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British GT, Snetterton – Race Report
A Remarkable First Win For United Autosports

The longer-format in the British GT Championship rarely produces a dull race, and this two-hour event on the new Snetterton 300 circuit was no exception. There was incident aplenty throughout the field, as well as some fine individual performances, but the ultimate result would not be decided until the final moments.

The skies were grey and leaden as the 25 cars assembled on the grid for the start of the first two-hour race of the season, but, while a few spots of rain were in the air, there would be no need to change to treaded-rubber on this afternoon.

While picking a winner from this field was never going to be an easy task, there was no requirement of a crystal ball in predicting that Stuart Hall would be an early challenger for the lead in the fourth-starting Vantage Racing Aston Martin; and so it proved – Jim Geddie yielding his lead to the #8 DBRS9 at the Montreal hairpin on the opening lap.

The strategy was clearly for Hall to build up as big a lead as possible before handing over to Tom Black, and things looked to be going to plan as he crossed the line at the end of the first lap with a 2.7s advantage over the second placed car. This was the #23 United Autosports Audi R8 of Mike Guasch, the American having also deposed the pole-sitter during the first circuit.

Geddie, in the #10 CRS Ferrari 458, had also lost third to Charles Bateman’s Scuderia Vittoria 458 in the new infield, but had recovered from this early buffeting sufficiently to keep Hector Lester and David Ashburn in his wake.

The order had been shaken up considerably right down through the field, with barely a handful of cars retaining their starting position. David Jones had made arguably the best start of all in the #22 Preci-Spark Mercedes SLS – up to seventh from 14th in the first three miles – while Leyton Clarke had passed both ABG KTM X-Bows to take the GT4 lead in the #49 Lotus Sport UK Evora; pole-sitter Athanasios Ladas falling from first to last in the melee.

Bateman’s was the fastest car on track at this point, forcing Guasch to abandon a chase of Hall in favour of defending his second position. He held out for three laps before allowing his pursuer a glimpse of an opportunity at Montreal.

Bateman didn’t hesitate and the #6 458 was up to second as he headed down to Palmer, Hall now seven seconds further up the road from him.

 The second Scuderia Vittoria car, meanwhile – the #50 Ginetta G50 of Dan Denis – had just assumed the lead in GT4 after passing Clarke, but Peter Belshaw had recovered from his start in the #44 KTM and we now had a great little three-way scrap for the lead; Clarke regaining top spot on Lap 5 and Belshaw taking over two laps later. All three cars continued to fight nose-to-tail.

All the while, the positions at the top end of the leader-board were changing. Hall was managing to maintain his lead over Bateman – but his hopes of a big lead looked to have vanished (although both Bateman and Guasch’s cars would have to serve extra time penalties at the stop on account of their Oulton Park results, and the gap to fourth was already 20 seconds) – but the fight for fourth was adding cars with every lap, and by Lap 7 Geddie had five of them queuing impatiently behind. 

The nearest challenger to the Scot was David Ashburn’s #1 Porsche GT3 R - the reigning champion having made his way up to fifth from tenth – and he was followed by Jones’ SLS, Duncan Cameron’s #21 MTECH 458, Gregor Fisken’s #2 Porsche and Hector Lester’s #3 Rosso Verde 430 Scuderia. Fisken had earlier tried to take a place from Jones at Riches, but had had the door closed in his face; and then had lost out to Cameron – such was the closeness of the battle.

But suddenly both Porsches were slipping down the timing screens in tandem as neither car completed Lap 9; and then the Safety Car was scrambled.

From available reports (and it must be stressed that these are unverified), it appears that Ashburn ran wide and then came back across the track, collecting Fisken’s car in the process. Whatever the details of the incident, the outcome was clear – both cars were taking no further part in the day’s proceedings.

It soon became apparent that the impact had been a major one. Gregor Fisken was taken to the medical centre for precautionary checks – and was released with a clean bill of health soon afterwards – while Ashburn was okay, fortunately, but damage to both cars was severe; Ashburn later confirming that two new shells would be required before the next round at Brands Hatch.

"David was struggling with what we think was a rear puncture,” said Fisken later. “I was behind and as we came on to the back straight he speared right and I had nowhere to go. He hit me and I went off into the barriers three different ways."

