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Britcar, Silverstone, 24th March
Hogarth and Knutton go In2 the Championship Lead

Paul Hogarth and Darren Knutton, in the In2 Racing Porsche 997GT3, braved the tricky conditions on Saturday afternoon to win the inaugural counter of the 2007 Britcar Championship, in a foreshortened race full of intrigue and expectation. Knutton was particularly impressive, his controlled performance in the second half of the race belying the fact that this was only his second motor race.

Qualifying had sadly seen the demise of the two Nero Motorsport Ferrari 360s, the Foster/Ruhan machine catching fire, and car of David Back and team boss Aaron Scott succumbing to a dropped valve.

It had been a dull, cold and windy day, and drizzle was in the air as the 42 cars, all with a “Britcar supports A1GP” sticker on the front bumper, started to make their way onto the grid. That drizzle intensified during the time it takes to make an installation lap of the International circuit, for what seemed like half the grid – mainly the second half – dived straight back into the pit lane for more appropriate Dunlop rubber, electing to take their chances in a single-file race start from the pit exit. The faster GT cars were already in their grid slots, however, headed by pole man Jay Wheals, sharing the ex-Taylors Foundry Marcos LM600 with fellow Speads pilot Dave Longstaff, but Richard Chamberlain’s Porsche 935 picked its way through the gaps from the fourth row, and reversed through the Armco gate in the pit wall. He was the first, and was followed eventually by every car that had taken up its position for the start, the organisers now declaring, during this drawn-out process that, it would be a “wet race”, and the proposed two hours duration would be reduced to 90 minutes.

So, with nearly everybody on wets or intermediates (more on this story later), the grid reformed, and Simon Mason led the field round in the Saab safety car for two pace laps.

The sheer power of the yellow and white Marcos catapulted Wheals into an immediate lead as the lights went green, with Gerry Harrison’s Porsche 996 RSR (the ex-Jones twins machine) under threat from Nigel Greensall, who had broken through from the second row in Peter Seldon’s BMW GTR. Even national treasure Greensall had to give best to Chamberlain’s flying orange Porsche though, and as they crossed the line for the first time, the Marcos had the Porsche snapping at its exhaust pipe, with Greensall third, and Peter Cook’s fast starting Porsche fourth. The Team Parker 997 of Guy Spur held fifth, then Harrison, dropping back, and the rejuvenated and reliveried Topcats Mantis of Mick Mercer. The eventual winner had started from the seventh row, and was not yet amongst the front runners, but by lap two, ex-Carrera Cup competitor Hogarth had displaced both Mercer and Harrison, and was up to sixth place.

Already there were some significant casualties. Phil Bennett brought Nigel Mustill’s Opel V8 Star into the pits as the lights went green, for the first of several stops before an early retirement, and John Gaw’s Kinfaun Racing Porsche, which started fourth, had slipped well down the order, and was pitbound after three laps, the Scot unable to select a gear; “The shifter’s broken” explained co-driver Jean-Marc Rotsaert.

Chamberlain had by now wrested the lead from Wheals, and the next few laps held disappointment for yet more significant runners. Greensall lost all drive in the Moore International GTR, and Peter Cook’s 996 went missing. Kevin Hancock was hauled in by the officials, to examine rear-end damage and a collapsed rear wing on the Jemco Marcos Mantis. He carried on regardless, though, handing over to Leigh Smart and finishing 23rd overall, fifth in class. “It didn’t make much difference” joked the jovial Hancock later.

The second-placed LM600 was having rear-end trouble, too, the diffuser having come loose, and flapping around. The car made several attempts to rejoin, but the problem remained, and the car was retired. The team, basically last season’s Speads crew, had come into the race with little testing, and no data, so were winging it on fuel consumption, tyre wear, etc. They proved they had the speed, though.

Chamberlain’s leading Porsche then made a surprise early stop, just 16 laps in. The thirsty 935 Replica often needs two fuel stops in any Britcar race, but this time petrol wasn’t the priority; Chamberlain had already scrubbed his first set of wets, and needed replacement rubber. There was a splash of fuel, too, and Chamberlain rejoined, now out of contention, and still needing a further stop to hand over to John Allen. They would eventually finish 13th overall, fifth in class.

So, with the some of the heavy-hitters out or relegated, the race took on a different complexion. Lap 20, and Hogarth took the lead from Guy Spur’s Team Parker 996, and thereafter, the In2 997 was never headed. Third overall was the amazing Class 1 Team Wireless Lotus Elise, single-seater ace Charlie Hollings (depping for a medically-sidelined Marc Charlton), then singleton driver George Haynes in the ASM Ford Falcon. Harrison’s orange Eurotech Porsche held on to fourth – “It looked lovely in the black and silver, but my wife said you couldn’t pick it out in a race” was his rationale for a colour change – followed by burly midlander Pete Morris, in his old Porsche Open car, now owned by new co-driver Craig Wilkins.

As the half-way mark loomed, the mandatory pit-stops commenced. First to come in was the Parker Porsche, Spur handing over to Chris Cooper. Gerry Harrison was next, Mike Jordan taking over with 50 minutes of the race left to run. Notable stop-outs during this period were leader Hogarth, and second-placed Morris, but the real star was Piers Johnson, driving alone in Don Norchi’s Volvo S60, starting from relatively nowhere, and now incredibly fifth overall. Johnson actually made it up to third overall once Hogarth and Morris pitted, before becoming the final pit visitor, on the very cusp of the 70% maximum stint allowance.

