GT QUALIFYING - The entry list for the opening act in the 2018 GT thriller didn’t fail to whet the appetites of true petrol heads, with its trademark smorgasbord of fire breathing, highly modified cars slated to appear. Sadly, some of the most interesting machines due to make their Combe debuts were no-shows, including Doug Watson’s Ultima GTR, Nigel Mustill’s 6.2 litre Volvo S60 and David Krayem’s 8.4 litre Chrysler Viper Oreca – let’s hope we get to see these monsters at some point later in the season. 2018 would also see the welcome return of Dylan Popovic in a Ginetta G50, a previous Combe GT regular who hasn’t been seen on track for a couple of seasons.
Resplendent in its chrome blue Easter egg wrapper-like livery, Steve Putt’s Chevy LS powered V8 Mazda RX-7 dominated a treacherous qualifying session. The car has been completely rebuilt following a terrifying off at the end of last season, where it suffered total brake failure going into Tower corner. Despite the copious BHP needing to be delivered through a huge expanse of rubber, the Mazda looked impressively sure-footed in the corners and securing pole position comfortably.
Ex-champion Oliver Bull navigated his agile Tigra silhouette expertly through the puddles to join Putt on the front row, keeping 2017 runner up Barry John in his spray. John got the better of his Mitsubishi rival Barry Squibb, whose Evo only managed to make it out on track thanks to an ‘Orange Army’ bump start in the pit lane.
Chris Southcott unfortunately carried out some unplanned and undesired major modification to his ‘Mighty Midget’ in testing earlier in the week, so decided to keep his GT entry and give his ‘Hot Hatch’ Peugeot 205 some extra race miles. This in fact turned out to be the right tool for the job given the conditions, earning him an impressive P5 amongst much more powerful competition, way ahead of his nearest class rival.
Reigning champion Ilsa Cox had to settle for P7, losing out to fellow SEAT driver and class rival Carleton Williams.
Tony Bennett was the best of a three-car class B Caterham entry, securing P8 comfortably.
GT ROUND 1 - Oliver Bull was sitting above Barry John on the timesheets at the end of qualifying, however their positions were reversed when they took to the track for the formation lap. It was clear from the earlier qualifying session that Barry Squibb’s Mitsubishi was having some behaviour issues, issues that had not been remedied in the paddock as the white Evo failed to take its place on the grid. In contrast, the rather familiar Higgins family white Ginetta had appeared at the very back of the grid, despite not being seen qualifying – the late entry creating a mystery as to which of the three possible Higgins family members could possibly be behind the wheel!
The rolling start commenced without incident, the pole man Putt putting the power down and was unchallenged on the race to Quarry. Despite the obvious power disadvantage and drive to half as many wheels, Chris Southcott somehow managed to assume third spot in the race to quarry, getting the better of the pair of Evos. Most other positions were held except for the Higgins Ginetta which wasted no time in setting about climbing up from the bottom rung of the ladder.
By the end of the first lap, Putt had pulled a healthy gap over John who by now was being chased by Bull having passed the Peugeot of Southcott.
The second lap saw some runners fall foul of the patchy grip conditions. The Mini Cooper S of Paul Dickenson had a huge tank-slapper coming out of Tower, one that he failed to gather up, finishing up on the grass facing the wrong way. Dylan Popovic wasn’t hitting it off too well with his new Ginetta G50 as he also span off at old Paddock.
Mr Higgins’ progress showed no signs of letting up, climbing all the way up to 4th in just three laps.
The almost unrecognisable Toyota MR2 of Rob Horsfield was conspicuous by his absence on the 4th lap, and by the next tour of the circuit the Honda Civic Type R safety car had joined the party with its amber roof lights flashing. A flurry of Orange activity at Quarry corner revealed that Horsfield’s red MR2 was camouflaged beneath the new red impact absorbing barriers. The interruption should have allowed John to close right up to the rear of Putt’s Mazda, however he found a couple of Caterhams in his way whom Putt had recently lapped. Higgins who had already passed Ilsa Cox for 4th place, faced quite a gap ahead of him to Oliver Bull, so was naturally delighted to see the safety car.
With the Toyota extricated from the barriers, the lights went out on the safety car and Putt wasted no time getting straight back into his stride. Higgins tucked right into the Bull’s slipstream, ready to pick his moment to slingshot out of it, which he did at Westway to steal third. The sight of Higgins in his mirrors caused Barry John to dig deep and put in the fastest lap thus far in an effort to protect his silver medal position. Higgins replied immediately by going faster still.
