10th June 2001
1st and 3rd for Porsche GB
For the first time the brand new Rockingham Motor Speedway echoed to the wonderful sound of GT cars in full cry. A sizeable grid of almost twenty-three added a fresh layer of rubber to the pristine (and at times slippery) tarmac, entertaining a crowd of nearly 10,000 to an incident-packed and highly unpredictable sixty-minutes of racing.
Once again, GTO qualifying had been a close contest between Kelvin Burt in the Porsche 911 GT3-RS and Martin Short in the new RollCentre TVR Tuscan-R. In a repeat of the events at Croft last time out, pole narrowly went the Tuscan's way, although the margin was a mere two-tenths of a second. Burt had the satisfaction of having held the provisional top slot for most of the two sessions and been the more consistent of the two. Ed Horner, responsible for qualifying the #54 Porsche this weekend, had been well pleased to secure third for himself and co-driver Matt Turner. His best of 1:43.993 was only marginally slower than Burt's 1:43.862, with Short's pole time being 1:43.649. There was a satisfying gap between these three and the remainder of the GTO field, while outright honours fell to Bobby Verdon-Roe in the TVR Speed 12 GT with a best of 1:39.947.
Paddock gossip before the race centred on the possibility, if any, of the two TVRs converting pole into podium in their respective classes. Certainly the Parr Motorsport drivers were going to ensure that the task for Martin Short and Rob Barff was all but impossible. Paul Robe, Parr's team manager, was "quietly confident. The grid is full and we've got some good competition, but our driver pairings are among the best matched in the championship," he said. "Our two cars are so close now, and that's also excellent for the team," he added.
Also giving rise to discussion was the Rockingham circuit itself; the first purpose-built motor racing facility in the UK for over 100 years. Recently hosting its inaugural event, the oval speedway is still awaiting an official opening by the Queen, due in just a few weeks. With grandstand seating for over 50,000 spectators, all of whom can see the entire circuit from their steeply raked vantage, Rockingham sets new standards for British motorsport venues. It has certainly met with universal approval from the public, although one or two drivers were heard to complain about the narrowness of the infield track.
Those enormous grandstands looked a little sparsely populated by the time two o'clock came around, and with it the re-scheduled start of PowerTour's Blue Riband event. The upper tiers provided a unique viewpoint on the GT rolling start, and an excellent opportunity to witness the way Parr Motorsport's Matt Turner made a blinding move onto the banking to be third overall and leading GTO by the first corner. "I could see what was happening," said Paul Robe afterwards. "They left the lights on red so long that the lead drivers couldn't see them on the gantry. It made the start very strange, but I shouted "Green, green, green!" over the radio and Matt leaped into the lead!"
Kelvin Burt had a different viewpoint. "There were two sets of lights, one on the banking, and the other on the gantry. The banking set turned green, but I think the gantry lights stayed red. There was some hesitation, then everyone just went! I got taken advantage of and Matt was one of those who went past me."
Several others also seemed to be knocked off their stride. Rob Wilson, driving first stint in the Hayles GT Viper, actually braked into the first banked turn, almost tripping up Burt, who was directly behind him. This had given Matt Turner the gap he needed, allowing him to dive up the between Barff and the Viper to emerge leading the class, fourth overall as they passed the chicane. Following him through came Rob Barff, starting the GTO Tuscan.
It made for a very strange spectacle as the leaders rounded the banking, with the order being TVR Speed 12, Warnock in the Lister, Wilson's Viper, Turner's Porsche with Rob Barff almost alongside, Kelvin Burt, and then the Eurotech Porsche. In the space of a few yards, that order changed radically . . .
The bunch of seven funnelled towards the narrowing gap of the first hairpin. Warnock electing to run high and wide. It was an error that cost him three places, as Turner and Barff both headed for the apex. Turner got there first, tight on Wilson's rear, but Barff pushed on across the kerbs, forcing Turner wide on the exit. That gave Kelvin Burt the gap he needed, and he was up on the inside of the TVR as they made their run towards the nameless third corner, easing past Barff to claim his habitual position as GTO leader.
Barff's move into the hairpin had not only cost Turner several places but also, it transpired, an element of handling. "He hit the left rear," confirmed Turner afterwards. "It wasn't a hard knock, and I didn't think much of it at the time." From then on, however, the car that had felt so perfect in testing and qualifying was to prove something of a handful. For the time being, however, he was on the right line for the next bend, and tucked inside Warnock to snatch fifth overall, third in GTO.
Kelvin Burt, blissfully unaware of his team-mate's misfortune, was rapidly regaining his rhythm. Within a matter of half a lap he was two seconds clear. "They all tripped over one another and I went through," was his cursory explanation. It all looked so easy.
While Burt eased away from the Tuscan, Warnock had recovered enough composure to reclaim fifth from Turner and start threatening the blue and green TVR. Complicating the issue for Turner, now chasing the Lister, was Shaun Balfe in the Eurotech Porsche. He was following Turner closely, but himself being pressured by Tim Sugden. As he'd done at Croft, Sugden was proving that he could push along the year-old 911 GT3-R at a very respectable pace, but matters for Balfe were about to be settled elsewhere on the track.
