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Britcar MSA BEC/Dunlop Production GTN, Castle Combe – Race Report
Vittoria Victorious, While The Elise Excels

Phil Dryburgh and John Gaw drove a superb race to give the series- debuting Scuderia Vittoria Ferrari 458 the win in the two-hour race, whilst silly-wigged Simon Phillips and Chris Randall confined the high-jinks to the paddock, bringing the Motionsport Lotus Elise home first in Production, after an incident-packed race.

A somewhat frenetic 45-minute qualifying session – the clusters of traffic almost making it look like a race at times - saw Javier Morcillo in the Azteca Mosler go straight to the top of the timing screen, before being deposed by Jamie Stanley in the returning Orbital Sound Elise, then Calum Lockie’s Mosler, before the Scuderia Vittoria Ferrari 458 reached expectations, dipping into the 1:07s, with Phil Dryburgh at the wheel.

It was Morcillo, though, who ruled when the 45-minute session closed, posting 1:05.459 towards the end of the session, though he had some moments along the way; notably a wild, grassy excursion at Quarry, when he tried to make it three abreast, alongside a squabbling side-by-side stable-mate Jay Shepherd and Jamie Stanley, both desperate to annexe the Class 3 pole. The Spaniard, though, felt he had more to give: “I was really on it, trying to find a clear lap, and when I did, I sometimes made a small mistake of my own, then hit traffic again next time around. It was really frustrating, I could have gone faster”.

Next to the Azteca Mosler on the grid would be the stunning Ferrari 458, John Gaw eventually getting down to within half a second from pole, whilst the Spa-winning Rapier of Millard and Heward headed the second row, with the Wilkins/Scott Viper alongside; Aaron Scott’s time being nearly two seconds ahead of the nearest class opposition.  The Strata 21 Mosler was next up, Calum Lockie admitting he was on the very cusp of mortal fear, pushing the machine as hard as he could, with the Aquila CRI completing the third row; a packed weekend for sportscar drivers saw Nigel Mustill’s usual partner Bob Berridge concentrating on Group C duties at Silverstone, so Gareth Evans, on less commitment at Silverstone than Berridge, deputised in the yellow machine.

A superb effort from Jay Shepherd, sharing the Hawthorns Porsche 997 with just Rod Barrett for this event, claimed Class 3 pole, though it appeared it was a one-off performance; “ I was four laps in, on new tyres, with a clear track: I doubt I could do a lap like that again. I‘ve got no benchmark for this car, I don’t know what’s good or bad, but I do know there are still several things we need to sort out. It was as fast as I could go without getting dangerous,” he confided after the session.

The battle for Production honours is taking on a new complexion; The Mercer/Smith Ginetta posted the fastest qualifying time – 1:10.320 – just over half a second quicker than the rapidly improving BMW M3 of Jensen Lunn and Sarah Bennett-Baggs. Simon Phillips had drafted in marque expert Chris Randall to share his Lotus Elise, and they bagged third, before a clash with the #26 Topcats Marcos which sidelined both cars. Class 2 was headed by returning reigning champs Richard Adams and David Green, running the familiar Bullrun Seat Supercopa as an invitation entry, ahead of the RJN Nissan 370Z; the Playstation-liveried machine being piloted by competition winners and aspiring endurance racers Brian Heitkotter and Jann Mardenborough.

There were tales of woe, of course; Synchro faced a mercy dash to Essex to collect a replacement drive shaft, which had failed on the team’s Honda Jazz in the free practice session, and they missed qualifying. The returning BPM Racing Ginetta had severe braking issues, which were eliminated in part by assistance from fellow Ginetta runners Topcats and braking specialists Questmead, though Owen Thomas and Ashley Woodman were two seconds shy of where they would have liked to have been; and similarly, SB Race Engineering loaned some spares from their Ferrari 430 to assist the Bullrun 360. It would be a long Saturday night for Topcats, though – replacing a corner on “big green” after Kyle Tilley’s clash with a Lotus, and an extensive rebuild for the #36 Mantis after Owen O’Neill’s robust late-session excursion head-on into the Armco.

A popular lunchtime grid walk preceded the race, but missing from it were the two Strata 21cars. The Mosler appeared late and Calum Lockie would start from the pitlane, but the BMW had experienced drivetrain issues and, without a replacement “doughnut”, a creatively-engineered solution kept the car out of the race for the first few laps.

