Tuesday 19 September 2017
Ben Barker appeared to have set the Gulf Racing team on course for a second successive podium finish in the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship, only for fate to decide otherwise at the spectacular Circuit of the Americas in Austin.
Just two weeks after finally seeing their podium potential rewarded at round five of the season in Mexico City, Barker and the Gulf team played a canny strategic game through the early part of the Texan weekend, which looked set to pay off through the course of the six-hour Lone Star Le Mans event until a freak mechanical issue ultimately ended their bid.
Aware that the dramatic twists and turns of the Circuit of the Americas, combined with the unique technical layout of the rear-engined Porsche 911 RSR, would test the life of its tyres, the Gulf team opted to take a conservative approach to practice and qualifying, using the track time to compare the various compounds on offer before doing the minimum number of laps required to qualify then #86 machine in the GT-Am field.
“Circuit of the Americas is a long, high-energy venue that, along with the high ambient and track temperatures in this part of the world, works the tyres extremely hard,” Barker explained, “We have spent a lot of time this season understanding the Dunlop rubber we run on the #86 and knew that, with the layout of the RSR, we would be using our tyres more than the other cars in the class at this round. Because of that, we tried various combinations of the hard and soft options throughout practice, before deciding that running the harder tyre all round was the best way to go.
“That meant that we had no ultimate peak to the tyres, but the longevity was definitely better and our lap times more consistent. Without a legitimate shot at class pole, however, we also decided to keep a set of tyres back for the race, with Mike [Wainwright] and myself doing just enough in qualifying to ensure that we were on the grid, all the while knowing that we would be able to move forward during the course of the race.”
Owner-driver Wainwright took the start of the six-hour event, as he had done in Mexico, and once again kept the #86 in contention with faster qualifiers until he handed over to Barker at the end of the opening 60 minutes. Barker, who was the class of the field at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriquez two weeks earlier, then upped the ante by not only catching and passing the other Porsche in the class, but also putting the two Ferraris in his rear view mirror before taking advantage of a penalty for the front-running Aston Martin to take the GT-Am lead.
Although the Aston was always going to close back in on the #86, Barker was able to keep works driver Mathias Lauda at bay to the end of his stint, and the Gulf car remained in the hunt for a podium position into the second half of the race. Unfortunately, Lady Luck was not riding with the British team on this occasion and, just as silverware was looking a distinct possibility, decided to turn her back on the #86 as an unfortunate brake issue pitched Wainwright into a spin at the turn 11 hairpin. Although he was able to minimise the damage by turning the car sideways before impact, the Gulf machine still required lengthy attention to its brakes and bodywork once it had been returned to the garage, but eventually Nick Foster was able to return to the fray, and lap competitively, before Lady Luck again turned her back.
“The pit crew did their usual exemplary job to repair the damage and get us back into the race,” Barker noted, “When Nick went out, there were no issues with the performance of the car but, unfortunately, we were unable to repair the air-conditioning system and, with the ambient conditions in Texas being some of the hottest we face all year, cockpit temperatures quickly rose above the levels allowed by the regulations and there was no option but to return the car to the pits. It’s a frustrating way to have to retire from a race, but the rules are there for a reason and it was definitely going to be uncomfortable attempting to drive in those conditions.
“It’s all the more frustrating, however, as we were a lot more competitive than we thought we would be heading into the race. The Balance of Performance proved to be Ferrari and Aston Martin's advantage, but our different tyre strategy was the right call as we were able to set a consistent pace throughout the race. With the extra set of tyres we’d saved from qualifying, we could comfortably have contended for another podium finish. The DNF aside, however, it was another extremely positive weekend for the Gulf team – we are definitely coming into our own in the ‘flyaway’ races and looking forward to being in the hunt for podiums during the Asian leg of the series.”
With Wainwright likely unavailable for the races in Japan and China over the next couple of months, Barker and Foster look set to be joined by an as yet unnamed bronze substitute for round seven at Fuji Speedway over the weekend of 13-15 October.