16th September 2001
Parr Porsches on Top Form again at Brands Hatch
Parr Motorsport returned to their local track at Brands Hatch last weekend for Round 12 of the 2001 British GT Championship. They were on excellent form once again, coming through to finish first and third in another nail-biting race.
Having wrapped up the title by winning the previous round at Thruxton, Kelvin Burt and Marino Franchitti might have been forgiven had they decided to take things easy, but that isn't their way. Nothing was going to stand between them and another top class victory - except perhaps their team-mates Ed Horner and Matt Turner. Over recent months the Corus Hotels-sponsored car #54 has been getting ever closer to the #53, and with second place in the championship at stake there were hopes for the orange car to clinch a season's first win.
Marino Franchitti set the ball rolling by placing the #53 car on class pole in Saturday qualifying. He was given sole charge of the white Porsche during the morning's first period, leaving Kelvin Burt watching from the pit wall. He was up to the top of the timing chart almost straight away, clocking a best of 47.267 on his first full flying lap. A consistent string of quickest laps, including an improvement to 46.627, suggested that the Scot had found the measure of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, and with fifteen minutes of the session remaining the team called him back in to safeguard the tyres. Including out- and in-laps he'd been on track for just ten tours, and the tyres were hardly scrubbed in.
For much of what remained of that first period Franchitti's early time looked secure, but towards the end the rest of the pack started to narrow the gap. Ed Horner in the second Parr Porsche had done a 47.444 on his third flyer to hold the second-place slot for the opening twenty minutes before Martin Short leaped up the order. A new engine in the TVR had been run-in by Rob Barff and it was now pulling well. Ed Horner responded straight away, however, and moved back ahead of the Tuscan with a lap of 47.305. Neither was deemed sufficiently close to Franchitti's time to justify sending #53 back out again, so the team resisted that temptation and concentrated on looking after the tyres.
This left Horner and Short to battle things out between them for second. Short went marginally quicker again with a lap of 46.800, setting Horner the task of finding an extra half-second. It looked like a tall order, but Ed Horner rarely concedes a challenge. He set off on another flyer but, just as he came up the rise into Clearways, the transmission seized. The car spun and Horner's session was over. Subsequent telemetry revealed that it would have been his fastest lap, and possibly enough to snatch back that front row position. Afterwards Horner was able to explain how even the times he had set were Achievement in the face of Adversity. "On my third or fourth lap the car started popping out of third gear," he explained. "From then on I had to drive through the hairpin and Graham Hill Bend with my hand on the lever all the time. It made things a little tricky!"
The chequered flag dropped with Franchitti still holding provisional pole, fourth overall, and Martin Short second in the #55 TVR Tuscan R. A frustrated Edward Horner held on to third and knowing that the mechanics had a busy afternoon ahead of them.
Franchitti was satisfied with provisional pole, but only just. "We could have been a lot faster," he said with a shrug. "There's too much understeer and we're losing three tenths a lap at least, but I'm pleased to at the front. It's also encouraging to have the TVR two tenths behind, because that's half a second or more on any other circuit. This qualifying session is the first time we've run a low fuel here at Brands, and that may account for the understeer, but race-wise we're in better shape than qualifying. If it rains, perhaps this could be another Knockhill," he added with a grin. The forecast was for showers.
By mid-afternoon the track conditions were distinctly slower. Kelvin Burt went out during the first "GTO-only" ten minutes but knew within moments that it would be impossible to match Franchitti's earlier time. He completed only enough laps to qualify himself and then sat out the remainder of the session in the pitlane. Matt Turner followed a similar brief in car #54, by then fitted with a new crown wheel and pinion. Paul Robe, team manager at Parr, was happy with the situation. "The morning went very well for us," he said. "We're very pleased to have Marino on pole by two tenths - and that's hard to find around this short circuit, so it's a significant advantage. It's also good to have several GT car between us and the bulk of the pack. I think we can be confident for the race."
Contrary to predictions, Sunday afternoon turned out sunny and dry, if a bit on the chilly side. The day had also been relatively incident-free, so the GT cars headed out for the grid marginally ahead of schedule at just before two o'clock. In the light of the recent tragedies in New York and Washington many people considered it strange that we were out in the sunshine enjoying a day's motorsport at all. A minute's silence was observed with heartfelt dignity, while a number of the teams had made known their sentiments by marking their cars in some way. This was especially significant to Parr Motorsport, and to Matt Turner in particular. Matt had been in subdued mood all weekend, but wanted to express his thanks for the many kind words he'd received over the days at Brands Hatch. "I feel bad about being over here and speeding around in a racing car while friends back home have other things on their minds. It doesn't seem right," he said. "A lot of the drivers have been coming up to me and saying really nice things, being very supportive. It's been hard to get motivated this weekend, and it's been reassuring to receive all these humanly gestures from fellow competitors, so I'd like to say thank you to those people." Both the Parr cars carried small black-framed Stars and Stripes on their radio antenna in a mark of respect.