The Azteca Mosler went straight into the lead at the start, with Aaron Scott attempting to clear a way along the outside from the second row; but the Viper had no answer for the power of the Rapier alongside and Millard was through to chase Morcillo round the first lap, the pair of them drawing a small gap over Dryburgh’s Ferrari and the Viper. Pitlane-starter Lockie got himself out of last place as he crossed the line for the first time, though he had to contend with a three-way battle between the Hondas of lone drivers Saunders, Allan and James. This was so close that it had the hallmark of ending in tears, and indeed it did, seven laps in; a clash between Tim Saunders and Dave Allan culminating in Alyn James’s Synchro Civic riding over Saunders’ bonnet, and landing  on its roof at Bobbies, causing the immediate deployment of the Safety Car.

An excited Millard, never more than half a second off the leading Mosler’s tail, sensed an opportunity and got alongside as Morcillo slowed for the Safety Car, then tactfully withdrew as he realised  the situation. A crowded midfield – the top Production cars mixing with the GT runners – shuffled into place and Philip Jones brought the Eurotech Porsche 997 into the pits with a puncture, apparently the result of a clash with a Ferrari. Jensen Lunn had by now started the Strata 21 BMW M3 from the pit lane, and had a spin at the Esses. A review of the positions  whilst  the field was under caution identified that Nigel Mustill had hauled the Aquila past the Viper for fourth place and Jay Shepherd headed Chris Headlam’s Lotus in Class 3, while Calum Lockie was up to ninth. In Production, Mick Mercer’s Ginetta headed Chris Randall’s Elise and Jeff Mileham’s Exige.

Still under caution, the Eurotech Porsche was in again, 13 laps and 20 minutes on the board, this time for Gareth Jones to take over from cousin Philip.

With the wayward pair of Honda Civics now recovered, the track went green again on lap 14 and the Morcillo/Millard battle drew clear once again from the pack behind. Millard made his move down the inside across the start line two laps later and, as the pair went side by side through the fast jink at Folly, an unsettled Morcillo got onto the grass, the Mosler spinning and grazing the barrier.

The Spaniard re-started the car and was going again, but pulled off at Quarry.

The Production vanguard had now been shaken-up – Jeff Mileham was on a roll in the Lotus and was now challenging Mercer’s Ginetta for the lead. The Safety Car was deployed yet again, for the recovery of the Mosler, but strangely Mileham was now shown on the screens as the leader of Production, and in front of several GT cars too.  The observers, officials, not to mention eagle-eyed commentator Brian Jones, had noticed, though, that the Lotus had passed several cars under the yellow flags and handed out a draconian three-lap penalty. This would be a short caution period and, with 30 minutes of the two hours elapsed, Scott handed the Viper to Craig Wilkins. Calum Lockie took a fuel stop (25 litres only under the Safety Car) and climbed back in the #6 Mosler.

The recovery truck operators attending to the stricken Azteca Mosler had found a way of getting the vehicle moving without loading it onto the flatbed, and a grateful Javier Morcillo jumped back in to limp around to the pits for attention. Neil Garner’s team effected some repairs, allowing Manuel Cintrano to circulate for the best part of an hour; but, 47 laps adrift of the leader, they weren’t to be classified. A humbled, apologetic Javier Morcillo explained; “I made a big mistake on my own, at the worst possible place, and I’m really embarrassed and sorry for the team; but I’d like to thank the guys on the recovery truck for their help”.

Retiring at this point was the J-Tech Seat Leon, Paul Kite reporting that a damaged exhaust was causing the turbocharger to overheat, and further trouble in Production saw Dave Allan stop out on the circuit in the Synchro Honda Jazz with electrical problems caused by the earlier clash. John Dhillon had been smokily dragging the M-TECH Ferrari’s rear splitter around, but the problem was solved when the errant component exploded on the entrance to Folly. Dhillon continued unabated, and apparently totally unaware of the issue.

