Monday 8 May 2017
Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team made further progress on the road towards next month’s Le Mans 24 Hours, but their goal of a podium at Spa-Francorchamps at the weekend was dashed shortly after half-distance in the second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Despite not benefiting from additional tyre testing like several other teams in its class, the #86 Porsche 911 RSR featured in the top three times in the GTE-Am class during practice sessions, before slipping to fifth in the category when the championship’s use of combined times set the grid for Saturday’s six-hour marathon. The Gulf team worked tirelessly on honing the car’s set-up throughout the four sessions, however, and was confident that it would be closer to the pace come raceday.
“I worked hard with the team’s engineers to find a solution to help us gain performance for the race,” Barker noted, “Our early pace in practice was encouraging, but other teams found a little more in qualifying and that pushed us back down the order. Despite that, however, we knew that had found a good direction for #86, and that we would take another step forward in the race.”
Owner-driver Mike Wainwright took the start on Saturday afternoon as the team opted to keep its ‘pro’ drivers for the later shifts, and the decision was rewarded with two consistent stints, with the Gulf Porsche the third quickest car in the GTE-Am class as Wainwright got into a groove around Spa’s infamous twists and turns. Barker’s first planned shift was sandwiched between Wainwright’s outings, and the former F3 champion proved extremely rapid early on, before his tyre performance began to fade.
Sadly, the Briton would not get another chance to demonstrate the improvements that had been made with the #86 as, shortly after taking over from Wainwright, third driver Nick Foster suffered damage to his front bumper, debris from which eventually passed underneath the car and caused damage to the right rear arch liner and an electrical loom, causing the Porsche’s throttle to stick open.
“Mike got us off to a great start, with two extremely consistent stints either side of my first run, and things were looking promising for a while,” Barker confirmed, “The changes the team had made overnight meant that I had a fast car and I could really enjoy myself on one of my favourite circuits before the tyres began to drop away, but we’ve clearly got the know-how to keep improving the set-up and tyre durability.
“Unfortunately, Nick suffered a problem on his run which eventually led to us having to retire the car from the race. The circumstances were particularly unlucky as debris worked its way under the car and caused damage to a wiring loom but, with the engine revving to 5000rpm, the team had no option but to switch everything off. It’s a shame because we would have had our fastest drivers on track against the other teams’ lower-rated drivers and that could have made a difference at the end. I reckon we could have been close to a podium place, so it was a shame we didn’t get the chance to show it.”
Barker and the Gulf team will now turn their attention to the season’s blue riband event, with round three of the World Endurance Championship taking them to France for the Le Mans 24 Hours over the weekend of 17-18 June.
“Le Mans is definitely the highlight of a great WEC calendar, and we’ll be heading there looking to repeat last year’s problem-free run to the chequered flag,” Barker commented, “We might not have got the result we had hoped for at Spa, but there are plenty of positives to take away from the weekend, from Mike’s pace, which bodes well for coming races, to the direction we found with the set-up and the work of the pit crew, which was awesome once again – perhaps the best in the entire pit-lane… We’ll keep working hard through the Le Mans test on 4 June and go into the 24 Hours with optimism.”