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Notes From Testing
Rockingham And Silverstone

With the opening round of the British GT championship just a fortnight away, pre-season testing continues apace; and last Friday two East Midlands venues saw several teams putting their cars and drivers through their paces in what turned out to be less than ideal conditions. The first of these was Rockingham, which saw United Autosports, Barwell Motorsports, 888Optimum, Fortec Motorsports, AF Corse and IDL-CWS sharing the 2.05 mile International Long Circuit.

We’re still awaiting confirmation of the driver line-up at Fortec, but both of the Daventry team’s brand-new Mercedes SLS AMG GT3s were at the Corby circuit. Neither car was liveried up, nor did either of them venture out in the afternoon when DSC was present (with the rain pouring down with increasing intensity, but they looked fabulous in clean white as they sat in the garages. Fortec old-boy James Walker was on hand to shake the cars down, but we don’t know yet if he’ll have a role to play in the team during the season.

Two other white cars were present for the test, these being the two Barwell-run BMW Z4s. They were joined by the team’s third car, the Mark Poole/Richard Abra Aston Martin Vantage GT3, which has already accumulated an impressive amount of pre-season mileage.

“The Aston’s already completed 3,000 trouble-free kilometres,” said Team Principal Mark Lemmer. “We’ve had two full days at Snetterton, two days at Oulton, a full day at Silverstone and now here today. At Silverstone we ran all day on slicks even though it was snowing, with the wind piling the snow up on one lap and then blowing it away again on the next; I’ve never seen weather like it! Mark can’t make it here today, so Richard has been doing all the driving.

“We had the Ecosse BMW at Silverstone as well with the ELMS drivers, but it was too cold for the Michelins, so we had to run on Avons. Olly [Bryant] and Marco [Attard] are here today in that car, while it’s Ron Johnson’s first full day in the #78 so we’ve been concentrating on getting him up to speed and he’s done most of the running. It’s gone well and we’ve already gone quicker than we went here last year.

“We’ve got Adam Hardy engineering the Ecosse car – he engineered the winning Merc at Bathurst this year – and Gary Robertshaw from the WTCC running the #78, so we know the Z4s are in good hands.”

Does running two marques present any logistical problems? “Not really. We’ve quickly worked up a good relationship with BMW and we know how Prodrive work as we’ve worked with them for many years. It could be that things get better with both relationships as they see how the other’s doing.”  

BMW was well represented at Rockingham, with both 888Optimum Z4s being put through their paces in the morning; the afternoon seeing less running as the rain set in and after the cars were obliged to install power-sapping and rather ugly exhaust mufflers after tripping the drive-by noise limit. 

“I’m gradually getting used to it,” said Lee Mowle, on the step-up from GT4 to GT3. “ABS is one example. The telemetry was showing that I was using braking at 40% while Joe [Osborne] was at 80%. I basically had to take a deep breath and stand on the pedal to improve, and when I did I suddenly found myself two seconds a lap quicker. We’re working through those kind of issues and challenges and improving each time we go out.”

“It’s a lovely car,” added Osborne. “The Porsche always felt like a bit of a boat, but the BMW is absolutely planted on the road.”

As the two drivers of the #8 Z4 retired to the team truck to study telemetry, Steve Tandy and Dan Brown – sharing the #888 this season – took the opportunity to run through the driver-change routine.

The IDL-CWS Ginetta G55 GT3 of Colin White and Tom Sharp seemed to be running well (aside from a small oil leak, which was quickly sorted), but with it looking suspiciously like the works car from last year, was this their car or a loaner from the factory?

“It is last year’s car, but we own it now – Tom and I have traded our G55s in and gone 50/50 on the purchase,” said White. “This will be my fifth year running Ginettas. I bought the G55 [which he raced at the Nürburgring British GT round in 2012] with the thinking being that it would be the best value way to go endurance racing, but when I discovered that it wasn’t a homologated car I had to have a rethink; so I spoke to Tom and we agreed to join forces. We tested a Nissan, but even though the test went well we decided to stay with Ginetta. So this is last year’s works car but upgraded to 2013 spec.”

