Tim Mullen & Chris Niarchos – British GT2 Champions
”A Very Good Year – No, A Great Year”

Those are the words of Tim Mullen, but could equally have been spoken by regular partner Chris Niarchos. These two were the 2006 British GT2 Champions in the Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari 430, but their success didn’t stop there – although the British Championship was their primary target this year.

Work commitments kept Chris Niarchos away from a few of the FIA GT events this season, but the catalogue of success for these two still reads as follows:
Tim Mullen 13 race wins
Chris Niarchos 11 race wins
Tim Mullen 20 podium finishes
Chris Niarchos 16 podium finishes
Tim Mullen 7 pole positions
Tim Mullen Britcar 24 Hours winner
Mullen & Niarchos – podium finish at Le Mans.

Let’s start with Le Mans – ironically a race that Chris Niarchos hadn’t intended to participate in, but one which these two, partnered by Andrew Kirkaldy, looked on course to win. They had been leading the race until Sunday morning, when the left rear hub caused a delay of over an hour.

“We were fast and reliable, apart from that hub problem,” sums up Tim Mullen, “but it was still a massive moment for Chris, to stand on the podium.”

“Oh yes, 100% we were heading for the win,” reflects Chris Niarchos. “I hadn’t even intended to do Le Mans, but Nathan (Kinch) decided not to, and the opportunity was there. You know, whether it’s business or racing, I perform at my best under pressure – and I had to rise to it at Le Mans. Partnering Tim and Andrew, I couldn’t perform at anything less than my best. Basically, I found eight seconds a lap at Le Mans.”

“I think Chris impressed himself with how well he went at Le Mans,” adds Tim Mullen. “The fact that he could cope with the high speeds and somewhere like the Porsche Curves showed what he could do. Le Mans helped him with a lot of areas of his driving, and he really upped his game.”

These two are both happy to admit that their main focus for 2006 was the British GT Championship, although that Le Mans success inadvertently had a significant effect on their British championship trail – which simply applied even more more pressure on them in the second half of the season, and played right into the hands of Chris Niarchos.

“Chris is such a busy man with his business, the only weekends off he had this year were at FIA races,” continues Tim Mullen. “He was more relaxed in the FIA, where we weren’t going for a championship.”

Chris Niarchos would probably replace “relaxed” with “knackered”!

“I tried to give myself some time (to unwind) before the British races, but with my workload, inevitably I was travelling immediately after a British race – which meant before an FIA race. I’d typically arrive knackered, but always felt that the big race for us was going to be the following weekend, in the British.

“I’d probably just been to somewhere like India or Australia before an FIA race, and that’s not ideal preparation. I travel something like 80 to 100,000 miles a year.”

Chris Niarchos’s schedule between Christmas and February 2007 reads something like this: Jakarta, Singapore, Sydeney, Malaysia, Tokyo, Sydney, Auckland, Sydney, India, Dubai and then London. Fortunately, he has a house in Sydney: “That’s where my business started.”

He missed several races in the FIA GT Championship this year because of his workload – but still came out of the season with a win, at Dubai. That followed a Tim Mullen / Marino Franchitti win at Adria (right).

“I hadn’t been travelling before Dubai. We had a couple of days beside the pool before the race meeting – so I was quick there.”

But for Chris Niarchos, most of the FIA circuits were new ones for him, and he freely admits that he had more than his share of the time in the Ferrari during the 90 minute free practice sessions… so he’d arrive “knackered”, then be in the car for perhaps an hour in each of those two sessions.

“Tim probably only had 15 minutes or so in the car in free practice sessions: the main job was to get me up to speed. So that’s why Andrew (Kirkaldy) had all those pole positions. Tim just didn’t have the time in the car before qualifying. But if you compare those two on race pace, they’re very evenly matched.”

Tim Mullen seemed fairly laid back about any discrepancy in FIA GT pole positions between he and Andrew Kirkaldy.