The caution period was a lengthy one, with nine slow laps being completed behind the Safety Car. It did at least allow the Chevron GR8 of Jordan Witt to be recovered to the garages, having stopped at Oggies earlier in the race with a throttle issue. The car would return to the race later on and would go on to finish, albeit 18 laps down on the winner.

And even before the Porsches collided, the race had lost one car with no chance of recovery – Andrew Tate finding himself without gears in the #11 CRS Ferrari 430 Scuderia after just seven laps. This meant that the crowd would be denied the opportunity to see Tim Mullen in action; the Ulsterman joining Phil Keen and Tim Bridgman in the Early Day Club.

Elsewhere, Phil Burton had hit trouble early in the race and had had to pit, losing him a lap in the #12 Predator CCTV Ferrari, while Mike Simpson had had to endure the frustration of dropping from 12th to 18th when a circuit breaker popped out on the #25 Stark Racing Ginetta G55 and stranded it at Coram during the caution period.

With the wreckage swept away, racing resumed on Lap 19 and with 77 minutes remaining.

Having seen his hard-fought advantage evaporate, Hall knew that he would have to start from scratch and he made a second strong start; this time managing to build a 1.1s lead by the end of the first green lap.

Behind him, Guasch was hungry for revenge and was pushing Bateman hard for second; the Audi driver reversing the places on the next lap.

At the same time, Duncan Cameron took fifth from Jones, while further back Iain Dockerill was making amends for a poor opening lap by taking the #4 Chad Racing Scuderia past both the #24 Audi of Jay Palmer and the #3 Ferrari of Hector Lester to take eighth.

The restart lap was the last for two of the GT4 Ginettas, Dan Denis seemingly innocently getting caught up in a  clash between two of the Century Motorsports Ginettas – the #42 G50 of Josh Wakefield and the #27 G50 of Florian Renauer – with the #50 joining #42 on the retirees list.

Seven minutes after the restart, the pit window opened and Guasch was straight in to hand over to Matt Bell, closely followed by Palmer. Also in was the #7 Beechdean Aston of Andrew Howard; but his had been a slow in-lap, as a result of a puncture. The wheel was changed, but Howard stayed at the controls, meaning a second stop would be required later.

There were mutterings from certain onlookers, querying why Beechdean hadn’t taken the opportunity to change drivers; and also wondering why Hector Lester was staying out when Allan Simonsen was ready to take over the #3 Ferrari. But they had forgotten a crucial fact – that these cars couldn’t go much more than an hour on a full tank, whereas the Audis and Porsches (had they survived long enough) could do the full 70 minutes.

With the #23 out of the picture, Bateman began to push to close the gap to Hall at the head of the field; standing at 3.806s after 23 laps. Next time around it was 2.196 and then 1.447; finally coming down to 1.296 before Hall found enough to raise it again. By the time both cars pitted on lap 30, first to second was just 1.6s.

Geddie and Cameron had pitted together a couple of laps earlier, and Matt Griffin had been canny enough to allow Glynn Geddie to pass him in the pitlane rather than risk exiting the pits too quickly. The Scot and the Irishman then joined battle on track.

In GT4, the demise of the Ginettas had left Peter Belshaw defending a five-second lead from the two Evoras – Leyton Clarke heading the #48 of Ollie Jackson – until the two Lotuses pitted on Laps 24 & 26.

The ABG driver stayed out and would soon be leading the race overall as more and more cars stopped. Michael Mallock, meanwhile, was on his usual charge in the #45 X-Bow, but he had an awful lot of ground to make up in the final hour.

Iain Dockerill ended a fine stint on Lap 28, but then had to watch helplessly as the starter motor jammed on the #4 Chad Ferrari, costing Steven Kane some 40 seconds before he could eventually joined in.

A puncture soon afterwards necessitated a second stop for the car and a further slide down the positions; made all the more frustrating by Kane’s blistering pace later in the race.

With 55 minutes to go, the race was looking to be shaping up for a four-way fight to the finish between Bell, Geddie, Griffin and Michael Lyons in the #5 458; but the first act in a remarkable final hour was the issuing of a six-second stop/go penalty to the #23 Audi for leaving the pitlane too soon. Bell took the penalty straight away and dropped to fourth in GT3, just behind Lyons.

Geddie led Griffin by just a couple of seconds in the fight for second – these two some 20 seconds clear of Lyons – while Belshaw had his moment in the sun out front.

