Dan Harper said he “didn’t breathe for 30 minutes” as he picked his way through the GT3 field to ensure he and Darren Leung claimed the Intelligent Money British GT Championship title in an action-packed #DoningtonDecider, which turned into a nightmare for title rivals James Cottingham and Philip Ellis.
In GT4, a remarkable climb through the ranks helped Matt Cowley and Erik Evans mark the final appearance of the current-generation Academy Motorsport Ford Mustang with a race win and a championship title thanks to a faultless drive.
From the start, it seemed as though things were feted for the Century Motorsport pairing as Leung made a rocket start from the outside of the front-row and decided to brave it out around the outside of Andrew Howard’s Beechdean AMR Aston Martin going down the Craner Curves and a stunning commitment to hanging tough into the Old Hairpin allowed the BMW M4 GT3 to push through.
If the start suggested which way the title would go, it seemed as though the race itself was doing everything it could to throw obstacles in the way of the red BMW. Quickly building up a lead of five seconds in the opening eight minutes, the race was neutralised by a safety car through what could have been a very nasty incident between the two Toro Verde GT Ginetta G56 GT4s.
James Townsend in the #86 tried to weave to the inside of Ian Duggan’s #80 going into Redgate but totally misjudged his closing speed and shoved into the back-end of the #80. That sent them both ploughing into the tyre barriers in a cloud of gravel and Ginetta parts. Thankfully both drivers were fine, but recovery of both vehicles and repairs to the barriers led to a 20-minute safety car.
Back to green, Leung used the prodigious speed of the M4 to open up a lead which grew over a dozen seconds as the pack behind – headed by Howard but hounded by Morgan Tillbrook, Ian Loggie, Richard Neary and James Cottingham – allowed the leader to break away and thank his stars that no-one was really threatening.
Just as things looked easy-breezy for Leung, a burst of incidents all within a lap of each other called for another safety car period. First, Mike Price smashed into the side of Iain Campbell as he tried a lunge up the inside at the Melbourne Hairpin, leaving Campbell stuck in the gravel. Then, John Seale seemed to lose control of the Fox Motorsport Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo2 going down the Craner Curves and went skittering across the grass and into the barrier (not hard thankfully) at the Old Hairpin.
Throw in Ron Johnson coming into strife on the exit of Coppice and a neutralisation seemed like the best course of action.
When the safety car came back in, just after the halfway point, the pit window opened and immediately the vast majority of the GT3 field dived in for their mandatory stops.
Losing out massively was Leung when he handed over to Harper. The pair’s garage was at pit exit and lost time trying to find a gap in the mass of cars going back out onto track.
Leaving in 13th, Harper’s charge started off on a good foot as the third and final safety car period was called for as Ben Collins ground to a halt at Schwantz Curve in the Raceway Ginetta.
Just over 45 minutes remained when the race went green again, and Harper set about picking his way through the cars ahead. Inside and out, the BMW Factory Driver wasn’t choosy when it came to making his overtakes, favouring moves at the Melbourne and Goddards Hairpins, as well as an audacious move on Jules Gounon into the Old Hairpin, as he cut from outside to inside into the right-hander and accelerated clear of the 2 Seas Motorsport Mercedes-AMG GT3.
Also picking off Raffaele Marciello, Harper found Marcus Clutton to be tough competition in the Enduro Motorsport McLaren 720S GT3. Lying in third, Harper was trying everything he could to squeeze past the bronze machine but Clutton was too wise.
It took 15 minutes for the move to finally come. Clutton lost a little pace on the exit of the Foggarty Esses and Harper had the speed to nip up the inside at the Melbourne Hairpin.
Second proved to be the highest he could climb, Sandy Mitchell – who benefitted massively from Shaun Balfe pitting the Barwell Lamborghini just as the third safety car came out – was out in front and just too quick for Harper to catch. Not that it mattered to the Northern Irishman, who was in a title-clinching position after a nightmare for his 2 Seas rivals.
That’s because Cottingham had a bit of a stinker. He and Philip Ellis only really put a foot-wrong once – getting a drive-through for an overtake under yellow flags while lapping GT4 traffic – but their Mercedes-AMG GT3 didn’t seem to have the same pace of anyone around them.
Cottingham found himself repeatedly mugged in his stint and then after the drive-through was served, Ellis didn’t have the speed to pick his way up from the outside of the top ten.
For Harper and Leung, their second was the icing on the cake of what had been an unexpectedly strong season. Leung told GT REPORT that his target for the end of the season was to be within 37.5 points of the lead battle.
He added: “The year has just been real head-down and getting myself up to speed, I’ve not really been doing this very long so everyone’s had a big job to get me there and everyone has done an incredible job really helping me learn all the things I needed to learn.
“Got out there [in the race] and credit to Andrew Howard, he gave me a lot of respect on lap one, and then I got my head down and just drove. The safety cars came out but to be honest my immediate thoughts were with everyone in the garage because it is so much harder watching than it is driving to be honest with you – as I was reminded of in Dan’s stint!”
