Monday 19th September 2016
Fast laps, time spent leading the field and the satisfaction of again proving his potential were the rewards Ben Barker took from what he considered ‘probably the most challenging test’ of his sportscar racing career at the Circuit of the Americas.
In Texas for round six of the FIA World Endurance Championship with Gulf Racing, the Briton was handed an additional opportunity to race at one of his favourite circuits when he was invited to join the TRG-AMR team for the supporting IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event. As a result, Barker would spend the weekend jumping between two different cars at one of the most technical circuits on the schedule, in some of the harshest conditions of the season...
TRG-AMR was forced into a last-minute change to its driver line-up for the Lone Star Le Mans weekend, but team owner Kevin Buckler and lead driver David Calvert-Jones had little hesitation in recruiting 25-year old Cambridge native Barker to share duties behind the wheel of the #007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3 in the penultimate round of the US-based series. Having focused on the Porsche Mobil1 Supercup and WEC in the past few seasons, the opportunity marked Barker’s first IMSA appearance since he took in selected events with GB Autosport in 2014 – and his first sportscar outing in anything other than a Porsche.
“David asked and I said ‘yes’,” Barker smiled, “It was a great opportunity to drive something different after focusing on Porsches for the past few years, and extra track time at the Circuit of the Americas is something no driver should turn down!”
With two drivers new to the line-up, Calvert-Jones qualified in twelfth place in the GT Daytona class, as the team discovered that its decision not to run new tyres in practice left it struggling for grip when the clocks were running. Happier with the set-up for raceday, both Calvert-Jones and Barker were able to make progress through the field, with the Briton - running new tyres on the car for the first time - taking the blue Aston Martin briefly into the class lead as the various strategies worked out during his hour-and-50-minutes at the wheel. At the chequered flag, the duo had gained a net six places to finish in sixth position, with Barker being credited with the second-fastest lap of the race as he grew more and more comfortable at the wheel of the #007.
“IMSA’s Continental tyre has a big peak and drop-off and it felt like we were driving on ice in qualifying, but things were much better for the race,” the Briton confirmed, “Given that, and not knowing what speed we would have for the race, I was surprised to lead for a couple of laps, grab sixth at the end and get credited with the second fastest time in possibly the hottest conditions I have ever had for a race.”
Barker had only two hours to recover from his IMSA exertions before the WEC main event got underway, with his regular Gulf Racing ride lining up fourth in the GTE-Am class field. Qualifying had gone well for the Briton - who again got the nod to partner owner-driver Mike Wainwright in the timed session despite jumping out of the TRG Aston Martin into the iconically-liveried #86 Porsche 911 RSR – and his third-fastest time, less than a tenth off the fastest in class, aggregated out to fourth on the grid when Wainwright’s efforts were taken into account.
As he had in the previous round in Mexico City, Barker made a great getaway in Saturday evening’s race, taking the Gulf Porsche into second position around the outside of the first corner. Despite running on old tyres, he then held on to Porsche works driver Kevin Estre – who benefited from fresh rubber - as they ran at the head of the GTE-Am pack. Although both cars subsequently lost ground to one of the factory Aston Martins, Barker maintained his pace, eventually passing Estre to return to second in class before the first round of driver changes.
Team-mate Adam Carroll continued to hold position and the Gulf team again appeared on course for a possible podium before Lady Luck intervened, with heat soak to the brakes at Carroll’s handover to Wainwright leaving the owner-driver with no retardation heading into turn one. Two laps were lost while the #86 was extricated from the gravel, but Barker was able to help the team recover to fourth in class – despite suffering a puncture on the last lap – after six hours of racing into the night.
“I was happy with our performance in qualifying, even though my lap was probably good enough for provisional pole before I made a small mistake at the penultimate corner,” Barker noted, “I then got a great start to move to P2 on the outside of turn one and held onto Estre until the Aston passed us both., but I’d looked after my rear tyres at beginning so I had more speed than Estre at the end and was able to get past him for P2 before handing over to Adam.
“I had good consistency in both my stints and could set a very good average pace, but luck deserted us again as Mike had heat soak after his first refuelling stop and went into gravel at turn one. After that, we could only press on in the hope of a podium, but it was another great job by the entire Gulf team.
“Saturday was probably the most challenging test of my career. Driving two different cars – jumping from the front-engined Aston to the rear-engined Porsche – and completing an hour and 50 minutes in the TRG Aston in 40°C heat with just a two-hour break before driving two stints to start and finish the WEC race in the 911 RSR was tough, but still very enjoyable. Thanks to TRG and ‘CJ’ for a top effort to come from twelfth to sixth in the IMSA race, and to Gulf Racing for another impeccable job in the WEC event.”
Round seven of the FIA World Endurance Championship, the 6 Hours of Fuji, takes place in Japan over the weekend of 14-16 October.