Greatworth, Banbury 14th July 2014 – The fifth round of the 2014 Avon Tyres British GT Championship afforded Triple Eight Race Engineering little cause for joy, despite having the pace to compete for overall honours with both cars. However, a fifth place finish in the second of the two 60-minute sprint races on Saturday did ensure the trip across the Channel wasn’t entirely in vain, salvaging yet more points for the #88 car.
Qualifying took place on Friday in unusually high humidity at the 4.352 mile Ardennes track. Lee Mowle qualified tenth (2:27.069) in the first session, giving the #88 BMW Z4 GT3 he shares with Joe Osborne its third top-ten start in four attempts. Derek Johnston, suffering with a potent bout of flu all weekend, put in a sterling performance to qualify eighteenth (2:28.637). This was despite the #888 Z4 GT3 suffering handling issues caused by contact with the rubber bollards that line the circuit. Both drivers would’ve improved but for a red flag with three minutes left on the clock.
Ten minutes later the ‘Pro’ session began and it was Joe’s first hot lap, a 2:22.980, which secured him seventh on the grid; the Avon tyres yielding just one strong lap in qualifying at the fast and undulating Belgian track. In the sister car, Luke Hines qualified 22nd overall (2:26.143), but was confident of better race pace allowing he and Derek to rise up the field.
Saturday morning delivered traditional Spa weather; a low lying thick mist that refused to budge, and fluctuating levels of precipitation that would present an issue for drivers before the first event. Organisers declared it a wet race, but up and down the pitlane opinion was divided on whether it would continue to rain or dry out; Lee opted for wets, and Derek for slicks.
It was however a decision that Lee would rue as early as Eau Rouge on the formation lap, the Wimbledon-based racer realising the circuit was drying at a rapid rate. However, with dark clouds continuing to surround the Ardennes, more rain wasn’t to be ruled out entirely.
After two laps behind the Safety Car due to the race conditions being different to those that the drivers qualified in, the field, now jumbled up due to drivers pitting before heading to the grid, the race began and the La Source hairpin became the scene of much action. Both #88 and #888 escaped without issue, and Lee rose to fifth (+5), Derek eighth (+10).
However, five laps later things would take a turn for the worst for #88. With the wet tyres overheating, Lee began to drop back through the order at a rapid rate, allowing Derek up to fifth behind Colin White’s Ginetta. Derek tried every legitimate move to pass White, but the bullish Ginetta man refused to allow the BMW past, and invited contact on more than one occasion. Having received a gargantuan penalty for contact at the previous meeting, Derek kept it clean, and unfortunately span while avoiding the sluggish Ginetta, dropping to eighth in the process.
The pit window opened after 25 minutes and Joe took over the #88 car from the foot of the GT3 order, bolting on a pair of fresh Avon slicks in the process. The BRDC SuperStar began making inroads on those ahead, and set the fastest second sector of anyone before posting a mighty 2:23.896 lap, that would only be narrowly beaten by the BMW factory driver in the field.
Luke took over #888 in tenth, but failed to make inroads into the pack, unhappy with the balance of the Z4 that his team-mate had just rallied to fifth. Before the end of the race Luke, despite some ballsy defending, would relinquish tenth and drop to fourteenth, just ahead of Joe who had risen to eighteenth before the flag.
Race two took place in dry conditions, but much cooler than the day before. Joe had a blistering start and was up to fourth into infamous first corner La Source, before being bumped and bored down to sixth on exit, the PGF Kinfaun-AMR again dishing out rough love to our #88 BMW. Going into Les Combes, Joe kept his nerve and overcame Jonny Adam, before a masterful set of overtakes on Phil Keen’s Porsche and Gaw’s Aston.
No sooner had the race begun and it was under Safety Car, a huge tyre failure for Tom Sharp at Eau Rouge the cause. The on-board from #88 makes for scary viewing, as Joe was behind the Ginetta as the tyre smoked, then let go, catapulting the G55 into the waiting tyre wall.
At the restart Joe was fourth, but quickly became a sitting duck as the BMW’s lack of straight-line power saw Ferrari factory-driver Toni Vilander pick him off on the Kemmel Straight. The pit window opened shortly after the restart and Luke handed over #888 to Derek from 20th place. While trying to make up ground on his out lap, Derek went off at Rivage, hitting the unforgiving barrier square-on; the cause is yet to be identified. The accident wrecked the front-end of the #888 and debris littered the track, requiring yet another Safety Car.
With Derek safely out of #888 and the debris cleared, there were just seven minutes left on the clock. Lee was currently third and looked set for a second podium in four races, when he was jumped by the Ferrari of Gary Eastwood into the Bus Stop Chicane. This caused the BMW to lose momentum and Lee also fell victim to the Porsche of Jody Firth, leaving #88 fifth at the flag.
In the Driver’s Standings Joe and Lee move up two places courtesy of the ten points bagged in the second race, with Luke and Derek holding station in ninth. In the Team’s Standings, Triple Eight drop down a place to fifth.
The series now has a seven-week summer break before re-grouping for the penultimate round of the year at Brands Hatch in Kent. The historic GP circuit yielded a pole-position and two top-ten finishes last year for Triple Eight, with the Greatworth squad looking for a similar performance this year on August 30th and 31st.
Joe Osborne, driver #88
“I got a great start and found myself level with row two, and I thought to myself that this was going to be a good race. Into turn one it was chaos, I was getting hit left, right and centre. I managed to get a good run into Eau Rouge and started to pick off a few of the guys ahead of me, but the car was understeering badly. It was only when I got out of the car that I realised how much damage we had from the first lap, and it explains why we struggled to make any impact after the restart. Lee put in a good stint, and it’s a shame to lose a podium on the final corner.”
Lee Mowle, driver #88
“I saw Eastwood coming on the last lap, but out of Blanchimont he looked far enough back and I thought to myself, he’s not going to have a lunge from there, but he did and I have to put that one down to experience. It’s a shame as a podium would’ve been a great way to end the weekend after the first race we had.”
Luke Hines, driver #888
“I didn’t have the confidence in the car I needed this weekend. At Spa you need to be able to attack and that requires the confidence to do so. It’s frustrating as the car had good pace, but I was wrestling it into the corners and it took everything I had to keep it on track. It’s frustrating, but sometimes you have weekends like this in racing. We’ll do better next time out, on to Brands Hatch.”
Derek Johnston, driver #888
“Initially I thought I’d made an error, but after looking at the on-board it isn’t the case. I’m not on the kerb, let alone the astroturf; it looks like I’ve actually hit a patch of oil or something, but the guys are going over the data to see if there was a fault with the car. It didn’t behave right in Les Combes even though I was in the correct gear and I had the traction control on the right setting too. It’s a shame not to finish, but these things happen when you go racing.”