The trophy came their way thanks to Harper’s efforts in his closing stint, admitting it was a hard effort. He said: “I actually said to Lewis [Century mechanic] after the race, I don’t think I breathed for about 30 minutes! When I finally got to third and there was a decent gap, I just finally breathed and calmed down.
“Darren’s been unbelievable, the work he’s put in that a lot of people don’t know has been incredible. I’ve never seen a bronze or an Am driver put so much work in, I’m just so happy for him that it’s all came in such a best way possible at the end. He drove the best stint of the season today and this is only the beginning for him – hopefully we can keep working together. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
In the race itself, Mitchell and Balfe took the final win of the year for Barwell, with Clutton and Tillbrook rounding out the overall podium. Marciello took fourth alongside John Ferguson in the RAM Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, with Gounon and Loggie fifth – the former losing a chunk of time on the final restart as he went too deep at Goddards and slipped out of the lead.
The fight for the Silver-Am class title proved to be a thriller with a simple premise – whoever finished ahead, either the Sky Tempesta McLaren of Kevin Tse & Chris Froggatt or the Barwell Lamborghini of Mark Sansom & Will Tregurtha, would walk away with the title.
And wouldn’t fate have it? The pair proved to be nose-to-tail for much of the final 30 minutes and were giving no quarter. For a time, it was Tregurtha who headed Froggatt, but a bit of a cheeky shunt from Froggatt – which damaged the front of the 720S – allowed him to sneak through.
The decisive move came on the last lap, as Tregurtha got a better run down to the Melbourne Hairpin and he forced himself up the inside of the white McLaren and held on to take the win and class title – a just reward for what has been a bit of a tricky season for Tregurtha and Samson.
The secondary class seemed to be calm on the surface, but dig down and you’d quickly discover there was action throughout and coming through it all without a scratch was Matt Cowley and Erik Evans, anchored by a great final stint from Cowley who powered the Mustang from 14th all the way to the win.
With six crews all up for the title, trying to keep track of exactly who was in the hot seat at any given time was a fool’s errand. Early doors, it was Josh Miller in the R Racing Aston Martin Vantage who led the way from the similarly named Aston Millar in the DTO Motorsport McLaren Artura GT4. Miller proved too good at defending to allow any lead changes at the front of the category, but through all the chaos it proved to be Evans who was the biggest mover as he came from outside the top six to end up in third by the time the pit window opened on the 60-minute mark.
But through the pit window, success penalties and the tightness of the Donington pitlane meant Evans’ work was undone and Cowley had to do it all over again.
He did it with aplomb. Slowly picking his way through the field, he quickly got onto the back of the battling Tom Wrigley and Josh Rowledge in the Race Lab and the DTO McLarens respectively. He picked off Rowledge with ease, and then an inch-perfect move around Coppice allowed him to pick off Wrigley and take the lead.
First place guaranteed the duo the title as long as no trouble befell them, and Cowley pushed it close – one track limits warning off a drive-through penalty for the final 10 minutes of the race.
Cowley didn’t go over the edge, and crossed the line with four seconds in hand over Wrigley, who took Pro-Am victory alongside Ian Gough as he just about held off Rowledge on the run to the flag.
After the race, Cowley told GT REPORT: “It’s been an up-and-down season really, just ending on an up! We had a couple of results along the way which could have helped us like Snetterton and the first round here, but it all came down to this round and after the pitstops – with the success penalty – I think we came out with just two cars behind us. I managed to drive my way through the field to win the race which is just what we needed to do!
“It was pretty hectic in my stint to be honest it was just carving our way through the field because I knew Chris Salkeld and Michael Johnston were ahead of us so that was my main aim after I saw we came out ahead of the #90 McLaren. The main aim was the BMW, and once we got that I thought ‘we still have a bit more pace here’ so I kept going and I got onto the podium and then I saw the leaders just up the road so I thought I’d chase up to them, and I thought ‘I don’t know how I’ve got here’!”
As said by Cowley, the title race was thrown wide open after a race where the Optimum Motorsport Artura of Charles Clark and Jack Brown was running pretty strong before the pits, but faded towards the close and eventually finished 11th overall capping a season of what might have been after their rapid opening half of the 2023 British GT campaign which ended with the Silver Cup title, but not the Overall.
Behind the lead trio, there was more reason to smile for Century Motorsport as Lewis Plato and Carl Cavers took second on the Pro-Am podium – fourth overall – and won the Pro-Am title with the sister car of Chris Salkeld and Michael Johnston winning the Pro-Am title in their BMW M4 GT4.
Indeed, there was reason to be even happier for Academy, as team boss Matt Nicoll-Jones rounded out the Silver Cup podium alongside Will Moore in a silverware-filled sign off for the Ford Mustang.
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