The British Racing & Sports Car Club’s first of two visits to Castle Combe Circuit this year has been one of the most talked about and anticipated race meetings of the season. After runaway success elsewhere around the world, the TCR Concept landed on UK shores this season and chose to put the top-spec-tin-tops through their paces at the fast Wiltshire Circuit. For a fleeting moment however, the headline act was in danger of being overshadowed due to some other minor sporting event. As it turned out, the thing that was supposed to ‘come home’ would only be making it as far as Calais at best!
This weekend would see the three home championships stage their next encounters, while the Hot Hatches would be rested. Over the two-day meeting, the TCR and CCRC Championships would be joined by a mix of tin-top, open wheeled sports car and sports special racing. Golf GTIs, Mazda MX5s, BMW Compacts, and Porsches would all entertain, as would the National Formula Fords, F1000s and Sports 2000s. While the England Team would only be playing for a token consolation prize, the faithful Combe crowds would be rewarded with all-to-play for action from some of the best racing championships in the UK.
CASTLE COMBE GT CHAMPIONSHIP
Reigning champion Ilsa Cox defended her title with precision during the first half of the season, commencing the second half of the season from the top of the table. With a welcome run of reliability from her SEAT, Cox has dominated class D with a perfect maximum score thus far. Ilsa’s nearest challenger is class B leader Tony Bennett who has had his Caterham punching well above its weight and dropped only one point so far this season.
Most of the class A protagonists have at some point in the first half of the season suffered mechanical setbacks which have disrupted their respective championship campaigns. The Tigra silhouette of ex-champion Oliver Bull has proved the most reliable, rewarding him with the class lead and third in the overall standings.
In contrast to the Formula Fords, the GT Championship has been attracting healthier grids this year with a combination of new, returning and visiting drivers.
19 cars hit the scorching asphalt on the Saturday morning, their engines providing an orchestral soundtrack from the wide range of powerplants.
Barry Squibb’s Evo was race-day fresh and quickly started lapping in the 1m08s territory to assume top spot. Oliver Bull and Steve Putt were chasing hard and looking most likely to take the game to Squibb. The pair however came into the pits in tandem, both summoning their mechanics in the pit lane and hoisting up their bonnets.
Ilsa Cox had initially been swapping times with class rival Jamie Sturges, but with Bull and Putt temporarily vacating the main circuit, she opened up the taps to full and started to climb right up to the sharp end, narrowing the gap to Squibb’s time. Tony Bennet was also taking advantage, chipping away at his lap times and climbing the order.
Oliver Bull took no further part in the session and could do nothing but watch his grid position tumble as those still on track improved on their times. Putt had several attempts at re-entering the fray but would return to the pits every time.
Tony Bennett was successful in stealing P2 from Cox but fell a fraction short of the pace of Squibb. Barry however brought his Evo into the pits before the end of the session leaving onlookers wondering if it he had simply ‘done enough’ or had a problem. The odds on the latter shortened as the white Mitsubishi returned to the paddock under human propulsion.
Tony Bennett secured the spot alongside Squibb for the rolling start with Cox lining up alongside Steve Putt on the second row; the first three on the grid all running in different classes.
Relative newcomer Alan Hamilton drove his Westfield to an impressive P5 and would roll over the start line in the shadow of 2017 runner-up Bradley John’s imposing black Mitsubishi Evo.
Switching from his usual BMW M3, Lucky Khera was getting to grips with his stunning looking new Ginetta G50, setting the best time in class C with placing him on P7.
ROUND 6 RACE
A broken drive belt was the cause of Barry Squibb mustering willing helpers (including our own Jo Lewkowicz!) to push his car back to the paddock following qualifying. With a replacement fitted, the white Evo was able to take advantage of its dominant pole lap. The mechanical issues causing Oliver Bull’s early qualifying exit however were not so easily remedied. When the call came to assemble the GT competitors, Oliver and his team were sadly still stood scratching their heads around the open bonnet of the Tigra, meaning they would play no further part in the day’s proceedings.
