22nd July 2001
and Horner take 5th Podium of the year at Donington
A glance at the result sheet for Round 9 of the British GT Championship from Donington Park last weekend tells a mere fraction of what was, by anybody's books, a remarkable story. Second and third in GTO for the two cars is an excellent result under any circumstances, but to achieve this after they both started from the back of the grid is an astonishing achievement. Star performance has to go to Kelvin Burt, who drove through the entire GTO pack, but on any other day Matt Turner's run to fourth would have gained equal plaudits.
Unfortunately, the team's delight was moderated by concerns for Shane Bland, who had been involved in a frightening accident at Redgate twelve minutes before the hour. His Marcos had apparently been without brakes as he entered the corner at speed. The car spun once, skipped over the gravel trap without any obvious loss of speed, and very nearly cleared the tyre barrier back-end first. The concrete wall behind the tyres was shattered by the impact, scattering shrapnel into the crowd, while the car itself appeared to disintegrate inside a ball of flame. It took nearly an hour for the marshals to clear the debris and rebuild the tyrewall. Shane regained consciousness while still in the car, where medical personnel were able to make him comfortable before the journey to Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham. At the time of writing the news remains sketchy, but it has been confirmed that he has sustained damage to the vertebrae in his neck but is awaiting the results of a CT scan. On the brighter side, his condition is said to be stable and he is likely to make a full recovery. We wish him well.
With the inevitable red flag ending to the GT race we will never know whether Marino Franchitti and Ed Horner, the two fastest drivers in GTO at the time, could have passed Martin Short in the TVR Tuscan to make it another one-two for Parr. That, perhaps, would have been too much of a fairytale ending to this memorable weekend, but even the result they did achieve never seemed possible before the race began.
After the relative disaster of qualifying only the most committed punter would have placed a bet on the Parr cars for a podium. When everything had looked to be going so right, it all went so terribly wrong.
By the time two o'clock arrived the threat of rain had receded - although Kelvin Burt would probably have enjoyed the additional challenge. "Kelvin and Matt are both excellent on cold tyres," commented Paul Robe as the cars prepared to head out onto the track. "The other drivers at the back won't have seen commitment quite like it. It should make for a very interesting race." It was a strange sensation for the team as they waited at the rear of the grid for the two Parr cars to take up their positions, so far from their usual slots. With a large grid, it was also rather daunting to discover that the back row was somewhere in the vicinity of Goddards. This meant that the green light would come on for the rolling start while Kelvin and Matt were still unsighted round the bend, adding to the pressure as they waited to hear "Go! Go! Go!" in their headsets.
At two-and-a-half-minutes it's a long formation lap behind the pace car at Donington. The tension was certainly mounting as the cars rounded Goddards to face the main straight. The leaders hove into view, and Rob Wilson got his best start of the year to outdrag David Warnock in the GT polesetting Lister into Redgate. Bobby Verdon Roe also got a good start, moving up on Warnock as the pack headed off towards the Craner Curves. (He later passed the Lister on the run up to Goddards at the end of the lap.)
While all this was happening at the front, the tail-enders were still only just crossing the line. By the time they reached Redgate the two Parr Porsches had already passed four cars, with Matt Turner once again demonstrating his remarkable sprinting ability off the blocks. Leading Kelvin Burt through Redgate the distinctive orange car, now bearing several white panels thanks to the previous day's accident, had clearly made another excellent start.
That first lap was a revelation. From time to time those who regularly occupy the nether regions of the pack have to contend with the occasional faster car starting from the back, but rarely have they had two such determined drivers in their midst. "When we first started it was really great," said Matt Turner with a grin of delight. "We were taking cars here, there, everywhere. It was amazing." They achieved most of this without incident, and there was enough awareness that, in most cases, they were given a clean run. "One exception on that first lap was the Lotus, number #52," said Matt. "He tried to defend as we came up into the Esses and I was pushed left. I had to put one wheel onto the grass on the inside and then head out over the kerbing. Gavin Pickering must have seen me coming, because he went straight at the exit and let me through." It was a tight squeeze, but Turner emerged on the other side without a scratch. "That was good eyes on his part," he added, with thanks to the Harlow Motorsport driver. "I went flying, but I got past three of them in one move." Kelvin Burt, meanwhile, had gone around the outside and passed all four!
They completed the first lap in 18th and 19th places overall, having made up ten each - one of them being Neil Cunningham's GT2 Porsche, which had pitted with a loose ECU.
While Kelvin and Matt were scything through the mid-field, Rob Barff in the TVR Tuscan R was enjoying a relatively easy run as the GTO leader. He'd got clear of Shaun Balfe in the #77 Eurotech car and was pressing Calum Lockie for fourth overall, although the #9 Cirtek GT2 Porsche had also made a strong start from ninth to be tight on his tail.
