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Britcar GT, Brands Hatch - Race Report
Eclipse Win An Unusual Race, MJC Claim The Overall Championship

It would be difficult to imagine that there would be a more fascinating race than last month’s Britcar 500, but Saturday evening’s 90 minute thrash really came close. For some, it saw overall or class title hopes dashed within seconds of the green light, for others it meant hard recovery drives, whilst eventually, some were able to rejoice.

With the dusk-to-dark 45-minute qualifying session immediately preceding the race with just a 20-minute gap, the action was fraught, and, with Sean McInerney securing the services  of Phil Keen,  pole was set by the Eclipse Mosler at 46.463, with invitees Nigel Moore and Michael Greenhalgh, in the Barwell Ginetta G50Z alongside, a quarter of a second shy. 

With the complicated mathematics of the championship status beyond the grasp of almost everybody except Britcar’s David Hornsey, Witt Gamski’s pre-race instruction to the MJC team was simple - “We go as fast as we can, and get in front of every car that we can”  - and taken to the letter by Keith Robinson, who headed the second row, with fellow Class 2 protagonists Mike Millard/Steven Brady in the Prosport LM3000. 

The other overall title aspirants, Sumpter/Slater in the Paragon Porsche, were on the third row, with the MTECH squad of Cameron/Edmonds just one row further back, with Class 3 title aspirants Jon Harrison and Neil Huggins claiming their Class pole on the sixth row.

Sadly, Paul Cope’s Venturi never made the start, and, as the 29-car grid got the green light, Sean McInerney dashed into the lead; but there was trouble behind him as the field piled into Paddock.

The mass of headlights picked out Duncan Cameron’s MTECH Ferrari 430 slewing sideways across the inside line of the track, apparently tapped from behind, and a white Porsche getting bumped around in the ensuing melee.  Joining from the pit-lane, James Barclay, having been push-started with just third gear available, picked his way through the carnage in the JDR Honda NSX, and the safety car was immediately deployed.

Going no further were the Cameron/Edmonds Ferrari, the Harrison/Huggins Marcos, and the Stott/Colbert Porsche 997. Glynn Geddie’s Porsche was recovered back to the pits, where the team patched it up, but only a few more laps were possible before it was retired.

Also losing time in the pits was the stunning and radically-engineered Danish Aquila CR1, Lars Erik Nielsen taking the opening stint.

The field went green on lap 12, with McInerney, Greenhalgh, Brady, Gamski, Sumpter, Andrew Beaumont in the Topcats Mosler, and Matt Seldon in the family BMW GTR all holding station into the first corner; but, again, the SC boards were displayed before they completed the lap – Tom Black’s Aston Martin was in the gravel at the bottom of Paddock Hill Bend. It was a short one this time though, the Vantage Racing machine was snatched by the Manitou telehandler, and was dispatched on its way, Black not even bothering to pit for Hugh Chamberlain’s team to check it over.

At last, 17 laps in, we went racing, and, with McInerney pulling out a lead, it was close behind him – Greenhalgh less than two seconds in front of Sumpter, who had Brady right on his tail, then an impressive Matt Seldon, showing what the GT Cup front-running machine was capable of.

Gamski had slipped to sixth, but was keeping Beaumont at a respectable distance. A grassy moment for Jon Dhillon, in the second MTECH Ferrari 430, saw him lose ground temporarily, before mounting a recovery drive.

There hadn’t been much racing in the first half-hour – barely  10minutes, so a round-up of the positions was broadly as above, except that, behind the Eclipse Mosler’s 13-second lead, Brady had hauled the Prosport past the Paragon Porsche, and Tim Hood was having a sensational run in his TVR Sagaris, passing Beaumont’s Mosler into seventh position.  Spaniard Javier Morcillo, in the Azteca/Neil Garner Racing Porsche 996, led Class 3, in front of Production invitee Michael Caine, wringing the neck of Keith Gent’s BMW M3, with Andrew Jordan in the family Ginetta G50, just behind. Andy Barnes, sharing the Barwell-run Mitsubishi Evo X James Kaye, was an early pit visitor.

Brady was on a mission, snatching second from Greenhalgh’s Ginetta Zytek after an aggressive pursuit, but for some it was now pit-stop time. First of the significant pitters was Gamski, with 53 minutes to go, handing the Ferrari 360 to Keith Robinson from second in Class 2. Beaumont was in too, for Richard Fores to take over the Topcats Mosler.  Then it was Greenhalgh, with Nigel Moore jumping in the Barwell Ginetta, and Patrick Charlton, handing over the Team Wireless Lotus Elise to son Marc.  With Matt Seldon coming in too, the top-end of the timing screen displayed some new names – an impressive Henry Fletcher, sharing the Topcats Class 2 Marcos Mantis with diminutive Frenchman Raphael Fiorentino, was up to fourth, with Tim Hood’s Sagaris fifth. Hood’s glory, sadly, would be short- lived, for just a few laps later the yellow car was parked hard-up against the pit wall, just before the start line, causing yet another safety car intervention.

With just over half of the 90-minute race run, there was a NASCAR-style dash for the pits for all who had yet to do so, which was most of the field.  Lap 50, and it was all done, the timing screens showing that Phil Keen had retained the lead in the Eclipse Mosler; but this turned out to be conditional. Once the caution was lifted, with 53 laps on the board, the officials slapped drive-through penalties on Keen, Keith Gent (BMW) and Marc Charlton (Lotus) for ignoring the red light at the pit exit. That wasn’t all though, for Keen – having taken his drive-through, was further penalised for passing during the safety car period, this time with a stop-go. Again, he was straight in to get this over and done with, stalling in the process.  

