Tuesday 18 April 2017
Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team battled to the end of the Six Hours of Silverstone to claim valuable points in the opening round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship.
The team overcame a costly late-race pit-stop to finish fourth in the hotly-contested GTE-Am class at its home race, erasing the memory of last season’s unfortunate exit at the hands of another car as rain and safety car interruptions marked a dramatic start to the 2017 campaign.
After a winter of focused preparation, there was early encouragement for Barker and the Gulf team as the Briton topped the second of three free practice sessions in the #86 Porsche 911 RSR, ahead of the regular cohort of Ferraris and Aston Martins that will provide opposition throughout the nine-round competition. Come qualifying on Saturday afternoon, however, the close order had been shuffled once again, with the WEC’s use of combined times and a slight mistake towards the end of his flying lap leaving Barker to line up fifth in class.
“I was pretty hooked up in qualifying, and being just four-tenths off the fastest time in the class was a decent effort,” the Cambridge native commented, “I missed an apex at the chicane in the last sector, so there was definitely more to come from me and the car, but it was satisfying to have set the fastest time in FP2 on Friday, which shows how much work the team has done with the car over the winter. We’re still learning how to get the best out of our Dunlop tyres after switching to them in the off-season – and also focused more on tyre life than one-lap performance - so I think we will only get better as the year goes on.”
With his new ‘gold’ status making him the lead driver on the three-man Gulf crew, Barker took the wheel for Sunday’s midday start, and quickly gained a couple of places to be challenging former F1 driver Pedro Lamy for second in class. However, having seen several attempts to claim the spot rebuffed by the Portuguese veteran, Barker gradually started to lose ground as his tyres faded and dropped to fourth before pitting for the team’s first driver change.
While the race took a dramatic twist at the front of the field, the ensuing safety car period bunched the GTE-Am class with Gulf newcomer Nick Foster at the wheel, and the Australian briefly led through one cycle of pit-stops before handing back to team owner Mike Wainwright. It was at the next change, however, that the Gulf crew’s afternoon turned, with the #86 needing an extended visit to the garage prior to Barker setting out on the final stint of the race. For a team that had enjoyed unprecedented levels of reliability in 2016, it was an unfortunate turn of events that dropped the car out of contention for a podium finish, but Barker was eventually able to rejoin and was rewarded for soldiering on to the chequered flag by picking up a position two corners from home.
“I enjoyed a strong start to the race, and was harrying Lamy until the tyres went off,” he noted, “Unfortunately, while our performance was fading, the other cars around us remained pretty stable, so I handed over to Mike with the car in fourth position. rather than what could have been second. The safety car caused by an accident involving the #7 Toyota was also a bit unfortunate in its timing, although it at least allowed us to close back in on the pack and kept us in contention, but the lengthy stop for repairs before I could rejoin for the last stint ultimately cost us the chance to remain on the lead lap and, potentially, fight for the podium.”
A last lap incident involving two of the GTE-Am cars ahead of him eventually promoted Barker and the Gulf team to fourth in class simply by dint of seeing the chequered flag, giving the Briton and his colleagues twelve points to carry into round two of the season, at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, over the weekend of 4-6 May.
“While fourth place was a decent result, there are still things to be ironed out and learned after this weekend,” Barker concluded, “We’ve gleaned a lot from the past three days, and that will help us get our head around things like the tyres before Spa. Otherwise, it was another solid weekend for the Gulf team – both Nick and Mike showed good pace, and the crew employed a clean strategy - so there are plenty of positives going forward.”
Despite the three-week break before Spa, Barker will be back behind the wheel as early as this coming weekend, as he joins Andrew Baker and another Gulf-liveried Porsche, this time a GT3-R model, at the official pre-season GT3 Le Mans Cup test at Portimao in Portugal. Barker is slated to contest selected rounds of the series this year.