Tuesday 8 May 2018
Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team will head into next month’s Le Mans 24 Hours with their tails up after a promising, if ultimately unrewarded, performance at the opening round of the 2018-19 FIA World Endurance Championship ‘super season’.
After an encouraging warm-up appearance in the recent European Le Mans event at Paul Ricard, the entire Gulf team was in optimistic mood as they took their new Porsche 911 RSR to Spa-Francorchamps, and the early part of the weekend lived up to expectation as Barker topped the second free practice session ahead of qualifying as the team worked through a series of set-up adjustments to dial the #86 machine into the infamously tricky Belgian circuit.
Despite the changes, Barker admitted that the Gulf machine was still not quite to his liking for the all-important timed session, but that did not prevent him from setting the third fastest time amongst the ‘Pro’ rated drivers in the LMGTE-Am class, a matter of tenths of a second from top spot. With grid positions being decided by the aggregate time of two of the team’s drivers, however, a lot rested on owner-driver Mike Wainwright, and he did not disappoint by keeping the #86 fourth overall when the chequered flag waved.
“We had relatively good pace right out of the truck,” Cambridge native Barker noted, “but we were keen to make the car as friendly as possible to the tyres ahead of the long runs that would come in the race. Topping FP2 was a definite plus, but we may have been close to making too many adjustments and the car still wasn’t quite where I wanted it for qualifying, so there was definitely more to unlock in terms of lap-time.
“With that in mind, I was happy enough with third fastest time, and then Mike produced a great session to keep us in the top four. Unfortunately, however, we picked up a pit-lane speeding penalty which ultimately negated the result and dropped us to the back of the field – deja vu after a similar blow at the ELMS race, but not that drastic ahead of a six-hour race.”
While starting at the back of field can often be an advantage given the propensity for accidents in the middle of the pack at a circuit like Spa, the Gulf team’s hopes of making quick progress took an early blow when Wainwright was forced to take avoiding action at the end of the flat-out Kemmel Straight. With the right-hand wheels of the iconically-liveried Porsche on the grass, there was little in the way of grip for the Briton, and the #86 ended up nosing into the barriers at the ensuing Les Combes chicane. Fortunately, the car escaped serious damage and, although in need of some cosmetic surgery, was able to continue in the race, albeit six laps down and with tweaked steering geometry that took the edge off its ultimate pace.
“The accident was unfortunate, but always a possibility with a field of this size,” Barker commented, “Mike was just in the right place at the wrong time and there was nothing he could do to avoid what happened. Sadly, the recovery time and performance loss caused by the knock to the steering meant that we were playing catch-up for the rest of the afternoon. On the plus side, however, the car got to the end of the race and the pace was still relatively good, so there are always positives to take forward. Running for all six hours also meant a good work-out for the entire team, including the boys in the garage, who received a full complement of pit-stops to hone their craft before Le Mans, and we can head for the official test day in optimistic mood.”
The second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship takes place at the Le Mans 24 Hours over the weekend of 16-17 June, with the official pre-race test scheduled for Sunday 3 June.