Strangely, virtually the whole field was bunched into one half of the circuit, except, that is, for Keith Robinson in the MJC Ferrari; for, while everybody else was in the twisty bits, Robinson had the length of the Brabham Straight, and down the hill from Paddock, all to himself for several laps, allowing him to punch in the fastest lap in Class 2 – claiming a championship point that would later prove decisive.

Further unplanned pitstops were taken by Jamie Smyth in the Beechdean Aston Martin (having earlier relieved Andrew Howard), and Fiorentino’s Marcos. Both rejoined, though the Marcos was soon parked on the verge at the entrance to the Druids hairpin, meaning, yes, another safety car period.

It was now into the last 20 minutes of the race and, though dispersed amongst the back markers, the leader-board identified Adrian Slater in the Paragon Porsche at the front, followed by Moore’s Ginetta, a quickly-recovered Keen, Mike Millard’s Prosport, Robinson’s Ferrari, Fores in the Topcats Mosler, and Mike Jordan’s Ginetta. We’ll go further down the list here, because it will identify how much was to happen in the last quarter of an hour; Kevin Clarke’s BMW, Manuel Cintrano’s Porsche 996, Nima Khandan-Nia (MTECH Ferrari), Keith Gent, then Rod Barrett, who had taken over the Hawthorns Porsche from first-stinter Jay Shepherd.   It wouldn’t end up like that.

With the caution finally lifted, it was into the final 15 minutes.  Slater’s lead was down to less than three seconds, with Moore’s advantage over Keen less than five, with Millard another two seconds adrift of the Eclipse Mosler. Robinson and Fores were holding station a lap adrift. If it ended now, Paragon would be champions. But it didn’t end then – and there was yet another safety car intervention, this time to recover Peter Seldon’s BMW GTR from the grass at Clearways. With the officials also announcing two-lap penalties (for short pit stops) for Kevin Clarke, Stuart Hall (Vantage Racing Aston Martin), and Matt Cummings (Stratton Lotus Exige), the order was upset somewhat; and, now just eight minutes to go, fireworks from surrounding back-garden displays were no comparison to the action on the track as the field was released for a final thrash.

Sadly, Millard had pitted the Prosport and that was it for the Master Motorsport team, who have suffered more late-race dramas and failures than any team should deserve. On the track, however, Keen was aggressive and cautious in equal measure in traffic, but was soon at the tail of a three-car train, with Slater at the front and Moore in-between. With just minutes left, Keen took Moore through Paddock, and Slater into Druids; Moore also sneaking past the Paragon Porsche in the same action.

That, then, was it – Keen crossed the line with 91 laps on the board, nearly six seconds to the good, with Slater a further nine and a half seconds adrift of Moore. For the teams, the numerous safety cars may have blighted the race, but for the spectator, they, and the derived consequences, actually spiced it up.

“Expletive deleted” was Sean McInerney’s comment when quizzed about his reaction to Phil Keen’s litany of transgressions, adding, “if he hadn’t had won it, he may as well have parked the car out on the GP circuit and run. Seriously, though, he pulled it out of the bag”. “There were just three words”, admitted Keen; “Make it happen”!

Mark Sumpter was philosophical about the result and about missing out on the championship; “It’s been a brilliant season, but today we got the best out of the car and made no mistakes; but there were just faster cars out there. I’m going to spend the winter saving up for a new car – and a pit-stop timer”

New champions Witt Gamski and Keith Robinson dedicated their title to the fine bunch that make up the MJC team; “A car is only as good as the team running it, and ours has run faultlessly all year” said Witt. Their Class 2 race win, fourth overall, was the head of a depleted field of class points –scorers; invitees Jon Dhillon and Nima Khandan- Nia bagging the runner-up spot, with GT Cup regular Tommy Dreelan, paired with Aaron Scott in a the Porsche 997, taking third. Notably fourth was the rarely-seen TVR Sagaris of Steve Glynn and Sam Head – it was good to see them reach the flag.

The Jordans claimed the Class 3 victory in their Ginetta G50, but the order was shaken-up behind them - Kevin Clarke’s draconian two-lap penalty throwing the Intersport BMW out of the reckoning, and a typical late-race charge by Rod Barrett nailing the class runner-up spot for outgoing champions Hawthorns/Neil Garner Racing; having taken the position from stablemates Javier Morcillo and Manuel Cintrano. The Spaniards are threatening to return next year in a Mosler. Keith Gent, were it not for his penalty, may have made the podium in the Torquespeed-run BMW started by Michael Caine, and Nigel Rata put in a solid lone drive to come home fifth in class in his Prosport. Full marks for perseverance go to James Barclay and David Fenn, who determinedly hauled the debuting Honda NSX around for the whole race in third gear; “Honda may have stopped racing the NSX, but we haven’t,” said Fenn. Once again, there was an understated performance from Vibe Smed and Chris Bentley, in the CTR/Alfatune Porsche 996; no histrionics, they just got on with the job without drama, while gaining more useful experience in endurance racing.

That’s it for this season – a classic year for Britcar, with some memorable races; and the good news that the 24hours will definitely return next year.  The awards event is next Saturday evening, at Whittlebury Hall, near Silverstone.

Steve Wood