Whight was struggling to find the space for a clear run and a fast time. On two occasions he backed right off in his quest for the space, but it just wasn’t there. His fastest lap came two-thirds through the session at 1:13.721. Paul Drayson, meanwhile had made the most of his first lap and recorded a 1:13.699. This was to remain his best lap and so Whight missed out on third by four hundredths of a second.

Gavan Kershaw’s start at Mondello Park had been fantastic, with a cheeky blast up the inside at the first corner leaving him second overall; what could he do here?

His goal of moving up through the field was made considerably easier by first Chris Niarchos starting from the pitlane in the GT2 Ferrari and also by the kill-switch tripping on Phil Keen’s Eclipse Mosler. Stuart Turvey made a poor start in the #45 Ascari and Kershaw now just had Jonathan Cocker’s #66 DBRS9 ahead of him. Rather as the laws of physics state that a bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, so the laws of racing say that an Exige shouldn’t be able to monster an Aston Martin on a power circuit. But it took Kershaw until only the third lap to do just that and local hero was through into the class lead; “I’ll bet they weren’t expecting that!” said the Lotus man.

Despite his power advantage, Cocker could not regain the place; but help was to come from a third party. A spin had dropped David Dove’s Ferrari a long way back and the leaders were soon lapping the red car. Unfortunately for Kershaw, as he tried to do the same, the cars touched and the Exige spun back down the field. Although recovering quickly, Gavan had lost a lot of ground and was now behind both Ascaris. Worse still, the second Aston was right on his tail and lapping quicker.

This four way battle continued up to the pitstops. The Aston swept by the other three cars, but Kershaw was able to take the #90 Ascari and close on to the tail of the #45. Before he could make a move, however, both Ascaris pitted for their driver changes. Unfortunately for the Lotus, both cars rejoined the track just in front and he would now have to race the KZ1s’ faster drivers.

Kershaw closed as the Ascaris came up to speed, but he couldn’t get through. For several laps, the Exige was right behind his two rivals into Russell Bend and on lap 24 he made his move; ”…….and then I was in an Ascari sandwich, and there was a bit of rubbin’,” was how Kershaw described the moment, one that saw his car come off worst. A spin across the grass was the immediate result of the contact, but the car was out, the gears refusing to work for the driver.

As with the #18 sister car, an engine and gearbox swap would be required. Unlike the other car, the #19 was able to take part in warm-up, but the sight of Dave Kershaw kneeling at the back of the car after the session looking at the gearbox and shaking his head did not auger well. “The gearbox isn’t right, but there’s no time to change it,” explained Gavan Kershaw. “We can race, but it’s a question of how long it will last.”

These weren’t ideal circumstances for Barrie Whight to start the race in, but at least he would get a race, unlike on Saturday.

Whight’s start was as assertive as Kershaw’s had been and he wasn’t hanging around for three laps before getting the Aston, doing the deed on the first lap. The Chelmsford driver then spent the next dozen laps with a big angry green machine in his mirrors, but he wasn’t fazed and was able to keep the Aston at bay.

But it wasn’t just the DBRS9 that Whight was fighting; “The tyres lasted for 15 minutes and then I had understeer into Sear Corner followed by massive oversteer out of Coram,” explained Whight. “I’m not a drifting champion like Gav, but I was coming through Coram sideways; I was on the limit every time just trying to get round.” Unfortunately for Whight, he went over the limit on lap 13 and spun. Only ten seconds were lost, but the Aston was now ahead.

Whight carried on and handed the car over to Gavan Kershaw without further problems. The Ascaris were well out of range by this point, but it was still conceivable that the #66 could be caught once more and a Kershaw charge is virtually guaranteed. But not today, alas; “A supercharger pipe came loose, otherwise I would have been after him,” reflected Kershaw afterwards. The car was into the 1:12s before the problem and its fastest lap came on lap 29; but with the problem costing him several seconds per lap, all the Norfolk driver could do was bring the car home to fourth place.

After such a weekend, it would be reasonable to find two disappointed drivers; but not a bit of it. “Okay, it’s been a little bit frustrating, but it’s easy to see the positives,” began Barrie Whight. “We have moved forward,” agreed Gavan Kershaw.

