Darren Leung and Dan Harper pulled off a remarkable race to win the penultimate round of the Intelligent Money British GT Championship at Brands Hatch to take the GT3 title fight down to the final race at Donington Park in October.
In the GT4 class, first lap chaos threw the order into disarray but Academy Motorsport came out on top, as Erik Evans and Matt Cowley dominated in their Ford Mustang. A DNF for title leaders Charles Clark and Jack Brown mean the GT4 title will also go down to the last race of 2023.
With a long summer break, it was half-expected that the action would be chaotic as the 120-minute race got underway at the Kent circuit, but it was a surprise that the chaos would start from the very first corner.
Going into the steep Paddock Hill Bend, a domino effect crash caused all sorts of chaos. It started as John Ferguson tagged the back of Ian Loggie’s similar Mercedes-AMG GT3, which sent the Scot into Kevin Tse’s Sky Tempesta Racing McLaren 720S GT3 Evo. It was Loggie who came out worst as he spun and ended broadside across the track at the bottom of Paddock Hill.
Cars had to dive left and right, with numerous drivers having to take to the gravel trap on the outside to avoid smashing into the D2-liveried Mercedes. That shook up the GT4 class massively, see more on that in our class report below, but pole-sitter James Cottingham avoided the chaos and pulled away handsomely.
That was helped by main title rival Leung getting robbed of second at the start by a fast-starting Shaun Balfe in the Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo2.
Balfe, though, couldn’t quite close in on Cottingham who was locked-in in the 2 Seas Motorport Mercedes-AMG GT3, knowing that a win could potentially wrap up the GT3 Drivers’ title a race early should results fall their way.
Indeed, that seemed to be happening in the first hour. Relegated from his front-row starting position, Leung was quickly mugged of third by the Beechdean AMR Aston Martin of Andrew Howard as the BMW M4 GT3 was struggling with tyre pressures in what is one of the hottest September days British GT will have ever raced in.
In the opening 30 minutes or so, things were pretty calm, with Cottingham extending his lead to over four seconds and pretty comfortably picking his way through the GT4 traffic – despite a few sketchy moments.
The race compressed for the first time thanks to a moment of madness from Richard Neary. The Team ABBA Racing driver lost fifth to Mike Price – having the best race of the season in his Greystone GT Mercedes-AMG GT3 – and was quickly under pressure from Optimum Motorsport’s Mark Radcliffe. On the run down to Clark Curve, Neary tried to late brake the McLaren to get back into sixth but was way too late and clipped Radcliffe on his way into the gravel. That needed a safety car to allow the marshals to safely recover the bright green machine, and compressed the field.
There was barely time to blink before the next safety car period was needed, and again Price had a part to play in it. Heading into Westfield Corner, Simon Orange – recovering splendidly after an early drive-through for taking the long lap rather than the Indy circuit to the grid – went up the inside of Price to try and take fifth. However, Price chopped across the front of the Orange Racing Powered by JMH driver and sent Orange spinning into the gravel, needing another neutralisation.
With no one able to forge a path clear in the five minutes between the second safety car ending and the pit window opening, all the leaders elected to jump in and switch to the Pro drivers as soon as possible.
What that led to, was a remarkable change in fortune. With Century Motorsport mechanics altering the tyre pressures ready for Harper’s stint, the BMW switched from being a bit off the pace to being absolutely on it. Coming out ahead of Cottingham’s co-driver Jonny Adam, Harper pulled clear and into a tasty battle for the lead with Ross Gunn, who took over the Beechdean Vantage.
The pair were back-and-forth lap-after-lap but the Northern Irish racer wasn’t going too wild to make the move, knowing time was on his side to pick the best possible opportunity to overtake, rather that sending a wild move which could have ended in disaster.
His opportunity final came with just under 30 minutes of the race remaining. A better run out of Hawthorn, Harper had the momentum to get up Gunn’s inside at Westfield and squeeze himself through into the lead, one that he managed all the way to the end – taking the flag just a second ahead of the Aston racer as he looked to avoid the tyre issues that plagued Leung.
With Leung & Harper winning, they’d done their job in terms of keeping the title fight alive. They were helped no end by Adam not able to match Cottingham’s stint. Coming out of the pitstop in third, Adam was quickly under pressure from team-mate Jules Gounon – taking over the sister 2 Seas AMG from Loggie – but couldn’t seem to close the gap to the leading duo as he had half-an-eye on making sure Gounon didn’t find his way through for the last step on the podium.
