FIA GT Championship – Round 1 Silverstone - May 5-7

The opening round of the 2006 FIA GT Championship was definitely a frustrating way to start a GT1 campaign for the Spirit Motor Group-backed Balfe Motorsport team.

After a few trouble-free tests before Silverstone, including overcoming the dramas at Dijon, the squad headed to its home event feeling confident that they could put up a strong, if not front-running, show against the rest of the GT1 grid. Unfortunately, it turned into a constant struggle for the team from start to finish. But they did finish!

The weekend didn’t get underway as planned, as Shaun Balfe ventured out of the pit-lane for his first GT1 lap in the series - and immediately radioed back to the team that he thought there was a problem with the left rear wheel, initially suspected to be a puncture.

However, after a very slow crawl back to the pit it was found that the wheel was loose. After much checking and double checking, with nothing broken or wrong, a replacement was fitted and Shaun was able to go straight back out again. ‘Human error’ on the fitting side was thought to be the possible cause, but was looked into more closely once the session was over.

After the 90 minute session ended, the team was more than a little disheartened to only be 11th quickest and around four seconds away from the front-running pace. Nobody expected to be the fastest, but to be so far away was puzzling. Consistent understeer over the whole lap was making the car difficult to set-up. But with another session left, changes were made and a move up the order was the aim for Saturday morning.

Neil Cunningham was scheduled to go out first the next day and once he left the pit-lane, he radioed in with exactly the same message Shaun had sent the day before. He felt like he had a puncture.

Another slow crawl back to the pit and the same problem was found again, the left rear had worked loose. The problem was looked into again when the car came back in at the end of the session and it was found to be a fault on the wheels. The locking pegs that are meant to align with the hub were slightly too long, meaning that even though the wheel was locating and tightening up past the safety locks, there was a gap of a few milimetres left undetected. Once the car was up to racing speeds and loads, it was causing the wheel to move where it shouldn’t and work loose.

The problem would have been found in testing before the weekend, but with the problems the team encountered at Dijon, it never got the chance to run all of its new rims: but they didn’t expect a problem, no team would.

All-in-all, it put the team on the back foot throughout the first part of the weekend. And, as David and Shaun Balfe pointed out, at this level of racing, once that happens, you’re forever going to struggle over the weekend.

The wet qualifying session looked like it might be the saving grace for the team. Jamie Derbyshire and Shaun Balfe got their heads together and after he’d been building himself up as a Silverstone specialist – especially if it was wet – they emerged from the back of the transporter with grins on their faces and said Neil Cunningham had been assigned the duty of qualifying!

The Kiwi’s reaction? “Bloody hell, its proper wet out there now, isn’t it?!”

Once again, though, the car was a handful, the problem seemingly worse in the wet, the Saleen ending up 14th fastest.

With all three drivers still struggling with the handling of the car, some major changes were made to the set-up overnight, with just the warm-up left to see if they made a difference to the handling. The team’s poor luck continued though, with the warm up being wet, it was hard to tell if the changes had made a real improvement. The aim of bringing the car home for a finish looked like the team’s best hope, working their way up through the field as the three hour event wore on.

Shaun was down to start the car and was lucky not to be caught up in the Race Alliance squabble as they crossed the line when the lights went green. He kept himself out of trouble and, after starting on wets, pitted early for slicks. He radioed to say that the car definitely felt a little better once it was onto dry tyres, but the problems hadn’t gone away totally - but it was more comfortable than it had been earlier in the weekend.

Jamie Derbyshire took over for the middle section of the race. Again, he kept himself out of trouble and stayed consistent, giving himself and the team the best chance of bringing the car home.

Neil Cunningham took over with just over 40 minutes of the race left to run and as the track became fully dry rather than just a dry-line, he made a handful of moves up the order, past the GT2 cars, to bring the car across the line in 12th place, ninth in the GT1 class.

The aim of taking the chequered flag had been accomplished. But it was a frustrating and unsatisfactory way of completing the weekend for the team and drivers. There is a lot of work planned before the next round at Brno, where it hopes that it can move further up the timesheets and make a bigger impact on the GT1 grid.

NB The Balfe Motorsport team will head to the next round of the FIA GT Championship in Brno returning to the successful 2005 driver line-up of Shaun Balfe and Jamie Derbyshire.

After careful consideration after the opening round of the series at Silverstone just over a week ago, the squad has decided that the best way forward in the shorter three-hour races on the calendar is to concentrate on the original pairing.

The sprint format of the regular races on the FIA GT calendar, excluding the Spa 24 Hours, lends itself to a two driver team. The squad has taken the step to revert back to Balfe and Derbyshire sharing the seat in the Saleen S7R from the next round of the series onwards.

The team is still finalizing its plans on the line up for the Spa event, with details to be confirmed sometime after round three of the series at Oschersleben in Germany in early July.

 

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