Jordan had now been, since he took over Harrison’s Porsche, the fastest man on track, lowering the race’s fastest lap every time he got a clear run, and making light work of his progress up to third place, behind Knutton and Cooper, and, with 20 minutes left to run, and regularly four seconds a lap quicker than the two cars ahead, a win was not exactly out of the question, dailysportscar.com’s Graham Goodwin calculating that, under prevailing conditions, he had an 88-second deficit to make up.

The two Topcats Marcos Mantis had been circulating together for much of the race, the Mercer/Fores machine usually ahead, but now, newcomer William Smallridge, in the car started by Luc Paillard, was positively flying, responding to the threat from Johnson’s Volvo, now in the ascendancy one more. Sadly, Smallridge’s run came to an end just minutes from the end, though a suspected clash with George Hayne’s Falcon was unconfirmed; “I had a puncture, and had to tour round for the best part of a lap” reported Haynes, adding “the Marcos had his own problem, and spun into the gravel, but it was close – no more than a cigarette paper between us”.

Jordan’s relentless pursuit of the lead had taken him past Cooper with barely five minutes of racing time left, and with a quarter of a minute gap to close, to take the lead was, as they say these days, a big ask, so, with lap times stabilizing in worsening conditions and fading light, Darren Knutton took the win, with Jordan fourteen and a half seconds shy as the flag fell after 54 laps.

So, a new season, a new team at the front, and, as ex-Foudroyant Porsche racer Paul Dishman observed, the first British race win for a Porsche 997 outside of one-make racing. The Dudfield’s In2 team have been around for several years, and Paul Hogarth has raced in the Carrera Cup, but Darren Knutton is a positive novice. “I raced in the Walter Hayes meeting last year, and I’ve just done track days through the winter. I was jittery at the start of this meeting, with the conditions, but I’m really pleased how it’s turned out. We’re in for the full championship – Paul’s family and business commitments mean that he can’t race on Sundays, so Britcar is perfect for him”. Indeed, so busy was Hogarth, that he was away to an appointment before the podium presentations took place.

Mike Jordan was delighted to be back on the podium, his first race since the horrific accident at the same track late last season, though one sensed the demons weren’t quite exorcised; “I really wanted to win this” he said, teeth and fist clenched with equal measure, adding, “Gerry’s allowing me to do four races with him, I think, when my BTCC commitments don’t clash”. Harrison, of course, is no stranger to the podium, mounting a successful Porsche Open campaign in the same car last year. “That’s a good series, but it’s all over in 20 minutes, so Britcar is where I want to be” he said.

The Team Parker Porsche 996 of Chris Cooper and Guy Spur completed the GT3 (and overall) podium, Spur admitting that this was his first race for many years, having been concentrating on yacht racing. Topping the GT Cup runners, fourth overall, was the Topcats Marcos of Mick Mercer and Richard Fores, starting the season as they intend to go on. Second in the Cup class was the ABG Motorsport Porsche of Craig Wilkins and Pete Morris. Machine-tool magnate Wilkins is as ebullient as his mentor, and is learning his racecraft rapidly. “I told him there was no way I was racing with a black cross on the back of the car, so we entered him in a bunch of Porsche races late last year” said the teacher of the student. Third in GT Cup was the Marcos Mantis of Scottish garagiste Colin Simpson and his regular co-driver, the once-peripatetic Jeff Wyatt.

Class 1 honours fell to the Geoff Steel Racing BMW M3 of Michael Symons and Andre D’Cruze, the Kentish hotshoe rueing that his stint was out of synch with old sparring-partner Hollings’ spell in the Team Wireless Lotus, but maybe that was just as well; “In these conditions, you’ve just got to concentrate on getting it home in one piece” was D’Cruze’s mature summary. The Lotus was the Class 1 runner-up, Patrick Charlton having relieved Hollings, and a fine third after a steady run, was Mike Thomas in the M3L Racing BMW M3. The name of Calum Lockie normally looms large in a Britcar report, but the Butler Motorsport M3 he shares with car owner Paul White could only manage fourth, despite the Scot wringing its neck, as usual, and Anna Walewska’s hopes were destroyed, with her car, when Pete James went off in Friday’s test session, so the fifth place achieved in Geoff Steel’s less powerful spare M3 was an exercise in putting points on the scoresheet. Piers Johnson’s Class 2 victory, and an incredible fifth overall in Don Norchi’s Volvo S60, was all the more amazing when he revealed that he ran the entire race on slick tyres!

“ They suited the car in these conditions, it was just ideal, but there was a lot of oil building up on the windscreen towards the end” he said. Second in Class 2, and well deserved after several years of struggling in the Focus, were Mark Clynes and Nick Beaumont in Mike Gorton’s MGA Motorsport Seat Leon Cupra., in front of the similar Forge Motorsport car of Mark and Peter Cunningham. The Forge car had proved its pace and consistency last season, posting a podium finish every time it raced, and seems to have found a worthy opponent in the MGA car. The two Seats had disputed territory for much of the race, and were only a quarter of a second apart at the flag.

Beginners luck, exploiters of circumstance, or starting as they mean to go on? Let’s see what happens at Brands Hatch in a month’s time.

Steve Wood