But it appeared as though the ABG driver had gotten carried away with things, as – with the pit window was just a few seconds from closing – the X-Bow sailed on by and onto another lap. Belshaw stopped next time around, but Marcus Clutton was soon back in the pits and twiddling his thumbs as Bernard Cottrell stood in front of the car and counted down the 71 second penalty before releasing him back into the race.

Tom Black had lost the lead even as he emerged from the pitlane, and a disastrously slow outlap saw the Aston fall quickly to seventh. Black’s pace increased quite dramatically over the following laps, but he was still some way off that of the fastest cars and continued to fall back.

But while an imminent challenge for the lead was expected from Griffin, it didn’t materialise; and with 40 minutes to go Geddie had a 4.4s advantage over the MTECH Ferrari. But things were about to change; "The race had was going perfectly to plan,” said griffin later. “We knew that the Ferrari was going to be very hard on its front tyres so this had to be managed.

“After a good stint by Duncan I was in a good position. I was pushing hard at the start of the stint and started to catch Glynn but started to feel the front tyres go away. I decided to slow my pace to save the tyres. This was hard to do because I had to go slower than I was capable of and watch Glynn pull out a gap. Once I saw him struggling with his tyres I started to push and caught him quite easily because I had a lot of life left in my tyres and he really seemed to be struggling."

The next few minutes were hugely significant in the course of the race.

As Lap 42 ended, Geddie led Griffin by 0.883s, while Lyons and Bell were separated by just a quarter of a second. Further back, Allan Simonsen had just taken sixth from John Bintcliffe’s #24 Audi and Clutton was being summoned for his stop/go from the GT4 lead.

Next time round at the Montreal hairpin, however, the fight for third was resolved in the most unsatisfactory manner – contact. Both drivers pointed the finger the other way, but it was Lyons’ Ferrari that came off worse; the #5 crabbing its way back to the pits and retirement. Bell was able to continue virtually unscathed and focussed on the task of reducing the 34 second deficit to the two cars ahead.

The battle for the lead was getting hotter and hotter, with Griffin having reduced the gap to 0.380s after 44 laps and 0.241s a lap later. However, as the two 458s began Lap 46, they found themselves about to lap the Vantage Aston; but instead of moving over, its driver appeared reluctant to yield. As the trio reached Riches, Black lost control – aided by Geddie, he claimed – and spun, leaving Griffin with nowhere to go. The MTECH Ferrari broadsided the Aston, suffering terminal radiator damage while inflicting race-ending damage on the blue and yellow car.

Griffin was furious; "We were fighting hard for the lead when we caught the Aston. The marshals were waving blue flags but he didn't seem to see them. We had been behind him for a number of corners, then, as we passed the start finish line, I was right behind the Aston and Glynn was on his outside. I was thinking, 'Why is the Aston racing us?' We were lapping him!

"As we entered turn one, Glynn went for the outside but the Aston braked very late; almost as if he was defending! Glynn ran very wide on the outside, nearly losing control, and Tom Black spun the Aston on the entry to the turn, leaving me nowhere to go. I tagged him and damaged my front radiator so had to retire immediately. The whole thing was crazy and robbed me of a potential win and robbed the fans of an exciting race." 

The net result of these two incidents was that Geddie now led Bell by more than 30 seconds, with Godfrey Jones a further 20 seconds back in third in the SLS.

Marcus Clutton, meanwhile had just emerged from the sin bin and found himself between the #49 Evora of Freddy Nordstrom ahead and the #48 of Jack Drinkall behind.

Michael Mallock’s chances of a good result had ended with contact with one of the Evoras a few minutes earlier – his reaction to this incident being unprintable – but he soldiered on with heavy rear-end damage and smoke trailing behind. The #45 would eventually finish the race, but three laps behind the class winner.

But even so the race wasn’t yet over as a spectacle, as bell was suddenly taking large chunks out of Geddie’s lead with every lap. The CRS (AF Corse) 458 was not only struggling for grip, but also had been afflicted with the same issue that had blighted Geddie’s FIA GT3 race the previous weekend – a bouncy front end.

Geddie’s laptimes were all over the place as he fought to control his machine, but he was still able to restrict Bell’s advance to such a rate that would perhaps allow him to stay ahead to the finish. However, the ominous message “Team Manager Car 23 to Race Control” had just flashed up on the timing screen and this was soon followed by “Drive-Through penalty car 23.”

