2nd September 2001
& Franchitti Secure GTO Title
Parr Motorsport's Kelvin Burt and Marino Franchitti arrived at Thruxton for Round 11 of the 2001 Privilege Insurance British GT Championship requiring just three points to secure the title. If anyone had ever thought that these two would do anything but go for the prize in style, then a sixth and commanding class victory quashed those doubts.
Fastest in testing, fastest in qualifying, and with a new lap record
in the race, there could be no denying their rights to the title this
weekend. That two races still remain merely emphasises the degree to
which Kelvin and Marino have dominated the GTO category this season,
although it should also be said that their strongest and most consistent
challenge has come from their own team-mates, Edward Horner and Matt
Turner. From their point of view the season is definitely not yet over,
although the Corus Hotels-supported drivers stand as favourites for
the runners-up position, but Thruxton was the occasion for Marino and
Kelvin to place the top slot beyond reach. They grasped that opportunity
with both hands.
With poor weather forecast and overnight rain having added a damp sheen
to the track, the morning warm-up was a useful opportunity for the team
to check the cars over in anticipation of a wet race. Although the drizzle
had eased by the time the GT cars headed out on track it was still slippery
enough for most teams to fit grooved tyres, just as a precaution.
All the weather forecasts for days had been predicting a wet afternoon. They were almost right, but not quite. The skies over Thruxton cleared just enough to assure the GTs a dry run and, with only the one absentee, twenty-two cars lined up on the grid for the rolling start. It was half past two.
Parr had reverted to their more usual driver sequence, with Kelvin Burt starting the #53 Porsche, and Matt Turner at the wheel of #54. Qualifying fourth overall on GTO pole, Kelvin faced the outside line into the first corner. Matt was a row behind, on the inside. As always he got an excellent start - a fact he puts down to his habit of watching only the lights and trying to ignore the other cars around him. "I keep my eye on those red lights. As soon as I think they've been on too long, I get ready to go for it." It worked again, and he got the jump on Kelvin into the first corner. "I'm much better on standing starts," explained the former Touring Car driver. "I had to take the outside at the first corner. I knew Matt would be there, so I had to give him room." Needless to say, the American sees things a little differently! "I beat him off the start, easy!" insisted Matt. "I was way ahead of him into the first corner, but I had my mind on the championship, so gave him room at the next to get back ahead." This appeared to be true enough, with Kelvin staying to the left and braking late into Campbell. "I don't think he realised I'd backed off," added Matt, "because he went very deep into the corner like he was thinking he had to drive round me!"
Either way, they came out of the 'complex' with Kelvin fourth overall, tailed closely by Matt, with Richard Stanton and the #99 TVR a few tenths behind. Amazingly, there wasn't a single incident of note anywhere through the field, and the whole grid arrived safely back at the chicane with the first lap nearly complete. It couldn't last. Out at the very front Rob Wilson had got ahead of David Warnock right at the start, but the Lister driver was gamely holding onto the rear wing of the Viper. Mix a dash of vengeance with four cold tyres and a chicane and you end up spelling disaster.
Warnock spun the Lister wildly and ended up facing the tyre wall. Bobby Verdon-Roe in the TVR Speed 12 was forced to back off, but both Kelvin and Matt saw a gap. "I just picked a good route through the middle and came out the other side in second," said Kelvin. "Yeah," chipped in Matt, "by flying over the right hand kerb. I followed you!" The recovering BVR slotted in between the two Parr Porsches, and Kelvin crossed the line to complete lap one in second place overall.
Could this be a repeat of Knockhill? No, there was little chance of a GTO victory this time. The GT TVR was rapidly back up to speed, and it wasn't long before the black behemoth came sweeping back into second. "I waved him through on the back straight after Church," said Kelvin. "There was no point in trying to hold him back." By then something more crucial to the prospects for both the Parr cars had already happened back at the complex. Richard Stanton, in his attempts to keep up with Matt, had spun the Racesport Tuscan and lost the best part of twenty seconds. He was down in sixteenth place.