The Rolling Start
Having done the hard work in qualifying, Marino Franchitti was given the honour of taking the rolling start in car #53. While GTO pole may have been an honour he enjoyed, fourth overall proved to be something of a poisoned chalice. The grid structure placed him directly behind the GT Lister Storm on the outside of the track. Although Mike Jordan had qualified the Storm on the front row, the slightly less-speedy David Warnock would be taking first stint in the black car. At the back of Warnock's mind must have been some stark memories of what happened at Brands last time the GTs were here in July, when a first corner misunderstanding saw him spinning into the Paddock Hill gravel. There he was collected wholesale by Tim Sugden's Porsche, and ended up in hospital. Not surprisingly, he was less than keen to repeat the experience, giving Rob Wilson in the GT Viper every opportunity to take full advantage of Harvey's pole.
As the cars swept over the brow to begin the first lap Wilson was away down the inside, carrying Michael Caine in the TVR Speed 12 with him. This opened up plenty of gaps for those to the right, but Franchitti was left with nowhere to go. "Warnock made an awful start," bemoaned the Scot. "I was completely stuck!" He couldn't move over to the right because of the Speed 12 and there was no room to dive between. The net result was that Rob Barff, starting the #55 Tuscan from the third row, was able to follow Caine through and take the class lead even before they'd fully negotiated the first corner.
If Franchitti's start was frustrated, Matt Turner's was typically fruitful. He swept through from ninth to fifth even before the pack had reached Paddock Hill, and was the next car to come alongside Franchitti as they took the dip towards Druids. "I was just pleased to put the three GT2 cars well behind me," said Turner, "but then Marino and I had a really close call. He was being balked but I had a huge head of steam. We were side by side and very nearly touched. I started to go up the inside and kept my foot on the pedal a little longer, but he was battling with the Lister."
As they headed up the rise towards Druids Warnock and Franchitti were nose to tail with Turner forced to back off along the inside. Barff, meanwhile, was getting away. "I'd pulled in as close as I could behind the Storm round Druids," explained Franchitti, "and then followed him closely through Graham Hill Bend." Taking a slingshot through the awkward lefthander he managed to get a run on the Lister as they sped up Cooper Straight towards Surtees, easing just enough of a nose in front to claim the line. With the Lister disposed of Franchitti was at last able to set off after Barff.
That head of steam was still giving Turner exactly the momentum he needed and he was next to pick off the Lister. Rounding Clearways he emerged fifth overall, third in GTO. It had been an eventful first lap for the Parr Porsches, and not wholly unprofitable.
It transpired that Warnock was having problems with his tyres. They were taking longer than expected to reach optimum temperature on the one-mile Indy circuit, so he'd decided to take the first few laps quite gently. By the fourth or fifth they were working just fine, and he was lapping significantly quicker than the GTO cars ahead of him. Closing in on Matt Turner the two cars started the sixth lap less than two-tenths apart, and by the end of that lap, just where Matt had earlier passed him, Warnock reclaimed fifth. Matt's tail was now exposed to the experienced and ever-determined Tim Sugden, and the blue and white Vent-Axia car was now placing the American under increasing pressure.
Barff, meanwhile, had made the most of Franchitti's first lap tribulation to ease out a gap of almost two seconds. It rapidly became clear that this was not going to be enough to hold the new champion at bay for long. "The car was understeering rather a lot," admitted Franchitti, "but I felt I was catching [Barff] hand over fist." By the tenth lap - and at around 48 seconds per lap that didn't take long to come around - they were nose-to-tail. Catching the Tuscan proved to be the easy part - getting ahead was more of a challenge. It took a further ten laps of thrilling give and take, through traffic and backmarkers, before Franchitti found his opportunity. It came in the guise of Curtis Hayles in the GTO Viper, who cut in late as Barff was passing him at Clearways. The two cars came together heavily. The Viper was tipped into a spin that was only halted by the gravel, while the TVR bore ragged scars from that moment on. Somehow Franchitti dodged through the flailing machinery to take the class lead, but Barff was furious. At least he was still racing, though. It was Hayles' second spin at Clearways and this time the black car was not about to move again. Departed from the track it may have been, but that did not mean that its role in the race was complete.