“It’s been great to see all the local support here,” continued Whight. “We’ve had 250 Lotus employees come to cheer us along and the interest from the factory has been tremendous. There’s been a real big-meeting atmosphere about it today.”

#20 Sam Blogg/ George Mackintosh
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” is George Mackintosh’s summing up of the #20 Exige. The car with the least amount of development of the three finds itself leading the way in the GT3 championship after an unbroken run of points finishes. “The strategy so far has been to finish and Sam and I are coming round to the idea that perhaps we should just carry on as we’re going, rather than look for more and more speed with new mods. It seems to be working so far!”

Free practice on Saturday morning saw 39 trouble free laps completed by the two drivers, with both able to dip into the 1:14s quite comfortably; the fastest time of the morning being a 1:14.177.

In the qualifying session that afternoon, Sam Blogg was able to beat that time by two tenths; his 1:13.992 being just three tenths off the #66 Aston Martin and 15th fastest overall. “That was a good qualifying session,” said the youngest of the Lotus drivers (right). “We’re beginning to get nearer to the pace of the #19 car.

Earlier, George Mackintosh had enjoyed a trouble free qualifying, staking out his claim to an 11th row slot for Saturday’s race with a 1:15.615.

The London-based Scot’s race was a curious one. Whereas normally there would be much to-ing and fro-ing mid-pack, here he found himself embroiled with just one car for the full extent of his stint, this being the #16 Motorbase Porsche. Initially falling behind, Mackintosh rallied and retook the spot midway through his stint. Thereafter he kept ahead and pressed on towards the pitstop.

When Sam Blogg took over, he too found himself with nobody to fight with. This didn’t appear to bother him, however, as he got his head down and buried the throttle. He upped the race pace to the 1:15s and just had a blast; “I really enjoyed it; really good,” he said later. “I had no issues with the car and the tyres were consistent through to the end; the Avons were working well. I just stayed on the pace.”

For the first time this season, the pair found themselves without silverware at the end of the race, but they had finished (unlike the two other Exiges) – 12th overall and fifth in class - and picked up more valuable points. They had also managed to shed 20kg of ballast for the second race.

While the numbers 18 and 19 cars were being rebuilt on Sunday, there was absolutely nothing to be done on the #20 car and the two drivers busied themselves by cleaning the car and entertaining visitors.

By the time the Sunday race started, the heat was intense; what was it like in the car? “Not too bad,” said Blogg, “there’s some ducting in the car.”

Mackintosh (left) had another way of dealing with the heat; “You’ve got so much adrenalin pumping at the start that you forget about the heat. It’s only later in the race when you begin to notice it.”

Even with the heatwave, Sam Blogg found his tyres to be on the cool side at the start of the race; “I struggled to get heat into the tyres at the beginning. But when they came in I began to catch up again.” As was the case with Mackintosh in the first race, Blogg found himself embroiled in a private battle with a GTC car; this time it was the #70 Ferrari of Calum Lockie. The gap ebbed and flowed until Blogg made a move stick on the 14th lap.

Once past the Ferrari, the Exige stayed ahead until the pitstop, even with a touch of understeer. George Mackintosh took over, but found that he was having to contend with the car’s only gremlin of the weekend; “We had an electronic problem on the gear shift that was costing a second/second and a half on each lap; the kind of thing that sometimes develops at the changeover. So it was back to heel ‘n toe.”

With his pace curtailed, it was a case of bringing it home; although he did depose the David Dove Ferrari (this time driven by the team owner) once more. The car’s 100% finishing record had been maintained.

The points haul from the weekend was enough for the pair to maintain a seven point lead at the top of the championship, but they now had Aston Martin driver Leo Machitski closest to them. With Barwell’s future commitments unclear, things were still looking good for the Lotus drivers.

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It had been a mixed weekend for Lotus Sport Cadena, but crucially the project had once again proved itself to have moved forward. The last word goes to Gavan Kershaw.

”We need to do some tyre work and things like that; but the main thing is that GT3 doesn’t seem like such a big challenge now. British GT3 is beatable, and we’re confident that we’d be midfield if we were running in the last race of the FIA series.”

Rockingham is next; a circuit seemingly made for the Lotus Exige.
Mark Howson

 

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