Beechdean AMR and Race Lab led the way as the Intelligent Money British GT Championship burst into action at a pleasantly warm Donington Park for the first two-hour race of the 2023 season.
It was a strong morning for the Aston Martin and McLaren crews, respectively, as the teams finished in the top three of both sessions, alongside Raffaele Marciello in the RAM Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3.
In GT4, it was all about the McLaren Artura, as two examples of the new racer topped both sessions – Optimum Motorsport stole a march to take the first session before Race Lab made it a double top in FP2 with Tom Wrigley powering clear of the pack.
Free Practice One
The first British GT session of the weekend itself proved to be a rather calm affair, with teams and drivers electing to log in some race runs early in the weekend rather than try to find the ultimate pace which will no doubt be coming in the second session ahead of qualifying.
Indeed, such was the amount of running in the top GT3 class, that the team with the lowest amount of laps was the #50 Drivetac Mercedes-AMG GT3 of James Wallis and Chris Hart, but even then the pair still put in 19 laps as they looked to keep on perfected their set-up with the car having stepped up from GT4 at Silverstone.
For much of the session, it looked as though Raffaele Marciello’s early benchmark of 1m24.192sec in the RAM Racing Mercedes was going to be the ultimate time in Free Practice One such was the strength of the lap.
However, just after halfway in the 60-minute session the time was finally shifted. Initially Ross Gunn improved the time of the Beechdean AMR Aston Martin Vantage GT3 to fifth, but then a lap later he put in another flyer to 0.074sec quickest at the top with a 1m24.118sec.
That time stood for the remainder, but in a sign of just how close things could be come qualifying this afternoon, Euan Hankey ensured it was three marques within one-tenth of each other at the top as he placed the Race Lab McLaren 720S GT3 Evo just 0.013sec down on Marciello’s lap.
Indeed, the whole session was a demonstration of just how close the field is as the top 15 ended within one-second of Gunn’s quickest effort – Mark Smith the last driver within that bracket, finishing 0.986sec down in the Paddock Motorsport McLaren.
Back at the front, and it was Barwell Motorsport in fourth as Sandy Mitchell’s early efforts allowed the #78 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo2 he shares with Shaun Balfe to keep close in with the front runners. Fifth went to Silverstone podium finishers Mark Radcliffe and Rob Bell in the Optimum McLaren.
GT4 proved equally close, but trending towards Arturas as the top three was locked out by McLaren’s newest racer. At first, it was advantage DTO Motorsport as Josh Rowledge powered the white-and-black machine to the top of the times, but it didn’t take long for Charles Clark and Jack Brown – the dominant force in the secondary class so far this year – to find their way up to the front in their Optimum Motorsport example.
Initially they went just 0.001sec than the DTO crew’s best times, but as the track sped up towards the end of the session they improved to a 1m32.879sec which was enough to give them a slender 0.117sec advantage as the session drew to a close.
Third, and proving his addition to the Enduro Motorsport #17 was an inspired decision, was Darren Burke who was a further three-tenths back. He was just 0.034sec clear of the #56 Raceway Motorsport Ginetta, of Stuart Middleton and Freddie Tomlinson – that team is appealing its disqualification from the Silverstone race after being penalised for driving through a red light at pit exit during a safety car.
Adding some variety to proceedings in GT4 was Carl Cavers and Lewis Plato’s Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT4, which was just 0.010sec behind the Ginetta but 0.041sec ahead of Zack Meakin and Dan Vaughan’s Team Parker Racing entry. If nothing else, this session proved that the BOP is certainly doing its job.
Free Practice Two
After finishing third in the opening session, Euan Hankey unlocked some extra pace to ensure the Race Lab McLaren topped the times in FP2 – badged as pre-qualifying as teams looked to perfect their set-ups ahead of the all-important business of qualifying later on.
Indeed, it was Hankey that set the way early on towards the end of his first burst before handing over to Am team-mate Lucky Khera and that time seemed to sit untouchable for some time as even Marciello couldn’t quite get up there – the Swiss’ best lap 0.091sec down.
That said, there wasn’t much time to do too much as there was an 11-minute red flag to recover Morgan Tillbrook’s Enduro Motorsport McLaren 720S GT3 which went off sideways into the Old Hairpin gravel trap and into the barriers. GT REPORT’s ace British GT photographer Jurek Biegus potentially spotted the reason for the off, seeing the McLaren’s rear-wing lying in the middle of the track on the run to the Old Hairpin – a failure potentially the cause of Tillbrook’s excursion.
Once the session got going again, times were on the move at the top of the order. First to make a charge was Ross Gunn, fastest in FP1, as he jumped from outside the top ten to fourth and then first with a 1m24.388sec to really show GT3 rivals that the Vantage is enjoying the Donington twists and turns.
Just when it looked settled, Hankey snatched back the top spot on his final lap just three minutes from the end as he knocked 0.023sec off Gunn’s fastest time.
There was no time for any late dashes as another red flag ended the session with just under two minutes remaining as James Townsend ended up in the gravel in the Toro Verde GT Ginetta G56 GT4.
That meant Marciello and team-mate John Ferguson ended the session in third, with Dan Harper fourth in the Century Motorsport BMW M4 Gt3 with Marvin Kirchhöfer squeezing out Jules Gounon to take the last place in the top five in the Garage 59 McLaren.
Elsewhere, Sam Neary fell victim to the tougher new track limits penalties now in force in the UK – where the limit is defined as any part of the contact patch of the tyre going over the white line at track edge, or kerb edge – as he was black flagged with four minutes remaining for receiving his fifth warning.
GT4 confirmed a Race Lab double as Tom Wrigley put the team’s McLaren Artura to the top of the secondary class standings by more than quarter of a second over Stuart Middleton in the Raceway Ginetta.
Third went to Josh Miller to keep R Racing well in the mix for a good result come Sunday afternoon as he ended the second practice just 0.015sec down on Middleton and a tenth clear of Darren Burke who ensured Enduro had a positive session in GT4 at the very least.
Rounding out the top five was Aston Millar in the DTO McLaren Artura.
Qualifying gets underway at 4pm UK time (5pm CEST).
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