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Britcar GT, Snetterton, 29/8/09
Total Eclipse in Norfolk

(Images to follow)

At last, Sean and Michael McInerney, in the Eclipse Mosler MT900R, broke their 2009 duck in the four-hour Snetterton Britcar GT race on Saturday afternoon, leading the Paragon Porsche over the line by a little over 15 seconds.

The old testament-style rain that normally lashes Britcar meetings at Snetterton was not evident, and, more than ever before, this was a race where fuel strategy made the difference. Pre-race discussions identified wildly different claims on economy, or the opposite. Pole-sitter Sean McInerney was looking towards “at least five fuel stops” in the Mosler, whilst fellow front-row occupant Steven Brady reckoned the Prosport, with its 3-litre Ford/Cosworth engine, would only need three.

Missing from the meeting was the Kinfaun Porsche 997, with drivers John Gaw and Phil Dryburgh otherwise engaged, but new to the grid was the invitation entry of a Ferrari 430 from FF Corse, driven by needs-no-introduction Rob Barff and MSV instructor Jamie Stanley; the latter having his first run in the car after successful campaigns in Lotus On-Track and Production S1. They lined-up fifth on the grid, one slot ahead of the similar MTECH machine of Duncan Cameron/Mike Edmonds.

As the lights went green at the start, Sean McInerney converted pole to the lead as the field swarmed through Riches, with Mick Mercer, as usual, thrusting the long nose of the Topcats Marcos Mantis through a gap from the second row, and Mark Sumpter in the Paragon Porsche following him through, leaving Brady’s Prosport fourth. Pitbound immediately was the CTR/Alfatune Porsche. Pete Morris had been reunited with his old machine for this event, partnering Chris Bentley, but the burly Midlander brought the car in with clutch judder. The team attempted to isolate and fix the problem, but to no avail. Also in the pits after just one lap was Paul White, the Aston Martin he was sharing with Calum Lockie having picked up a puncture.

Brady made amends for his tardy start and was very soon up to second place, with Sumpter third and Mercer fourth. Stanley maintained fifth in the FF Corse 430, in front of a fast-starting Stephen Colbert, who had hauled the MXS Motorsport Porsche 997, run now by the Jamun Formula Ford team, from a mid-grid position. Just four laps in, championship sponsor Alistair MacKinnon brought the Red Bull-backed Lotus Exige into the pits and into the garage, with water temperature concerns. The team worked throughout the race to fix the problem and the car would re-appear several times, with Alistair or Dean Lanzante driving, but they were unclassified at the end.

On the move was Witt Gamski, in the MJC Ferrari 430 - making up for a poor qualifying due to an alternator problem - claiming eighth from Jon Harrison’s Class 2 Topcats Marcos. The positions at the front remained unchanged, however, with McInerney less than a second in front of Brady’s Prosport, which in turn led Sumpter by over eight seconds. Mercer had now slipped 25 seconds behind the Paragon Porsche and had his mirrors full of Stanley’s 430. Struggling, with just fifth gear available, was the TVR Sagaris OF Tim Hood. Retirement beckoned, just 25 laps into the race, leaving Steve Glynn and Fred Tonge without their turn behind the wheel; “You can buy a Porsche or Ferrari, and be successful out of the box, but you have to expect this when developing a one-off car” was the philosophical view of the team.

So 25 laps in, and Brady took the lead from McInerney into the Russell chicane, celebrating with a new fastest lap next time around and eking out a lead over the Mosler. It was still close a little further back, though – Mercer’s Marcos still had the FF Corse Ferrari on its tail, which in turn had Colbert’s Porsche large in its mirrors.  Class 3 was led by Harrison’s Marcos, but behind, Javier Morcillo and Jay Shepherd, both in Neil Garner-run Porsche 996s, were closely disputing second; this one would run and run, the inter-team rivalry being one of the features of the race.

The #17 Topcats Marcos went missing, Mercer having stopped out on the circuit with loss of drive. The Safety Car was deployed to enable recovery, but, with just 45 minute of the race run, perhaps it was just too early for fuel stops; even the big-bangers still having around 20 minutes load on board. Apparently not, though, for Sean McInerney seized the opportunity, as did Witt Gamski, and Jamie Stanley, who got back into the car after refuelling; the FF Corse team declaring that they would be double-stinting the drivers. Also pitting were the Team Vantage and Strata Astons, and this might be a good point to examine the Aston Martin situation for this race.

