28th May 2001
1st and 2nd for Porsche GB at Croft
Parr Motorsport, representing Porsche Cars GB in the Privilege Insurance British GT Championship, achieved a unique one-two finish in last weekend's fifth round of the 2001 series at Croft. The race was one of the most thrilling encounters of the year, with changeable conditions and close-call tactics adding excitement and tension to the hour-long race.
The possibility of monopolising the upper reaches of the GTO podium has been on the cards all year - ever since the two cars ran first and second in the season's opening round at Silverstone in April. Since then the lead Porsche shared by Kelvin Burt and Marino Franchitti has won twice, while misfortune has plagued Matt Turner and Ed Horner in the Corus Hotels supported car. Their luck changed significantly at Oulton Park last time out, where they finished third, and positively shone upon them at Croft. As Paul Robe, Parr's team manager said after the race, this was a moment to be savoured.
Such a dominant result had not always looked so likely. For the first time in quite some while Kelvin Burt was denied class pole in qualifying. The former F3 champion had been consistently quickest in testing at Croft, and at the conclusion of the first period of qualifying was clear of the field in provisional top slot. Ed Horner had also run well in the orange car, securing a second row position that was just six tenths shy of Burt's best.
In the afternoon's second session both drivers were offered the initial ten minutes, exclusive to the GTO category cars, and Burt improved once again to set a time of 1:22.098, two tenths clear of the rest. Marino Franchitti and Matt Turner, respective co-drivers in the two cars, then fulfilled their lap requirements before the team decided to call them back in. Few cars were running quicker than they had earlier in the day, and with regulations stipulating that competitors race on the same tyres used in qualifying, the team decided that safeguarding these was now a priority. Then, in the closing minutes, the Barclays/DeWalt TVR Tuscan R upset the applecart by throwing in an unexpectedly quick 1:21.914. With so little time remaining it was impractical to send Burt out once again, so a third consecutive GTO pole was narrowly denied him. "We had already stood down to conserve our tyres," explained Paul Robe. "Kelvin had improved his first session time on only his third lap and we didn't feel there was much more to be gained by pounding round the track. This just shows the potential we've always recognised in the TVR."
Any disappointment was masked by the knowledge that both cars had conserved their rubber well and were in excellent shape for racing the next day. By then, however, the ballpark had moved. Sunday's warm sunshine had given way to overcast skies and the very real threat of rain. Despite a heavy overnight downpour the worst of what was to come held off until ten minutes before the GT race was scheduled to begin. As the teams prepared to congregate in the collecting area the first spots of rain began to fall. Paul Robe was quick to realise the change in conditions. Although still on slick tyres, both cars were converted to a wet weather set-up. After months of testing in similar conditions this is almost second nature to the Parr mechanics, and the alterations took a matter of moments.
As umbrellas started to go up all around the Croft circuit the race organisers declared a "wet race". This gave the teams a free hand over tyre choice as well as an extra green-flag lap. Few needed a second invitation, and out on the grid all bar one swapped to full wets or intermediates. This delayed the start by about ten minutes, but not enough to threaten the five-thirty Croft curfew. At just after four fifteen the field set off behind the pace car, leaving Dave Warnock still having the adjustments to his Lister completed. He and Martin Short would both start from the pitlane.
Few circuits can compare with Croft for offering good spectator value when it comes to the rolling start, and when the leaders are adding plumes of spray to the theatre of noise and action, it's riveting stuff. Kelvin Burt, starting fifth overall, made an excellent start. He was through and leading GTO within two corners, easing through on the TVR as they rounded Hawthorn. "I was surprised they didn't start their faster driver," he said later. "It was very slippery, and I was driving cautiously to begin with, but I was surprised to get ahead so easily."
Matt Turner, taking the start in the second of the Parr Porsches, was not finding it quite so straightforward. Ben Devlin, driving first stint in the Hayles Racing GTO Viper, was a row ahead but had cut across to Matt's side as the field streamed through the hairpin. "He'd slowed right down and I couldn't reclaim the corner," explained Turner. "Then Sugden came through from behind before we could even see the greens, and he was away. It was chaotic." Drivers are supposed to hold station until the leaders cross the line, but Tim Sugden's jump start goes some way to explain how Kelvin Burt's former Touring Car rival was up to fourth overall, from eighth on the gird, by the close of the opening lap.
