Balfe and Steller Audis lock out Race 1 front rows
RAM Mercedes-AMG and Newbridge Aston Martin start Monday’s second race up front
RAM Racing’s Jules Gounon and Newbridge Motorsport’s Darren Turner both bagged new Intelligent Money British GT Championship qualifying lap records at Oulton Park earlier today ahead of Easter Monday’s two one-hour sprint races.
Meanwhile, Audis start Race 1 up front in both classes thanks to Shaun Balfe and Richard Williams whose Balfe Motorsport and Steller Motorsport R8s topped their respective sessions.
GOUNON BLITZS LAP RECORD AFTER BALFE TAKES RACE 1 POLE
Shaun Balfe gave his eponymous team’s new Audi the perfect start to its British GT career by setting not one but two laps fast enough for pole position in the first of Saturday’s four 10-minute qualifying sessions.
The Evo 2-spec R8 had looked promising in practice but saved its best form for when it mattered most, Balfe’s 1m34.692s ultimately proving quick enough to beat Team Abba Racing’s Richard Neary by 0.125s after improving again on his final lap.
It was a slightly anti-climactic finish to a frenetic session that featured several names at the top of the times and a final top-13 covered by one second.
However, the one constant was Balfe who took top spot on his first flying lap and then improved again to prevent Neary from claiming provisional pole. A third faster lap ultimately wasn’t necessary but nevertheless sealed the deal with a flourish.
Neary, driving the leading Silver-Am entry, was just 0.059s behind at one stage but pitted before Balfe extended his advantage. Still, it was an encouraging session for the leading Mercedes-AMG entry that had earlier topped FP2.
Another of the session’s perma-front runners, Morgan Tillbrook, slotted Enduro Motorsport’s McLaren into third ahead of championship returnee Graham Davidson who was making his first British GT appearance since winning the 2019 title. It was an impressive showing from the Scot who is subbing for Team Rocket RJN’s full-season Am, Simon Watts, this weekend.
James Cottingham (2 Seas Motorsport) and debutant Alex Malykhin (Redline Racing) completed the top-six ahead of last year’s Oulton race winner Kevin Tse (Sky Tempesta Racing) and Nick Halstead (Fox Motorsport).
They all beat several of GT3’s established names and expected title contenders, including Michael Igoe, Ian Loggie and Adam Balon as well as last year’s Oulton Am pole winner Kelvin Fletcher.
The second session was, in fairness, all about one driver: Jules Gounon. The Mercedes-AMG factory star proclaimed his new found love for Oulton – a track he has never raced at – during the live build up and laid down a scintillating time that no-one else could challenge.
Adam Carroll came closest in Balfe’s Audi – his best effort was also under Phil Keen’s 2018 qualifying benchmark – but the Northern Irishman had no answer for Gounon’s 1m32.384s which beat both the old record and chasing R8 by four tenths.
0.064s back came Sandy Mitchell in Barwell’s Lamborghini, which shares row two with the best of the McLarens driven by 7TSIX’s Euan Hankey. Another 720S, Enduro’s example of Marcus Clutton, and Phil Keen (WPI Motorsport) completed the top-six.
Jamie Caroline impressed in practice but was unable to match his RAM team-mate’s exploits in qualifying. Nevertheless, the 2020 GT4 champion suggested there was plenty more to come after setting the fastest time of all in Sector 1 before aborting the lap. He starts seventh, and best placed of the Silver-Am runners, alongside another GT4 graduate and class rival, James Dorlin (Redline Racing).
Further back, Will Tregurtha did well to qualify Assetto’s Bentley 11th fastest after the car only arrived as a replacement last night. The team’s regular Continental GT3 sustained heavy damage in testing yesterday.
But Century’s new M4 GT3 was unable to qualify as a result of a practice incident. It’s expected to race on Monday.
STELLER AND NEWBRIDGE ON TOP IN RECORD-BREAKING GT4 BATTLE
Two hard-fought GT4 qualifying sessions produced pole positions for the Steller Motorsport Audi and Newbridge Motorsport’s Aston Martin, as the long-held class qualifying record was – just like GT3’s – smashed.
Seb Priaulx used to be the fastest man in a GT4 car around Oulton Park, with his 1m42.384s lap from 2019 standing for almost half-a-decade. However, with the introduction of Pirelli’s new P Zero DHF tyres and favourable weather on Saturday, the field stood a decent chance of lowering that benchmark.
And it so nearly fell in the very first session when Richard Williams produced a stunning lap to just miss out on the fastest-ever time by 0.009s. However, pole for the Audi was still a decent reward in itself.
Jack Brown initially led the flying laps, nudging Tom Edgar’s Toyota Gazoo Racing Supra down to second, and also denying Benji Hetherington in the Team Parker Racing Porsche. But what began as a tight three-way fight was soon left behind when Williams pumped in a 1m42.395s effort to put himself over half-a-second clear. Williams would then lower that time by another 0.003s, but while it would ensure him pole, it didn’t quite eclipse 2019’s marker.
Hetherington made a decent effort to reel the runaway Audi in but had to settle for second some six tenths back. Jamie Orton was third-fastest, an agonising 0.001s behind Hetherington’s pace, with Edgar putting the Toyota fourth in the times just a further 0.065s adrift.
Matt Topham was fifth and starts the first race from Pro-Am pole for Newbridge Motorsport following a late improvement, while Brown’s Century BMW lines up in sixth.
If the record almost fell in the first session, it was simply blown into the weeds in the second. Reigning GT4 champion Will Burns required just a single flying lap to take almost seven-tenths off it in the #90 Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT4, before Darren Turner eclipsed that with a superb 1m41.957s to put the Newbridge Aston clear, annexing both the outright and Pro-Am pole positions in the process.
All wasn’t quite settled, though, as Steller’s Audi again played a key role, this time with Sennan Fielding at the wheel. His final effort was enough to grab second, missing Turner’s best by a mere 0.046s.
Burns will start third, ahead of Jack Mitchell in the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Supra. Seb Hopkins, the youngest driver on the grid at 16, was the final driver to dip beneath the former lap record, as the entire top five proved how far the pace of this year has moved on. Josh Miller rounded out the first half dozen in R Racing’s Aston Martin.
British GT now takes a day off for Easter before reconvening for two 60-minute sprint races on Monday. Both are live on SRO’s GT World and The Race’s YouTube channels, Sky Sports F1 and Motorsport TV at 11:20 and 16:10 BST.