From Small Beginnings – Barff & Co. Conquer Sebring
“A 12 hour endurance classic was always going to be an enormous first hurdle for us,” says Rob Barff, of the debut event for the RaceSport Salisbury DeWalt TVR Tuscan T400R, at Sebring. “But if we are to take on Porsche at the very highest level in GT racing, this is what we have to do.”

dailysportscar’s Graham Goodwin expressed the opinion that “as if the task of impressing the ACO wasn’t enough at Sebring, events during race week meant that TVR very soon bore the weight of the honour of the smaller British manufacturers alone.”

And initial ‘home’ reactions to the garish yellow and black beast weren’t all entirely favourable. “Some of the talk throughout the packed press room was of how the funny little British car (the TVR) wouldn’t last the first two hours of the race,” says Goodwin. Pah. Press room wallahs. What do they know? Very little it turns out.

The TVR had made a careful start to race week at the 51st 12 Hours. No early heroics – Barffy was taught by Shorty remember – just settling in the new car, getting the three drivers used to chassis and circuit. A track that is “notorious as a 'car breaker',” says Rob Barff. “60% of the circuit is made up of slow to medium speed corners, 30% is long straights and the remaining 10% are fast, very bumpy concrete corners - a good lap in the T400R takes around 2 minutes and 11 seconds.

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“During pre-event testing we gradually learnt more and more about the car with each lap completed - we were far from being the quickest GT car on the track but the early signs were good, we were getting faster and faster as each test session passed and the car was running very reliably - so far so good.”

“Qualifying is not terribly important,” says the man who had the duty of setting the lap that would determine the TVR’s grid position. From a best of 2:13 on Wednesday (44th fastest), in the first official session of the meeting, the TVR ‘improved’ to 2:11.582 in Qualifying (46th fastest). Did anyone in the press room notice? Nah, too busy muttering about Lucas electrics. Americans always refer back to 1950s British sports cars that allegedly stopped when it rained. It was expected to rain on Saturday….

So it rained on Friday. Blimey, did it rain.

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Who stole your dummy then? Stanton looks hot and determined, Hay looks cool and determined, Barff just looks unhappy. Pre-race nerves, Rob?

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But race day dawned dry and warm. Rob Barff reduces the spectacle of 55 of the best GTs and prototypes, starting one of the three great endurance races of the year, at the historic Sebring airfield circuit, to the dry remarks…”I started the car and after 70 minutes stopped and handed over to Richard Hay and he in turn then handed over to Richard Stanton.”

Was it as dull as that, Rob?

But dull (totally the wrong word) actually meant “the TVR ran beautifully throughout the hot daytime hours - it never missed a beat.”

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While the Porsches were often missing several beats, tyres with air in them, pistons without holes…you name it the Porsche guys copped it. And some of the Ferraris.

“We stuck to the 'Rob, Richard H., Richard S.' driving order until the Safety Car made its first appearance shortly after nightfall. Kevin McGarrity in a Ferrari 360 collided with an LMP car at the quick, bumpy Turn 17 - Kevin speared off into the barriers and the car burst into flames. Kevin suffered fractures to both feet and was briefly trapped in the car.

“The Safety Car was out for roughly 20 minutes whilst the circuit was cleared and Kevin taken to the Medical Centre - it was during this period that Derek Kemp, our hugely experienced Team Manager, and Richard Stanton took the decision to bring me into the pits, fuel the TVR and send me back out for a second full stint in the car.

“With hindsight that was a fantastic move - when I climbed into the car at 6.45pm we were 12th, when I climbed out of the car, over two hours later, we were up to fifth.”

Fifth you lot in the press room! Fifth behind three Porsches and a Ferrari – and ahead of 14 Porsches, four Ferraris, one Spyker and a BMW. Some of these entries had met the most obscene misfortunes, but many had just failed through mechanical mayhem. “Out of the 25 GT cars at Sebring, with either two or three drivers per car, I was the only driver to double stint during the race. I was knackered!” commented the mighty Barff.

“As I handed over to Richard Hay, who was chosen to take the TVR to the finish, the engine died with the electrics dead....” You should have done a triple stint!

“It took the engineers a couple of laps to sort the problem but quickly a new battery was fitted and the TVR barked into life. For the final 50 minutes Richard Hay cruised round and nursed the car to the finishing line in a fantastic seventh position in the GT class: we had no chance of catching the car in sixth so we settled for seventh and just made sure that we finished.”

What a magnificent result. This was epic stuff from the whole team.

“For a brand new car to complete its first endurance race in such a credible position is very rare. All the team did a fantastic job to bring the car home - Andy and John, who built us a strong, reliable Speed Six engine at the TVR race and development workshop in Blackpool - Cushty, Chief, Dickie and Pete who built the car at TVR - Derek, Jeff, Paul, Dick and all the Chamberlain crew - Billy, Andy and pit signalling superstar Gary (he only left the pit wall for three laps over the course of the race!) at RaceSport Salisbury - Mikey Butler, Colin Brunton and their colleagues at Dunlop - and finally to my driving partners, Richard & Richard, good job chaps, well done.”

Where next then Rob? Oh, Le Mans.

dailysportscar.com“Our next event with the TVR T400R is the qualifying weekend at Le Mans in May where we are hopeful of continuing our strong team performance.” Which translates to ‘we’re probably not going to beat the factory Porsches but the rest had better look out.’

Rob graciously thanked his sponsors - Chris at The Cobra Group, Robert at Jelson Homes, Gary at Microscan, and the British Racing Driver's Club – “without your continued support I wouldn't be in the position I am today.” Knackered.

But not so tired that he didn’t remember to add “there are still sponsorship opportunities remaining (at Le Mans), so if anyone would like to be involved, on either a corporate or personal basis, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am still short of my required budget for the 2003 season and there is still space on the side of the car and my racesuit!”

So there we are. TVR conquered Sebring. Le Mans next. What a fantastic story this could be. And Rob Barff hasn’t failed to finish any of the 12 or 24 hour races he’s started. Cushty!

 

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