Tuesday 16 October 2018
Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing Porsche took a hard-earned top four finish as the FIA World Endurance Championship resumed at Fuji Speedway after a near two-month hiatus.
The Briton showed the potential of the iconically-liveried #86 machine throughout the weekend, setting the pace at times in both practice and the race as the series enjoyed its first action since Silverstone in August. The six-hour event, at the former home of the Japanese Grand Prix, was run in very mixed conditions, bringing both strategy and skill to bear in the hotly-contested GTE-Am class.
There was early encouragement for both team and driver, as Barker set the fastest time in the third free practice session, comfortably eclipsing the previous best for the class after all three members of the Gulf crew had had time to play themselves into the venue. With the short qualifying session not the team’s main focus with a long race ahead, there was no opportunity to repeat that feat, but the entire team remained confident that it could contend on Sunday afternoon.
“Free practice went well, especially as I set the fastest time of the three sessions in FP3,” Barker confirmed, “but we decided to only run one set of tyres in qualifying in order to save some for the race. I was only able to do one flying lap, with [team owner] Mike [Wainwright] getting the same and, ultimately, a small mistake on my lap cost us a very competitive time. However, the aggregate still meant that we lined up seventh overall, which wasn’t bad for a session that was not our focus.”
Gulf’s gameplan, however, was undone by heavy overnight rain that left the circuit awash for the start of the race. With a choice of wet-weather tyres and a decision to make on the severity of the conditions, the team opted for rubber to cope with the worst of the standing water, but then found it dispersing faster than expected, leaving them on to mark time before an opportune moment to change compounds.
“We chose the full wet as the track was very wet at the start of the race,” Barker acknowledged, “But, with the surface drying faster than we expected, those cars on the intermediate tyre came into their own. It was a shame, as our initial decision had allowed me to gain positions early on, getting as high as second on the road before the conditions changed.”
Barker’s drop down the order was arrested by a timely appearance from the safety car, allowing the Gulf team to pit the #86 and fit it with a set of slick tyres, despite the circuit still holding water. Again, the strategy proved fruitful, with the Briton moving back through the field, eventually taking the lead before finding himself in a battle for position with former F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella.
“After I fell back from getting into P2, the safety car bunched us up again and I pitted for slicks,” Barker explained, “With the track still damp, I slid around for the first 15 minutes, but I was still going faster than we did on the wets. As the conditions began to suit the tyres more and more, I was able to overtake my way back into P1 – only to find that the Ferrari of Fisichella was running a similar strategy to us…
“Giancarlo eventually passed me when I got held up in traffic, but I spent the last six laps of my stint trying to get the position back, with a few door-to-door moments! I was safe in second, and pitted from there, before Mike drove well to grab the lead back from the Ferrari after its own driver change. We were running on borrowed time, however, as Mike found himself on track at the same time as most of the professional drivers, and gradually dropped back over the next couple of hours.”
Newcomer Thomas Priening then got his first taste of WEC action by lifting the Gulf car back into fourth position, leaving Barker with mixed emotions as the series continues its Far East swing in China in a month’s time.
“Overall, it was a positive weekend for the team, although we definitely have some work to do with the car and tyres,” Barker noted, “There is still some old tyre pace to find for Shanghai, but we are confident of doing better there and, hopefully, grabbing a podium.”
Barker’s optimism for round five of the FIA World Endurance Championship is not without foundation as, at last year’s race at the Shanghai International Circuit, the #86 Gulf Racing car claimed its best-ever WEC result, in second place. The 2018 edition of the race takes place over the weekend of 16-18 November.