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Britcar MSA British Endurance Championship & Dunlop Production GTN Championship, Spa - Report
Rapier Rapid In BEC, Topcats Get The Cream In Production

The Rapier SR2 of Michael Millard and Ian Heward dominated the 100-minute race on Sunday afternoon, whilst a close Production battle saw Mick Mercer and Gary Smith, in the Topcats-run Ginetta G50, take the honours.

The popularity of one of the world’s iconic circuits was compromised somewhat by a cut in track time, and both qualifying and race slots allocated at the fag-end of long racing days. 

One positive, though, was that the pouring rain that had blighted Saturday’s programme had ceased by late afternoon, so on a drying track, the short, 30-minute qualifying session – with laps approaching three minutes, barely enough time to get two drivers qualified – saw invitees Martin Short and Mike Guasch, in the Rollcentre Mosler, initially top the timesheets. But as the wind whipped below the treetops, a drier line emerged and the times began to tumble;  The Aquilla of Bob Berridge finally annexing pole at 2:25.566, around four and a half seconds quicker than Aaron Scott in the GT3 Racing Dodge Viper.  Javier Morcillo (Mosler) and the Rapier filled row two, followed by the  GT race’s two invitees, the Rollcentre Mosler, and the Racing4Slovakia Praga, which had impressed at Donington earlier in the year. Sadly, neither car was to make the grid; the preceding Dutch Supercar Challenge had taken its toll and a fraught DSC encounter for Short left him not wanting to put more wear and tear on the Mosler, whilst the Praga had what the team described as a “broken engine”.

The fight for Production pole was one of the highlights of the session.

Wayne Gibson in the Intersport BMW E92 was interfering with the GT runners, in seventh, early in the session, with Mercer/Smith Ginetta just shy. But with both cars coming to grief towards the end – the E92 clashing with a GT car, and Gary Smith pushing the envelope of grip and ending in the gravel – it was left to Mark Cunningham, in the SG Racing Seat Supercopa, to head the group at 2:40.459, a second quicker than the Strata 21 BMW M3 of Sarah Bennett-Baggs and Jensen Lunn. A late attempt by Marcus Hogarth, in the TF Seat, bagged third, in front of the off-the-track Intersport BMW and Topcats Ginetta. Sob stories of the session came from Paul White, whose Mosler was gravel-bound after  losing a wheel, and the Day/Phipps BMW M3, a loose earth lead causing it to expire at Les Combes on its outlap. The Strata 21 Mosler, with White learning the circuit and Calum Lockie away at the ‘Ring, lined up 21st and the BMW was given a start slot at the back of the grid.

Sunday was a hot day, and the race was going to be tough; the start was uphill towards la Source, and whilst the Aquilla, with Nigel Mustill aboard, led away from the lights, it was Javier Morcillo’s Azteca Mosler which seized the lead half way round the first lap.

Problems for the Braxhoofden invitation-entry Seat saw it trailing the field as they completed the long lap, but by the third tour, Heward’s Rapier had moved to the front and began to build a hefty gap to the Azteca Mosler behind.  

Aaron Scott was third in the Viper, with Spa first-timer Raphael Fiorentino an impressive fourth in the #26 Topcats Marcos; while Mustill had slipped to fifth, ahead of an on-form Jay Shepherd in the Hawthorns Porsche 997. Wayne Gibson was way ahead of the Production pack, the black E92 a  lonely ninth; but, behind, Mick Mercer and Sarah Bennett-Baggs were hauling themselves away from a four car tussle – Peter Cunningham and Bernard Hogarth in their Seats, Mark Ticehurst’s Mazda MX5 GT, and  GT interloper Dan Norris-Jones’ Lotus Exige. It had seemingly been a fraught opening sequence and the RACB officials set their stall out straight away, awarding Cunningham a stop/go penalty for “causing an avoidable accident”.

Millard’s lead was steady, keeping the gap to Morcillo around 16 seconds as they began to lap the Production cars; but then the Rapier got a move on, pulling out about four seconds a lap. Mustill dropped back further and then was the first to pit at 10 laps in, with about 25 minutes, a quarter distance, gone.  Berridge took over, but was back in straight away for a quick 90-second in and out stop. “I’d planned to do just the first half hour, but I got a vibration, so came in. Bob got the same vibration, so came straight back in. It was just pick-up, so we cleaned the tyres up, and he was away,” explained Nigel Mustill, nursing an intermittent toothache.

With Gibson still the lonely Production leader, Mick Mercer was unable to push the Ginetta past the GT Class 3 Ferrari 430 of Paul Bailey, frustratingly allowing Gibson to romp away and letting Sarah Bennett –Baggs ease up behind. Going well now, after starting at the back, was Paul Phipps in his BMW. Having started from the back, he was enjoying a dice with the Class 2-leading Seat of James May, the pair alternating positions each lap. 

The Rapier pitted from the lead on lap 17, exactly on the halfway-mark of 55 minutes, though it was a little earlier than the team had expected, as Mike Millard explained; ”We’d planned to do 60/40 stints, but I’d lost radio contact and thought I saw our team show me the FUEL board from the pit wall, so I came in, but it was actually the team from the next garage”.

Ian Heward took over the Rapier and rejoined in fifth place, with Morcillo’s Mosler once again in the lead. Such is the length of the lap, and such was the spread of the field, that a 90-second pit stop had little effect on position or a quick recovery, so Heward regained the lead five laps later once Morcillo pitted to hand the Azteca Mosler to Manuel Cintrano. 

