Wakefield’s Optimum Motorsport took its second consecutive 24H Series victory of the 2015 race season last weekend, with Ade Barwick, Bradley Ellis and Flick Haigh snatching an impressive SP3 class win at the gruelling 12 Hours of Mugello event in Italy.
Essentially running trouble-free across both days of the event, Optimum Motorsports’ Ginetta G55 GT4 overcame a number of strong contenders in the SP3 class for GT4 specification race cars, to win by over two laps at a circuit the team had never raced at previously.
Set deep in the rolling Tuscan hillside, the 3.259-mile Mugello circuit played host to a thrilling endurance race, with over 70 cars across multiple classes taking the start. Following on from a dominant victory in the first event of the 24H Series, the Dubai 24 Hours in January, expectations were high in the Optimum garage for a repeat performance in Italy.
A stunning 1:58.538 lap from Ellis on Saturday morning saw Optimum take second place on the SP3 class grid, and the first four hours of the race began in a civilised fashion with Ellis taking the class lead before the end of the first lap and keeping the car firmly in contention for the win.
Optimum was the first of the class leaders to blink and make a pit stop, and 27-year-old Ellis pitted from an amazing eleventh overall before the masses decided to follow suit. Former Optimum racer, Haigh took over in 34th place overall (7th in class) and proceeded to settle into her stint, moving into the top 30 overall (2nd in class) after just an hour.
During the opening laps of Haigh’s first stint a Code-60 caution period provided an opportunity for the rival Cor Euser Racing Lotus Evora to make a fuel and driver stop, all while Optimum’s Ginetta and the rest of the field were held at 60km/h on-track. This enabled the Lotus to get the jump on our Ginetta, and over the course of the fourth hour with Barwick in the car, our G55 gave chase but was unable to claw back the lost time, instead keeping the Lotus crew honest until the flag fell on the first part of the race at 18:00 CET on Friday night.
With less cars than the Friday start, the Saturday morning restart was less busy, but just as hectic as the first. With Ellis again behind the wheel, slowly but surely the Optimum Ginetta reeled in the Lotus Evora’s one and a half lap lead. Ellis was on blistering form and over the course of 30 laps delivered over half of them in the sub 2:01 time bracket - faster than any other SP3 class entrant on-track.
When Euser pitted on lap 125, Ellis seized the moment and utilising the fact the Ginetta was getting lighter and due to refuel soon, again posted a number of quick laps to maximise the advantage over the Lotus team. Seven laps later and with the Lotus’ lead decimated, the former British GT Champion handed over to rising GT star, Haigh, who was to deliver a knockout blow to the Lotus crew.
Despite pitting a lap before the first Code-60 of the day, Optimum got Haigh out quickly and she returned to track in second place in class now almost a lap behind the Lotus. At the halfway mark of the race, the 30-year-old had narrowed the gap to just eleven seconds and she was gaining every lap; her best time a cool 2:00.925 - eight tenths off Ellis’ best the day before. Some four laps later the Caterham ace would lead the class, creating a fourteen second buffer before pitting to hand over to Barwick.
A little over four laps after Barwick took over from Haigh, yet another Code-60 caution period arose, and this played straight into the hands of the Dutch Lotus team, who just so happened to need to pit. Once more the tables turned and it was advantage Cor Euser Racing.
When racing resumed from the caution, gentleman racer, Barwick, had his work cut out against former International GT star Euser. Over the course of the next 33 laps, Gloucestershire-born Barwick delivered a string of 2:06s and 2:07s with a car that was heavy and laden with fuel. As the load reduced over the course of his stint, Barwick delved into the 2:04s, with a 2:04.416 proving to be his quickest lap behind the wheel at the Italian track.
A slick changeover between the two regular team-mates ensured Ellis returned to the track with minimal time lost and four hours left on the clock. Ellis was making his own destiny, easily outpacing Euser at a tune of 2-3s per lap, reducing the gap once more.
However, the tables were turned yet again on lap 218 when TV cameras panned to the Lotus stricken in the gravel at the back of the circuit, with just over three and a half hours left on the clock.
The two-lap lead that the Lotus had built up over the previous eight hours was quickly eradicated and Ellis set the timing screen alight with a series of 2:00 and 2:01 lap times. By this point the Italian Nova Race team had joined the Lotus in challenging for class honours; its pair of Ginetta G50s in hot pursuit, but the lead Optimum had over its rivals was now some two laps large.
A quick refuel for Ellis on lap 235 and another 26 laps with ‘Dr. Drift’ behind the wheel further strengthened Optimum’s position at the head of the SP3 class. Haigh took over and once again proved to be a class act, outperforming her peers after returning to the race in twentieth place in a car that now had a vibration at the front and a niggling rear hub issue.
Barwick took over after Haigh’s 32-lap stint and resumed the race in fifteenth overall, first in class. All Barwick had to do was get the Ginetta home safely and the three lap cushion built up by his team-mates enabled him to do just that. It was by no means a gentle ride home and the British GT4 racer regularly delved into the 2:06s on his final tours of the picturesque track, before easing off and taking his second win with Optimum Motorsport in the FIA supported 2015 24H Series, leading home the #206 Nova Race Ginetta G50 and the #170 Speedworks Aston Martin Vantage.
The Yorkshire squad now has a healthy lead over its British rivals, Speedworks, in the SP3 class and a decision will be made in the coming weeks as to whether Optimum will return to contest the third round of the season at the famous Dutch sea-side circuit, Zandvoort (29-30 May 2015).