Time for yet another Safety Car, this time to recover the Synchro Jazz, and, with slightly less than 75 minutes left to run, there followed a rash of pit stops – Mercer, Sam Head’s Marcos, Lockie (this time handing the Strata 21 Mosler to Paul White), Randall’s Lotus, the Playstation Nissan, and Richard Corbett’s Saxon BMW 1-series. Staying put on track, though, was Millard, the Rapier six seconds ahead of Dryburgh - driving a superbly controlled race in the Ferrari 458 –who was  followed by Mustill’s Aquila.

It wasn’t long before the second and third-placed cars pitted, John Gaw and Gareth Evans respectively taking over. Gaw had rejoined just ahead of the Rapier and was making the Scuderia Vittoria Ferrari frustratingly wide enough to avoid getting a further lap put on him. There was further action in the Topcats pit area – Gary Smith brought the Ginetta in for attention to a loose wheel and Kyle Tilley brought the #26 Marcos in; Sam Head had complained that a rear-end nudge after the second safety car period could have caused an oil overheating issue, but now the team were faced with replacing a drive shaft.

With 51 laps gone, and 52 minutes to go, Millard brought the Rapier in for Ian Heward to take over and recounted his stint to pitlane commentator John Moon; “It’s good – the car is sticking like the proverbial to the track, but there’s a lot of traffic, people having their own races. I was stuck behind the Ferrari 458 and I’d normally give a little nudge in those circumstances, but it’s such a beautiful car, I just couldn’t!”

The amazing Jay Shepherd now led outright in the Class 3 Hawthorns Porsche 997, with White’s Mosler a lap adrift; Gaw’s 458 and Martin Byford in the Bullrun Ferrari 360 followed. A clash between Jann Mardenborough’s Nissan 370Z and Nick Barrow’s BMW 1-series saw the German machine out of the race and the Playstation competition winner with a puncture, while the Paul Bailey/Andy Schulz Ferrari 430 retired with collapsed rear suspension.  Heward was having a fraught time too – fired-up by getting a drive-through penalty for crossing the pit-exit markings, he was using the grass as well as the track, and the Rapier was now once again caught behind Gaw’s Ferrari.

Sarah Bennett-Baggs’ BMW cruised to a halt and parked by the pit exit  - “It just cut out and wouldn’t restart” she explained -  and the Production championship-leading APO Sport pitted to retirement, James May reporting a holed piston as the reason. The Glynnsport TVR Sagaris had been running well, but Tim Hood crawled into the pitlane after a very slow lap. Nothing terminal, though, and the purple machine was back on track and up to speed within a few laps.

Once Shepherd pitted the Porsche, leaving Rod Barrett with little more than a 40-minute stint, Paul White assumed the lead; but Gaw was taking around three seconds a lap off of the Mosler, and by lap 74 the Ferrari was in front, never again to be headed.  Martin Byford was the last to make a mandatory stop, handing the Bullrun Ferrari to David Green, who had performed an earlier stint in the team’s Seat, for the final half-hour.

A final stop for fuel by White, with 20 minutes to go, saw the Mosler drop to fourth, but it all came to an end for Ian Heward - a misunderstanding when he came to lap Ashley Woodman’s Ginetta saw the Rapier stalled and stranded on the track, and thankfully pushed out of danger by the courageous marshals. “I was flat out, in fifth, going through the grass, with no control” rued Heward later. Also caught up in the fracas was Jamie Stanley, who spun the Orbital Sound Lotus in avoidance.

Gareth Evans, having his first outing in the Aquila and fresh from a successful Group C run at Silverstone the previous evening, was getting to grips with the machine and taking big chunks out of Craig Wilkins’ second position; finally getting past with about 10 minutes of the race left and becoming the virtual leader, first of the registered championship contenders.

Gary Smith was recovering well in the Topcats Ginetta after the second pit stop, and got back into contention for a class podium by passing Mark Ticehurst’s Mazda MX5 GT in the closing laps. This had been a quiet race for Ticehurst and Owen Mildenhall – they had kept out of problems and just missed out on the class leader-board.

Severe oversteer caused Kyle Tilley to bring the #26 Marcos in just four minutes before the end of the race, but he was sent back out, after a safety check, to complete the distance.

It was all smiles at Scuderia Vittoria – the team had played it right, with no heroics, just a solid effort with a good car.

“Straightforward – no problems,” was John Gaw’s summary of the race, while Phil Dryburgh enthused, “I’ve been racing for three years in Porsches, and worked my nuts off to finish fifth or sixth. I’ve had two races in Ferraris, and won both of them!”