This opened up the track for Shaun Balfe, who was driving the stint of his life in the #77 Eurotech Porsche. Initially slower than Matt Turner, he now began to throw down some seriously quick laps and reel in the orange car. It took half a dozen laps, but by the time Kelvin Burt had set a new record of 1:16.033 on lap seven, Balfe was right on Turner's tail. As they started to weave their way through the slowest backmarkers it was fast developing into the best - and possibly only - real battle for position anywhere in the race. Adding to the tension, Tim Sugden was now keen to join in the fun and games. He'd passed the Ultima, the Quaife and the Stealth, all GT category cars, to arrive behind Balfe. It was an impressive charge, even if he was to pay the penalty later, and Matt was suddenly finding every mirror he had filling rapidly with images of looming nine-elevens. "I had these Porsches swarming all over me! Like, where did they all come from?"
All eyes were on the trio as they diced through the traffic. As they started lap eight, Balfe made a lunge down the inside into the complex, but Turner closed the door. The pale blue Porsche was there again at the Club chicane, and once again Turner held him off. This time there was a breather, and for one lap Turner enjoyed nearly a second's advantage, but as they headed round the back of the circuit mid-way through the tenth Balfe saw his opening. ""I got lucky with the backmarkers between Noble and Church," admitted the Eurotech driver. "He went one way and I went the other, but my way meant I didn't have to lift at all." Matt tried to get back at Balfe into the chicane but couldn't make it stick. He was now fifth overall, third in GTO.
All this time Kelvin Burt was in a world of his own, blissfully ignorant of all the shenanigans unfolding behind him. "I seemed to have a big gap in front, a big gap behind, and not a lot to do. The car was keeping me on my toes. It was sliding around a bit at the back. We'd fitted a harder-compound tyre to the left rear, but in the end it was too cold for that tyre to work well. It never really gave enough grip. I was glad I wasn't in Matt's position, having to fight for my position. That would have made it far more difficult." Instead Burt had a different predicament. "I didn't have any form of dash display at all," he said. "The thing had stopped working on the green flag lap, so I had nothing to tell me how the car was doing; no rev counter, nothing. I only had one gear-shift light and the rev limiter to give me any indication of what the engine was doing." It didn't appear to be slowing him down too much.
With the #77 car now ahead of him Matt now had Tim Sugden pushing hard, and it was fast becoming a carbon-copy of the earlier tussle. At the start of lap eleven they were side-by-side into the first complex, but Matt defended hard and for a while Sugden fell back. For a lap or so Turner seemed to be pulling away again, and the margin extended from half a second to nearly two. Next time around, however, it was significantly less after Matt found himself baulked as he came to lap the #59 Lotus Esprit. Despite this, both he and Sugden were closing back on Balfe, who'd had an even tougher time passing the Lotus. Once again they were nose-to-tail crossing the line as they started the fourteenth lap.
Sugden was especially determined this time, and he finally made a bold move to pass Matt around the back of the circuit. Turner wasn't about to give up, however, and snatched the place back again as Sugden locked up coming into the chicane. Lap fifteen followed a similar script, with the two cars swapping places again, but this time Sugden had just enough pace at the chicane to hold the position. Turner started the sixteenth lap now sixth overall, fourth in GTO, with the recovering David Warnock in the Lister Storm right behind him.
The GT title-holder had ended up last after that early spin at the chicane, but had just put in the second-fastest lap of the race in his attempts to regain ground. The race order with twenty minutes gone stood at Wilson first, BVR in the TVR Speed 12 second, Kelvin third leading GTO, a long gap to Balfe, Sugden, and Turner, with Warnock seventh. On the sixteenth lap Warnock swept by Turner after Goodwood and the two promptly headed straight for the pits.