It turned out that this was for a yellow-flag infringement, not for anything connected to the earlier clash with Lyons, but it now looked that the race was settled for certain. Bell took his penalty and emerged 40 seconds behind Geddie and only seven in front of Jones.

In GT4, Clutton was lapping significantly faster than the two Evoras – three to four seconds faster – and remarkably was soon within striking distance of reclaiming the class lead. His deficit to Nordstrom was almost 14 seconds on Lap 49, but halved over the next three laps. He soon caught up to the #49 Lotus, but Nordstrom dug in and the X-Bow was obliged to stay behind.

Aaron Scott was having a great race in the sole GT3B entrant – the #13 MTECH Ferrari 430 – and was running in sixth place overall, after having taken over from a John Dhillon stint that had seen the BGT newcomer earn the Sunoco Fuels Driver of the Day award; but there was little Scott could do about the rapidly approaching Steven Kane and Johnny Adam. The Chad Ferrari went by into sixth on Lap 52, while the Beechdean Aston took seventh two laps later; one wonders where these two cars would have finished without their earlier problems. Scott and Dhillon, however, had proven the legitimacy of the GT3B concept, and it is to be hoped that more cars are tempted to join in by their pace.

After his second penalty, Bell was again quicker than the two cars either side of him and moved away from Jones and towards Geddie; but not enough time remained to alter the outcome on pace alone. This was not the case with Allan Simonsen, who was typically driving the wotnots off the #3 Rosso Verde Scuderia and getting closer to the SLS with every lap. With just two laps remaining, the Dane grabbed third place and held on to the flag.

But something very significant had happened by this point – the “meatball” flag had been shown to the leader, requiring him to pit and effect repairs to the front bodywork. While understandable, given the condition of the lead car, one wonders why the decision was made with just five minutes remaining. Whatever the reason, it set up a tense final lap.

Geddie stayed out until compelled to do so by the rules and headed for the pits with just seconds remaining on the clock. The CRS crew slapped some tape on the car (it fell off before the car reached other end of the pitlane) and sent it on its way. As Geddie took the car back out, Bell got ever closer and snatched the lead as the Ferrari passed the pit-exit line.

The Scot did what he could to catch up in the final three minutes, but a personal best time from the Audi cemented a first – if most unlikely – overall win for United Autosports.

“Five minutes to go and 40 seconds behind, I was just looking after the car,” said Bell. “I was keeping it tidy and then it was a surprise to me when I saw the Ferrari coming out of the pits and I was able to get him into the first corner. I managed to put some space between us and bring it home.

“There is a long way to go in the championship and I’m not thinking about that at the moment. I’m just focusing on arriving at each circuit and doing the best job we can. Then we’ll see where we are at the end of the year.”

“It’s a fantastic result for the team, Matt and I, and Audi," added Mike Guasch. "It was hard work – we had a lot of bad luck and also a little good luck which evened out in our favour. I ran either second or third in my stint and there was a lot of carnage out there. Matt was released a little early costing us a stop-go penalty but Matt drove the wheels off the car – I’m thrilled.”

“It’s the most disappointed I’ve been with second,” said Glynn Geddie. “To be fair, I’m more disappointed with whoever made the decision to call us into the pits. We got second when it clearly should have been a win, and its disappointing not to get it when it was right there in front of us.”

Marcus Clutton, meanwhile, had found a way past the determined Nordstrom with four minutes remaining on the clock to take an equally unlikely victory for himself and Peter Belshaw.

“We need to recalibrate our stop watches as we were out too long and that was why we got the penalty,” said Belshaw, “although it made the race quite exciting! Despite the penalty, we never gave up hope and we did think it was possible to catch the Lotus again. Marcus did a sterling job and pulled him back in. All things ended up in our favour.”

“When you’re leading the race and they are catching you, you always do your best,” said the second-placed Freddy Nordstrom. “I did all I could to stay ahead but when the car behind is so much quicker, they will inevitably get past and I couldn’t stop it. Second is still a good result and even though the pace of the KTM may have masked our performance, we’ve made good progress this weekend.”

And so ended a remarkable (if, at times, controversial) encounter. The next race at Brands Hatch is also of two hours duration and should see a 30-strong entry. That is most definitely shaping up to be a must-see event.