Tuesday 17 April 2018

The end result may not have been what Ben Barker and Gulf Racing wanted from their first appearance of the 2018 season, but the debut of the new #86 Porsche 911 RSR contained enough positives to excite both team and driver ahead of the coming FIA World Endurance Championship campaign.


A one-off entry for the opening round of the European Le Mans Series at Paul Ricard was designed to capitalise on the preceding WEC Prologue at the same venue and give both the driver line-up and pit crew additional time to get acquainted with the 2018 version of Porsche’s GT racer. Already a clear step forward from the car that Gulf had campaigned on the world stage in 2016 and ‘17, the latest 911 RSR enjoyed a productive week in the south of France, with the pre-season test showing that it should be a competitive proposition in the hotly-contested GT-Am division going forward.


Although the ELMS series runs on different tyres to its global cousin, preferring Dunlop to Michelin in its current iteration, Barker and the Gulf car proved a match for anyone on either brand, with the Briton revelling in one-driver qualifying to put the #86 machine second on the class grid. Although a subsequent scrutineering infraction then undid all his hard work, Barker remained enthusiastic about his new mount.


“Although we went into the ELMS round blind in terms of experience with the 2018 car on Dunlop rubber, it was encouraging just how quickly we got up to speed,” the Cambridge native commented, “Our first taste of the tyres came in the opening practice session and, while the car was maybe a little more responsive on the Michelins we used in WEC testing, we found a decent balance on the Dunlops. Other teams have had the benefit of trying the ELMS tyre in pre-season, so it was doubly satisfying to post the second fastest LMGTE time in qualifying. I was only a couple of tenths off the pace, and knew where that time was after being a little conservative with the new brakes we had to fit before the session, so it was a great result for the team.”


Although the technical infringement discovered post-session erased Barker’s time and demoted the #86 to the rear of the grid, it was, ironically, of no great assistance to the Briton’s lap-time, and the #86 continued to be competitive from the start of Sunday’s 4 Hours of Castellet event. Team owner Mike Wainwright took the green light and quickly set about making up places, vaulting from eighth in class to third during the course of his one-hour opening stint.


The Gulf team then gained another spot to move to second in LMGTE during the pit-stop window in which Barker returned to the cockpit, and the Briton continued to move the iconically-liveried 911 to the front of the field, taking the class lead after only 20 minutes behind the wheel. However, not long after that, Lady Luck again turned her back on the #86, forcing Barker to vacate Gulf’s hard-earned top spot with an apparent fuel pressure problem. Despite his best efforts to affect a repair at the side of the track, there was nothing that could be done to return to the car to the race and the team’s afternoon ended earlier than expected.


“The fuel pressure just dropped and there was nothing I could do to get it back,” Barker confirmed, “I tried everything I knew at the side of the road just to get enough power to return the car to the pits, but it wouldn’t hold pressure and that was that. It’s a shame because we had looked to be on for a good result, possibly even the top step of the podium, which would have been great reward for the team after a long ten days at the circuit. Mike put in possibly the best drive of his career to date in taking the car into the top three and I was running comfortably at the front, so it’s frustrating for everyone to have the race end that way.


“If we take the retirement out of it, however, it’s been a very positive spell for all concerned, and one that I firmly believe sets us up well for the coming WEC campaign. We’ve learned a lot about the new 911 RSR – doing the opening ELMS round was all about having extra time to get comfortable with the car and understand the differences to the old one – and hopefully we’ve ironed out a lot of the wrinkles before the start of the WEC.”


The opening round of the FIA World Endurance Championship takes place at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps over the weekend of 4-5 May.