Reigning champion ‘Queen’ Ilsa Cox seemed to be heading for an easy fourth place until she reappeared a few places down the order, the muddy flanks of her SEAT giving an indication as to the reason!
Up at the front, Putt’s pace had tempered slightly, possibly as a result of the wet tyres becoming less effective on the rapidly drying track. Higgins had reeled John’s Evo in and took advantage of a couple of back markers to make his move, stealing second at Quarry corner.
Putt took the chequered flag from Higgins, with Barry John climbing onto the final podium step. Oliver Bull took an easy fourth from Chris Southcott who heroically managed to prevent Ilsa Cox from getting by for a second time following her ‘moment’, both winning their respective classes. Tony Bennett had a lonely race, taking class B with ease in 8th overall.
The slightly delayed start to the meeting meant the Winners Car was given the day off, leaving the victorious drivers to walk down to the podium for their post-race interviews. It was only at this point that the mystery Higgins family member was finally revealed as Adam!
GT ROUND 2 - Uncharacteristically for a GT Race, the only starter which failed to make it to the chequered flag under its own steam in the earlier race was Rob Horsfield. This didn’t mean that the same number would start round two however. Barry Squibb still hadn’t managed to get his Evo to comply with his instructions and Chris Southcott’s Peugeot had perished rather spectacularly in the earlier Hot Hatch Challenge race.
Starting positions were pretty much as per round one, and the faithful Combe crowds were treated to a second crescendo of the GT rolling start symphony. The leading trio of Putt, Bull and John were all in close contention as the race got underway while ‘Queen Ilsa’ got the better of both Tony Bennett and Carleton Williams to promote herself to 4th on the drag race through Folly. Now that everyone knew he was there, all eyes turned to the back of the grid to Adam Higgin and his white Ginetta. He didn’t disappoint and immediately started taking scalps, passing half of the field in the opening lap and crossing the line in 8th.
Steve Putt’s Mazda’s trade mark flames were again spitting from its exhausts but this time they were melting the orange paint on Oliver Bull’s front bumper. Bizarrely, Putt seemed to be finding less grip in the corners than in the earlier wet race, despite the track having dried completely. The dry conditions were suiting Cox’s SEAT well as she set the fastest lap and began bearing down on the leaders with Bradley John in her sights. That wouldn’t stand for long though, as Higgins’ charge would yield a faster lap, now into the 1m09s territory.
As the back markers started to come into play, Oliver Bull looked very threatening indeed, causing Putt to adopt a fully defensive demeanour. The featherweight, Ford Eco-boosted Tigra silhouette seems to look faster with every outing and by the end of lap 6, had made a move stick to take the lead. With his view now cleared of Putt’s flames, Bull was able to further flex the Tigra’s bulkhead under his right foot, setting the fastest lap and extended his lead.
The battle for third was heating up as Higgins made a move at Tower on Cox for 4th and set his sights immediately on Bradley John. It only took Higgins a lap to catch and pass John at Old Paddock and chase down Putt, whose RX-7 was clearly struggling in the corners. He defended Valiantly but keeping Higgins at bay while simultaneously negotiating back markers proved too great a challenge as Higgins stole second on the final rounding of Tower corner. Cox was applying similar pressure to Barry John, desperate for a podium finish before the end of the day.
Oliver Bull took an impressive win with the added bonus of a new class A lap record of 1:08.39. According to Bull, this was down to the car, not the new surface at Tower and was confident it would go faster still as the season progressed!
Higgins was naturally delighted with the silver medal having started at the very back of the grid, making his last-minute decision to enter a most worthwhile one.
The post-race interviews revealed the source of Steve Putt’s difficulties; the Mazda’s diff was leaking oil straight onto the rear tyres, making the third-place trophy a great achievement given the circumstances!
John’s Mitsubishi also appeared to be struggling in the latter stages of the race but held onto 4th, despite the best efforts of Ilsa Cox. Ilsa’s endeavours didn’t go completely unrewarded though, as she set a new class D lap record with a lap of 1:10.129.
Tony Bennett doubled the day’s haul of class winning trophies without serious challenge from his class B rivals, while the Lamborghini of Jordan Billington was the only finisher, and starter for that matter, in class C.
A thrilling start to the season from the ‘Grand Tourers’ and with an unusually low rate of attrition, the stage was well set for round three at the next ‘May Day Madness’ bank holiday meeting. Bring it on!
Posted by Jo Lewkowicz on Monday 9 April 2018
Combe Challenge Race Day
at Castle Combe Circuit
27 May 2019