Like the cork from the bottle Franchitti was flying. "Once I was in the lead I was able to pull away. That was it, I was gone!" he said. He had eight laps to enjoy himself and establish some kind of a lead.
While all this was going on Matt Turner had discovered he had a real contest on his hands. At times you'd have been hard pressed to get another coat of paint between his car and Sugden's. "He was right behind me the whole time," acknowledged Turner. "In a way, though, it was nice knowing it was him. He's a good driver with tons of experience and I knew he wasn't about push us both off. If he was going to pass me at least I knew it would be a good move." In the end, however, it was probably the tyres that played the trump card for Turner. Try as he might, Sugden couldn't find a gap, and eventually his attack began to fade. "Yeah, after a while I realised I had him covered," said Matt with a grin. "I had thought my own tyres might go off, but they never did. They were perfect." The same could not be said of Sugden's, and just as Marino was taking the class lead Matt found himself able to breathe more easily once again. He had successfully held on to third in class and was running sixth overall, twenty seconds behind Franchitti.
Rob Barff was now losing a second a lap to Franchitti, but that stranded Viper was about to bring out the safety car. Five minutes after the dust had settled, and in a break from the usual procedure, the 'SC ' boards were displayed around the circuit. It was an additional two laps before the Jaguar pace car was deployed from the end of the Grand Prix loop. In itself this change from the norm caused more than its fair share of confusion, being variously described as "bizarre" or "incredible" by the commentary team. If they were confused, so were many of the competitors. One who clearly wasn't was Matt Turner. "I saw the Viper spin off at Clearways and I knew what would happen. I told Paul over the radio that the safety car would be coming out."
Sure enough, the Jaguar's flashing lights were soon to be seen heading up Brabham Straight. Moments earlier the twenty-minute pitstop 'window' had opened and the first handful of cars had started heading for the pitlane for their driver changes. Matt Turner was among those early stoppers and the timing looked to be perfect. He came in just ahead of the Jag, leaving enough room for Ed Horner to be back out again just behind. It was a very slick exchange, as usual, but there was a drawback. The race leader was now behind him on the track. It wasn't long before Ed was being waved through so that the pace car could collect the #27 TVR Speed 12. Ed obediently sped off around the one-mile track, but he was not alone for long. He found himself behind the #97 Marcos Mantis and it was circulating only marginally faster than the pace car. "He was so slow!" exclaimed a frantic Ed Horner. Unable to pass it, his concern was that they would not have time to catch up with the tail end of the crocodile before racing resumed, and then they'd be left way behind. Luckily for Ed the boards stayed out for five laps, and it was just enough to ensure that he was there for the restart.
As Ed accelerated away from the pitlane Marino, closely followed by Rob Barff, was coming in at the other end. "The safety car threw us a bit of a curved ball, to say the least!" commented Paul Robe, team manager and director of operations in the Parr pitlane. "We had to make two pitstops one after the other, almost at the same time." It was certainly a busy few minutes for the Parr mechanics, who had no sooner despatched with one car than they had to deal with another. They did so with characteristic efficiency, ensuring that Kelvin Burt was out comfortably clear of Martin Short, freshly ensconced in the #55 TVR. "The white car came in perfectly," acknowledged Paul. "The whole stop was perfect, in fact, and that gave us the edge over the TVR. The team did well, and Kelvin was out well ahead of the Martin Short." Once back among the procession of cars behind the safety car, of course, that hard-won advantage evaporated, but at least Kelvin still retained top slot in GTO. What was a little confusing, however, was that they had managed to emerge on track in the middle of the train of cars, just nine back from the leader.
The safety car peeled away as the leading cars began their thirty-first lap, and the action resumed without further delay. With tyres cooled after several laps at such a modest pace the black TVR Speed 12 was the first to entertain the crowds, spinning out at the foot of Paddock Hill Bend. A subsequent puncture effectively destroyed any hope of recovery. That left Tim Harvey to sweep through into the overall lead, and he was never really going to be challenged again - especially as Mike Jordan, running some fifteen seconds down on the Viper, only needed to finish fourth to secure the GT title. That left the battle between Kelvin Burt and Martin Short to offer the best on-track action - and it was certainly thrilling to watch.
