Tuesday 6 February 2018
Ben Barker got his 2018 season off to the perfect start by helping the Grove Racing team to victory in the increasingly prestigious Bathurst 12 Hours.
The Briton is no stranger to the event, and was making his fourth appearance at Mount Panorama for Grove, but underlined his affinity for both the circuit and the #4 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car by claiming another class pole position before guiding the team to its second win in four years.
The early practice sessions provided a strong foundation for the Grove operation, with Barker completing his usual limited number of laps in order to let team-mates Stephen and Brenton Grove get valuable track time under their belts. As the 50-car field attempted to perfect the set-up on their cars through five sessions, the yellow-and-green #4 machine began to feel more and more to Barker’s liking, and the World Endurance Championship regular was charged with qualifying it as far up the Class B field as possible, responding with another scintillating lap to claim pole position well ahead of his nearest rival.
“Practice took its familiar form, as we needed to get Stephen and Brenton up to speed and comfortable with the track,” Barker confirmed, “Although Stephen has partnered me on each of my appearances at Bathurst, Brenton was making his endurance race debut at the event and learning all 6km of this awesome circuit was imperative for him.
“Fortunately, the car felt balanced as we headed into qualifying, which was the main thing I wanted. I also found a pretty clear lap early in the session, managed to go half a second quicker than the pole time I set in 2017, and was 1.2secs faster than Chris van der Drift, so it was a nice run.”
The Cambridge native also took the start of the race, which put him in the middle of a seething pack of cars in pitch black conditions at 5.45am, but was able to survive the initial chaos to set out on the first of several stints in which he would set a consistent pace and keep out of the trouble that inevitably unfolded around him as the race progressed. However, cycling through stints with his two team-mates took an unexpected twist when Brenton Grove was taken ill during one his turns behind the wheel, forcing the team to draft in experienced Porsche racer Dan Gaunt to ensure that the remaining drivers did not exceed their maximum cockpit time.
The race was not without its share of drama either, with several safety car periods to allow for the recovery of major accidents, and the Grove team also picked up a couple of penalties that cost valuable time, but otherwise enjoyed a relatively clean race, eventually reclaiming the lead with four hours remaining and going on to win by three laps.
“This is probably the most dangerous race I do in my season, but Bathurst is also the most enjoyable track to drive,” Barker admitted, “Starting the race in the dark around here is beyond mental and certainly wakes you up at the silly hour of 5.45am!
“Despite that, we all had a some great stints, setting a good consistent pace and keeping out of any mischief, although Brenton falling ill early on caused a minor headache as we had to find a fill-in driver to ensure that we complied with the rules on driving time. We were fortunate enough that Dan Gaunt’s original car had retired in the early stages, and, even though Brenton got better and did another stint, Dan produced two useful runs that allowed us to retake the lead and pull away for the victory.
“The Bathurst 12 Hours has become one of the ‘can’t miss’ events of the year and the perfect warm-up to the rest of the season, so it’s always a great pleasure to be invited to drive with the Grove family and their team. Stephen and Brenton both drove exceptionally well – which was particularly impressive given Brenton’s lack of experience – and I’m delighted to have played a part in taking them and the patriotically-liveried #4 car back to the top step of the podium.”
Barker has yet to confirm his racing plans for the rest of 2018, but hopes to be able to make an announcement in the coming weeks.