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Why the new British GT season is too tough to call

“It’s going to be tough,” states Jonny Adam. “With 19 cars in GT3, good line-ups, the quality I think has gone up another level from last year. And there’s good returning teams that know their baseline of where they should be.”

With Darren Leung, one half of Century Motorsport’s 2023 victorious pairing, switching to the international scene, the path is open for a new combination to seize the initiative in the British GT Championship, which kicks off this weekend at Oulton Park. But, as four-time champion Adam attests, any would-be title-winner needs to see off a stacked field that has no shortage of serious contenders – including six previous champions.

After racing a Mercedes last year, Adam is back in an Aston Martin, run by series newcomer Blackthorn, alongside Giacomo Petrobelli. The heavily upgraded Vantage he was integral in developing is, Adam reckons, “for the Ams a lot easier to drive, very good on consistency”. That will help GT4 graduates Josh Rowledge and Matt Topham acclimatise to GT3 in Blackthorn’s second car, entered in Silver-Am.

“Ultimately, under the skin of it, it drives like a new car,” explains Adam, who points out that he won on his first outings with TF Sport (2016) and Optimum (2018). “Hopefully from the Ams’ side, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to get closer to the lap time of the Pros.”

Andrew Howard won both of his titles alongside Adam in 2013 and 2015, and is back for another crack with his Beechdean AMR team alongside GT3 rookie Jessica Hawkins. “This is my fourth year with them, so I think it’s about time I actually got to race one!” Aston Martin brand ambassador Hawkins quipped at media day. “I’ve got so much to learn, I’m very aware of that, but I think once I’ve learned my trade we’re going to be very competitive.”

Howard reckons his 2023 was “probably the best Am side of racing that we’ve had for quite a few years”, but stresses he’s not putting too much pressure on his new co-driver, whose busy schedule attending grands prix will limit opportunities to test. “I’ve always said it takes two or three years to win a championship,” he says. “Do we expect to win? No. Do we think we have the ability to win? Of course we do.”

Beechdean newcomer Hawkins has found mileage opportunities limited aboard Aston's Evo model due to busy ambassadorial schedule with F1 team (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

Remaining in the 2 Seas Mercedes team, Ian Loggie is hoping to recapture a title he won in 2022 and is alongside Phil Keen, making a welcome return to the series after a one-off outing with Loggie at Portimao last season. An eleventh-hour deal for Leung’s 2023 team-mate Dan Harper to defend his title aboard a Century-run BMW M4 alongside Michael Johnston, the Northern Irishman stepping in for GT4 Pro-Am champion Chris Salkeld, means Nathan Freke’s squad can also be expected to shine.

And at Barwell Motorsport there are two champions in the fold, with 2020 winners Sandy Mitchell and Rob Collard on either side of the garage, veteran Collard back for the first time since he partnered the now Lamborghini factory ace as an all-Silver pairing. Mitchell has his third different co-driver in as many years after race-winning campaigns with Adam Balon and Shaun Balfe, but team boss Mark Lemmer is quietly confident that ex-British Touring Car racer Alex Martin will prove a hit.

“We’ve done our research on Alex, and I don’t see any reason why he’s not going to be competitive from the word go,” he says. “Anything that he needs to learn, he’ll learn pretty quickly from Sandy.”

One team boss predicted that this could be the first year that a Silver-Am pairing could contend for the overall championship

A rule change that prohibited Silver-Silver combinations prompted Collard to focus on Europe in recent years, but he’s back following his reclassification as a Bronze alongside son Ricky, who moves across from the BTCC. Collard Sr joked “maybe not fashion or hairstyle advice” when asked at the media day if he would be happy to take tips from the mulleted Ricky, with whom he won the Pro-Am category at the 2020 Spa 24 Hours. But Lemmer expects that the Collards will “be a benchmark pairing”.

“As a father it’s a great thing to race with your son,” says Collard, who is keeping cautious on the prospect of becoming the first father-son pair to win the title since Jim and Glynn Geddie in 2011. “He’s pretty fast – we perhaps wouldn’t be doing it if he was slow!”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that one team boss predicted that this could be the first year that a Silver-Am pairing could contend for the overall championship.

Rob Collard is back in British GT for the first time since he won the 2020 title alongside son Ricky (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

New faces in unfamiliar places

Hawkins isn’t the only driver for whom pitstops will be new. Reigning Porsche Carrera Cup GB champion Adam Smalley has joined Garage 59 alongside 2019 title contender Shaun Balfe, who is back aboard a McLaren 720S after a year with Lamborghini. Unused to racing for longer than 30 minutes, Smalley recognises that British GT will be a “step up” as he benchmarks himself against factory guns.

“GT racing is the place to be for young drivers like me at the moment,” the 23-year-old reckons. And naturally, he’s not limiting his ambition to Silver-Am success. “The dream is to win the title,” adds Smalley. “I’m also realistic. But I’ve got a wealth of experience around me so I’m going to be maximising that, giving it my best shot and seeing where we end up.”

As the 2021 DTM champion, factory Mercedes racer Maximilian Gotz has rather more GT3 experience than Smalley, but the British GT rookie will defer to 2 Seas co-driver Kevin Tse on circuit knowledge – he has never previously visited Oulton Park or Snetterton. Gotz, the 2013 Spa 24 Hours winner and 2014 Blancpain Sprint Cup champion, is eagerly anticipating his first season of racing in Britain alongside Macanese Tse, a winner on his series debut at Oulton in 2021.

“It’s great to be here and to see new faces,” smiles Gotz, happy to be already asked to sign autographs by knowledgeable British fans. And the German, who raced with the Bahraini-flagged team in last year’s Gulf 12 Hours and knows many of the squad’s staff from his time at Strakka in 2018, has another ace up his sleeve. Works colleague Jules Gounon, who partnered Loggie for the past two years, has pledged his support in the form of onboard videos: “I need to come up with speed quickly and he will help me.”