Previously fragmented, we had a bumper Aston entry of four cars for this race, with some formidable talent drafted in. Leading team Nicholas Mee Racing had BGT ace Ben de Zille Butler and David Clarke assisting regular pilot Christiaen Le Blanc, and Hugh Chamberlain’s Team Vantage had secured Alan Bonner to partner novice Tom Black. The Tiger Coffee squad remained with their usual pairing of George Miller and Les Goble, whilst Paul White’s Strata car, a new addition, was shared with Calum Lockie. At last, we had a decent challenge to observe.

The Topcats Marcos was recovered to the pits and the team set about fixing a broken drive flange. Racing resumed on lap 42, just as the MTECH Ferrari 430 made its stop. Brady now held the lead, but pitted just before the first hour ticked over, leaving Sumpter’s Paragon Porsche at the front. The three Class 3 frontrunners were still absolutely together – it had changed several times over the laps, but now Morcillo, Harrison and Shepherd, in that order, were separated by less than two seconds; and, as the Prosport was in the pits, also third, fourth and fifth overall. “One of our best ever races – Snetterton has done it again for us” declared an impressed James Tucker.

The #17 Topcats Marcos re-appeared after losing 28-minutes, now stone last and with Luc Paillard having little hope of re-living the 2007 win in the same race which he took with Mercer and Richard Fores. Harrison brought the team’s #35 Class 2 Mantis in after an absolutely storming stint, which must rank as probably, literally, his finest hour;  dicing continuously with the two Neil Garner Porsches before Neil Huggins climbed in to carry on the good work. Drama though, for the Prosport - what looked like a serious rear puncture flailing the bodywork around - but it was worse, Brady claiming he was nudged by the Mosler going into Riches. With rear suspension damage, the race for Brady and Michael Millard was over. 

So, now, 70 laps in, we had a straight fight for the lead between the Eclipse Mosler and the Paragon Porsche, with Michael McInerney in the Mosler currently in front. That would change, though, and change again, as fuel stops were made, though neither seemed to practice economy. Behind them, there were the three Class 3 Ferraris – the MJC 360, the two 430s of FF Corse and MTECH – again, alternating in position as their pit stops came into play.  The MXS Porsche had been a factor here too, when Colbert was behind the wheel, but slipped out slightly during novice Malcolm Stott’s stint. The Class 3 battle was still anybody’s, Neil Huggins, Manuel Cintrano, and Jan Persson now being the protagonists.

Seemingly running their own race in the midst of this were Fiona James and Henry Morgan in the IN2Racing Ginetta G50, with no old-established or newly-formed rivalries to contend with, and the Robert Day/Paul Phipps BMW M3; the touring car a bit out of kilter in the GT-based field. On the other hand, the Aston Martin Challenge was hotting up. Earlier leaders Tiger Coffee had now been overtaken by the Nicholas Mee and Strata teams, with professionals Ben de Zille Butler and Calum Lockie currently installed in the respective cars.

Halfway through the race, Colbert was once again flying in the MXS Porsche, causing Witt Gamski - at this point the rear gunner of the Ferrari trio - to offer a response. A pit stop for the Spanish-crewed Neil Garner Porsche saw the Class 3 fight temporarily suspended, and a courageous Cintrano jumped backed in after refuelling for a double stint. The two Ferrari 430s then pitted simultaneously, leaving the MJC 360 in the class lead and Colbert, sensing a chance, to renew his pursuit. All was not well with the Porsche, though, and, after a couple of pit stops, the MXS car was retired with gearbox problems; a sad end to a spirited performance from both drivers, and the Jamun erstwhile single-seater experts.

A quick look at the Class 3 standings revealed that the #35 Topcats Marcos was now in front, at points interfering with the Class 2 Ferrari placings as the Italian machines recovered from their pit stops, with Rod Barrett leading the Neil Garner pair. On the same lap, in fourth, was the In2Racing Ginetta.

