QUALIFYING ROUNDS 6 & 7
Sixteen GT cars passed under the Avon Bridge, it’s shiny hoardings reflecting the bright August bank holiday sunshine.
The junior of the two Southcott’s set the early pace, seemingly getting better acquainted with its new-this-season Vauxhall powerplant. A host of would-be pole challengers were swapping times; the Caterham of Tony Bennett, Southcott senior in the other ‘Mad Midget’, and some stunning laps from Ilsa Cox in her SEAT Leon Cupra.
Since winning the GT Championship in 2015, Oliver Bull has continued to perform solidly, but struggled to match the outright pace of his rivals. Everything changed on this occasion however as his Vauxhall Tigra silhouette appeared to dig out some extra oomph. The low-slung orange and white machine looked seriously racy from the outset, with appearances being validated by the lap times it was setting. Bull took pole with a storming lap of 1:107.976, a lap which repeated in the race would steal Barry Squibb’s class A lap record which has stood for over a year.
Chris Southcott retained his front row placing, ahead of a second row of Tony Bennett and Ilsa Cox. Reigning champion Chris Vinall was once again AWOL meaning Ilsa’s P4 positioned her seven places clear of her nearest class D rival.
Adam Prebble’s seemingly never-ending run of bad luck continued, managing just three laps before his Rover Tomcat let him down yet again, and would take no further part in the day’s proceedings.
The biggest drama of the session came when championship leader Bradley John failed to return to the paddock under its own steam at the end of the session. The punishment of Combe’s fast chicanes had seemingly taken their toll on the Evo’s front left wheel, disintegrating at Old Paddock, with John very fortunate to bring the car to a halt without the aid of the barriers. All eyes then would be on the assembly area come race time to see if the Evo could be reshod to be able to take up its P6 grid position, alongside Andy Southcott.
Lee Frost led the class C brigade in his BMW M3, which also included the second race for Jordan Billington in the Reiter Lamborghini.
Thankfully Bradley John’s Evo was sporting a new front left wheel therefore able to take its place in the GT crocodile. The crescendo of engine notes signalled the rolling start was complete and pole man Bull found himself come under immediate attack, dropping back to fourth. Chris Southcott led the pack while another rocket ship start from his Audi TT silhouette saw Steve Hall jump from seventh to third. The meat in the sandwich was the Caterham of Tony Bennett, in simultaneous attack and defence mode with Southcott ahead and a mirror-full of Steve Hall’s Audi. This gave Oliver Bull a front row seat for the three-way drama being played out, the Tigra silhouette seemingly happy to wait patiently in the wings for the opportunity to profit from a likely looking tangle. He didn’t have to wait long for the first drama as Chris Southcott found himself all out of shape, dropping back to 9th by the end of the third lap. With Bennett gaining some breathing space in the process, Bull set about successfully hunting down Hall and taking second.
While Bennett’s Caterham looked to hold the top trump card for straight line speed, Bull’s Tigra was noticeably quicker in the corners; braking later and for a lesser duration, carrying greater momentum through Combe’s fast curves. The gains made in the corners saw Bull breathing down Bennett’s neck by lap six, out braking him into Quarry to take the lead.
Further back, championship leader Bradley John was making positive progress. By lap seven, John had caught and passed Steve Hall to take third.
Ilsa Cox meanwhile was in fine form in fifth, and very well clear of all of her class rivals.
In the middle of the pack, a procession of BMW M3s were fighting it out for class C honours, in the hands of Lee Frost, Michael Timberlake, Jasver Sapra and Lucky Khera.
Back at the front, Bull was stretching an unassailable lead, the Vauxhall looking astoundingly composed; maintaining rapid momentum, cornering flat and with an exhaust note that gave the impression the powerplant wasn’t even slightly stressed.
By the time the chequered flag was unfurled, Bull took the win by a comfortable 13 seconds. Tony Bennett did an incredible job of making his Caterham look very wide in the later stages of the race. Bradley John had his thundering Mitsubishi swarming all over the Caterham but just couldn’t find a way past meaning Bennett enjoyed a thoroughly deserved climb up onto the second podium step.
Ilsa Cox took a dominant class D win with 5th overall, ahead of the recovering Chris Southcott, while Lee Frost won the battle of the Beemers.
Unusually for the GT Championship there were just two retirees from the race, that of Andy Southcott’s Midget and the ex-Doug Watson BMW M6 now owned by Bal Sidhu.
The grid for round seven shaped as a carbon copy of the previous race, with the notable exception of Chris Southcott. The earlier qualifying session had seen him set a time good enough for a front row spot in the first race, but bizarrely, his next best lap was only good enough for 13th in the second race of the day. It was academic in the end though as Chris was missing from the grid altogether.
Oliver Bull’s thus far perfect race day was dealt a cruel blow on the green flag lap. His rear suspension failed giving him no choice but to become a spectator for the race from a safe spot well into the infield. This also meant saw a sad end to any hopes he had of winning the championship for a second time.
With Bull and Southcott junior side-lined, Bennett was able to maintain his inherited lead despite the best efforts of Steve Hall, who made another outstanding start.
Andy Southcott had spent much of the first race in the pits and returned there to sit out this race after just two laps.
Ilsa Cox was flying again, running in third but coming under attack from Bradley John. By lap five, John’s Evo had reeled Cox’s SEAT in and made a successful move to take third. The Mitsubishi got even more into its stride and wasted no time in catching and passing the Audi of Hall to take second.
The second half of the race was somewhat processional. John was closing the gap to the leader, but not fast enough as Bennett took the win with a near five second margin. Steve Hall had a lonely run to third as did Ilsa Cox behind him, taking the class D win and vital championship points.
Lucky Khera triumphed in the battle of the BMWs this time round, keeping ahead of Jordan Billington’s Lamborghini who led home the other three M3s.
The season finale of the GTs is set to be the most nail biting of the three ‘home’ championships. The lead is tied on 31 points between Bradley John and Ilsa Cox. Going on recent results, you would have to put Cox as the favourite. Ilsa has secured class wins comfortably of late, while John will have to beat several class rivals who’ve already got the better of him this season. One of those is Tony Bennett who trails them by four points so is also very much in with a shout of the top prize.
The stage is set for a thrilling three-horse race to glory on grand finals day and you couldn’t pick a more eclectic trio of machines in the running – exactly what the legendary Castle Combe GT Championship is all about!Posted on Friday 29 September 2017