The race was still in its early stages and the leading groups remained quite tightly packed. By the time Matt had swapped places with Ed Horner several cars had sped past the pitlane, and car #54 regained the track eleventh overall, seventh in GTO. "Strategy was important," said Paul Robe, team manager at Parr. "We decided to pit Matt early. He was stuck with the other two and the battle was clearly upsetting his rhythm." In theory Horner should, at best, have found himself in clear track. At worst, he would emerge among slower cars yet to make their pitstops and have to overtake a few. In the end, it was a bit of both. On his first lap out he was, indeed, given space to attack, but in doing so he closed rapidly on Neil Woodford in the #60 Ferrari.
At the start of his second lap Horner found himself bearing down on the little red car, but from the way Woodford moved aside he felt sure he'd been seen coming. "The Ferrari went very wide, and I guessed he was giving me room to go through," said a bewildered Horner afterwards. "Then, at the last moment, he cut right across the front. It was quite a hard knock." The Porsche's front suspension took the full impact and was bent way out of alignment. Fortunately nothing actually broke, but Horner now had a struggle on his hands. "Round left-hand corners the handling was perfect, spot on. Unfortunately, there aren't many left handers at Thruxton, and it didn't want to turn right at all. It was a real handful. The wheel was wobbling about all over the place," he explained, holding his hand up and dithering it furiously, "and I had a lot of vibration. I was lucky not to lose it before the end of the race."
Despite this serious handicap, Horner persevered. To anyone watching he actually looked to be moving very rapidly indeed. Just eight laps later he was registered as fifth overall, second in class, but his lap times were about a second off what he'd have been happy with.
Kelvin Burt, meanwhile, continued to extend his class lead. Although
twenty-odd seconds behind the two outright leaders, Kelvin already enjoyed
an advantage of almost fourteen seconds over Balfe, second in GTO, but
he wasn't having everything his own way. Like the others, Kelvin had
to contend with lapping tail-enders. "The marshals were excellent
- really good. They were showing plenty of blue flags, and at all the
right times too, but I still had a couple of moments with some of the
back-markers. That's normal, although Dave Dove [in the #70 Marcos Mantis]
was particularly uncooperative. He just kept ignoring the flags completely.
He seemed to be totally oblivious to what was going on around him!"
That was on lap seventeen, just as Turner and Horner were swapping seats
in the pitlane.
Kelvin's lead in GTO looked secure, but it was about to be payback time for the second and third placed cars. Tim Sugden had played hard in his attempts to get ahead of Matt Turner, and in doing so had done his tyres no favours whatsoever. The result was to cost him the best part of two minutes as the team struggled to fit new rubber. Second stint driver Paul Knapfield found himself a lap down by the time the #63 Porsche started racing again and, combined with a series of spins, this put paid to any serious challenge from the TSM Vent-Axia car.
At about the same time Shaun Balfe, lying second in GTO, was experiencing a strange sensation from the rear of the Eurotech Porsche as he negotiated the chicane. No sooner had he passed the entrance to the pitlane than the left rear tyre blew apart. At 2.3 miles Thruxton is not a short circuit, and flapping rubber can do untold damage to a Porsche's bodywork, so Balfe was forced to potter slowly around an entire lap of the track before he could get a replacement. Thruxton is renown for being abrasive on tyres, and the wisdom of fitting that harder-compound left rear to the Parr cars was starting to bear fruit.
On lap 25 Kelvin Burt finally made the dive into the pitlane. "Our driver swap wasn't quite as quick as normal," he admitted. "I came in slower than perhaps I needed to since I couldn't tell how fast I was going without the dash display, and I didn't want to risk exceeding the limit. Then we had a problem with the belts." It was a minor inconvenience, under the circumstances. "It cost us a few seconds," said Paul Robe, "but Kelvin's buffer was enough that we were able to ride that one out." With the delays affecting the #77 and #63 Porsches that "buffer" had been extended to over a minute, and when Marino accelerated away from the pit exit he still led the class by 22 seconds. Adding to his sense of security was the fact that second place now belonged to Ed Horner, some ten seconds clear of Steve Hyde in the #99 Tuscan.
Nothing in motorsport can ever be left to chance, especially with twenty-five minutes of a race left to run, but the prospects for another Parr one-two looked excellent. Only mechanical misfortune or an accident appeared to stand in Marino's way, although there were several occasions when the latter looked distinctly possible. "I had a lot of problems with back-markers," conceded Franchitti. "I was listening to the team and driving well within myself. They were telling me the gap back to Ed, but it only seemed to be coming down when I was losing big chunks to tail-enders." He claims to have encountered several, the first being the on-much-better-form Quaife. "I watched him going off ahead of me," recounts Franchitti. "Then he lit up the tyres as he came back on, spraying debris and rubbish all over the track. I had to move off line to avoid him, and was sent across the marbles. I was lucky that time!" He was not quite so fortunate the next. "The yellow Marcos spun through Noble. He was right in the middle and I almost had to stop to avoid him. I had to change right down to second before I could move off around him. It cost me a lot of time." Nearly four seconds, in fact, but that seems an age to a driver in the thick of battle. "Then I got stuck behind the silver GT2 Porsche for a couple of laps. He made it very difficult! Those three are definitely all off my Christmas card list!"
While Franchitti was cursing his luck - or others - fingers were being rapidly crossed elsewhere for very different reasons. The TVR Speed 12 had finally succumbed to the handling problem that had plagued it since the start, and when the car eventually surrendered to physics Michael Caine found himself making heavy impact with the tyre wall. For two laps the pace car stood ready, with Dave Warnock willing the thing to be deployed. Co-driver Mike Jordan was closing on Tim Harvey, but there wasn't enough time left for him to catch the Viper without fortune's intervention - or a safety car. From Horner's viewpoint, the last thing he wanted was Steve Hyde on his tail at a restart, especially while the Porsche was handling below par.
In the end the marshals managed to remove the TVR, but fortune smiled on Warnock all the same. On lap 39 Harvey pitted with a puncture, and Jordan cruised through into a lead he would never relinquish. Moments later Ed Horner lapped the unfortunate Paul Knapfield as the latter left his braking far too late into the chicane. The #63 Porsche locked up, allowing Horner to slip through without a struggle. On the very next lap Knapfield spun again, this time on the exit of the chicane, to confirm that any shadow of the car's earlier threat had long since faded. Just seven minutes of the race remained.
It became a steady run to the flag, with Horner left with just enough despite the wobbly wheel that he was able to respond when Steve Hyde threatened to narrow the gap. He crossed the line nine seconds ahead of the TVR, twenty-five behind his class-winning team-mate Marino Franchitti.
The result, and the fifteen points earned by it, was more than enough
to assure Kelvin Burt and Marino Franchitti the GTO title. Finishing
second added twelve points to the total of 76 previously gathered by
Ed Horner and Matt Turner, moving them six points clear of Balfe and
Sumpter. Paul Robe was among the first to congratulate his drivers,
yet equally keen to credit all the team for their efforts. "From
Parr's point of view, and from Porsche's point of view, our achievement
is as a team," he said. "It's been a fantastic day - and I
don't think it's sunk in yet. I hope everyone else associated with this
effort feels as good as I do. My thanks must go to everybody who's been
a part of the team this year, including Porsche, Michelin and all the
members of the squad. Every job that needs doing is important, they
all have to be done, and a team can only be as good as it's weakest
link. We've just won a championship, and that tells you a great deal.
It's a credit to everyone." He paused briefly, collecting his thoughts.
"Of course, we couldn't do this without the drivers, and I must
thank them for their faith in the team. We don't always agree, but they
have followed the targets we've set and worked for the good of the team
as a whole. That's what's important."
Thoughts now turn to the remaining two races at Brands Hatch and Silverstone. "This has been a good hard-fought race not without incident," said Paul Robe. "We had a particular job to do this weekend and everyone - drivers and team - did all that was expected of them. We got the result, but the target now is to refocus and ensure that Matt and Edward get second as well."
Round 12 at Brands Hatch is in two week's time, September 15th / 16th