“I had two poles and Andrew had eight. I think the team’s focus drifted towards the other car, because Stewart (Roden) saw that that was the quicker one. You’ve got to have the full attention of the team: you need every little detail right if you’re going to set the pole.”

But if Tim Mullen didn’t seem at all concerned that pole positions weren’t usually on the #63 car’s radar this year, Chris Niarchos puts forward a possibly more accurate summing up of what was going on in his partner’s mind!

“Tim is ruthlessly competitive. He hates being beaten and he hates it if anyone else is faster than he is. Maybe the frustration (of not being quickest in qualifying) gets to him more than it should. It drives him nuts!”

Niarchos is quick to point out that “Tim is a fantastic team-mate. It started when he was one of my instructors when I did my ARDS course in 2002. When you look at the guys who were instructing me then, it’s no wonder I ended up in GTs: Tim Mullen, Robin Liddell, Phil Bennett, Stuart Moseley, Stephen Warburton, Neil Cunningham and Rob Barff. I was the oldest guy on the course by miles – the rest were all youngsters. I did the Maranello Challenge in 2003, and Barffy and Tim were giving me some coaching then, and I ended up helping them both out in different ways.

“And here are Tim and I, still driving together. Bear in mind that I was an awful racer three years ago.”

Chris Niarchos is nothing if not brutally honest with himself. In that vein – complete honesty – he clears up something that happened at the start of the British GT season, at Outon Park back in April.

“Tim has been accused of firing it off in practice there, but we can clear that up now. A radiator hose let go and blew coolant onto his rear tyres. He certainly didn’t fire it off. He doesn’t make mistakes like that.”

With the car repaired, Mullen and Niarchos won both one hour races in Cheshire, and that set the tone for their season. But the Team LNT Panoz, with almost two ‘pros’ at the wheel, was a constant threat throughout the season.

“LNT was really good competition for us,” says Tim Mullen. “If we’d won the Championship without them, it would have been a hollow win. As it was, it was a really good year - no, a great year. ”

Things seemed to be on course prior to Le Mans – the two Oulton Park wins, then a third at the two hour event at Donington Park – but the calendar then came out and bit Scuderia Ecosse at Mondello Park, one week after Le Mans.

“The header tank cracked on the green flag lap of the first race,” explains Tim Mullen. “I’m sure that was to do with the heat at Le Mans. The team had to rush from France to Mondello, with a car that had just finished Le Mans.” With no spare header tank, Scuderia Ecosse came away from Mondello Park behind in the points (30 – 25) – and as both drivers independently pointed out “we couldn’t afford a single mistake after that”.

But for Chris Niarchos, perhaps that was the ideal situation: “When the pressure is on, I perform.”

Mondello hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for him. “In 2005 a driveshaft broke, and I also chucked it off. I’m glad I don’t have plans to race there again.”

Post-Mondello, all the way to the penultimate round at Silverstone, Chris Niarchos and Tim Mullen won every race – but the lack of GT2 opponents (there were less than six in total in the class) meant that each win counted only five points, and apart from one race, LNT was scoring four every time. Gradually the Ferrari pair clawed back the deficit, not helped by the fact that “LNT really upped their game after Le Mans,” reckons Tim Mullen.

Snetterton followed Mondello, and this was one of Chris Niarchos’s highlights of the season.

“I had to start the first race from the pit lane, and I felt I did a cracking job there.” This was the event where the tyre rows really kicked off, but for Chris Niarchos, storming through from the back of the grid to the front of the field before the pit stop was very rewarding.

He also gained enormous pleasure from the Brands Hatch and Rockingham weekends. “Brands Hatch was good for me: I was fastest on Friday, when Tim wasn’t there, while Rockingham was the first weekend where we had a real, full-on fight with the Panoz. It was close, nose to tail stuff.”

In fact it was closer than that, Luke Hines and Niarchos clashing coming onto the banking in the Sunday race, while Tim Mullen and Tom Kimber-Smith had already had a moment on the infield. This was the race that was decided by the officials, the Panoz receiving a one second penalty after passing a car (the Ginetta, which was slowing) on the re-start.