Class 1 points scorers were the Mustill/Evans Aquila, the White/Lockie Mosler  (fourth overall, with Paul White indicating they adopted the best strategy possible with short-fills during cautions, but could have done with another safety car period), and the Millard/Heward Rapier, which had done enough to be classified.

The Class 2 was bagged by the GT3 Racing Viper; “It was straightforward, but very heavy over the bumps,” claimed Craig Wilkins.

Then, alluding to the easy pass by the Aquila into Folly; “It’s the aero – our car’s like a housebrick”. 

The M-TECH Ferrari 430 made progress in the second half of the race, the lack of the rear splitter seemingly having little effect on Nima Khandan-Nia’s performance, but then, he and Jon Dhillon are Combe experts. So too is Kyle Tilley, the circuit’s reigning Formula Ford champion, but issues for the “big green” Marcos, particularly the drive shaft replacement, relegated them off of the class podium, with third place instead going to the resurgent Bullrun Ferrari 360; Martin Byford playing the long game and handing over to David Green  as late as possible.

Topcats triumphed in Class 3 again – Owen O’Neill and Jon Harrison gave the supreme gratitude to the team’s burning of the midnight oil; “I’m staying retired – I’ve won more races since I’ve retired from racing than I ever did before,” joked Harrison. Erstwhile overall race leaders Hawthorns saw it all go to pieces during Rod Barrett’s final short stint in the Porsche 997, as he explained; “Within a few laps it became obvious that we had a problem with the gearbox, and although I'm not as quick as Jay, I felt that we had an excellent chance to hold position or at least give the big boys a fight for their money. Then it happened, the smell of gear oil was so strong it was making me feel ill. This was followed by a loud bang, the tinkling of various gear parts and the complete loss of fifth and sixth gears. For a lap or so I had a box full of neutrals, third finally agreed to participate - although quite reluctantly and with a noise accompaniment akin to a wailing banshee. I took a chance and tried for fourth gear - to my amazement she worked, so that was it really; another 25 /30 laps with only third and fourth!”

Third in class was the Chris Headlam/Jamie Stanley Lotus, still less than ideal with the Honda gearbox deputising for the awaited Hollinger unit, and they headed the Steve Glynn/Tim Hood Sagaris, which may have made the class podium but for that late race glitch. Trailing in fourth was the Eurotech Porsche of the Jones brothers/cousins, not really recovering from that early puncture and the additional pit stop to place a third driver in the car.

Topping the Production results were Simon Phillips and Chris Randall in the Motionsport Lotus Elise.

The whole team had got into the festival spirit of the event by donning curly blue wigs, and it seems the relaxed atmosphere may nearly have been Phillip’s undoing. “Chris had a really tough first stint, battling with Mick Mercer, but when I saw I had a good lead, I backed off and was running on my own; and then I had a spin at Tower. I had to push towards the end then, and I sat on the back of the Mazda - rather than put a lap on it - to maintain a reference point and help concentration.”

Mark and Peter Cunningham came home second in the SG Racing Seat Supercopa, but admitted it hadn’t been their race; “We struggled compared to the Lotuses here. Our car is heavy over the bumps, plus you just don’t know they are there – they’re low, and you can’t hear the rear-mounted 4-cylinder engines. With a Viper or TVR, you can hear the rumble as it comes alongside,” said Peter Cunningham. Third was the Mercer/Smith Ginetta, victim of the second pit stop to sort out the wheel issue, followed by the Jota Mazda, having an atypically quiet race.

Production Class 2 was all about the invitees – Richard Adams and David Green returned to their winning ways in their championship winning Bullrun Seat (they had more or less run in front for the whole race), and  they headed the Playstation GT Academy/RJN  Nissan 370z of American Brian Heitkotter and 19-year old Jann Mardenborough from Cardiff, who said “For drivers like myself that have not raced at Castle Combe before, it’s a really tricky circuit to get the racing lines right, but it proved another great opportunity to learn. We were driving in temperatures of 22 degrees and I was sweating buckets. It was close to the end of the race when I noticed that I was driving with the heating on. I guess it was not bad preparation for Dubai though.” Not finishing, but classified third, was the APO Sport Seat Leon.

Steve Wood