Burt's rise through the ranks was extraordinary to watch. His lap times,
despite the traffic, were between one and three seconds quicker than
anyone else in the class. By the end of the second lap he was lying
fifteenth, ninth in GTO. Two more fell to his charge on each of laps
three and four. "All went swimmingly well," he said. "People
seemed to be so tangled up with their own little battles and they don't
seem to expect someone to come barreling through. They don't see you
coming half the time." On lap five he passed Shaun Balfe into McLeans,
followed by the #78 car of David Jones at the Melbourne Loop. The twin
had made a good start but was slowed by a deflating front left tyre.
Having to pit before the driver change 'window' had opened meant this
was an extra stop and put them out of contention two laps down.
Matt Turner was not finding the going quite so easy. After disposing of Shane Lynch in the #69 Marcos, and then Adam Simmons in the oversteering Harlow Porsche, he found himself behind Curtis Hayles in the GTO Viper. Hayles was battling with Edd Sharpe in the Ultima GT, and got ahead of the silver car on lap five. Although he was clearly the faster of the two, Matt found the Ultima a difficult nut to crack. Try as he might, the Ultima's six litre Chevrolet V8 was generating more than enough grunt to keep the GTO Porsche at bay - at least for the time being. It took him two whole laps to find a way through, but then found his route barred once again by Hayles. "The Viper was taking defensive lines everywhere," explained Turner. "It could pull away on the straights, but I was so much quicker than him everywhere else." For a couple of entertaining laps they dueled through the corners; a lunge from Turner, a repost from Hayles, but always a half-second between them. Then, as the pair weaved through the Esses on lap eight, Hayles made an unassisted spin on the exit and Turner was through. "It was good to have him out of the way," was Turner's typical understatement. "Everything timed up perfectly for Kelvin. The Ultima and the Viper seemed to let him through, but not me! I reckon I could have kept up with him if they hadn't held me up."
It was like taking a cork out of a champagne bottle. Once free of the constraints Turner was instantly back on the pace, and his times dipped under the 1:39 marker once again. This soon brought him up against another blockage in the form of a slower-than-usual Richard Stanton in the second Tuscan, although the American insisted he wasn't pushing over-hard. "I was trying not to move the car around too much and look after the tyres," he explained. "I knew Ed would have more ground to make up in the second half."
Rob Barff made a show of speeding up, but even then Burt's times were almost two seconds a lap faster. It was like watching a predator chasing its prey. You knew what was going to happen, it was just a case of when. It was exactly on twenty minutes and the start of lap 13 that Kelvin finally arrived on the tail of the Tuscan. They had rounded the Melbourne Loop with two backmarkers between them, the #70 and #75 Mantises, and as they crested the rise before the sweep through Goddards, the white Porsche dived through to arrive at the corner just behind the green and blue TVR.
The two GTO leaders crossed the line less than a second apart, but it took Burt the whole of that thirteenth lap to bring himself into a position to strike. His best opportunity came on that same run up to Goddards, and with a lightning-quick move he tucked up the inside. Within one-third race distance he'd moved from last to first. It was an awesome demonstration of racecraft and determination.
A handful of places behind Burt, Matt Turner was finding the second TVR a serious obstacle to progress. He'd been stuck on its rear wing for three laps when he finally got by at the Melbourne Loop. This tight hairpin was fast becoming his favourite overtaking spot, having earlier disposed of Terry Rymer and the Jones' car at the same corner. Disheartened perhaps, the #99 car dived straight into the pits. It was dot on the stroke of twenty minutes.
The Stanton/Hyde TVR was the first car to make the driver change, although it was only a matter of moments before the pitlane was frantic with other cars also making the swap. Unhindered, Matt put in one very quick lap before he too made a beeline for the Parr garage and the hand-over to Ed Horner. It was an excellent exchange. Having been behind the Tuscan two laps previously, Horner was back out and racing with a five second advantage. Within three laps that had doubled, with the weekend's GTO pole-setter soon recording some of the best lap times of the day.
Even though Burt had seemed to get ahead of Barff with ease, the Tuscan driver didn't give up the fight totally and it was three or four laps before the white Porsche had got far enough ahead that you could say the Tuscan was no longer a threat. With hindsight it was surprising that the RollCentre team kept Barff out for as long as they did, but his turn came on lap 17, when he handed over to Martin Short. In common with their GT brethren, the Speed Twelves, the Tuscans aren't the easiest cars to get in and out of, but they made a speedy job of it this time. The Burt-Franchitti swap came a lap later. It was also a quick swap, but replacing the left rear tyre added valuable seconds to the changeover. "I worked the tyres pretty hard," explained Kelvin. "We changed the left rear at the stop but they were still surprisingly good at the end." The plan to change that one wheel had been made before the race began, but as Marino sped out of the pitlane Shorty was already rounding Redgate. The gap was five seconds.
