British GT Championship – Silverstone – GT2 Race Report
Emotional Cunningham Snatches An Embassy Thriller
Niarchos Creates History With A Costly Pee
Scuderia Ecosse Nearly There
What An Endurance Race That Was

images to come

It was scarcely credible, the way this one developed. Rather than the pair of one hour races that featured on this day a year ago, this time it was a proper race, over (nearly) 120 minutes – or actually 120 minutes, depending on how you looked at it.

“I don’t want to race for 23 minutes, then have to get out and watch my co-driver drive for 37,” said one of the drivers, on Sunday morning. “Two hours – this is a proper race.”

And in a rather similar fashion to Saturday’s LMES thriller, the first half of the British GT event was just the starter, for a main course of the highest quality, in both classes.

The 'starter' was almost a non starter initially, a few drops of rain persuading the Clerk of the Course to command two exploration laps behind the Safety Car, before racing proper commenced. That was very sensible, and quite a contrast with events nearly 24 hours earlier. But with those two laps (and the time they took) counting towards the two hours, everyone was impatient to get going as ‘lap 3’ began. No problems into Copse, but one of the GT3 911s dumped its oil on the racing line soon afterwards, and lap 4 was the first of several Safety Car laps.

Lights off…. no, lights back on, then lights off again – this was an infuriating start, but less so because there were still over 90 minutes to go. They would be ample – in fact, they would be absolutely perfect.

Phil Keen had split the Ferraris on that single racing lap, and Anthony Reid had muscled past Michael Caine at Stowe, so at the end of lap 10, the second flying lap, we had Kirkaldy and then Keen’s Mosler, Niarchos then Collins’ 911, Reid and Caine, then Jones’ RSR and Whight’s Mosler.

The trouble was, the only gap of less than a second was between Reid’s Nissan and Caine’s Eurotech 911. Was this going to be a predictable 90 odd minutes? Well no, it wasn’t like that at all. Caine wanted his place back, while Collins charged round lap 13 and demoted Niarchos (you won’t believe his story) to fourth.

Kirkaldy was easing away at the front, 5.5 seconds ahead of Keen’s Eclipse Mosler by lap 14, while Niarchos and Collins were putting on the best show, switching third and fourth twice.

The Monaro and GNM Porsche were edging into the top 20, and on lap 18 the order and gaps to the leader, with 73 minutes left, were:
Kirkaldy Ferrari
Keen Mosler (-7.4)
Niarchos Ferrari (17.2)
Collins Porsche (-18.4)
Caine Porsche (-29.5)
Reid Nissan (-31.8)
then Jones and Whight.

So nothing unusual so far: it had been one of Andrew Kirkaldy’s ‘straightforward’ races… but that was about to change, big time.

Spots of rain appeared on lap 19, and those with a better view than that from the media centre could see bands of cloud approaching. That meant patchy rain would punctuate the middle third of the race. Kirkaldy’s pace slipped to 2:03s (from a best of 1:54.756), the remarkable Phil Keen closed in, Niarchos spun, and Reid passed Caine at Stowe. Scuderia Ecosse readied its intermediates, while others chose to leave their men out as they were.

Lap 21 and Keen was right with the championship-leading Ferrari: that was a good story (better still as he took the lead on Hangar Straight), but Chris Niarchos had an even better one up his sleeve (or somewhere else).

Niarchos had spun again, burying the #34 in the gravel at Abbey. Over to you Chris.

“That was a pretty unbelievable race and we could have won it. After I went into the gravel the marshals opened the door and asked me to get out of the car, I got out and found I was dying for a pee. I went behind the barrier, took off my helmet and gloves and (well you know………). I thought I was out of the race but a marshal told me I could restart. It cost me about a lap and a half and we lost by about the same!”

Niarchos’ company is the Cobra Group – so that will be (trouser) snake trouble then?

Tim Mullen took over and drove an utterly stunning race after that.

Oddly, we’d had an hour of ‘racing’ so far, and precious little real drama, Keen and Niarchos aside. And so began part 2. A spectating Sam Hignett (unable to get the Jota truck out, and regaling two of us with ‘Puki Haruki’ stories – the poor lad had chucked up all over most parts of the cockpit of the Zytek – and taking the p*ss out of a waiting Piers Masarati below) suggested that wets were the tyres to have now. Except that Sam couldn’t see the bands of cloud approaching. So stay on slicks, pick inters or chance wets? It would take another 60 minutes before we knew which was the best choice.

