Tuesday 20 June 2017
Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team again went the distance in the most iconic endurance race of all, with the British driver especially busy as he completed ‘double duty’ throughout the week-long Le Mans 24 Hours event.
Just as they had on their Le Mans debut twelve months ago, Barker and Gulf Racing enjoyed a largely trouble-free run in the twice-around-the-clock marathon, underlining the strength of both the #86 Porsche 911 RSR and the pre-race preparation carried out by the team in the weeks since round two of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Spa-Francorchamps.
Leading the driver line-up on his second top flight sportscar appearance at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Cambridge native Barker spent ten hours behind the wheel of the familiar pale-blue-and-orange Porsche, completing vital stints through the night before bringing the #86 to the chequered flag at the end of 328 gruelling laps, most of which were run in searing temperatures that contrasted starkly to the cool and wet conditions of his race debut in 2016. Underlining the resilience of both car and team, the distance covered in 24 hours was exactly the same as they managed a year ago, although their placing in the final order was affected by the higher level of reliability throughout the 2017 GT-Am class, leaving Barker to cross the line tenth in class and 39th overall in a field of 60 starters.
“A year ago, I said that taking the chequered flag at the end of my first Le Mans 24 Hours would be a memory hard to beat,” Barker noted after climbing from the cockpit, “This year’s race was different in a lot of ways, but no less memorable, especially as, once again, the Gulf Racing car didn’t miss a beat. To have now enjoyed two trouble-free runs at Le Mans is an incredible testament to the entire organisation and my thanks go to everyone who made it possible.”
Unfortunately, the Gulf team’s hopes of battling for the GT-Am podium were dashed even before the week-long event got underway, with mandated Balance of Performance changes putting every Porsche runner on the back foot against the various Aston Martins and Ferraris which dominated class numbers. As expected, Barker qualified the #86 machine during the three midweek sessions, but already knew that he and co-drivers Mike Wainwright and Nick Foster would be up against it when the race got underway on Saturday afternoon.
“Changes to the Balance of Performance for this round really worked against the Porsche,” he claimed, “While our ultimate top speed might not have compared too badly with the opposition, the way we got there was very different, with the Astons and Ferraris able to pull 5-6 lengths on us, especially exiting the corners, and leaving us almost five seconds a lap off their pace. If the changes were meant to balance the field, then it’s a joke as we were never able to compete on their level.”
Barker admitted that, without the resources to test as often as its rivals, the Gulf team was also having to use every available minute of track time to hone the set-up of the #86 but, while it struggled for front end performance through the hottest parts of the race, the car was a lot more to the 26-year old’s liking during the comparative cool of the night.
“I can’t fault the effort that the entire team put in across the week, especially the guys in the garage looking for ways to make us as competitive as possible,” Barker confirmed, “They worked tirelessly through qualifying and between sessions, so to go on and have a car that ran without a hitch in the race itself – and to receive quality pit-stops as we did – is a fantastic achievement for what is probably the smallest team on the grid. There were no mechanical issues at all and the car was strong enough for us to run the kerbs in the final sector without fear of it breaking. It’s just a shame that the regulations prevented us from getting the sort of result that that effort deserved, especially as they also masked the continual improvement Nick and Mike have made behind the wheel – both drove great stints when it would have been easy to make mistakes in tough conditions.”
Barker discovered just how tough the conditions were as he completed the final 2hr 45mins of the race without water after the pump on his drinks bottle failed, and admitted to feeling the heat – quite literally – by the end of what had been a hectic week as he combined his World Endurance Championship duties with two outings in the supporting Le Mans GT3 Cup alongside amateur team-mate Andrew Baker.
“I managed to down a bottle of water during one of the refuelling stops, but felt pretty dehydrated at the chequered flag,” he commented, “Other than that, though, my fitness levels were perfect for the entire weekend and I was able to complete ten hours behind the wheel in the race without any problems.
“Switching between cars wasn’t a problem and, having recently tested the #20 Gulf Porsche 911 GT3R, I was able to jump straight in and pull out some fast laps, but taking class pole by 1.3secs was still a nice surprise. Unfortunately, we were denied the chance to convert that into a meaningful result in either of the two races, but Andrew showed his mettle by leading some big name drivers at the start of Thursday's event before some bad luck ended our run.”
Barker and the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche will be back in World Endurance Championship action next month, with round four of the series taking them to Germany for the Nurburgring 6 Hours over the weekend of 14-16 July.