In the battle for outright victory Mike Jordan was walking away with the race. Wilson had pitted early from the lead to hand over to Harvey, but it was a slow stop. Warnock had been just yards behind him, but it was Jordan who had the advantage when the two cars came out again. The Lister driver set some blistering times as he strove to catch Bobby Verdon-Roe, still out there and fronting the race in the Speed Twelve. When the TVR finally pitted on lap 16, Jordan was there to grasp a lead he never relinquished. Both the TVR and the Viper were suffering from diminishing grip, and as the race progressed they fell steadily further back
order in GT appeared to be settled, matters in GTO were anything but.
Although occasionally held up by traffic, Marino was catching the Tuscan
in pretty Short order. "I lit up the tyres on the way out of the
pitlane," said the Scot with a broad grin. "The new one came
in straight away after that!" He was lapping about a second quicker
and, with twenty minutes or so still to run, looked to have every chance
of catching the leader. "I was just delighted," he added.
"First lap out of the pits I was catching him down the Craner Curves.
We got a bit spread out through some of the traffic, but once we were
through that and into the clear I was catching him easily by half a
second or more every lap."
From seventh in class after the driver change, Ed was now lying third, but his task was being made more difficult by something rolling around in the footwell. "I don't know what it was exactly," he said, "but it must have come loose in the driver change. It was rolling around under my feet. Sometimes it was under the brake pedal, other times the accelerator. Every time I braked it rolled forwards. It made the last part of the race very interesting."
All this while Marino had been chomping huge chunks out of Short's lead. As they come through Goddards to begin the 27th lap the gap had shrunk to a fraction over one second. "He knew he was caught," said Marino. With Short gathering up the Tuscan's rear as it slid wide on the exit, they sped off down the main straight. The sight that met them at the end must have been horrific. Just moments beforehand Shane Bland had slammed backwards into the Redgate tyrewall, his car already a mass of flames. They pressed on, of course - drivers have to - but their minds were probably not 100% on the task in hand when the safety car picked them up later that lap. It was clear to anyone nearby that this was going to take a long time to clear, and with only thirteen minutes left to run the red flags were waved.
The mood in the paddock was very subdued. "I've got mixed emotions really," said a quiet Ed Horner. "I'm more concerned about Shane than anything else. There's nothing more important than that." It was an hour or more before news filtered through to say that Shane's condition was not as bad as everyone had feared. With that the tension eased, and those who'd done well were finally able to feel they could share the celebrations. "As Kelvin said, you can't keep us down that easily!" quoted Marino, although some of them had clearly tried. "After yesterday this is a great result," agreed his co-driver, "but when I see the way some of them drive - all this willful blocking and contact - it makes me really cross at what happened to Marino." Kelvin obviously had a serious point to make. "Yes, I had one guy who swerved into me twice along Starkey's. It was so obviously deliberate, although he did come and apologise afterwards. Behaviour like that is so pointless, as well as dangerous."
Conversely, there was generous praise for the way Kelvin himself had driven, including warmly appreciated words from the GTO winners, Martin Short and Rob Barff. "He was like Ayrton Senna today," said Barff of Kelvin Burt, who appeared rather embarrassed by the comparison. As Marino had suggested, Martin Short admitted that he probably would have moved over for the #53 car. "Yeah, I'd have let him through. I saw eighteen minutes to go and knew there was no way I could hold him off for that long. It's like the rabbit and the fox. When you're the rabbit it's a lot easier to do the chasing! He might have made a mistake," he added, with a mischievous grin.
"That was the one that got away," said Paul Robe. "After yesterday our expectations weren't high, to be honest. I felt we could do well, but wasn't over-confident of a top three. In the end the race proved to be a fantastic spectacle and a tremendous performance from both our cars - particularly Kelvin, where his experience and commitment was there for all to see. Matt also commanded the car really well and brought it through the field very strongly. In the second half Edward again showed his class. As second-fastest GTO driver in the race he demonstrated again that the potential he showed on Saturday was genuine. It was clear that Marino's pace in the white car was reeling in Martin Short in the TVR. I'm very sorry about the incident at the end of the race, of course, and I hope that Shane is OK, but with the race cut short we weren't able to show whether we might have been able to win the race."
In common with all four drivers, Paul was keen to give credit to the tyres. "We opted to change the left rear on Kelvin's car, knowing that it would have to be driven hard in the latter stages, but the rubber stood up really well today. The Michelin tyres performed excellently," "Yes, it was Michelin's day today," conceded Martin Short.
The team has a two-week break now before Knockhill on August 18th and 19th. "I'm looking forward to resuming the battle," concluded Paul Robe. "Knockhill's going to be a tremendous opportunity for us. We have two drivers on home ground, a partisan crowd, possibly, and I think the circuit may suit our cars. This result at Donington has really lifted us. It's been a stressful weekend in many respects but a great team performance and it's good for morale. I must thank the whole team and everyone associated with it for all their efforts. It's been excellent."