Other contenders

Dark horses are in plentiful supply too. Certainly, any line-up featuring Raffaele Marciello can’t be discounted. John Ferguson’s RAM Racing team switches from Mercedes to BMW and has retained the services of its star driver, who will combine his World Endurance Championship commitments in the factory Hypercar team with hustling alongside Ferguson.

Marciello says “we have everything, all the help we needed” from the Bavarian manufacturer as it gets up to speed with the M4 GT3 and adds: “The team last year was their first year of John running it, so now it’s all settled and for sure it will be better” than a 2023 campaign that yielded one win at Snetterton.

Gotz will look to apply DTM and Blancpain title-winning expertise to British GT as he joins Tse at 2 Seas (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

Marcus Clutton and Morgan Tillbrook were race winners in 2021 and 2022 with their own Enduro Motorsport squad, which was shuttered over the winter. Now at Garage 59, Clutton’s list of responsibilities has diminished considerably, while he also has access to data from a second car, a luxury not present at his own operation, where he also had to worry about hotel bookings, staff, and managing clients racing in GT4 on top of supporting Tillbrook.

“Our pre-event prep can be a lot cleaner, there’s certainly a lot less stress going on,” he admits. “The amount of data they collect – they’re already a step ahead and they always were last year. I’m hoping that can carry through into our results.”

Fellow McLaren racer Mark Radcliffe has taken in the full Asian Le Mans Series with Optimum, scoring two podiums, and won his class in the Gulf 12 Hours to prepare for his second season of British GT, now paired with factory ace Tom Gamble. Team boss Shaun Goff, whose equipe snared the 2018 crown with Adam and Flick Haigh, feels that both Radcliffe and Optimum are much better prepared for what is the second year of the 720S’s Evo package.

Gotz knows well that “in the end it’s not necessary to win every race – it’s never happened”, and that consistent points-scoring will be key. But that’s not lost on anybody else either

“That limited our testing because without having the Evo package, which was delivered in March, we couldn’t really do anything,” Goff asserts. “Now having understood the Evo package, we’ve been able to work with the drivers and look forward to hitting Oulton Park with a fully prepared team.”

And so to a double-header round that Howard labels “a total lottery”. “Winning championships – especially British GT – isn’t about being the fastest at Oulton,” he says. “It’s about being consistent and accumulating points.”

Gotz knows well that “in the end it’s not necessary to win every race – it’s never happened”, and that consistent points-scoring will be key. But that’s not lost on anybody else either. With so many car crews scrambling to start the season on the front foot, it will make for unmissable viewing.

Tight and twisty Oulton will pose significant challenges to teams as they navigate traffic (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

GT4: Artura versus Mustang round two?

The McLaren Artura was immediately competitive on its arrival in British GT last season. Optimum Motorsport pair Jack Brown and Charles Clark had a mathematical chance of clinching the GT4 title with two races to spare, only for luck to desert them across the final three races, while a purple patch for Academy Motorsport drivers Erik Evans and Matt Cowley snatched away the crown on the swansong for the outgoing version of the Ford Mustang.

While Clark pursues GT3 opportunities, Brown will seek to make amends with Optimum after his Silver title consolation prize. He’s joined by 17-year-old Zac Meakin, who impressed team boss Shaun Goff in testing after racing a Team Parker-run Artura last year and contesting the GT4 Winter Series in Elite Motorsport’s example.

“The overall championship is what we were there to do [in 2023], so we’re hoping to put that right this year,” states Goff. “We’ve got the same core team working on the car and we’ve refined some of the niggly issues which eluded us last year.”

Evans will bid for a second successive title with Academy’s new Mustang alongside Marco Signoretti, while Cowley will do likewise aboard a Paddock Motorsport Mercedes shared with Ed McDermott, entered in Pro-Am. That deal came together “quite late in the off-season” for Paddock boss Martin Plowman, whose team will also run an Artura for Alex Walker and Blake Angliss and the McLaren 720S GT3 he shares with Mark Smith.

Running three different models of car presents a few headaches for Plowman, who has hired staff from the disbanded Enduro Motorsport team and reshuffled his GT4 deck, with respected engineer Simon Pollock now overseeing the Artura.

“It’s been flat-out for the last four weeks getting the Merc programme sorted,” reveals Plowman, who has full confidence in Cowley. “There’s no doubts that he’s going to do a great job and that just diverts pressure away from the team. If we can give him and Ed a car to win, then I’m sure they’ll get the job done.”

Academy boss Matt Nicoll-Jones, who will share a second Mustang with Will Moore, says the new Mustang is the culmination of “a lot of small changes in the right direction” that amounts to “quite a big change overall”. He reckons it has “a lot more scope for adjustment”, and praises the ergonomic improvements that make it “a lot more comfortable” for drivers. While admitting “we’ve got a long way to go with it yet”, he hopes that entering the same line-ups in the GT4 European series will accelerate the learning curve.

“We’ve probably got the strongest pairings we’ve ever had,” Nicoll-Jones adds. “I would hope that we should be there or thereabouts.”

With GT Winter champions Jamie Day and Mikey Porter seeking to continue their momentum in a Forsetti Motorsport Aston Martin, 2017 GT3 champion Seb Morris reuniting with the Team Parker squad to race a Mercedes alongside GT Cup graduate Charles Dawson, and 2020 GT4 champion Dan Vaughan looking to rediscover winning ways in Speedworks’ Toyota Supra, there is no shortage of viable contenders among the 17-car field.

Evans is seeking to become first driver to defend a GT4 title with revamped Mustang (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)
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