The penultimate round at Silverstone was both “the most important one” (Tim Mullen) and “a frustrating one” (Chris Niarchos), who felt that he “just didn’t drive very well there. I just wasn’t competitive with Tim the way I was elsewhere. I made a bad start, I didn’t drive well – but fortunately Tim brought us home first.”

“A good result at Silverstone and we could go to the last two races at Magny-Cours and be in the comfortable position of not taking any risks,” explains Tim Mullen. “There were more entries too at Silverstone, so it was full points.”

And so the season concluded at Magny-Cours, in initially some fairly dreadful weather, but the Ferrari pair could afford to drive carefully, and two second places (LNT took its third and fourth wins of the season) sealed the British GT2 Championship.

“No British Championship should end up on foreign shores for the last race,” says Chris Niarchos, emphatically.

“It was a bit strange,” suggests Tim Mullen (on ending the British season in France), “but the British Championship was great for us, and we deserved the title. The team did a great job, and the pit strategies were excellent.”

Just a week before Magny-Cours, Tim Mullen and Marino Franchitti took the first win for #63 in the FIA GT Championship (Chris Niarchos was away on business, and the Scot received a late call up), and then at the last round, at Dubai, the British Champions took their first FIA win together. Those couple of days by the pool paid dividends, and Chris Niarchos was “really fast there”.

After his opening stint at Dubai, Tim Mullen was sitting with his feet in a bucket of water “when the team told me that I’d be back in the car after the next two laps! Chris sacrificed his drive there to try and win us the race and try and get me to second in the driver points, but with Bobbi dropping out and Salo and Melo scoring well, that wasn’t possible.

“That was the best Chris drove in the FIA this year, because he was fresh when we arrived at the track. He would have liked more racing there, to get more experience – because it’s the FIA where we see ourselves in 2007 (although the series won’t be going to Dubai anyway next year). I think if you looked at the points, our car probably scored more points than any other in the second half of the season.”

Which indeed it (Tim Mullen) did. Post-Spa, the Irishman scored 46 points, Jaime Melo scored 43 and Salo / Aguas 25.

Close competition sometimes leads to “needle” between teams, and although there was some between LNT and Scuderia Ecosse in the British Championship, and between AF Corse and the Scottish team in the FIA GT Championship, the latter didn’t involve car #63.

“Andrew had contact with the Salo / Aguas car at Brno, and I don’t think they forgot that,” explains Tim Mullen, “but we didn’t have a problem with them. Chris never takes no for an answer, and he would laugh and joke with them: they seemed to warm to us, and we both made an effort to talk to them. They were the works team, and probably expected to win: whoever you’re fighting with, there are bound to be some strains somewhere.”

Although it wasn’t Tim Mullen’s final race of the season, it’s appropriate to deal with this one last – and there certainly weren’t any of the FIA “strains” involved in racing at the Britcar 24, in the Duller BMW Z4M.

“That’s a cracking event. I did it in 2005 with the same team, in an M3, and I loved it then. This year we had the fastest car: in the FIA, you’re always expecting GT1s to pass you, but in the Britcar, we were always passing other cars, which was great fun. There were some big speed differentials too. I think the fact that we had a problem with the oil system late on Saturday night helped to make the race. We had to charge back through the field. The Z4 is a cracking little car, gorgeous to look at. And it was great to drive it on its world debut – and to win too.”

So for these two, who shared the Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari in most of their races this year, it was a fabulously successful season. All they might have wished for was a problem-free Le Mans.

Next year, it’s “full on” for these two in the FIA GT Championship with Scuderia Ecosse again, and Tim Mullen is expecting “four new Porsches” to battle against. Next year, Chris Niarchos will be juggling his travelling commitments with his work around the FIA GT calendar – and almost certainly Le Mans too.
MC

 

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