The junior half of the partnership raced this very car at the final round of the 2011 British GT Championship, sharing with Andrew Jordan. On that occasion, the car was making its debut with the upgraded aero, so could he tell much difference between then and now? “Oh yes, there’s a huge difference,” said Sharp. “To tell you the truth, it really wasn’t very good at all back then, but it’s got a new engine and has been extensively developed since. The funny thing is, it’s not much different to a Cup car – you can tell that it’s the same chassis; we’ve just got to get used to things like the ABS and four-way adjustable dampers, which I’ve never used before. But the balance is right and we’ve only a few more things to sort to customise it to Colin and I; we just need time.

 “I’ve always wanted to race in British GT and it’s great that we’re joining in when it’s at such a high level.”

It was something of a surprise to see Mark Patterson at the speedway, but he confirmed that he had indeed flown across from the States just for the test; “I’ve never been to this circuit before, so it was important to be here,” said the United Autosports regular, who will share the #25 Audi R8 LMS ultra with Matt Bell.

“The first corner reminds me of Homestead, but instead of letting the banking naturally take you up near the wall, there’s a stream of water running down it so I’ve had to be a bit straighter through it! But it’s been going well – the car is fine and within just three or four laps I was into the 1:24s and about a second and a half of Matt’s times, so I’m happy with that.”

So what brings him to the British GT Championship? “United Autosports! I like the car, I like the team and I like Matt. Racing here allows me to stay with the team and also I get to go to new tracks – I’ve not been here before and I’ve not been to Brands Hatch or Donington Park either.”

And was his partner looking forward to racing against his brother at Oulton? “We’ve raced against each other before, of course, in the Blancpain series,” said Bell. “In fact, at Spa in 2011 Rob had a problem and we actually started the race side-by side – in the middle of a field of 62 cars! It was bizarre. But there’s no great sibling rivalry – I’ve got two dozen other drivers to worry about, not just him.”

Only one United Autosports McLaren was present, as the #24 is still being rebuilt after Richard Meins’ hefty Oulton Park shunt the week before. Meins apparently has some way to go in his recuperation from the accident, which left him with four broken ribs, and will certainly miss the opening round. His replacement for the Cheshire races will be announced by the team tomorrow (Tuesday). Mark Blundell and Alvaro Parente were piloting the #23 round Rockingham.

There was actually a second McLaren running at the circuit that day – the all-black MP4-12C of 2011 champions Jim and Glynn Geddie; and it was being run under the auspices of UA, with the aim of maximising track time for their drivers. Unfortunately, a crown and pinion wheel failure in the morning curtailed running for the day and the car was packed away in the truck by the time DSC arrived.

Last but not least, AF Corse were out testing with John Dhillon and Aaron Scott.

“We’re happy with what we’ve achieved so far and we’re going in a good direction,” said Scott, as he struggled to operate the stopwatch just handed to him by the Team Manager, Ugo Maceratini.  “I found a thing this morning that I wanted to sort out, which was good, and John’s continuing to find speed and time with every test.

“The car feels decent, but more importantly [the team] have already built up a good relationship – I trust my engineer and he trusts me.”

So how does the 2013-spec Ferrari 458 compare to the 2012 version? “The front aero is completely different and the splitter, rear wing and diffuser are different; those are the main things,” said Maceratini.  “Performance at the moment is at 2012 levels, but the handling of the car is much better. The SRO is doing well with the BoP, so we’re probably not going to see much improvement in laptimes.” Interestingly, other sources suggest a difference of 1.5s in favour of the 2013 model in back-to-back tests.

40 miles from Rockingham, three other British GT teams were testing at an equally soggy Silverstone.

Two Audis were running, one being the 2013 R8 LMS ultra of Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport….

…. and the other being the R8 LMS of Welsh team Blendini Motorsport; expect this car to carry “30-3” on its roof at Oulton Park following the weekend’s rugby.

Finally, we had confirmation of the rumour that the Jones brothers have bought a McLaren MP4-12C to replace the Mercedes that was sold to Black Falcon at Dubai (which won the race, but was written off at Paul Ricard last week).

The car will run in ‘traditional’ Preci-Spark colours and will be raced in British GT, meaning Fortec will be the sole representative of Mercedes in the championship this season.