Tuesday 5 September 2017
Refreshed by the FIA World Endurance Championship’s summer hiatus, Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team roared back into action with a podium finish in round five of the 2017 campaign, at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.
Already buoyed by the team’s most competitive showing of the season, at the Nurburgring just before the break, Barker was confident that he and co-drivers Mike Wainwright and Nick Foster had the potential to break into the top three in the hotly-contested GT-Am class over the five remaining ‘flyaway’ races, and his faith was confirmed immediately as the iconically-liveried #86 Porsche 911 RSR proved to be a contender throughout the Mexican weekend.
After using the first couple of practice sessions to dial the Gulf entry into the quirky Hermanos Rodriguez circuit, and still posting top three times in persistently wet conditions, Barker upped the ante in the dry to put the #86 at the top of the timesheets in session three and post the fastest GT-Am time of the weekend to that point, edging out the other Porsche in the class, as well as rivals from Aston Martin and Ferrari.
The Briton had shown well on his Mexican debut a year ago – leading the class through its opening stint – and clearly remained at home on the bumpy former grand prix layout as he, the team and series returned for a second year. The Porsche specialist’s pace was again good enough to top the laps posted in qualifying and, with Wainwright turning in his best performance of a continually improving year, the Gulf car’s aggregated time was sufficient to put it a season-best third in class.
“It might have taken us four rounds and a lot of hard work, both before and during race weekends, but we came to Mexico confident that we had found a good direction in the development of the car,” Barker explained, “We’re understanding the Dunlop tyres more and more with every outing and that was evident as soon as we hit the track here. It’s always encouraging to be at the sharp end of the times from the start of practice and topping FP3 was confirmation of the effort that has gone in this season.
“We were only making minor tweaks through practice, which is how you want it, and Mike was ‘on it’ from the start of the weekend too. He’s a very different driver now compared to the start of the year, and that showed with his times in qualifying, which allowed us to take third in class and get within a second of pole position.”
As he had at the Nurburgring, Wainwright took the start of Sunday’s race, and again underlined his growing confidence by remaining in the top three, before Barker took over and posted times consistently within half-a-second of the outright pace, bringing the car back onto the lead lap and strengthening the team's grip on a podium position that remained throughout the six-hour event. Foster, too, excelled on an unfamiliar track, capitalising on Barker's work by homing in on the second-placed Aston Martin over the final stint as the #86 hinted at an even better result before eventually having to settle for third.
“We were hoping that the rain would return at the end, but it didn’t and that left Nick a little too much ground to make up in the time available,” Barker admitted, “Having said that, however, if anyone had offered us a podium finish before the weekend, we would have snapped it up, so to know that we were threatening the #98 Aston at the end is a massive result for this team.
“This is definitely a podium earned on pace as nobody dropped out ahead of us – and it’s a great reward for the whole team, especially the guys behind the scenes, who have performed faultlessly all season. We’ve come close to the podium before, so it’s good to get the monkey off our back at last!”
Barker and the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche will be back in World Endurance Championship action in just a couple of weeks, with round six of the series taking them to the Circuit of the Americas in Texas for the 6 Hours of COTA over the weekend of 14-16 September.