Blancpain GT: Double podium delight for Triple Eight

Joe Osborne and Ryan Ratcliffe had a successful debut weekend in the Blancpain Sprint Series at the final round of the 2014 season, the Baku World Challenge in Azerbaijan. The BMW duo secured second place in both 60-minute sprint races, despite receiving contact, which damaged the Triple Eight-prepared BMW Z4 GT3.The purpose-built street circuit on the coast of the Caspian Sea provided a spectacular venue for the weekend, and stormy wet weather on Saturday made setup for qualifying tricky. The earlier two practice sessions were spent gathering data and making a progressive set of changes that gave both drivers confidence going into qualifying on the unusual street-circuit environment.The format of qualifying for the weekend required both drivers to post a time, the combination of which would be used to calculate the start position for Sunday’s first race. Ratcliffe was first out and quickly acknowledged further changes were required, but set a time (1:36.989) competitive with the Silver Cup rivals the team were pursuing this weekend, resulting in P26 overall.Osborne looked good for a top-ten qualifying position, but a red flag period in the session allowed his tyres to cool off and as a result, on the restart the former 2009 European GT4 champion couldn’t get the time required out of the car, finishing P20 (1:32.437), five places short of qualifying for super pole, but crucially second in class.The wet and greasy conditions of Saturday disappeared overnight and the Azeri capital looked resplendent in the morning sunshine. With much of the road circuit surrounded by stands full of keen locals, the atmosphere was electric for the qualifying race.On track, there was plenty of action at the front as rivals hopped over the chicanes, straight-lining and picking up places, but Osborne, starting the race in the #888 BMW Z4 GT3 kept it clean and stuck to the track.On the approach to turn four on the first lap, the British ace passed David Fumanelli’s BMW on the outside and quickly found himself braking into an ever-decreasing piece of tarmac; at the same time the Zakspeed Mercedes of Andreas Simonsen was coming across the track from the left and the pair collided, knocking Stef Dusseldorp’s SLS GT3 into the path of the kerb-hopping Dominik Baumann, who was arriving ‘hot’ into the tight chicane.A lengthy safety car period was required to clean up the mess, but Osborne continued despite missing a left wheel fairing and the battered BMW soldiered on before being given a drive through penalty for involvement in the contact.At the pit stops Welsh racer Ratcliffe took over and had a clean stint in what turned out to be a relatively lonely race to seventeenth at the flag, second in class.The Main race took place just after lunchtime in Baku, and the 60-minute sprint race didn’t lack energy, once again seeing Triple Eight’s rivals gaining from cutting the first chicane. Ratcliffe, starting 16th following a retirement ahead between the races, was understandably cautious and dropped down the order to 21st place.Ratcliffe was driven into by Alexey Vasilyev, suggesting the Welsh driver has a magnetism for Russian GT drivers after being disposed of in the Silverstone round of the Blancpain Endurance Series earlier in the year too. The BMW was clearly damaged with the under tray and rear fairing broken, and some parts of the bodywork rubbing against the right rear tyre, generating worrying smoke.Showing grit and determination, Ratcliffe got his head down and climbed to eighteenth, importantly keeping second place in class. Try as he might, the Groundhog-backed driver could do little to prevent his more experienced rival, Miguel Toril, escape his clutches.At the end of the sixteenth lap, Ratcliffe pitted from 20th place to hand over to team-mate Osborne, who was eager to put in a good display and better the earlier runner-up finish.Straight out of the box Osborne delivered a 1:32.9 and kept apace with the overall race leaders who exited the pits ahead of him. A spin for the Corvette of Daniel Keilwitz and a retirement for Miguel Paludo’s BMW gave Osborne ample opportunity to progress, that he did, moving up to seventeenth on track after six laps in the Z4.A game of cat and mouse evolved during Osborne’s stint, with the British ace fighting to first catch, and then pass ex-British Formula 3 champion and F1 test driver Marko Asmer’s Mercedes, ironically, the team-mate of Vasilyev.With a damaged car there was little Osborne could do to overcome the GT Russian Mercedes and he settled into his stint, picking up places as those around him made errors and took unnecessary risks.Osborne looked set to take fourteenth with one lap to go, but Christopher Mies’ retirement at the final corner gave the Triple Eight racer thirteenth and ensured a second successive runners-up place finish in the Silver Cup was secure, just a handful of seconds off the class winning Mercedes of Toril’s team-mate Benji Hetherington.QuotesJoe Osborne:“It was a good debut weekend for the team in the Blancpain Sprint Series, but I think we wanted to deliver more than just a respectable performance. We were getting quicker and quicker as the weekend progressed, but we didn’t have the setup required to keep pace lap after lap. Contact is always regrettable, but in race one I definitely felt the Mercedes on my left gave me nowhere to go. The second race was better, but the car wasn’t handling properly after Ryan was hit from behind on the first lap. Had we got a better qualifying performance, I don’t think we would’ve been in those situations and we might’ve left Baku having achieved some overall top tens, which was my goal before the weekend. Overall though I really enjoyed the weekend and my first street circuit race.”Ryan Ratcliffe:“It’s been a good weekend, but a really tough learning curve for me. I’m super happy with my performance as I feel I came on leaps and bounds with the car this weekend and my confidence on the circuit has grown and grown. Joe and I had decent pace, certainly good enough to challenge for the class win, but unfortunately not everything can go your way all the time. But, for our first appearance in Blancpain Sprint and our first-ever street race, I think Joe, the team and myself did a great job.”Race Weekend InformationBlancpain Sprint Series – Azerbaijan
Round 7: Baku World Challenge
Baku City Circuit, Azerbaijan
2.72 miles (4.379km), 18-turn circuit
November 1-2, 2014