Finishing 17 seconds off the lead, instead of winning the title, they’ve got a touch more pressure on their shoulders as British GT heads once more into a season-ending Donington Decider. Their third place means their advantage at the top of the championship standings has been slashed from 33 to 13 points.
Gounon and Loggie finishing fourth – a great result coming back from dead last at the end of lap one – means they’re now out of the title fight, only Adam/Cottingham or Harper/Leung can win the title.
Back to the race, and it was fifth for Balfe and team-mate Sandy Mitchell – the latter another one of those who seemed to see car conditions flip in the second stint. The Lamborghini factory driver was stuck behind Price’s co-driver Callum Macleod for almost all the closing hour, only gaining fifth after the latter ran out of fuel with a lap to go and having to park the green Greystone machine on the inside of Sheene.
Despite almost being caught unsighted by a spinning Loggie, and having to restart the car after stalling it in avoidance, Mark Smith and Martin Plowman took a solid sixth for Paddock Motorsport. They were rather lonely, 21 seconds behind the top five but more than eight seconds clear of Drivetac’s Chris Hart and James Wallis.
The Mercedes-AMG pair overcame two drive-through penalties – one for doing the GP loop to the grid rather than the Indy circuit, and another for speeding in the pits serving their first penalty – to take seventh and the Silver-Am class victory in what turned out to eventually be a clean run to the flag after early shenanigans.
Eighth went to Radcliffe and Rob Bell, having lost some time being forced into the gravel by Neary but being able to get out the other side. Barwell’s second Lamborghini was ninth with Mark Sansom and Will Tregurtha, and Sky Tempesta Racing rounded out the top 10.
From what could have been an early coronation, the GT4 category has also become a Donington Decider too, and it was all arguably a consequence of that first corner drama for Loggie.
While a chunk of the GT3s managed to get round the Mercedes cleanly, the GT4 field was completely thrown for a loop – some rows off the grid going two or three wide through the gravel to try and carry on.
It was that need to go through the gravel that possibly started the chain of events that led to championship leaders Charles Clark and Jack Brown having to retire.
Brown started the Optimum Motorsport McLaren Artura, and did a good job to lose just seven places from his fourth-place starting position considering just how wild that run through Paddock Hill ended up being. However, the gravel potentially damaged the cooling system on the car and just 10 minutes into the race one of the cooling pipes burst, spraying coolant all over the circuit – which caught a few of the GT4 cars behind.
That led to a retirement and dreams of clinching the title go up in smoke, and allowed their title rivals to close up and really put the crown up in the air.
Taking full advantage was Erik Evans and Matt Cowley. Evans ended the first lap in first position after a rapid opening lap for the Mustang, which has been on the pace all weekend around Brands Hatch, and never lost the position all the way to the flag – despite Cowley going wide and running through the dirt on the outside of Sheene a couple of minutes from the end.
Also massively improving their championship chances were Portimao winners Michael Johnston and Chris Salkeld, who benefitted from the top three in class being able to gain a lap during one of the opening two safety cars to essential confirm themselves on the podium halfway into the race as well as the Pro-Am class victory.
The Century Motorsport duo are now just 11.5 points behind Clark and Brown with 37.5 available at the final round, with Evans and Cowley six points further back in what will be a thrilling finale.
Back at Brands Hatch, Seb Hopkins and Josh Miller scored second, having had a faultless race but not the pace to keep the R Racing Aston Martin in touching distance of the American muscle car up front, finishing 18 seconds down – even with Cowley’s off towards the end.
Highlighting the strength of the Fords was Matt Nicoll-Jones and Will Moore taking fourth overall and the final place on the Silver Cup podium. Nicoll-Jones especially was on the charge, and gained a hatful of positions but being a lap down on the top three meant he couldn’t get any further up.
The second Century BMW M4 GT4 of Carl Cavers and Lewis Plato took fifth and second in Pro-Am, the latter having the measure of Mike Simpson who rounded out the Pro-Am podium alongside James Townsend in the Toro Verde GT Ginetta G56.
The final round of the Intelligent Money British GT Championship is at Donington Park for a two-hour blast on 21-22 October.
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