Monday 5th September 2016
Ben Barker produced another impressive performance as the World Endurance Championship touched down in Mexico City, but luck once again denied the Gulf Racing team a spot on the podium.
Despite the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez being new to both the team and its drivers, quick adaptation through Thursday’s practice sessions allowed the distinctive #86 Porsche to set the pace in the GTE-AM class, with Barker posting the fastest lap of all in session two. A repeat performance in Friday morning’s final practice set the Gulf team up for qualifying, where Barker was again given the task of partnering owner-driver Mike Wainwright in setting the team’s grid position.
The Porsche specialist was delighted to set a time just 0.2secs from one of the German marque’s factory entries, before Wainwright’s contribution secured third on the grid as the two drivers’ times were aggregated. The slot then improved to P2 as one of the Aston Martins was found guilty of a technical infringement, giving the #86 crew added encouragement that a podium finish might be within their grasp.
“It was great to be given another shot at qualifying the Gulf Porsche, and it was very positive to get so close to the factory Porsche,” Barker enthused, “This circuit clearly suits the Porsches more than some others we have been too, but the team still had to take advantage of that, so it was a good effort all round for the boys in the garage to find the best set-up on the car and for the drivers to convert that into fast lap times. Perhaps the only negative was the conditions, which were a little too hot for the tyres, and that was enough to cost us a shot at pole.”
With just one car ahead of him on the class grid, Barker knew that he had to make the most of the long run to turn one if he was to take the early initiative, and did so with aplomb, not only beating factory driver Pat Long into the corner, but also one of the GTE-PRO class Ferraris as well. From there, the 25-year old Cambridge native established himself as the driver to beat, pulling out a three-second advantage over Long, with the rest of his his rivals more than 20secs adrift, by the end of his stint.
Sadly for the Gulf crew, however, Lady Luck was still not shining their way and, shortly after Wainwright had taken over behind the wheel, a full-course caution neutralised the field, allowing those behind to complete their stops with little time penalty, wiping out the #86 car’s advantage and leaving the three-man crew with mountain to climb in pursuit of that elusive podium.
Barker returned to the cockpit after Wainwright had completed a double stint and was beginning to eat into the deficit when rain, which had been threatening since the start of the six-hour event, finally arrived. Despite being on slick tyres as the track grew steadily wetter, Barker managed to keep the Gulf car in contention before handing over to third driver Adam Carroll, who had to contend with mixed, if eventually improving, conditions as he continued the fightback. At the chequered flag, the gap to the final podium space had been reduced to a little over 30secs, but the combined effort was not enough to earn some silverware.
“We just don’t seem to get the break that we need,” Barker sighed, “After making a great start and putting a PRO class car between myself and the AM field, we were looking good, but the full course caution that followed our first driver change put us firmly on the back foot, and playing catch-up for the remainder of the race.
“Although the arrival of the rain might have given us a chance to capitalise on others’ mistakes, they simply weren’t forthcoming, so Adam and I were left to try and claw back the lost time without much help. Missing the podium was disappointing, especially after our strong performances earlier in the weekend, and provided no reward for the rest of the boys, who had done some sterling work, not only in honing the set-up, but once again providing us with some exemplary pit-stops”
Despite the frustration, the Mexican weekend did provide Barker with some individual satisfaction, as he again showcased his abilities against some of the best drivers in the world.
“On a personal note, it was great to set the fastest lap of the race while pulling away in my first stint,” he acknowledged, “From that point of view, and from the pace I was able to exhibit in both practice and qualifying, as well as in clawing back some of the deficit while running on slicks in the rain, it was a very positive weekend for me and I look forward to carrying that potential into the race in Texas in a couple of weeks.
“The Circuit of the Americas is a great venue, and one of my favourites, but I have to say that, after this weekend, Mexico City is right up there too. It was great to be able to put the Gulf Porsche in amongst – and even ahead of – the Ferraris and Aston Martins, but now we just need fate to look kindly on us.”
Round six of the FIA World Endurance Championship takes place at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas over the weekend of 15-17 September.