Optimum Motorsport’s Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson were crowned GT4 Champions after racing to a hard-fought third place in the Pirelli British GT Championship’s highly touted ‘Donington Decider’ (10-11 September).
In doing so, the teammates achieved a significant and unexpected coup by propelling Optimum Motorsport to second overall on the GT4 Teams’ table, only five points adrift of the eventual Champion squad and above larger two-car entries.
First practice on Saturday (10 September) morning was a washout and with all forecasts suggesting the weather would continually improve as the weekend progressed Optimum Motorsport took the sensible decision not to run the PMW World Expo Ginetta.
To everybody’s surprise, the rain persisted into FP2, but, as initially predicted, the wet weather abated and the track surface dried out in time for the all-important qualifying session.
A best time of 1m37.257s ensured Johnson completed GT4 Am qualifying in fifth position with a surmountable half a second deficit to the provisional polesitter and title-rivalling Beechdean AMR entry of Jack Bartholomew and Ross Gunn in third.
All eyes then turned to GT4 Pro and a big push from Robinson the latter stages of the session vaulted the Optimum Motorsport Ginetta to third, but three consecutive personal bests wouldn’t be enough for the 33-year old to improve further.
A 1m36.393s and an aggregate time of 3m13.650s meant the PMW World Expo-liveried machine would start Sunday’s (11 September) two-hour contest from row two of the grid, directly behind Beechdean on pole, and Johnson said: "I thought Beechdean would win the championship in a straight fight, because the Aston Martin was the quicker package at Donington Park. I felt we needed to win the race and I hoped for a bit of good fortune too."
Conditions improved dramatically on Sunday and, aware that Optimum Motorsport would have to finish ahead of Beechdean AMR to win the 2016 British GT4 title, Johnson concentrating on making a strong start and he would subsequently maintain third as his title foe tumbled to sixth on a busy opening lap.
Two positions were then lost to Joey Foster and Jordan Stilp, but Johnson still had the upper hand over Bartholomew and he found an extra gear to pull away from the chasing Aston Martin and narrow in on fourth-placed Stilp on the run to the compulsory driver-changes.
Optimum Motorsport made good use of a shorter success penalty to extend its advantage and the team was revealed in third as the strategies shook out, with Jamie Stanley standing between them and the Beechdean V8 Vantage, now in Gunn’s hands.
The battle between Stanley and Gunn was resolved in favour of the Beechdean racer, but Robinson continued lapping at a similar pace to his title rival and comfortably secured third place to seal the British GT4 Drivers’ crown for himself and teammate Johnson.
“I’ve worked with Mike (Robinson) for 20 years, we’ve been best mates for 15 years and we’ve been pushing hard to reach this level for a very long time, but I never thought we would actually do it,” said Johnson. “I was absolutely focused on staying ahead of the Beechdean car – I didn’t care if we were tenth and they were 11th, we just had to stay ahead – but I was a bit nervous because we hadn’t had free practice to learn how our race pace compared to theirs. It’s going to be extraordinary to have a #1 on the car next year – we can’t quite believe that.”
Robinson added: “To be British GT Champion is a dream and I can’t believe we’ve done it. We just thought it was a grand idea and it would be nice if it worked out, but it’s such a competitive field that to win a championship is remarkable. Optimum Motorsport has made sure the PMW World Expo Ginetta has been quick and reliable all year, we’ve both been consistent in qualifying and race-trim and when we’ve finished, we’ve finished well. I don’t think we’ll be doing any work tomorrow – we’ll just be talking about racing and looking forward to coming back next year to defend our title.”
Optimum Motorsport Team Principal, Shaun Goff, said: “We have another trophy in the cabinet and that makes all the hard work we’ve injected into this campaign worthwhile. I’ve had all different thoughts going through my head during the build-up to this weekend, knowing we’ve had a stranglehold on the championship lead since the start and it could slip from our grasp so easily, but the team stayed positive and it’s a huge relief to achieve what we set out to achieve at the beginning of the year.
“To only finish five points off the title-winning outfit in the British GT4 Teams’ Championship cements how good a job the team, drivers and Ginetta have done and it’s something I’m incredibly proud of. It isn’t something I saw as realistic, but we can’t forget that we finished rrunner-up last year and won the title in 2013. Rightly, everybody rates my team highly and I have to pinch myself from time-to-time because I can’t believe what we’ve been able to achieve. It’s great that Graham (Johnson) and Mike (Robinson) – two guys from nine-to-five desk jobs – have gone up against and beaten young, yet experienced talents in such fine style. It shows the Pro Am formula works.”