SENSATIONAL BRITISH GT OPENER IN STORE AT OULTON PARK
Written by Tom Hornsby – Spring has finally sprung! And so too has a new season of the Intelligent Money British GT Championship, which kicks off its 31st campaign – as well as the 20th under SRO Motorsports Group’s management – at Oulton Park this weekend (April 8 & 10).
A glance at the capacity 36-strong full-season entry list whets the appetite for what’s to come both this Easter Bank Holiday and throughout 2023. Indeed, eight world-class factory drivers, nine manufacturers and 10 reigning or former champions make this perhaps the most eagerly anticipated season in series history.
Fans unable to attend Oulton can watch Saturday’s qualifying session and both of Monday’s races live on SRO’s GT World YouTube channel, while the latter are also live on Sky Sports F1. But it’s those in attendance trackside who will have the best seats in the house if last year’s season opener is anything to go by…
GT3: THE FASTEST ENTRY IN SERIES HISTORY?
Adam. Bell. Gounon. Gunn. Harper. Kirchhoefer. Marciello. Mitchell. Not since the BTCC’s revered Super Touring era have so many world-class factory drivers contested a domestic UK series. Throw in a raft of proven Pros capable of mixing it with their better-known rivals, as well as an ultra-competitive Am contingent, and you’ve got the makings of a mouth-watering GT3 campaign.
Forget picking a favourite. You can’t. Instead, let’s begin with the reigning champion, Ian Loggie, and Mercedes-AMG ace Jules Gounon who lit up Oulton 12 months ago with pole position, a new lap record, first and second place finishes, and some outrageous overtaking.
The duo switched teams during the winter, moving from RAM to 2 Seas, and are now also rocking an iconic D2 livery made famous by the factory’s ITC, GT1 and DTM programmes. They’ll certainly be amongst the fan favourites this weekend, as well as the primary victory contenders.
Gounon’s Mercedes-AMG counterpart, Raffaele Marciello, is making his British GT debut with RAM alongside John Ferguson. Attention will undoubtedly and understandably focus on the spectacular Swiss who enjoyed a stellar title-laden 2022 season in Europe. However, his co-driver was also one half of the only Silver-Am crew to win a GT3 race outright last term.
Aston Martin also has two factory drivers on the grid, although only one of them – Ross Gunn – is at the wheel of a Vantage AMR GT3. 2015’s GT4 champion hasn’t raced domestically full-time since Beechdean AMR’s aborted 2016 campaign but is back with the same team and co-driver – two-time title winner Andrew Howard – for a proper tilt. The latter hasn’t won a British GT race since 2015, but you wouldn’t bet against that changing on Monday…
Jonny Adam’s winless streak doesn’t stretch back quite that far, although it might be surprising to learn the last of his 16 victories came as long ago as 2019. A 17th on what will be his 100th and 101st British GT starts would be the perfect way to kickstart his and James Cottingham’s season in 2 Seas’ second Mercedes-AMG.
McLaren are the best represented manufacturer this year with nine GT3 entries. And two of them are crewed by works drivers.
What Rob Bell doesn’t know about the 720S ain’t worth knowing. He also helped to develop its predecessors as well as the Evo kit the majority of Woking’s customer teams are using this year. The 2019 championship contender joins GT3 debutant Mark Radcliffe in Optimum’s example.
Meanwhile, Marvin Kirchhoefer teams up with Alex West full-time at Garage 59 after the same combination very nearly won on its only appearance last year at Silverstone. The German will be an unknown quantity to some British GT fans but that doesn’t make him any less rapid. Indeed, he was one of Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe’s standout drivers last season. West’s Am credentials and continental class titles further underline this pairing’s potential.
Kirchhoefer was denied Silverstone victory by last year’s eventual runner-up and 2020 champion Sandy Mitchell. The Scot returns for a fourth season at Barwell but is paired with a new co-driver in the shape of Shaun Balfe who debuted in British GT before his 23-year-old Lamborghini factory co-driver was born! Nevertheless, this crew, the championship’s most successful team and new Huracan GT3 EVO2 appears on paper at least to be one of this season’s fastest and most consistent combinations. What’s more, Balfe took pole for and victory in Oulton’s opening race 12 months ago.
Then there’s newly minted BMW ace Dan Harper who has predominantly raced in Europe since winning 2019’s Porsche Carrera Cup GB title. He joins Century and British GT3’s most recent winner Darren Leung who was victorious at Donington in October despite never previously racing in the senior class. He and Harper first joined forces at the Gulf 12 Hours late last year and have also raced in Europe at the start of this.
It’s easy to get carried away with the factory drivers but this year also represents a golden opportunity for young and experienced Pros, as well as their Am co-drivers, to make a name for themselves against some of the world’s very best.