The brace of Mitsubishi Evos enjoyed the kind of all-wheel-drive advantage normally seen on a conventional standing start. Not only did Barry Squibb comfortably protect his pole position, Bradley John also launched himself from P6 to P2 in the drag race to Quarry. The Mazda of Steve Putt assumed third, its trademark flames licking the front end of Cox’s SEAT, while the Westfield of Alan Hamilton was swarming all over the back. Putt’s handling issues in qualifying resurfaced with a huge tank slapper at Old Paddock, allowing Ilsa to take advantage for the briefest of moments, passing Putt but her car ground to a sudden halt just moments later. Having seemingly turned wild, the sideways RX-7 was soon tamed by its pilot, Putt expertly showing the Mazda who’s boss under pressure from Tony Bennett.
Lucky Khera was clearly enjoying his new toy, closing in on the Westfield and Caterham. Fellow Ginetta driver Dylan Popovic was also enjoying some welcome reliability from his black and orange version, climbing up the leader board with every lap. Khera made a successful move on Hamilton, only for the agile Westfield to switch back and immediately retake the place.
Up at the front, Squibb was holding the lead but being kept very honest by Bradley John. Putt’s quickly adapted driving style was allowing him to take the game to Tony Bennett; the more agile Caterham carrying more speed through the corners but with a huge power advantage, the RX-7 gained on the straights.
After momentarily losing out to the Ginetta of Khera, Alan Hamilton upped his game and pushed his Westfield hard to ensure Lucky wouldn’t get close enough for a second challenge. With Ilsa sat on the tyres, Jamie Sturges was having an easy time of the class D campaign, running well clear of his nearest rival Michael Timberlake.
The mid pack was showing a great scrap between Jasver Sapra in his BMW M3 and the Ginetta of Dylan Popovic. The ‘two’s company’ exchange soon turned into a crowd however, with Tim Woodman catching the pair in his Caterham and buying into the battle.
Barry John had no doubt accepted the fact he wouldn’t catch Squibb but was similtaneously holding off Steve Putt for an easy run to a 2nd place finish. That all changed when the race entered its final few laps with his Evo suddenly losing power. Putt took immediate advantage and it wasn’t long before John’s issues allowed Tony Bennett to slide by, with Alan Hamilton in tow. Squibb’s Evo was displaying no such difficulties however and pushed on to the end for a dominant lights-to-flag victory. In contrast, the order behind the winner was far from a formality, with place swapping action right up to the chequered flag.
Putt’s 2nd place lead over Bennett suddenly started to erode, but with his eyes on a better prize, Tony failed to notice the charging Hamilton in his mirrors. With backmarkers in play, Bennett found himself boxed in and Hamilton didn’t need a second invitation to take advantage. The Caterham jumped straight on the back of the Westfield’s rear bumper and sought immediate revenge. Putt had enough let in the tank to hold second as Hamilton then emerged from Westway with the finish line and a podium finish in view. Tony Bennett had other ideas, braking late and diving down the inside of Hamilton at Camp for the final time to swipe the podium finish back.
Lucky Khera took 5th, but not for the want of trying from Jamie Sturges who crossed the line less than a second later. Barry John’s backward travel had continued in the final laps, tumbling from what should have been an easy silver medal, limping home to a disappointing 7th place.
Jasver Sapra had spun at camp but sadly couldn’t restart his BMW and retired from what was one of his best races to date. This left Popovic and Woodman to fight it out with the former reigning supreme, just missing out to John on a third in class trophy.
The day’s events had a significant impact on the overall standings. Not only did Tony Bennett take the class B victory in the dying seconds, but in doing so also secured the championship lead. Despite her DNF, Ilsa Cox comfortably holds second spot in the standings. Oliver Bull’s non-start also saw him lose the class A lead to Steve Putt who climbs to third overall. Bull also slipped another place in the standings, losing out to Michael Timberlake whose strong finishing record sees him trailing Putt by just 2 points.
Reliability is always king in the GT championship and never more so than at the next meeting. With two races on the August Bank Holiday race card, mechanical failures will dole out double punishment. With just 10 points covering the top three, for some, the championship could well be won and lost by the end of the day!Posted by Jo Lewkowicz on Thursday 19 July 2018
5 April 2021