Optimum Motorsports’ 2015 GT4 winning streak extended into the Avon Tyres British GT Championship on Easter Monday at Oulton Park, as drivers Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson took a sublime, if unexpected race one victory, before following it up a handful of hours later with second place in race two.
Following a good amount of pre-season testing, drivers Johnson and Robinson were confident heading into the opening round of the British GT Championship at the picturesque Cheshire track. However, things didn’t run to plan during qualifying and both drivers of the Professional Motorsport World Expo-liveried Ginetta G55 GT4 struggled with traffic, losing valuable track time.
With a field of 15 GT4 cars entered for the two 60-minute sprint races, competition was high and in the first session Graham qualified sixth in class with a 1:46.338, 2.1s off the pace of Oz Yusuf in the ISSY Racing Lotus Evora GT4. Mike didn’t fair any better in the ‘Pro’ session, posting a 1:44.243 lap of the Oulton International circuit, resulting in a seventh place grid slot.
Experienced racer Johnson produced a faultless display in the first half of race one on Easter Monday. Rising up to fourth in class by the end of the first lap, the 39 year-old pursued the Aston Martin of Jamie Chadwick for the entirety of his stint, not letting the Beechdean AMR Vantage leave his sights.
A lengthy safety car period beginning on lap thirteen tightened up the ranks and caused confusion for some teams, because it appeared just as the teams were preparing for their mandatory pit stops. This wasn’t an issue for Optimum who were British GT4 champions in 2013 and well-versed in endurance racing strategy.
When Johnson pitted on lap 14, so did Chadwick, and the Optimum team of mechanics completed a slick changeover to get Robinson in the car and out ahead of Chadwick’s team-mate Ross Gunn in the Aston Martin. This gifted Robinson third place in GT4, and more good fortune would soon come his way, when it appeared that the race-leading Lotus of Yusuf and Gavan Kershaw had lost out in the safety car period, and were now a lap down.
Now second on the road behind Alexander Schjerpen’s Ginetta, Mike was reeling in the Century car at a rapid rate and a challenge for the lead looked likely. However, with lady luck shining on the Optimum G55, Schjerpen had to serve a drive through penalty for not serving the minimum time in the pits. This handed the class lead to Robinson and he wasted little time in building a lead that was soon unassailable.
At the flag it was Gunn who took second, 4.6s off the Optimum drivers, and Mike Hart a further 5s back in the Quantamatic Racing Aston Martin in third.
“I think before qualifying we thought we might get a win, but neither Mike or I had a great session and we were where we were,” said Johnson post-race. “We’ve both been racing a long time and that experience showed today. We had good pace, and although I didn’t know we’d get a win, we looked strong when I pitted and it looked promising for a podium. I think when we saw we jumped a place in the pit stops; we knew then that Mike could win because he was quicker than the guy in front. As it happened, he got a penalty, which made it even easier, but I think we would’ve done it anyway.”
Robinson added, “Graham did a fantastic first stint and did a lot of the hard work for me, then Optimum did such a great stop for us. I looked in the mirror as I left the pit and saw we’d just got the jump on the Beechdean Aston; I knew they’d done a fantastic job and I couldn’t let them down with any mistakes. Thankfully the car was good, it felt nice and consistent and I got my head down and built up a lead.”
Taking place at the end of the afternoon, race two promised to be a serene affair with the ‘Pro’ drivers starting the race. Starting seventh, in the middle of the GT4 pack, Robinson had it all to do and moved up to sixth on the opening tour of the 2.69 mile circuit. While pole-sitter Luke Davenport led the way, changes occurred behind him with Kershaw’s Lotus passing Ellis’ Ginetta for second.
Keeping the gap to Gunn’s Aston at just 0.2-0.5s throughout, Robinson got his man at Old Hall on lap 14. He then made light work of Jamie Stanley for fourth, before pitting on lap 18 to handover to Johnson.
Unlike race one, Optimum marginally lost out to the rival Beechdean AMR in the pits and Johnson exited the pits in seventh. This was through no fault of Optimum, rather it was due to the 15s success penalty for winning race one. Once back on track, Chadwick (in for Gunn) was 1.1s up the road, with Will Moore in the Academy Motorsport Aston just 2.6s ahead.
A succession of overtakes including that of Moore and David Pattison (in for Davenport) in fifteen minutes meant Johnson was now fourth behind Paul McNeilly (in for Stanley) going into the last lap. Chadwick was second, with Yusuf’s Lotus way out in front.
Going into the final lap it looked like Optimum would have to settle for fourth. However, on the last corner of the very last lap, Johnson through an explorative move on McNeilly and got through at Lodge corner, holding off his fellow-Ginetta driver up Deer Leap and snatching the last podium spot before the flag.
Post-race the Beechdean AMR car of Chadwick/Gunn was adjudged to have caused an accident with a fellow GT4 car and the pair were excluded from the race, meaning Johnson and Robinson finished second in class.
The successful duo is now ten points clear in the GT4 driver’s championship, with seven races remaining. Similarly, Professional Motorsport World Expo/Optimum Motorsport are ten points clear of ISSY Racing in the team’s championship too.
“The car had a slight issue, a vibration, but there’s nothing like seeing a podium in your grasp to make you concentrate,” quipped Johnson post-race. “I had Shaun (Goff – Team Principal) on the radio telling me to push hard and giving me the information I needed, so it was just a case of keeping my head down and pushing, pushing, pushing. The move at the last corner was a classic – I pinched him on the inside and ran him wide, we touched a little, but it was very fair.
“We said we wanted to do this and win races, and it’d be a dream to win the championship. We’re here to win, we’re working hard and we’re good mates, which gives us good communication and means we work well together. If we don’t win the championship, hopefully we’ll have some fun on the way!”
Optimum’s Team Principal, Shaun Goff was pleased with the opening weekend performances of Johnson and Robinson: “Qualifying didn’t quite go to plan. Starting sixth and seventh, I’d have settled for being in with a shout of the championship lead after two races, so to come away with the lead bodes well for the rest of the season. We knuckled down over the weekend and were confident we had a race pace that could deliver a good result. A race win and a second place in race two is a great performance.
“We’ve had a good testing programme this year and that’s given us a good platform to work from. Even after qualifying we knew we had the ability to run at the front, so it was just a case of making a few tweaks and keeping our heads up.”
Next up is the two-hour endurance race at Corby’s Rockingham Motor Speedway (2-3 May). The unusual circuit, which comprises a significant amount of pitched banking from the oval track and a testing infield course, will provide a whole new challenge for the majority of GT4 contenders, with longer stints and tyre wear on the abrasive circuit always a factor.