Sam Neary, Michael O’Brien, Callum Macleod and Marcus Clutton are no strangers to victory lane and will be confident of visiting it again with Abba, Orange/JMH, Greystone GT and Enduro. The latter was also a title contender last year and his co-driver – Morgan Tillbrook – fully expects to mount another assault this season.
Mark Sansom and Will Tregurtha showed flashes of pace in their Bentley last term but will really have a chance to shine with Barwell, which is back up to its preferred two-car quota. It looks most likely to challenge for the teams’ title along with 2 Seas, Greystone GT and debutants RACE LAB.
Meanwhile, Kevin Tse (Sky Tempesta) was a race winner at Oulton in 2021 and will be targeting Silver-Am honours this time alongside Chris Froggatt. That category includes three more entries: Abba’s father-son duo of Richard and Sam Neary, Sansom/Tregurtha, and RACE LAB’s Iain Campbell and James Kell. The latter was class runner-up last season.
GT4: FRESH FACES AND FAMILIAR FOES
While GT3 grabbed the pre-season headlines, GT4 was quietly but effectively going about its business ahead of what looks set to be a wide-open campaign.
That’s partly due to who’s not racing this weekend. Sennan Fielding and Richard Williams scored a rare double victory at Oulton last year to get their title-winning campaign off to the perfect start, while Pro-Am champions and overall runners-up Matt Topham and Darren Turner have also moved on to pastures new.
However, there is no shortage of talent or former champions on this year’s GT4 entry, which also features two all-new cars: the McLaren Artura and BMW M4.
But it’s one of the class’ older models, the Aston Martin Vantage AMR GT4, that features perhaps 2023’s pre-season favourites: Josh Miller and Seb Hopkins. R Racing’s 17-year-olds already have a year of British GT experience under their belts, while Miller and the team – who finished second on debut at Oulton 12 months ago – were also part of GT4’s three-way title decider last October.
Elsewhere, one of Matt Nicoll-Jones (2008), Stuart Middleton (2017) and Dan Vaughan (2020) could become the first driver in British GT4 history to win the title twice. Academy’s owner/driver won the class in its very first season, while Raceway’s Middleton remains one half of the youngest crew to ever lift the title. Incredibly, Vaughan hasn’t raced at all since sealing the crown in dramatic fashion at Silverstone three years ago.
His Team Parker co-driver Zac Meakin will, at 16 years and 114 days, be the youngest driver to line up on Monday. Taking a victory or setting fastest lap would see him break two long-standing records currently held by Sandy Mitchell.
Just like GT3, McLaren enjoys a numerical advantage in GT4 thanks to five new Arturas and another older 570S.
Championship debutants DTO have assembled a particularly potent combination featuring the last two Ginetta Junior champions, Josh Rowledge and Aston Millar. The latter also finished third in Ginetta SuperCup last season and was recently added to McLaren’s Academy Driver roster.
Another Artura entrant, Enduro, makes its British GT4 debut this weekend after expanding from GT3 over the winter. And its eye catching Only Fans livery, seen on the 720S last season, has followed suit by switching classes.
Optimum, Paddock and RACE LAB also have a foot in both the GT3 and GT4 camps, but it’s the latter’s entry that could be a cut above the rest if its mobile hairdressers – overseen by mental health charity The Lions Barber Collective – is anything to go by! The Collective’s group of passionate barbers, who are trained to recognise, ask and listen for signs of depression with their clients, will be offering free haircuts to men and women this season. Look out for them in the paddock.
The 570S uniquely homologated with hand controls is also back courtesy of Team BRIT’s Aaron Morgan and Bobby Trundley who will be hoping to improve upon their Pro-Am runners-up spot from 2022. However, they’ll face stiff opposition from a raft of new and returning crews also eyeing class honours.
One of them – Ed McDermott and Mikey Broadhurst – have, like 2 Seas, opted for a famous DTM livery from back in the day. Their One Motorsport Mercedes-AMG features the gold and dark green combination made famous by Zakspeed’s 190E 2.5-16 Evo2 that raced in 1992.
Neither of Century’s two new BMWs features a livery inspired by Bavaria’s motorsport back catalogue (alas, Ainsley Harriott never sponsored a Schnitzer M3). However, the team has opted for two promising Pro-Am line-ups in the form of Michael Johnston/Chris Salkeld and Carl Cavers/Lewis Plato. The latter last raced in British GT some eight years ago.
Michael Crees and Tom Holland will also be amongst the class front runners aboard the second of Raceway’s two Ginettas, and Toro Verde’s Ian Duggan and James Townsend share this year’s only Am/Am entry.
Their team-mates, Joe Wheeler and former DTM racer Esmee Hawkey, are one of 10 Silver crews entered this season. Drivetac’s James Wallis and Sam Maher-Loughnan are another, while the second Academy Mustang shared by Erik Evans and multiple British GT4 race winner Matt Cowley could – and should – be one of this weekend’s primary victory candidates.