Tuesday 6 November 2017
Nine weeks after making a podium breakthrough in Mexico City, Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team went one better in China to chalk up their best finish of their short FIA World Endurance Championship careers.
Denied the chance of a good run by the monsoon conditions that truncated the previous round in Japan, where Barker didn’t even get behind the wheel of the #86 Porsche 911 RSR, the Gulf team headed back east determined to continue building on their steadily-improving performances since the Nurburgring, but would again do so without owner-driver Mike Wainwright, who was unable to make the trip. In his stead, however, the squad installed Emirati Khaled al-Qubaisi to join Barker and regular co-driver Nick Foster, ensuring another strong line-up for the penultimate round of the season.
The Shanghai International Circuit’s notoriously abrasive track surface played a key role in the Gulf team’s approach to practice and qualifying, determined not to waste tyres in the pursuit of grid positions when they would be more valuable in the six-hour race on Sunday. Instead, Barker worked on finding the right balance to ensure the strategy worked on raceday, and put in just enough of a qualifying lap to make sure the #86 made the field on Saturday.
“With Khaled joining us for the weekend, and bringing his previous WEC experience with the Porsche RSR, we had another good base on which to develop the Gulf car for raceday,” Barker confirmed, “We always had it in our minds to save tyres through the opening two days of the meeting, and just needed to make sure we had a well-balanced car and made the right tweaks to the set-up to help with the tyre degradation. Even in qualifying, we chose to run just one set of tyres and, instead of going for competitive laps that would take performance away from the rubber which we would have to use in the race, I was cruising around, doing what we needed to do to at least make the starting grid.”
Having put the #86 into fifth place on the GT-Am grid, Barker ceded starting duties to al-Qubaisi before putting in two strong stints behind the wheel of the iconically-liveried blue-and-orange Gulf machine, which appeared to have the beating of all but the pace-setting Aston Martin in the category. The team’s decision to preserve its tyres earlier in the weekend proved sage as the Chinese asphalt proved tough for the rubber on all cars, making for some tricky driving conditions as the race went on.
Despite that, Barker, Foster and al-Qubaisi picked up places and quickly put some distance between themselves and the other Porsche in the class, eventually coming home in a meritorious second place as Dunlop rubber dominated the results.
“Khaled did a great job starting the race, and quickly took fourth place before pulling away from the Proton Porsche,” Barker reflected, “I had two stints I was happy with, even though it was a huge struggle to keep lapping consistently with all the excess rubber on and off the racing line. Even though the hard work we put in during practice paid dividends, tyre wear was still a problem towards the end of the stint, but we managed to get through.
“We had great pace all race, and were always pulling a gap on the other Porsche. Unfortunately, the Aston Martin was too strong for us, dropping only two seconds a lap over the course of a stint where the Porsches were typically losing four seconds as the tyres got older. The Ferraris got caught up in an incident, but I think we had decent pace against them too, so the podium was a fair reflection of our potential this weekend.
“Overall, it was a mega job by everyone in the Gulf team, which once again provided us with some impeccable pit-stops, and my two team-mates, who put in strong showings whenever they got behind the wheel. Just as it was in Mexico, it’s great to show what the team is capable of and we’ll be looking to end the season on another high note – just as soon as we’ve celebrated this one!”
Barker and the Gulf Racing team will close out the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship season at the 6 Hours of Bahrain at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir over the weekend of 14-16 November.