As the race entered the final hour, Rob Barff, his days work over now that Jamie Stanley was installed in the FF Corse Ferrari 430 to the end, offered his forecast of the Class 2 outcome, essentially a Ferrari-fest; “The Ferrari battle is done – Keith Robinson is now flying in the 360, while we and MTECH are on eco-cruise. It’s going to be close between the 430s – we’re both conserving fuel, and I’d like to think we can hang on to third, but there is a chance we’ll need a splash and dash”. You can splash, but you can’t dash in Britcar though – all fuel stops are 90 seconds, and must be taken 15 minutes before the end of the race, and there were a few really on the cusp of that ruling. Robinson, though, had stopped just before Barff’s comments, pacing like a caged animal on the pit apron whilst the fuel went in, and jumping back in for a final thrash.

The leaders were still slogging it out at the front. A final sixth stop for the Eclipse Mosler relegated it to second place in the closing half hour, but the machine’s raw power saw it re-take the lead from the Paragon Porsche with 24 minutes to go.

Topcats’ woes were compounded when the #35 Marcos was driven straight into the garage. A broken drive shaft was diagnosed, but, with just 18 minutes of the race left, a repair was going to be difficult. A puncture had delayed the Neil Garner/Hawthorns Porsche, leaving the Class 3 battle fragmented; the Neil Garner/Azteca Porsche now having a two lap advantage over its stablemate.

Keith Robinson, now lying fourth, was taking massive chunks out of Stanley’s tenuous third place ahead, and Duncan Cameron had thrown caution to the wind, maintaining a three-second gap behind the MJC car.  Stanley, though, was forced to pit for that splash of fuel, leaving the way clear for Robinson to take third place. Fiona James pitted the Ginetta rather late, too, the car sounding rough as she got back on track to finish the race.

Lap 193 saw the chequered flag fall to relieved rather than jubilant Sean McInerney, who, with father Michael, and John Griffiths’ Eclipse team, had had to think as well as drive their way through this race; taking the win with six pit stops opposed to Paragon’s five. “We had to really push between the pit stops – we were going to need six stops anyway, so there was no point in conserving” said Sean after the race.

The Paragon Porsche of Mark Sumpter and Adrian Slater was just 15 seconds adrift at the end, and only a lap ahead of the Ferrari battle for the Class 2 victory, Keith Robinson claiming the honours in the MJC 360, still only three seconds ahead Cameron’s MTECH 430; although the Barff/Stanley 430 was relegated to third after that final stop, four laps down after a two-lap penalty for refuelling outside the pit-stop window. “It was a really tough race, hard work” said Robinson, adding “Witt did two monster stints, and the car was really balanced, really stable, and we kept in touch”. Duncan Cameron, though, had a different story regarding the 430 he shared with Mike Edmonds; “There was nothing left in it at the end – it was all over the place”.

The Class 3 victory went to the “Spanish” Neil Garner Porsche 996 of Javier Morcillo and Manuel Cintrano, crossing the line side-by-side with their Anglo-Swedish team mates Rod Barrett, Jan Persson and Jay Shepherd, though separated by two laps. “We’ll let ’em have this one, but not again,” joked Rod Barrett on the podium. Third in class, though an invitation entry and not taking the points, was the IN2Racing Ginetta G50, Fiona James and Henry Morgan having driven a sublime race that was marred just minutes from the end by a catalytic converter problem.

Despite that early puncture, the Aston Martin Challenge win went to championship invitees Paul White and Calum Lockie in the Strata machine; “We aimed to be the best-placed Aston, and we achieved that” said Lockie. They had taken the lead on the track, but the previously dominant Nicholas Mee Racing entry, at that point second, had come to a halt out on the circuit just 15 minutes from the end with an undisclosed problem, which meant that the Team Vantage car of Tom Black and Alan Bonner swooped past. The Tiger Coffee car of George Miller and Les Goble had to take a last gasp pit stop, and was the fourth of the Astons at the flag.   

The day had started on a promising note for Topcats – both cars going faster and better than before at Snetterton – but both fell victim to drive shaft issues. Classified on the same lap, 22 tours down on the leader, the Class 3 Jon Harrison/Neil Huggins Mantis was 20 seconds ahead of the Mick Mercer/Luc Paillard/Richard Fores Class 2 version; but in reality, the Class 2 car was ready to go just as the flag fell and never actually made it back onto the track.

This had been a fascinating race and a fine precursor to the upcoming “Britcar 500” six-hour race at Silverstone in October.

Steve Wood