With the field bunched up after all those laps behind the safety car Burt and Short found themselves in the thick of the tail-end pack. They were presented with a succession of backmarkers to overtake, but Burt appeared the more adept under these circumstances. Martin Short fell foul of the #20 Marcos soon after the restart, and that was followed not long afterwards by the #77 Paragon Porsche. A few laps later and the roles were reversed, with Kelvin seriously held up, surprisingly, by the recovering TVR Speed 12. Instantly, Short closed right up again. It seemed that no sooner had Kelvin Burt managed to put some space between himself and the Tuscan, than Shorty found the room he needed to speed after the disappearing Porsche. For over forty laps the Tuscan driver kept up a relentless pressure, sometimes falling back by a second or more, at others closing to within a tenth. It was nailbiting stuff and all but overshadowed anything else happening on the track.
There were significant events, however. On lap 42 the tussle between Terry Rymer, Steve Hyde and Neil Cunningham came to a head at Druids, with the #99 Tuscan ending up with its front splitter embedded in the turf embankment and Rymer's rear suspension deranged. It put paid to the former bike champion's hopes of a top finish and effectively ended the Stanton/Hyde assault on the championship. Neil Cunningham was to finish a strong fourth for the Harlow outfit however, significantly denying points to Mark Sumpter in the Paragon Porsche.
Just a few minutes before that incident the former champion, Sumpter, had also been lapped by Ed Horner, much to the latter's delight. Although he was later to feel a little disappointed that things hadn't worked out better for him, the safety car period hadn't been quite as unfavourable to Ed Horner as he'd originally feared. Having been 20 seconds behind Franchitti when Matt Turner completed his stint, the #54 car was five seconds closer by the time racing resumed. What did work against him was the fact that what he'd gained in seconds, he'd lost in cars. There were now almost twice as many backmarkers between him and the #55 TVR as there had been. He was also conscious of the fact that the car had endured a transmission problem in qualifying, and a good points-scoring finish was more important than gaining another place - especially if Martin Short's Tuscan R currently held it. "Paul said I was a lap ahead of the car in fourth, so I was just racing for third. Because of that I didn't push as hard as I might have done had I been really racing. I just stroked it home," he said. "I was conscious of the potential gearbox problem, and with Sumpter and Balfe (Ed's nearest rivals in the championship) way back in seventh or so, and the #99 TVR already out, there was no point in pushing or taking risks."
In truth Horner's advantage over Paul Knapfield, by then at the wheel of Tim Sugden's Porsche, was only about fifteen seconds, but Horner's lap times were typically a second or more faster anyway, so the margin grew despite the "easing off".
There was little sign of either of the two GTO leaders following suit. Despite a new lap record from Kelvin Burt on lap 49 of 47.056, he just couldn't seem to shake off that persistent TVR. Time after time he looked to have sufficient gap to make it stick, and then there'd be another slower car to dispense with. Some were not actually that slow. The Quaife was having its best run of the year and, as Ed Horner also discovered, it's no slouch down the straights. Kelvin disposed of the handsome blue and silver car once again on lap 57, as did Short a turn later, but both cars had more hair-raising moments than this. Kelvin had the yellow Mantis slewing sideways directly in front of him as he rounded Graham Hill Bend, and there was a truly frightening incident involving the #51 Cirtek Porsche. Graham Cooms lost it totally on the exit of Druids and ended up sideways across the track. He sat patiently while several cars negotiated the narrow gap that remained, but then took the wild decision to complete a wheelspin turn directly between the fast-tracking Burt and Short. How he didn't collect the Tuscan cannot be explained!
Kelvin Burt was certainly being made to work hard for his supper. He was also, in his own words, pretty committed when it came to lapping some of the backmarkers. One move that caught the spectators' attention was his pass on Paul Knapfield through Paddock Hill Bend. Described as "very brave" by the commentators, Burt dismissed it as little more than routine. "I was flashing him along the pit straight, and he was getting the blue flags," explained the former F3 champion. "It was tight under braking as I came up the inside, and I saw him begin to turn in. I was a little worried," he admitted, "but I think it must have surprised him to see me there, 'cos he suddenly backed right off in the middle of the corner." In doing so he nearly collected the chasing Martin Short, who was hoping to follow the Porsche through, but the move had done enough to refresh the gap and allow Burt a breather.