By the end of lap one the two GT front-runners had already opened out a lead over Kelvin Burt of almost three seconds, with a similar gap between the GTO leader and Barff in the Tuscan. "Some of the GT cars were slow on the infield, but could pull out as much as three seconds on the banking," explained Burt. "Like most races, the quick ones were getting away from me, the slower ones were being left behind. I was just stuck there in the middle on my own!" One determined to spoil Burt's solitude was Warnock, although it was going to take the Lister driver another six laps to catch and pass the GTO Porsche. Once he had, though, Burt's only real company was offered by the backmarkers he lapped, and they came around all too regularly.
An early retirement was Gavin Pickering in the Cirtek 911. From the rolling start the cars had bypassed the first chicane and held to the banking as far as the hairpin. This time he came down wide to take the chicane for the first time and hit the marker cones hard on the front right corner of his Porsche. The plastic bollard ripped into the front spoiler and cracked the radiator. He retired with debris strewn across the track, but Shaun Balfe became an incidental victim. Having been close to Matt Turner for the previous lap, he now incurred a puncture that cost him a full lap and any chance of a good finish.
Although Sugden remained an increasing threat, the departure of Balfe gave Turner enough of a breather that he was able to settle down to a pace that kept him surprisingly close to Warnock in the Lister. On lap four, when Warnock Stormed past Barff to reclaim fourth overall, Turner was close enough to benefit. As the two cars swept around the banking the orange Corus liveried Porsche eased ahead, entering that notorious first hairpin second in class. Within a lap he had extended the advantage by almost two seconds and started to look secure.
While comfortably leading GTO, Burt now had the Lister closing fast, and on lap seven the Storm used the full power of its Jaguar V12 to blast past on the banking. It was about the only moment of interest for Burt in the whole of the next ten laps.
At this point the prime mover in the GTO pack became Tim Sugden. With Turner having dispensed with Barff, Sugden was the next to pass the Tuscan. Having completed this, and with Barff in tow, Sugden then began the task of chasing Turner. It was at this point, in Turner's own words, that "things started to go downhill." A slow eighth lap cost the Parr driver several seconds, and next time round the two were back on his rear wing. He held them off for a further lap but, as the three cars headed towards the chicane to start the tenth lap, they were nose-to-tail. "I messed up the chicane," admitted Turner, who was finding the Porsche increasing slippy at the rear. Sugden was past in a flash, and then Barff followed suit. "He outdragged me on the banking," said a visibly disappointed Turner.
Two laps later the team sent out the call for the driver change, and Turner was into the pitlane without hesitation. The swap was completed with characteristic speed and Horner emerged fifth in class, eighth overall. He was also on an unexpectedly quiet stretch of track. "I came out of the pits and I thought, 'this is going to be boring', said Horner. "There were no other cars anywhere near, and then the safety car came out, and whooomph!" In truth, there were eleven laps of relative boredom before the enforced excitement, and somewhere near the middle of that Kelvin Burt came in to hand on to Marino Franchitti.
The second Parr pitstop was a masterful demonstration. For reasons yet to be explained, but clear for everyone to see, the right rear tyre on the #54 had suffering after eighteen laps of Rockingham. It was, said Kelvin, "totally rooted". The pitlane commentator picked up on the fact that a tyre and driver change was in progress, and hurried to report. "This will be a long stop and may cost them the lead," she said. Not a bit of it. Franchitti emerged still leading GTO by some twenty seconds. "We did a fantastic driver change," he said. "It even felt quick!" It was one of the best.
With Franchitti so comfortably ahead the Scot looked to have the race wrapped up. Indeed, the gap to Martin Short now driving the RollCentre Tuscan, started to extend by a second or more each lap. Similarly, Horner was making good progress, and within half a dozen laps of taking over had moved back into a good class third. Then, with eighteen minutes to go, the Safety Car moment arrived.
Charlotte Osbourn, the only lady driver in the championship, has done well in her debut season to generate any kind of performance from the GTO Mantis she shares with Andrew Davis. However, when a 25 pence fuse blows there's not a lot anyone can do, and she coasted to a halt at the base of the banking some 50 yards short of the first hairpin. It wasn't an obviously dangerous position, but ever with an eye for an exciting finish, the organisers decided that this was just the opportunity they needed to deploy the safety car. Yellow lights flashing, it duly arrived.
It took the marshals just a matter of moments to push the Marcos clear, but the parade was maintained for a further two laps. Initially Marino appeared to have got off lightly, with Martin Short held up behind Freddie Kinchin's #47 Mantis. The blue Marcos had been stuck in third gear from the halfway point and acting like a mobile chicane along the banking. Barely able to reach 80 miles an hour, Kinchin was painfully aware of the situation. With no overtaking allowed under the yellows, Kinchin pulled off and stopped by the hairpin. With the Marcos stationary Short could legally pass, and he wasted no time in catching up with the pack.