The Spaniard rejoined in third place, behind the #26 Marcos which had lost little ground when Fiorentino handed over to Henry Fletcher, but just seconds ahead of Craig Wilkins, who had relieved Scott in the Viper and was himself just uncomfortably ahead of the yet-to-stop Neil Huggins in the #36 Topcats Marcos.

The mid-period of the race saw a glut of retirements:  gone by lap 19 was the Panic Racing Lamborghini of relative novice Simon Atkinson, who had put in his usual sturdy performance, and the Lotus Exige of lone driver Dan Norris-Jones expired just a few laps later. The Bailey/Schulz Ferrari 430 had also come to grief, as Andy Schulz explained; “ It was overheating  and spitting fluid on the tyres. I was wrong-footed by Mike (Wilds) - we had a coming together and I sustained quite a bit of damage, ripping off the rear splitter”.

The Mazda MX5 GT of Owen Mildenhall was in the gravel at the bottom end of the circuit, its recovery covered under local yellow flags, but the Production-leading Intersport BMW E92 was the next to fall. Kevin Clarke had only taken over the car a few laps earlier, but, on lap 29, jinked into the pit lane, the differential having failed.

Paul White had tenaciously hauled the Strata 21 Mosler into contention, reaching seventh place, but by now Calum Lockie had returned from an eventful couple of stints at the Nurburgring 24 hours,and was ploughing back through the order; sixth position, with Berridge - who was visibly on the ragged edge of skill and grip - just ahead in the Aquilla.

The Aquilla, in fact, required another fuel stop and rejoined one place down.

The final laps brought a raft of penalties for the Production runners, notably Tim Saunders - who collected a 60-seconds stop/go for a driving infringement in the TH Motorsport Civic - and Robert Day, who had brought the Simmons Printers BMW M3 in for fuel outside of the 15-minute curfew, incurring a two lap penalty. A further drive-through for a driving misdemeanour compounded the Essex adman’s misery, after a solid performance in the car.

Both Lockie and Berridge took Cintrano’s Mosler as the clock ticked down to the finish, but it was an ecstatic Ian Heward that took the flag after 39 laps, the first win for a Britcar “Prototype”.

“I’m overwhelmed,” beamed Heward as he left the podium, “Mick did all the hard work, but left me with not exactly the freshest set of tyres, and on the last few laps I could feel it getting loose. This is a well deserved win for the team after a tough season”.

Topcats team boss Warren Gilbert had a lot more to celebrate than his birthday the day before, after all three of the teams cars won their class. Second overall was the “big green” Class 2 Marcos of Raphael Fiorentino and Henry Fletcher, a great effort from the pair who sadly only race occasionally in these straitened times.

They finished ahead of the Scott/Wilkins Dodge Viper; ”It was hard work – there was very little grip. The car hasn’t seemed to work so well in this heat” said a puzzled Craig Wilkins.

The Class 1 trio of White/Lockie, Berridge/Mustill and Morcillo/Cintrano filled the next three places, ahead of the second instalment of the Topcats story – Neil Huggins and Owen O’Neill in the Class 3 Marcos – though it might have been in jeopardy; “I was just cruising towards the end, then I was told that the Porsche was only seven seconds behind and closing,” said O’Neill. The Porsche was the Hawthorns 997, which had taken two pit stops to enable all three drivers to take the wheel. “Just seven seconds and closing,” repeated Rod Barrett, recalling his final stint in the car after Jay Shepherd and Jan Persson had consolidated the position. “It helped that we had three fresh drivers – Jay did enough to enable us to take the extra stop without losing too much. The new air vent in the roof helped in this heat too”.

It was Topcats again, winning the Production race and the Class 1 honours, with the Ginetta G50 of Mick Mercer and Gary Smith.

“Three class wins in the same race - has any team managed this before?” queried Warren Gilbert, as he claimed his entry in the Tucker Book of Records.  Second in Production were Sarah Bennett-Baggs and Jensen Lunn in the Strata 21 BMW M3. The results are beginning to come now and Sarah was impressive in her opening stint, but they finished just two seconds ahead of the Cunningham’s Seat Supercopa, which had recovered well after the early penalty.

Heading Class 2 was the APO Sport Seat Leon of James May and former Clio racer Alex Osbourne. May’s opening stint had been particularly fiery, and with the pair frequently now punching above their weight, are becoming championship contenders. Newly recruited co-driver Gary Coulson lent some Spa experience to the Motionsport team, sharing Simon Phillips’ Lotus Elise – no obvious punctures, spins or dramas for the team this time, but a solid run to fourth in class. First-lap dramas stymied the invitation-entry Seat of Michel Braxhoofden, though legend Jacky van der Ende brought the Class 1 car home.

Problems hit the TF Motorsport Seat too; Bernard Hogarth had run with the front pack in the opening laps, then an early stop to hand over to son Marcus was followed by a further unplanned pit visit.

Spare a thought for Mike Wilds; the F1 and Le Mans ace is magnanimous and dignified in his handling of the little road-based Mazda MX5, which he unashamedly refers to as “the slowest car in the race”. 

The options for Mike are limited for getting out of trouble when inadvertently placed there, but, though unclassified due to incidents, he finished the race.

Steve Wood