They were 60 fabulous minutes.

Phil Keen exited Woodcote sideways in the Eclipse Mosler as he completed lap 23, but Andrew Kirkaldy pitted. Wets were fitted, and with the Nissan fitting inters, we had Keen on slicks, lapping in 2:21, from Collins (2:23) and Caine (2:25).

Kinch was nearly a lap down as he rejoined, while Mullen was miles behind.

Ben Collins held the gap at 19 seconds to the Mosler, and by lap 27, the top three were lapping in 2:09/10 on slicks, Kinch in 2:15 on wets. So it had begun to dry out, and the #35 Ferrari was lapped…..

No driver could drive for more than 90 minutes, so the pitstop window was effectively an hour. Eclipse, Embassy and Eurotech left their men out there to race – even when rain fell again on lap 29. The two slowed to 2:13/2:15, Kinch in 2:19. Mullen was lapping in 2:09! Inters did look like the preferred choice.

No, hang on, lap 31, 45 minutes left – heavy rain, at least on this side of the circuit. Keen edged away, and still stayed out next time around – but Ben Collins didn’t. It had stopped raining, but the track was wet: wets or slicks? Or inters? Cunningham jumped in, the existing rubber was left on. Brave, very brave. The tyres could have been changed with no time penalty.

Ben Collins: “It’s very difficult on slicks. I don’t know where we are or what anyone else is doing – the team can see more than me. I would have gone for wets.”

But Jonathan France’s team knew more than their driver…..

Kinch was faster than Keen at this stage, but Collins’ fine work saw his partner reappear in third, ahead of the #35 Ferrari. The clouds, driven along by a gusty wind, had slipped by, and it was getting brighter. 38 minutes left, eight minutes for Keen and Caine to do their best on their slicks, and treadles rubber might be the thing to have at the end….

Car #55, drive through penalty….. Embassy hadn’t got the stop right (too quick) and naughty Neil had exceeded the pit lane speed limit. Any chance of the win gone, surely? Except that the Aussie / Kiwi was on slicks….

Caine pitted after 85 minutes at the wheel, but was 81 seconds behind that Mosler at the front – and still Keen didn’t pit. Another lap and Steve Hyde finally took over – but he’d admit that he isn’t a Phil Keen, and seemed to take ages to complete his first racing lap.

He led though, but only nine seconds ahead of Nathan Kinch, because Cunningham had taken his penalty, and was 53 behind the leader, Bentwood next in the Nissan, then Jordan. Less than a lap later and Kinch took the lead, as Steve Hyde was finding it “very slippery out there on slicks”. A 2:16 lap against a 2:26 told the story. Mullen was always the fastest man on the track, as he scythed through the GT3s.

Godfrey Jones had a big double 360 spin exiting Woodcote, but virtually kept it off the barriers. Steve Hyde didn’t want to do likewise, understandably.

As conditions changed, so relative positions altered. Cunningham looked as though he would be passed by the Nissan for third – inters were still the tyre to have. Kinch, Bentwood and Mullen were quickest among the leaders, but Mullen was still the top man on times, by a good margin.

Kinch gained 20 seconds on Hyde in one lap, the Nissan did pass the Embassy 911 – and Godfrey pitted for some light treads.

40 laps, 20 minutes left:
Hyde – spinning out of Luffield, dropping behind…
Bentwood (-47) – the Nissan a wonderful second
Hyde (-52)
Cunningham (-59)

Kershaw then passed Jordan, and Cunningham passed Hyde. This was switching and changing all the time. Lap 42 and Cunningham was 63 behind Kinch.

“We didn’t tell him where he was on the track, we just told him to go as fast as possible and pass everything,” said Jonathan France, later.

Mullen was lapping in 2:07, no one else better than 2:13.

14 minutes left – and the first signs that slicks might be the answer soon. Embassy Porsche matched Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari, the gap still 63 seconds. But there were only 14 minutes (seven laps as it turned out) left.

Cunningham gained three seconds, his first gain, on lap 44 – then six seconds on lap 45 (but it was 54 seconds to Kinch, with only five laps to go). Mullen unlapped himself from the sister #35.

