Drivers: Kevin Riley, Gareth Downing
Team Director: Kieran Reeves
Senior Engineer: Gareth Downing
Engineers: Staffordshire University Motorsport Students.
A slightly different approach to the Donington Park round of GT-Cup, testing was unusually placed on the Thursday to allow a track day event to take place on Friday. This meant that the team would test and race the GP layout of the circuit on September the 17th, 19th and 20th. The students and Gareth Downing would also help Kevin O’Connor on Friday 18th with set-up and driver coaching in his Mini prior to the Mini Challenge event held over the weekend.
Thursday started with Kevin Riley behind the wheel re-aclimatising himself to the Lotus after last weeks Mosler outing. Donington test days allow an open pit lane rather than the normal sessions of 30 minutes, this ensured both Kevin and Gareth got plenty of seat time and the team could dial in the car for what should be a track layout that plays to the advantages of the Lotus Evora’s chassis. The car set-up was adjusted throughout and by the end of the day on old worn tyres Kevin had knocked 6 seconds off his starting times and Gareth was circulating at the same pace as the Ferrari’s.
As Friday was a track day and noise limited to 98dB the Lotus had to stay in the Garage, this time was put to good use. The flat patch and set up bars came out of the truck and the students spent all day making adjustments to ensure all ride heights and corner weights were perfect. The tracking, camber and shock settings were fine tuned. This was a day where 0.1mm or 0.5kg tolerance would not do, we had the time and wanted the car perfect. The students worked all day to ensure this happened. Meanwhile on track the other half of our team had the Mini lapping within the top three. All excellent additional experience for them.
Saturday came, the car was perfect and Kevin went out for the 40 minute session on a used set of tyres hoping to get himself comfortable with the final changes. The session finished 4 minutes early due to a red flag with Kevin posting a time of 1.37.3. Another 1.4 seconds off Thursdays time. Qualifying would be down to Gareth who had set a time of 1.33.4 on Thursday. A brand new set of Pirelli’s were placed on the car and the 20 minute session started at 12.45. The sun was out and the track was warm. On lap 4 Gareth set a 1.32.9, lap 6 a 1.32.4 and then on lap 8 of 9 a stunning 1.32.1. That would be Pole in the GTC class by 1.8 seconds from the Ferraris and P8 overall. The extra hours spent fine tuning the chassis on Friday when all the other teams had packed up and gone home and Gareth’s nerve to hold the accelerator at 100% down Craner Curves had paid off, a few jaws were left on the floor.
The pit stop race was up next and the decision to try the race the opposite way around was decided. Gareth would start the race, run till the end of the mandatory pitstop window of 20-30 minutes and Kevin would contest the final 20 minutes. Gareth took P7 instantly and remained there until the pit window opened. The GTO cars are 2 seconds faster around Donington but Gareth was leading GTC by quite a margin. The cars dived into the pits at 20 minutes but Gareth and the GTO R8 stayed out, we were now in P2 and Gareth was pulling a good lead from the Ferrari’s and McLaren 650S also fighting for GTC honours this weekend. At 29 minutes Gareth entered the pits. A mandatory 1 minute stationery stop, plus 5 seconds added time was taken as the students pulled off a 45 second driver change and tyre check. The final 20 seconds were counted down and off Kevin went, we all checked the timing screens and we had done it, Kevin was out on first place and 40 seconds ahead of our nearest rival. Unfortunately the professionals were now in the cars and were catching fast.
Kevin was holding on and with 4 laps to go and we were still in first, the next lap saw us lose the lead and drop to third but a podium was still on, the final lap unfortunately saw the Mclaren with 200 horsepower more than us, only 80kg’s heavier and a professional driver installed take away our podium but a valiant effort from Kevin none the less.
Saturday evening saw a darker side to Motorsport, even though we came fourth a team had protested our car. After discussions with the organisers we offered them to check any aspects of the car they wanted. They declined but asked for a re-submission of the technical declaration. We duly obliged. The students had spent hours getting the car perfect and had embarrassed the professional teams in qualifying. They didn’t like that.
Sunday morning and the Team Manager was called to the Clerk of the Course. A decision had been made overnight that our car that had contested all the rounds in GTC was too fast based on 1 qualifying session and we were moved to GTO with no explanation or chance to appeal. Sometimes some teams just carry too much weight in a championship. The GTO cars have massive power advantages and aero capabilities over our car and the team had lost their fight. What was the point.
The point was that the students had shown a professional race team how to spend the hours on the basic engineering and set-up that makes a car work, nothing was found to be illegal on the car and it was sour grapes from some other teams. Their professional drivers had also been embarrassed by Gareth’s turn of pace.
A team talk and the students understood what they had achieved, we were all proud of them. As we were now in GTO, as a team we decided Gareth would contest the whole day. A few extra subtle tweaks to the car made sure it handled exactly how Gareth wanted it, rather than a compromise between two drivers preferred settings.
Qualifying and again Gareth set a 1.32.1 and put us P9. Another Pole for GTC but unfortunately for GTO we were down in 8th. The session ending early with an electrical fire in the Lotus cabin, down to a faulty plug on the data system. We had beaten the R8 though. The race started and Gareth determined not to be bullied by the faster cars (and with some red mist coming down over his eyes) fought through the grid. His lightning starts and fast first few laps saw him go to P6 on lap 1 and P5 by lap 2. He settled into a rhythm and started to catch other cars, eventually he took fourth spot overall in the race and fourth in the GTO class. The GT3 McLaren was an invitation only car so giving us third in class. What a result, what a turn around for the team. From the students being so disheartened in the morning to the euphoric celebrations in the afternoon it’s no wonder this sport has us all gripped.
The students also learned an invaluable lesson of the darker side of Motorsport and the politics that can put the sport into disrepute much like the front page news all too often in Formula One these days. But just as the caterpillar thinks it’s world is about to end it turns into a beautiful butterfly!
On to Sunday’s second 25 minute race. Gareth had posted the 6th fastest time in Race 1 and so that was our grid slot for the second sprint race of the afternoon. Again Gareth started well, although a poor attempt at an overtake from the Audi saw both wheels and the rear arch get damaged and Gareth was pushed onto the grass exiting the chicane on lap 1. The in car video showed how hard he had been hit, coincidentally the same people who moved us up a class saw no contact in our supplied video, interesting debate for the conspiracy theorists out there. However Gareth again set into a routine and made his way through the pack quickly. He broke away from the pack but first to third were already too far out of reach. A lonely race saw him take fourth position once again and with the McLaren not classified third position points were once again rewarded.
A fantastic weekend for all involved and the students prevailed once again against adversity showing a few professional teams what we are capable of to the extent they protest. We wish them well on their Pyrrhic victory.