From the FIA World Endurance Championship to the Michelin Le Mans Cup, Ben Barker has had a busy 2017 campaign that’s included multiple podiums and race wins–but with a drive in next year’s Bathurst 12 Hour, is he eyeing a return to Australian Motorsport?
So far this year, his main purpose has been in the WEC as the lead Pro driver for Gulf Racing in the GTE-Am category, but if you wind back the clock a few years, the 26-year old sure does have an impressive track record in motorsports.
In 2010, at 19-years of age, Barker won the Australian Formula 3 Championship by a single point after a thrilling finale at Melbourne’s Sandown Raceway. He then went on to tin tops in 2011, taking on Australia’s most competitive one-make series, Porsche Carrera Cup Australia.
It turned out to be a tough year for the British driver, with a number of heavy crashes on the concrete jungle street circuits consequently ruling him out of the title fight after showing rapid pace throughout the year.
Barker claimed his maiden Carrera Cup race win at the final round on the streets of Sydney Olympic Park, before finishing a strong fifth in the championship standings despite a retirement in the last race.
After that, he went back to Europe and his homeland to compete in Carrera Cup Great Britain, where he’s raced several seasons on top of Porsche Supercup duties and a win in the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours Carrera Cup support race.
Although he has experience at the local circuits, the Briton says he’s reluctant to return to Australia and pursue a full-time gig as he doesn’t have the level of contacts to do so.
“I haven’t really thought about it to be honest just because it’s quite a small world out there as far as GT racing is concerned,” Barker told Slade Perrins in an interview.
“The only championship there is obviously Australian GT and then V8 Supercars but that’s slightly different and very hard to get into. I’d like to do a bit more down there, but I wouldn’t say I’m pushing it just because I haven’t got the current contacts out there.”
Barker reflected on his 2011 season in Carrera Cup Australia as a learning year, and said he has interest in hopefully doing Supercars Australia’s Pirtek Enduro Cup as a co-driver in the future.
“It was good, I had great fun out there, loved all the tracks and street circuits suited the Cup Cars,” he said.
“It was my first year in a ‘tin top’ car and I was kind of really learning in a way. I was quick, qualified well, had some poles and in one or two races I had lap records and stuff, but also had my fair share of shunts as well, which ultimately cost me the championship
“I’d love to do that and to do those Endurance Cup rounds in the V8 Supercars, but again, it’s quite hard to prize your way in, they’re pretty kind of firm on their driver line ups and there’s a lot of decent local Australian drivers who obviously deserve a drive.
“So, it’s quite hard to compete against those, but I’d take any opportunity to go and do that, it’s a series that I’ve watched for many, many years and it’s a series that I respect and it’s great racing.
“I’d jump on the opportunity to race in V8 Supercars, again that’s not something that I’d really push because I’ve been focusing on Le Mans, WEC and what I’m doing in Europe really, but I wouldn’t say no.”
Barker is also excited to once again join local squad, Grove Racing for next year’s Bathurst 12 Hour to compete for the Class B honours aboard the team’s Porsche. The Londoner will share the car, in his fourth outing with the team, with team owner Stephen Grove and his son, Brenton Grove in a hope to try and repeat 2014, where Barker won the class alongside Stephen Grove and Earl Bamber.
“Bathurst is probably my favourite track in the world!” he exclaimed.
“It’s the most demanding mentally and physically as well because of the heat. It’s got demanding cambers, the elevation that’s involved in the track is challenging so it’s very technical, very unique and there’s nothing else like it really.
“Once you get yourself into that synchronisation and flow it’s really enjoyable, but it can bite!
“I can’t wait to do it, I love the event. It’s a busy event with lots of cars and GT3 cars so it’s very challenging. It’s become one of those staple events on the calendar which I think is up there with Spa 24 Hours, Le Mans, Daytona, all those big one-off events.
“Obviously, we’ll have the extra addition of another Grove in the car, so good opportunity for Brenton to get some miles under his belt and do his first Bathurst 12 Hour.
“I’m super excited to be driving with him and driving with Stephen again, it’s going to be good fun. It’s going to be a case of staying out of trouble as it always is at Bathurst.”
With two class podiums in the WEC this year, Barker admitted he was happy with the results after facing challenges throughout 2017, including being up against newer, more advanced cars and everyone’s best friend, the Balance of Performance system.
“This season we’ve had our challenges, for sure. It’s an old car now, so we’re competing against newer cars like the 488 Ferrari and the Aston Martins are always strong,” said Barker.
“We’ve had ups and downs, but we’ve had a couple of podiums too: We had a podium at Mexico in third, and then we had a second at Shanghai with Khaled Al Qubaisi, which was great and good to get those results, it helps the team and motivates the team.
“Le Mans was tough for us. We were unfortunate in having a disadvantage with the BoP by a considerable amount, so it was crazy and a very hard event to get through.”
Another factor for Barker and his Gulf Racing squad was the switch of tyre supplier at the start of 2017 and the added difficulty of no pre-season testing.
“It was definitely challenging, and also, not knowing the Dunlop tire as well. We moved to Dunlop from Michelin which we ran in 2016, so it required a substantially different setup platform on the car, which when you don’t go testing you can’t find that out. So, you have to find it out over the race weekend, meaning we were on the back foot really until we got to Mexico.
“From there we had a good pace at every round compatibly to the other Proton Racing Porsche. We struggled to get the class win at Shanghai just because the Aston was so strong, but it was a good year and we had some good results. It was good to get some podiums for Gulf Racing, they haven’t had for a while.”