46 laps, bright sunshine, and Neil Cunningham was in the 2:05s, ten seconds faster than Nathan Kinch. Finally, after all the track changes, the choice was slicks. But could old Neil pull it off? He was still third behind the Nissan, but after 48 laps he was 0.2 behind the 350Z, and all of a sudden the gap to the leader was only 20 seconds. Kinch was looking for wetter bits of track….

If Neil Cunningham had got stuck behind the Nissan, it would have been all over – so he followed instructions and barrelled past on the outside at Copse, and charged on.

Lap 49, 7.8 seconds behind. Paul Truswell, out at Stowe, called “2.6 seconds”, and at Abbey they were right together. Four corners from home and Neil Cunningham took the lead: it had been an inspired strategy from Embassy, but it needed a Collins and a Cunningham to pull it off.

Nathan Kinch was 2.8 behind at the flag, Scuderia Ecosse sealing the Drivers’ Championship (but we don’t yet know which pair will take it – although it’s looking clear cut), with the Nissan a great third, the Cadena Mosler blasting up to fourth at the end, Mike Jordan taking fifth on the last lap – and Eclipse finished a frustrated sixth. The Joneses were eighth, Mullen a fabulous tenth – “we should have won that” – and the GNM and Emotional (“throttle cable broke, but a nice car to drive in the wet,” said Adam Wiseberg) entries 20th and 21st.

It was an emotional Neil Cunningham on the podium, after a difficult week – but he and Ben Collins handled the raceday conditions fabulously, and took a memorable win, despite a drive through penalty.

This was British GT endurance racing at its best. GT3 was a thriller too. Unlike on Saturday, the weather really made this one. After a slow start, it was one of the best British GT races of all time.

Nathan Kinch: “The wets at the end were just completely gone, it was a wrong call to go on full wets but we gave it a good go. We’ve won the teams championship with that result though and only we and #34 can now win the drivers championship (Kinch and Kirkaldy need just 3 points to secure the title).”

Phil Keen: “The Ferrari got away quicker than I thought he would but when the rain started he began to make mistakes and I didn’t. It really was ‘full wet’ conditions for quite a while, very difficult and worse still it was varied all over the circuit, Copse was very bad but Club was fine.”

Steve Hyde: “It was a bloody nightmare out there. I had no mechanical grip whatsoever and just couldn’t find a balance at all, the car was breaking away from me everywhere, front and back. I’m really disappointed.”

Ben Collins: “That was a brilliant result. I was just thinking it was about time for me to get out of my race suit as we had no chance of a podium when it all started to change very quickly.

“We stayed on slicks throughout, the same as at Knockhill! Despite the fact that it really threw it down at times staying on slicks and staying out was the way to go. The weird thing is though that we’d have won on wets with no drive through and we won on slicks even with the penalty.

“After the Spa 24 this was a massive result for everyone, the boys did a really top job getting the car, which was badly damaged at Spa, ready for the weekend. This is their result as much as mine and Neil’s.”

Neil Cunningham: “That was an amazing result after what has been a really tough week, let’s just say I was pretty focused on the drive today. I really wasn’t sure whether I’d won it but the crowd were on their feet and going nuts so I thought it might have been on.

“The best bit though was going by a Ferrari when it was fully sideways, his tyres were just gone completely.”

(dsc’s best wishes go to Neil and his family after what has been a very traumatic last few days for them.)
Michael Bentwood: “That was great, there was plenty of grip to be found and I was able to use it and push where I could. The car was very strong, it feels like we’re making big progress.”

Bob Neville (RJN Nissan): “We were on inters at the end and the weird thing was that if it had been a lap longer we’d have finished second (Kinch was struggling) and if it had been a lap shorter we’d have been second (Cunningham hadn’t caught us by then).”

Gavan Kershaw: "Bazza had a quick spin early on and lost some time but he’s had very little seat time this weekend as I’ve been working through the problems we’ve had (flat shift and brakes). We had inters on at the end and I was really catching the cars ahead until it dried out in the last ten minutes: that really punished us, otherwise perhaps even a podium could have been on. We’ll be back for Mondello."

Alan Bonner: "I’m aching all over but the Porsche was very good, well down on straightline speed from the other GT2 cars but it’s a good solid car."


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