The order under the caution was perfectly structured to assure an exciting sprint finish. At the head of the field the TVR Speed 12, now with BVR at the wheel, had Harvey in the Hayles GT Viper just the length of one Mantis behind him. Line astern on Harvey was Ed Horner, with the second Tuscan R of Steve Hyde right on his tail. Keeping a watchful eye on both, and Harvey ahead of them, was Mike Jordan in the Lister Storm. Nine cars back Marino Franchitti found himself with his closest rival, Martin Short, now immediately behind him. It was going to be a tense final fifteen.
Activity was frenetic as soon as the green flags started waving. The GT battle was resumed in earnest, with BVR quick to pull away and re-establish his lead. Jordan and Harvey, however, were so closely matched that they started trading places almost every corner. Several times they swapped about - five times on one lap! - before Harvey finally made second his own (although much of that was thanks to bent steering on the Lister). Horner was quick to get the Dove Racing Mantis between himself and Hyde in the #99 Tuscan, and for a couple of laps looked to have survived the period intact. That was before the battle for the GTO lead arrived to engulf him . . .
On the restart Franchitti had promptly dispensed with the Mallock Mantis, but then found himself behind Ben Devlin in the Hayles GTO Viper. With Short equally eager to pass the Parr Porsche, Franchitti was acutely aware of the need to get ahead of Devlin, but the backmarker was not playing the game. Able to use the full power of the Viper on the straights and banking, he was proving an awkward egg to crack. Twice Franchitti dived down the inside at the so-called "Tarzan" hairpin, and twice Devlin slammed the door.
What few blue flags were waving (since Franchitti was a lap ahead) were steadfastly ignored, and some drivers might have allowed frustration to get the better of them. "The pressure was on me like no other point this year," he said. "I just knuckled down and drove quite aggressively." Demonstrating remarkable maturity, Franchitti made no mistakes in his determined attempts to overtake, but the net result was that a hard-charging pack of four cars descended like wolves upon Horner and Hyde.
The meeting took place on the approach to the all-action first hairpin. "I'd made some space for myself," said Horner. "Then, on the next lap, I suddenly had Paul in my ear shouting 'let Marino through, let Marino through!' I did, and then all these others came through as well!" It was an unfortunate combination of circumstances as far as Horner was concerned. While Franchitti emerged now ahead of Devlin, and with the Viper standing between himself and Short, the process had cost his colleague in the #54 car two hard-earned places.
Once ahead of the Viper Marino rapidly established a healthy lead, leaving Short to contend with the less than co-operative Devlin and the equally rapid GT Lotus of Chris Ellis. What happened next sealed Short's fate, although it's doubtful he'd have ever got near Franchitti again. High on the flat-out banking the Viper's engine blew. It was a very visible failure, accompanied by clouds of white smoke and a cacophony of pops and bangs. Surprisingly, however, Devlin persisted with his charge. Nearly blinded by the smoke, and with oil being sprayed across the track, those in his wake trusted to luck. The Lotus spun. The Jones' Porsche spun twice. Others slithered around as they attempted to hold the line. The final casualty came on the 31st lap when Martin Short, still attempting to pass the Viper, slewed wide on its slimy trail and put a wheel over the edge. The driveshaft broke and his race was over.
Franchitti crossed the line to take a third successive class victory almost a full lap ahead of the yellow Tuscan R of Steven Hyde and Richard Stanton. These two had benefited handsomely from the Safety Car period but were still as surprised as anyone to discover they'd done well enough to inherit second place in GTO. Horner had been just far enough away to be able to see and cope with the worsening conditions. He had made a spirited recovery, moving from sixth in class, tenth overall, to third and sixth respectively within three laps. It contrived to give Parr Motorsport and Porsche Cars GB another excellent clutch of trophies.
Franchitti was overjoyed. "That was one of the most satisfying results of my career," he said afterwards. "The pressure was enormous, but we came through it and I'm delighted." Paul Robe was equally upbeat. "Marino did an excellent job. He was under tremendous pressure from an experienced GT driver in a powerful car. Short drove as hard as he could, but Marino would still have won even without the TVR's retirement. I'm very pleased." Kelvin Burt, who had done so much to set up the win, was also keen to praise his young co-driver. "I'm really delighted with the way Marino coped with the pressure," he said. "I couldn't be more pleased for him and the way things went. Predictably, they found a reason to bring out the safety car, but don't they always?"
Ed Horner had a moment to reflect on what might have been. "This is our third podium on the trot, and I'm really pleased with that, but it could have worked out so much better. We've been close to the white car (#54) at this circuit all along, and with the handling problem we simply weren't able to demonstrate that."
The result extends the class lead that Kelvin Burt and Marino Franchitti share. Although not unassailable, it is a comfortable position. The team's next outing is at Castle Combe in Wiltshire in two weeks' time, June 23rd/24th, for Round Seven of the 2001 British GT Championship.