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British GT, Donington - Wrap-Up
The Agony And The Ecstasy

A former country estate in the North-West corner of Leicestershire became the scene of many emotions on a cold and blustery September day, as the British GT Championship was finally decided in truly dramatic fashion; with anger, frustration and – ultimately – joy being on full display.

Donington Park had already witnessed a traumatic conclusion to the FIA GT1 World Championship, with its race earlier on the Sunday ending in bitterness and recriminations and with one driver on his way to hospital. It also contributed to a lengthy delay in proceedings that saw two late races bumped from the schedule; and when it finally got going, the British GT finalé was a full hour late.

But what a race it was – fast, frenetic, and as unpredictable as an unpredictable thing in an unpredictability contest! But then, of course, came ‘the contact’ and that is what we must address first.

As the race entered its final half-hour, a safety car bunched up the field and brought the Ecurie Ecosse BMW Z4 of Olly Bryant onto the tail of the MTECH Ferrari of Matt Griffin. At this point in the race, the Irish driver was on course to take the title, along with teammate Duncan Cameron, but if the BMW could get ahead then Ecosse’s Alasdair McCaig would take the title. Alas, with just 18 minutes to go, the BMW clipped the back of the Ferrari under braking at Goddards and tipped it into a spin. Both cars continued, but with the MTECH car now well down the field and out of contention, and with the BMW now in a position to take the title for McCaig. A few minutes later, however, the Z4 was handed a one-minute stop/go penalty and that was that for its driver’s title hopes.

Even at a day and a half’s remove, Griffin – who saw his title hopes vanish so close to the end of the race, and on the eve of his 30th birthday – was still hurting; “Duncan didn’t get the best start, so it was an uphill struggle when I got in,” he began. “Nevertheless, I managed to bring the car into a position that put us ahead in the championship and was very comfortable and confident that I could maintain it.

“While I don’t think he did it on purpose, it was still very bad driving and a really stupid thing to do. It killed the championship for both our cars. I think Bryant really needs to look at himself and realise that British GT is a level too high for him. We don’t need such stupid driving in a championship of this level.”

Strong words, but how did Olly Bryant see things?

“Obviously, what happened wasn’t ideal, but there was no deliberate intent on my part to cause the contact,” he said.

“Alasdair was quite a way back from the Nissan at the stop, although he was ahead of the [MTECH] Ferrari and David Ashburn’s Porsche; and we then dropped behind them as a result of our longer pitstop [due to the second place at Silverstone]. I got past Keen’s Porsche soon afterwards and then the Nissan going out suddenly put us back in with a shout; and then the safety car closed us all up again.
“I was fighting with Griffin for a few laps, but the Jones’ Mercedes was bunching the leaders up and so there were suddenly five or six of us. Griffin got the Mercedes at the Melbourne Hairpin which slowed them on the exit allowing me to have a run on the right heading up to Goddards. I switched to the inside and when Jones braked I went up the inside: unfortunately when I got to the apex, the Ferrari was there and I couldn’t avoid catching the back of it. I was standing on the brakes, but couldn’t avoid hitting him.

“Had it been any other race it would have been seen as just a racing incident, but because we were both fighting for the title, Bernard [Cottrell – Clerk of the Course] felt that he had to issue a penalty to put our car back behind the Ferrari. 
“I phoned Matt on Monday morning to apologise for how it ended. He was still upset, which is understandable, but that’s how it is – I can’t change things.”

This is the in-car footage from the BMW for you to make your own judgement:

Whatever the whys and wherefores, the incident materially altered the outcome of the championship and that is truly regrettable, for it was building up to be an outstanding conclusion to what had been a fabulous race up to that point.

Zak Brown had taken the lead in the #27 United Autosports McLaren from Nico Pronk – starting his first ever race at Donington from pole in the #36 Reiter Engineering Lamborghini – on the opening lap and held it for just one more before Alex buncombe charged through (from 14th on the grid) to take the lead in the #35 RJN Nissan. The GT-R then managed to pull away as the pack squabbled over position in an extraordinary opening phase to the race; indeed, we would have to wait a good dozen laps for any semblance of stability to fall over events.