With five minutes of the race remaining the scrap for the GTO lead finally caught up with Ed Horner. He'd seen off Paul Knapfield without realising the threat had even been there, opening up an advantage of nearly a lap. Neil Cunningham, who had passed the #63 Porsche to be running fourth in GTO, was 35 seconds in arrears, and third was in the bag. Even so, it must have been mildly disheartening for the Corus driver to have to concede a lap to his team-mate, despite knowing he'd been advised to take it easy. It took a couple of laps even so, with Terry Rymer in the #45 adding spice to the mixture. As the two Parr Porsches and Short's TVR prepared to negotiate the stricken Harlow car they were simultaneously planning their own passing strategies on one another. There's a lot of mental gymnastics being done in a situation like that! With Rymer gone, Kelvin Burt moved up on Horner as they powered through Graham Hill Bend. He couldn't quite get the pace to make the pass into Surtees, but finally made it stick round Clearways. For a couple of laps Horner was the meat in the Burt'n Short sandwich, but his pace was good. "I was disappointed to get lapped by Kelvin at the end," he shrugged, "but Paul warned me he was coming through and explained the situation. I moved over when I could, and then Short caught me down the straight. I don't think I held either of them up."
From then on, aside from Rymer spinning out at Paddock two laps from the flag, it was a straight run to the finish. Kelvin Burt took the class win by nearly two seconds from Martin Short, with Ed Horner third ahead of Cunningham fourth and Knapfield fifth.
"What a great race!" enthused Paul Robe. "It was everything that it looked likely it would be - very close all the way, and with an excellent battle with the TVR." The race might have been over, but that particular battle was not yet finished. With the sound of GT racecars still echoing round the circuit Martin Short was already speaking to the Clerk of the Course. He was lodging a protest that claimed Kelvin Burt had, according to him, passed Ed Horner at Druids under yellow flags. In the report by Total Motorsport Short is quoted as having said: "We came up towards Druids, there were yellow flags, I lifted off and stayed behind the car in front (Ed Horner's #54 Porsche) but Kelvin didn't." The accompanying photograph was taken at Druids at the moment this was alleged to have happened, yet there are no yellow flags visible and neither is Kelvin in a position to pass the Corus car. In any event, he did not overtake Ed until some time later as the trio came through Clearways. Perhaps we will only discover the truth when the video footage is examined.
As if that wasn't enough, there was a second protest. This one stated that both Kelvin Burt and Martin Short had exited the pitlane after their driver changes with the control lights on red. That would explain perhaps, how they took up station so far up the chain behind the pace car. It might also mean that the rightful winners of the race were Matt Turner and Ed Horner. Officially the jury is still out and the result remains provisional pending an enquiry, but it didn't prevent the podium ceremony from going ahead. Martin Short appears typically cheerful, but perhaps that's just the nature of the guy.
If Marino Franchitti looks less joyful, then that may be because he was considering the day's true priorities. Interviewed for radio just as his co-driver was emerging from the car he expressed thoughts shared by many at the track last Sunday. "It's a win, but there are far more important things going on in the world. At a later date I may be able to look back on this race and feel happy about the result, but for now I'd just like to dedicate this to all those poor people in America who have lost their lives." He also expressed his concerns for Alex Zanardi, seriously injured in a Champ car accident in Germany the day before, and wished him the best possible recovery.
Ed Horner was acutely aware of how his own co-driver would be feeling. "I'd like to pay tribute to Matt," he said. "He drove really well today, and I know it's been a difficult week for him."
Paul Robe was generous in his praise for all four drivers. "The TVR got the drop on us at the start but Marino drove a storming stint to take the lead. Matt also drove a very good first stint to see off a determined challenge from the very experienced Tim Sugden. Kelvin's was a very good, controlled stint. Martin shadowed him all the way and it became a great race to the line. That was satisfying, because we've had quite a few wins this season where there's been a reasonable margin at the flag. This time it was head-to-head all the way, and we still won. Ed came home a solid third. He never looked in danger, and has all but clinched the runners-up title. All in all, it was another great day for the team."
Under the circumstances, finishing third was an excellent outcome for Ed and Matt. "The result is really good for our championship hopes," said Ed. "It puts it further out of reach for the others, but it isn't over yet. I'm looking forward to going out on a high at Silverstone." Of those others, Shaun Balfe and Mark Sumpter finished sixth, netting five points, but Richard Stanton and Steve Hyde failed to score. This means that the Corus Hotels pairing needs to finish seventh or better to be assured of the runners-up position, while Balfe & Sumpter must win or take second at Silverstone.
The points' table now reads as follows: