Avon Tyres British GT4 Championship leaders Optimum Motorsport and its driving duo of Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson overcame a tricky weekend at Rockingham to secure a fifth place finish and maintain their position at the top of the standings.
Following a sensational opening weekend at Oulton Park where the intrepid pairing of Johnson and Robinson took a win and a second place in the two 60-minute races, the British drivers hard a tougher challenge on their hands at the 120-minute ‘enduro’ race at the half-banked, half infield Corby circuit, after a sizeable change to the balance of performance of the Ginetta G55 GT4 was deemed necessary by organisers SRO.
Good pace throughout practice from both drivers was converted into a combined 3:02.064 qualifying time, which saw the championship leaders sixth in a class of fifteen GT4s. Graham was third quickest in the ‘AM’ session for less experienced drivers, his 1:31.203 just 0.6s off the class pole, with Mike’s 1:30.861 placing the #50 Professional Motorsport World Expo liveried Ginetta ninth in the PRO class, 1.3s off pole and half a second off the fastest G55 GT4.
It was a frustrating result for the Wakefield-based squad that belied the drivers outright pace, but with a two-hour race the next day, both Johnson and Robinson were confident of overcoming at least some of their rivals over the course of some 70 or more laps of the gruelling 2.05 mile Rockingham circuit.
Sunday brought rain, and lots of it. The wet weather overnight ensured that the morning warm-up session just after nine o’clock would be a full-wet affair, and attention was focused on working out if the heavy rain would clear in time for the race start at 13:25.
After two hours of sunshine and a robust support package of racing, the Rockingham circuit was dry enough for the British GT field to adopt slicks once more. Graham started the race sixth in class, but after initially dropping a place on the opening lap, the 40-year-old from East Horsley was inside the top four and challenging the Aston Martin of Will Moore for third.
A classy move followed and ensured Johnson was in the top three within the first 35 minutes of the race, now in hot pursuit of the Toyota GT86 of Richard Williams. With the pit window fast approaching, Graham built out a cushion over the rival Ginetta of Alexander Schjerpen who was now fourth.
The Optimum car would undertake an additional 15s in the pits than its rivals due to it finishing second in race two at Oulton Park. However, the current race leader, the Aston Martin of Jamie Chadwick and Ross Gunn, had no penalty to be applied, and it was almost certain that they would have a sizeable advantage after the stops were complete.
At the one-hour mark Johnson pitted, he was one of the last cars in the 31-car field to do so. With a swift handover to Robinson complete, the Optimum Ginetta left the pits in second place, albeit with a 42s deficit to Gunn, now in the Beechdean Aston Martin.
Robinson immediately upped the pace, but he had no answer to the speed of the leading Aston Martin Vantage, or the rival Aston Martins that were now quickly coming up the order. Dennis Strandberg, now in the Academy Motorsport Aston that Moore had driven in the first stint, was past James Birch’s Ginetta for third and homing in on Robinson at a rapid rate, with the 18s gap dropping to 12s in just 6 laps.
Try as he might, Robinson could only reduce the 1s a lap closing speed of Strandberg to half a second a lap, and when a Safety Car appeared on track to remove Strandberg’s team-mate James Harrison, the gap was demolished further.
On the restart Strandberg got the better of Robinson, and with the Avon tyres long past their best and an issue with the brakes, there was precious little the 32-year-old from Wimbledon could do to stop himself becoming a target for others in the class. Third became sixth over the coming laps, but Robinson maintained a sharp focus and picked off Jamie Stanley’s Ginetta in the final laps when the Fox Motorsport driver ran a little wide with the passing GT3 traffic.
After two-hours of thrilling wheel-to-wheel racing, the flag fell and Robinson took fifth, 5s off the Tolman Ginetta, with the podium locked out by the trio of Aston Martin teams, Beechdean, Academy and JWB Bird.
A slender 2.5 point lead is all that separates Johnson and Robinson from Beechdean’s Gunn and Chadwick, but the Optimum Motorsport drivers are confident of a better showing in the three-hour endurance race at the home of British Motorsport, Silverstone, in four weeks time on the 30-31 May.
Mike Robinson: “I think we knew we were going to struggle against the Astons after qualifying and seeing their pace there. The circuit suits them I think with a lot of stopping and starting, benefiting the good traction out of the corners that the Aston delivers. I really struggled towards the end of my stint, the tyres were gone and I could barely stop the car on the brakes as well. Graham did a great job bringing the car into the pits in second place, so on reflection I’m disappointed to come home fifth, I think we could’ve done a bit better than that, but the pace the Astons had towards the end was too strong for us today. Hopefully Silverstone will suit the Ginetta better and we can fight for the win there.”
Graham Johnson: “I really enjoyed the first stint as I got to overtake a lot of cars! The car felt really good for the first half of the race so I could push hard to try to catch the leading Aston despite the fact that the BOP was swung heavily in their favour at Rockingham. I don’t think the Ginetta ultimately had the pace of the other British-built cars, but I could lap consistently within half-a second of them during the race so that was very satisfying. The second safety car didn’t help Mike’s cause as he struggled with degraded tyres, so I felt for him as he tried to fend of those Astons. I think without that safety car, we would have taken at least fourth place or possibly even third, but we know what we need to do as a team to ensure we’re quicker next time. We plan to win again at Silverstone.”