DATE ADDED: Monday 9th February 2015
Ben Barker made it two podium appearances in as many visits to the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours, but the British sportscar star was denied the chance to add to his 2014 victory by a late twist of fate.
Returning to the #4 Grove Group Porsche 997 GT3 that he co-drove to a hard-fought Class B success last season, Barker again found himself in the hunt for victory, despite a handful of niggling technical problems, but wasn’t quite able to pull back the deficit after being punted into a gravel trap just minutes from the chequered flag.
The Grove team, which was completed by V8 Supercar regular Luke Youlden and team owner Stephen Grove, looked a strong prospect from the beginning of the weekend, and was only denied a likely Class B pole by a powershift problem that prevented the drivers from using the car’s full potential over each lap of the iconic 6.2km Mount Panorama circuit. Nevertheless, the car’s pace was still good enough for second in its category, setting the trio up for a solid race.
“Without the gearbox problem, I’m certain we would have been able to put the car on pole and be a few places further up the grid,” Barker opined, “It was working well in all other areas and the pace of the three drivers was certainly good enough for us to be best in class, but second place still gave us confidence that we could make up places over the course of 12 hours.”
True to his word, the #4 was on the move from the start, quickly picking up the one spot it needed to move to the head of the class and staying out front as Youlden and Barker set the pace. The Porsche Mobil1 Supercup frontrunner took the second stint and helped retain the lead through to half-distance, before the car fell foul of its first gremlin, with the gearbox again proving inconsistent and costing the Grove car vital performance.
Although initially not a major issue, the glitch gradually got worse and, with Youlden back behind the wheel, eventually left the #4 stuck in fifth gear, forcing an unscheduled pit-stop so that the team could look for a cure. Having opted for the global reset method of turning the car off and on again, the Australian was able to resume, albeit now two laps off the class lead, and, despite reducing the deficit, ran into another problem at the next handover to Barker.
“When I went to refire the car, there was nothing,” the Briton explained, “Fortunately the team traced the issue to a broken wire behind the starter button but, even though they were able to get the dashboard off and the problem fixed in five minutes, Luke’s good work was undone and we lost the lap that he had pulled back.”
Once underway again, Barker was quickly back up to speed, as all three drivers took turns to reduce the margin to the class leader, and the former Australian F3 champion was back behind the wheel for the final hour when the Grove team got word that its quarry was struggling with a brake issue. Able to push on without problem, Barker rapidly ate into the gap and was back on the lead lap when the safety car appeared with 15 minutes remaining.
Although the race briefly went green, another safety car intervention continued to hinder the #4’s progress through a now-bunched field and Barker still had 25 seconds to make up when racing resumed for a final ten minutes. Running with much faster Class A cars, the Briton more than held his own and again started to eat into the deficit before disaster struck in the closing moments.
“I was running comfortably in the pack when one of the faster cars went off the track at the penultimate corner,” he recounted, “I went to the outside in order to avoid any knock-on incidents, but then got tagged by one of the Class A Audis – even though I was already past him at that point – and the unwarranted contact sent me into the gravel trap.”
Despite having to wait before the #4 could be retrieved, Barker was far enough ahead of his rivals to rejoin still in second place, but victory was now out of reach as the clock ticked down.
"There was nothing I could do,” the 23-year old sighed, “I thought I was taking the safest option and then ‘bang’! Once I was in the gravel, all hope of catching the leader disappeared. I’m frustrated, but more disappointed for the team, who fought hard to overcome the little problems that we had and keep us in contention for first place. Without those issues, we would have been well ahead of everyone.
“I was really impressed with Stephen’s pace and consistency, which enabled Luke and myself to retain the momentum right until the end. On a personal note, I was pleased to record the fastest lap for the Grove team during the race, particularly given the ability of my co-drivers, and I felt in a good rhythm all weekend, which bodes well for the rest of the season. Bathurst has long been my favourite circuit and, despite the outcome this weekend, I’ve grown to love it even more….”
After a busy 2014 campaign that saw him racing regularly on both sides of the Atlantic, Barker has yet to confirm his plans for the coming year.