Round one of the Blancpain Sprint Series at Nogaro in France over the weekend became something of a ‘character building’ event for championship rookie Sean Walkinshaw and the MRS GT-Racing team – contact on the opening lap of the Qualification Race setting the tone for a frustrating debut.
While timed practice went smoothly for the Chipping Norton 21-year-old and his team-mate Craig Dolby, the all-important Qualification Race on Easter Sunday, 5th April, turned into a complete nightmare when the rear of the duo’s Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 was severely damaged on lap one.
With Dolby behind the wheel for the first stint of the encounter, lining-up sixth on the grid thanks to his great run in qualifying, hopes were justifiably high for a competitive performance. Forced to avoid a tangle at the second corner, though, Dolby was then whacked from behind and left to limp back to the pits and retirement.
Working tirelessly to facilitate repairs in readiness for the main race on Monday, 6th April, the team stayed up long into the night and after taking receipt of vital parts flown in from the squad’s UK base, the MRS GT-Racing mechanics completed the re-build before the brief warm-up session.
Incredibly, the misfortune continued with a mechanical issue in that session – a result of the race one contact – meaning the team went into Easter Monday’s encounter with substantially less running than its rivals. That said, the drivers did as much as they could to bring the Nissan through the 60-minute contest in the top 15.
“It’s obviously been a disappointing weekend with how everything turned out, but there are a lot of positives for us to take away”, reflected Sean, “Craig did an awesome job to be P6 in qualifying and I really think we could have stayed in that sort of position in the Qualification Race if we hadn’t been hit on the first lap.
“We always knew Nogaro would be a track which wouldn’t favour our car so much, so to have qualified sixth is fantastic and bodes well for the rest of the season. In the main race, starting so far back was always going to be a challenge and it was also my first time on heavy fuel as well. We got stuck in traffic and couldn’t show our true pace, but we’re feeling confident going forward.”
Sean took the opening stint in the Main Race and from 16th position on the grid he was shuffled back to 18th before mounting a strong charge. Regaining a place on lap two, the Briton started to pressurise the group ahead as he became locked in a tight five car battle.
On lap 13, he served up two great moves – first claiming 16th from Olivier Lombard’s Bentley and then sweeping past Marcel Wagner’s Porsche mid-lap to break into the top 15. Remaining on track as the pit-window opened, he moved into the top 10 before serving his pit-stop at half-distance.
Re-joining the race in 15th position, Dolby climbed into 14th on lap 24 but was edged back again by McLaren driver Kevin Estre 10 laps later. Working hard to cling onto his top 15 placing during the closing stages, the Englishman did so to secure an important finish after a very trying couple of days.
From the disappointment of the Blancpain Sprint Series curtain-raiser, Sean and the team head to Monza in Italy now for the season-opening first race of the sister Blancpain Endurance Series next weekend, 11th/12th April. The next round of the Sprint Series, meanwhile, will take place on home soil at Brands Hatch on 9th/10th May.