At this point, Buncombe led from the #24 McLaren of Charles Bateman – himself having started from tenth on the grid after United Autosports were successful in their appeal against the post-qualifying penalty that had demoted them to last – by ten seconds, and with Daniele Perfetti third in the #11 Motorbase Porsche. There was then a further gap of ten seconds to the Preci-Spark Mercedes of David Jones, who had come storming through from 15th and looked to be getting stronger by the lap in the silver (and black) car.

Behind Zak Brown in fifth came a gaggle of cars which included the #31 Trackspeed Porsche of David Ashburn, McCaig’s BMW and Cameron’s Ferrari – all eager to gain ground to further their championship aspirations. Also in the mix were the #3 Rosso Verde Ferrari of Hector Lester, the #16 Team LNT Ginetta G55 of Lawrence Tomlinson and the #32 Trackspeed Porsche of Steve Tandy. Sadly, though, the Aston Martin challenge was already over – Phil Dryburgh stuck deep in the Coppice gravel in the Cyber Racing Vantage and Andrew Howard’s #007 Beechdean car fading fast with suspension problems.

By the time he made his pitstop, Buncombe’s lead over Bateman was 12 seconds, with Jones three seconds further back in third. The top two pitted simultaneously, leaving the SLS to lead for a lap, but the penalty and success times added to the stops of the #35 and #24 meant that Jann Mardenborough had only eight seconds in hand over Godfrey Jones, while Matt Bell had dropped to fourth in the #24; 25 seconds off the lead and just behind the #11 Porsche of Michael Caine.

Despite his still-limited racing experience, we now know that not even the sight of a Jones brother in a big, heavy (and fast) Mercedes in his mirrors is going to intimidate the Welsh youngster, and it looked for all the world as though his dream of gamer to BGT champ was going to become a (virtual to) reality! Sadly, a damper broke just a couple of laps into his stint and the Nissan was forced to pit for repairs, ending its challenge.

As he waited to rejoin, the reality of the situation hit the RJN driver and a few tears of frustration were visible. This was a cruel way to end a fine season, but surely greatness lies ahead for this young man.

The Nissan’s demise (it would finish the race, albeit 12 laps adrift) promoted the Mercedes to the lead once more and Jones G continued the good work begun by Jones D.

Over the next few laps, the gap between Jones and Caine came down and down, while Bell pushed the Porsche driver for second. The second United McLaren, meanwhile, was in fourth in the hands of the super-quick Alvaro Parente and closing on the #24; 11 seconds covering these four cars after 50 laps. Ten seconds further back, Matt Griffin was battling Allan Simonsen for fifth place – the two pros engaged in a stunning and hugely entertaining duel that saw the Ferraris virtually side-by-side for the whole of Lap 52. Griffin prevailed at the end of that lap, but the fun was curtailed as the Safety Car was scrambled while the Speedworks Corvette was recovered from the McLeans gravel; and at the restart the Rosso Verde car went into limp-mode and subsequently retired.

The caution brought the Reiter Lamborghini back into play, and now it had the inimitable Peter Kox at the wheel. The Dutch veteran darted past Phil Keen in the #31 Porsche soon after the restart to take seventh, and was past both Bryant and Griffin by the time they had their unfortunate coming together. By this time, Parente had taken the lead from the unfortunate Jones and the SLS was soon bundled down the order as it was swamped by the chasing pack.

Aaron Scott had been flying in the Scuderia Vittoria Ferrari 458 and was on the tail of the lead pack after the restart, but alas for him was a lap down; "I was really happy with my stint. I could have passed the lead group but I decided to sit tight as I didn't want to screw up anyone's championship. John [Dhillon] had good pace on Saturday, but we had a long brake pedal in the race with pad knock off and that held him back.