As the leaders completed that first lap, with Bobby Verdon-Roe a remarkable five seconds clear in the works TVR, Burt already had Sugden on his tail. Even the commentators were asking themselves where the blue and white car had come from! It set up a fascinating tussle that had the Parr driver under considerable pressure for the first time this year. "On balance I was quicker," said Burt, "but on the wrong areas of the track. I was faster than him through the smoother sections, but it's not so easy to pass there. In the end I made a calculated decision to let him through." It wasn't entirely voluntary, however. On the fourth lap Burt ran wide enough at Sunny to collected some grass clippings on the front splitter, and Sugden nipped through to take the class lead. To prove his earlier point, Burt promptly set a new fastest lap and set off in pursuit.
After the frustration of losing the place to Sugden at the start, Matt Turner was demonstrating characteristic grit as he set off after the GTO Viper. "Devlin was ill-handling to begin with and holding me back," said Turner. "He was slow everywhere except on the straight. I thought I had him on the second or third lap into Tower Bend, but he turned right in and I had to back off. I'm very conscious of how delicate these cars are at the front after Ed's retirement at Donington." The two were nose to tail for nearly a dozen laps, but significantly quicker than the pole-starting Richard Stanton in the Tuscan R. "The TVR was holding us both up," continued Turner. "Devlin could outdrag the TVR and I could outbrake him." The Viper driver made his move on lap 4, but Turner had to wait another turn. " We touched doorhandles once," he added, "and in the end I had to drive up onto the kerb to get past him."
From then on Turner ran fourth in class, sixth overall, until his driver change, but it wasn't incident-free by any means! "I was pulling away from the TVR, but then it started to dry and he came back at me." The rain had, indeed, stopped, and a fresh breeze was rapidly creating a dry line. Turner radioed to the team in the pits. "Right now, intermediates," he said, "but slicks for certain in five laps." It was an excellent call, but the "window" for driver changes does not open until twenty minutes have elapsed, so Turner would have to brave out deteriorating handling for some time yet. "The car had felt really good in the wet, but it got to be more of a handful as the track dried," he added.
Some of the other drivers were finding it more difficult. "The Quaife went sailing by me and whacked straight into the side of the GTO Viper," observed Turner. Behind him a close battle had been developing between the #77 Paragon Racing Porsche of Mark Sumpter and Gavin Pickering in the # 51 Cirtek 911. Then, on lap eleven, a recovering Dave Warnock in the Lister arrived on the scene at the same time as Turner was preparing to lap the #97 Marcos. "Going through the chicane the Lister came up the middle and gave us no room at all," explained Turner. "This is going to hurt, I said, to myself, but somehow we survived. I went to take the Marcos on the right and he slammed the door. I don't think he even knew I was there! It took a whole lap for me to get past him. He was blocking me all the way. It was so annoying!"
The consequence of this delay was that Turner now fell into the clutches of last year's championship-winning car, the #77 Porsche. It was a surprisingly brief battle, with Sumpter getting ahead of Matt cleanly on lap thirteen, but a similar attempt ended in disaster for Pickering. The Cirtek car struck the rear of the orange Porsche and sent it spinning. Matt recovered, losing ten seconds in the process, but the #51 car retired with radiator damage. Strange how fortunes change.
Tim Sugden may have been leading the class but Kelvin Burt appeared anything but content with second. He continued to press hard, tailing Sugden in the hope that the looming image in the rear-view mirror might precipitate an error. It didn't, but not for want of trying. What did arise was a fascinating contest for second overall, with the two GTO Porsches snapping at Rob Wilson's Viper like ravenous terriers. Time and again it looked likely that either one of them - or both - would get ahead of the GT car, especially at the Hairpin, but each time the Viper used straightline grunt to free itself for one more lap.
On the stroke of twenty minutes Wilson dived into the pitlane to hand over to Tim Harvey, followed immediately by Dave Warnock in the Lister from sixth. Harvey was quickly out again, but Jordan's change took a little longer. The move to slick tyres was the cause, and Kelvin Burt was in the pitlane on the next lap to do the same. It was earlier than the team had planned, but it was certainly the right call.
The timing was perfect; as Marino drove out the pitlane at one end, Matt Turner drove in at the other. He wasn't alone. On lap fifteen Tim Harvey was back in again for slicks, effectively scuppering any chance of another Viper victory.