"As it was, we went out soon afterwards, so it didn't matter anyway."

Kox’s next victim was Michael Caine, but with neither the #36 Gallardo nor the #27 McLaren eligible for points in this race, the #11 Porsche was effectively second, while Matt Bell was on for maximum points; and so it made no difference when the Reiter car went up to second on Lap 70. But Parente was in control and went on to complete a fine victory for he and Zak Brown – in front of a watching Martin Whitmarsh – on Lap 76. Kox finished second, while Matt Bell took third.

Zak Brown : “Winning the race was great. Alvaro is such a star and he drove a superb race. I was happy with my stint. I got a great start and managed to take the lead. I couldn't hold it for long, but I managed to bring the car home in the top five. Matt and Charles also had a great race so it was a fantastic day for the United Autosports team."

Alvaro Parente : “Zak had a great start and was driving well. He was able to put me in a good position to challenge for the win. I had some fights with others on the track, and it all went my way today and I was able to control the race. It is  a great result for the team”.

Matt Bell : “It was a fight from the off. I came out of the pits in fourth so right away it was hard going. It took a while for me to get past the Porsche so I waited on my opportunity, and it came near the end of the race. The team has worked really hard so a big thank you to them. Congratulations also to Zak and Alvaro on a brilliant result."

Charles Bateman: "The start went really well, and we had a good pace at the start. I managed to get past quite a few cars, then I was hit by a BMW but luckily there was no major damage. Considering where we started it was great result.”

But all eyes were on Michael Caine, for his track position would give him enough points for the title. Daniele Perfetti had had an agonizing wait in the Motorbase pit for the final stages of the race, but was there with the rest of the team to cheer the former Slick 50 Champion home.

Daniele Perfetti : “It feels great. I wouldn’t have thought we’d be here halfway through the season. We started with high hopes, had a few moments and we never won a race. Its important to finish and collect the points, everyone always says that, but its true. It’s a pity to not have won the race, but it is fantastic, stressful and really enjoyable. The team have done a great job and that starts with David. It’s great to have someone fantastic on top.”

Michael Caine : “It’s great for the team, it’s great for the car. We’ve had an indifferent year really, but it’s great to win. I had problems hearing the team, didn’t know where I was in the championship and I let Kox past as I knew he wasn’t in the points, but the two McLarens hit me and knocked my steering out, so I was relieved to finish.  I only knew we’d won when I crossed the line and the guys were leaning over the pit wall. Motorbase put so much effort in and I owe them a championship for all the effort Dave has put into my racing. It’s great that they’ll have it on the side of the truck now!”

David Bartrum, Team Manager Motorbase : “Tim Harvey was in the pit lane at Brands pre-season and I said 'I think I’ve got the pairing, I think I’ve got the pairing – we’ve got the pairing!' It means an awful lot, it was a big decision for me as a business to give up Carrera Cup and say, we’re going to do British GT. We arrived here and were immediately made to feel very, very welcome. They’ve got a great group of people working on the series and a great set of competitors. To arrive here and see so much quality, Aston Martin, Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, McLaren, and to race against them and win… that’s not a bad first year for the team. I’m over the moon for my guys who’ve worked very hard all year, as have our drivers. I might have a few touring cars for sale actually – this is a great place to be.”

Elsewhere in the field, the Gary Eastwood brought the FF Corse Ferrari 458 Challenge home in 13th place overall to take the class title for himself and Ryan Hooker – a GT3 Ferrari and a full season is promised for 2013 – while a lap further back Warren Hughes and Jody Fannin completed an excellent season with their eighth win of the year; and by a margin of 22 laps!

This race had everything – drama, controversy, uncertainty – but above all great racing; and it should be noted that the ‘gentlemen drivers’ completed their share of the race with excellent driving standards, in sharp contrast to the GT1s earlier.

And so that was it for a memorable 2012 season. We’ll have a full review later in the year, but the signs are that things could get even better in 2013; bring it on!