Two laps later and just about everyone had completed their driver changes. There was no call for quicker drivers to stay out late while slickshod second-string pedallers were beating them hands down. Very quickly it became clear that the Parr decision to make the early stop for slicks had been an excellent one. Franchitti emerged from the usual mid-race confusion leading GTO by almost forty seconds, with second in class being none other than his team-mate, Ed Horner.
Ed Horner had come back on track to find himself quite alone. Twenty seconds ahead of him was Tim Harvey, battling gamely to make good the tactical error, while ten seconds behind him was Shaun Balfe, now at the wheel of the #77 Paragon Porsche. "The car felt fine once, the tyres had warmed up, but I simply didn't know where I was in the race or how hard I had to push" said Horner afterwards, confirming that his pits-to-car radio was not working properly. Judging by his lap times, he decided to push pretty hard just in case.
All would have worked out much easier for everyone if Alex Pilgrim in the #75 Marcos Mantis hadn't chosen this moment to spin at exit of the so-called "Complex", just at the end of lap seventeen. Paul Knapfield, completing his first lap after taking over from Tim Sugden, was preparing to put a lap on Pilgrim at the time, but instead found himself faced by a wildly gyrating Marcos. The impact was inevitable, and terminal. The entire front end of Knapfield's Porsche was stoved in to the point that the marshals were unable to remove the car without assistance. The field tiptoed past gingerly for a couple of laps, but then the safety car came out.
The arrival of the Jaguar saloon with flashing yellow lights changed the whole complexion of the race. At the front, Harvey's deficit disappeared, to be replaced by one car's length. (Another Marcos as it turned out.) Franchitti had the comfort of five backmarkers between him and Ed Horner, but Horner now had just one between him and Balfe - the Quaife R4, and that was still on wets. Having originally intended to finish on wets as well, Mike Quaife now took to the pitlane for slicks, leaving Horner's rear exposed to Sumpter from the moment racing resumed.
Fortunately the relative quiet of those three paced laps were enough for the team to explain the situation to Horner, who could hear just enough on his radio to realise that he was racing Balfe for position. When the green flags waved again, he was off and away like the proverbial jackrabbit. He quickly put space (and the Colin Blower Ultima) between himself and Balfe, but the latter wasn't giving up easily. Next up for lapping was Balfe's team-mate in the Preci-Spark Porsche #78. "I was nervous about passing the Jones car," admitted Horner, recalling perhaps that it was this car which took him out at Donington. "He kept cutting right across me, and made passing very difficult." Paul Robe suspected that there was the possibility of some team assistance in the offing here, and was contemplating a visit to the Team Eurotech pitwall when Horner made his move. "He messed up the chicane, and I was able to get a better run on the way up to Tower," said Horner. "I went around the outside."
As if to confirm the point, Balfe was back on Horner's case within the lap, but Ed had got the breather he needed. He opened out a two-second advantage that he was to hold to the flag, despite a hairy sideways moment into Sunny as he lapped the struggling Quaife. "As I crossed the line I could actually hear the cheers. That was really nice," he said, in typically understated form. Franchitti, meanwhile, had been easing off in the closing stages, comfortably ahead by nearly fifteen seconds when he took the flag.
Overall victory went, for the third time this year, to Warnock and Jordan in the Lister, with Michael Caine bringing the TVR Speed 12 home second ahead of Tim Harvey a distant third. In the end a misfire had ended the Viper's chance of a revival, although the miscalculation on the tyre choice undoubtedly cost them the race.
Despite easing back over the last handful of laps, Franchitti still set a best of 1:23.430 on lap 28 to establish a new GTO lap record for Croft circuit. Ed Horner's 1:24.135 two laps later was also third fastest of the day, confirming the broad strength of the Parr Motorsport line-up. "I'm really happy to see the Corus car mixing it at the top. To be the two fastest Porsches on the track is very pleasing in itself," said Paul Robe afterwards. "To achieve a one-two here at this very difficult circuit has been a moment to savour. It's a great boost to team spirit and shows the professionalism of everyone concerned. The guys have made a tremendous effort this weekend - and for the whole season - and things just worked out very well indeed."
The team has just two weeks now before the next round on June 10th at Rockingham circuit in Northamptonshire. The brand new track promises to be a very exciting venue and will be a new experience for all the drivers.