Optimum Motorsport’s Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson came away from the penultimate weekend of the 2015 Avon Tyres British GT Championship with a pair of top-five finishes in contrasting sets of weather conditions, as the race to become GT4 vice-champions heated up.
Results across the Snetterton weekend saw the Beechdean-AMR crew of Jamie Chadwick and Ross Gunn take the GT4 title with a round to spare, but Graham and Mike’s performances ensured they go to Donington in the best position possible to secure the prized runners-up spot.
On Saturday, warm summer sunshine heated up the East Anglia circuit, providing perfect conditions for racing. Graham took fifth in the opening session with a 2:01.595, 1.1s adrift of Issy Racing’s pole time, but was unlucky not to qualify third, with just 0.070s separating third to fifth. It was more clear cut in the second qualifying session, where Mike posted a respectable 1:59.393 lap, 0.9s off pole, a tenth clear of fourth.
With the good weather expected to continue well into Sunday, drivers and team staff were buoyed by the results and were confident of a return to the podium after a strong second-place finish in the previous race weekend.
The first race of the weekend was a relatively straightforward affair, played out once again in beautiful summertime weather. With Graham starting on row three of the GT4 grid, his first task was to get past the Championship-leading Aston Martin of Jamie Chadwick. Keeping the Beechdean-AMR prepared Vantage at bay across both races would’ve crucially meant the championship wouldn’t be decided in Norfolk, and on the first lap, that’s exactly what the former-Caterham racer did.
After 15-minutes Graham inherited third when Fulvio Mussi missed his braking point on the approach to first corner, Riches, and the Professional MotorSport World Expo-backed racer nipped past his rival, unfortunately so did the Beechdean car. Heading towards the pit window, Graham closed the gap to Will Moore’s Academy Aston Martin to just 2s, with the local Lotus entry a further 3s up the road.
Taking our preferred strategy of leaving it late to pit, Graham pitted from the lead, gaining time on his rivals who were tripping over each other in the pits. With a 10s success penalty for finishing second last time out at Brands Hatch, the Optimum-prepared Ginetta dropped to fourth in class when Mike left the pits on lap 16, with a 6s margin to third.
While the Beechdean-AMR Aston encountered some minor issues, this enabled Mike to concentrate on reeling in the Century Ginetta of new boy Frederik Blomstedt, and the Academy Aston now driven by Dennis Strandberg. It was a battle that would rage on to the flag, with the two Scandinavians swapping places, and Mike closing in for a last lap challenge. Try as he might, Mike couldn’t get past, and the trio finished with just half a second between them at the end of the race.
Ahead of the second race the beautiful weather disappeared, replaced by dark skies and heavy rain. Mike took the start and looked racy in the opening laps, only to drop to seventh in class. However, Mike kept his composure and retaliated, working his way up the order as those around him began to make mistakes.
Words cannot begin to describe the level of precipitation that fell after 15 minutes of racing, with drivers battling to just keep their cars on the track. The tables were turned by the weather and form went straight out the window, with the Issy Racing Lotus, and the Beechdean-AMR and Academy Aston Martins also struggling to keep pace; Rob Garofall and James Nash were two GT4 rivals who made the most of the poor conditions and were for the first time this year tucked inside the top-five.
When the pit window opened, Optimum opted for a change of tact and brought Mike in early to avoid the chaos that 30 other GT cars bring when trying to pit in the restricted confines of the Snetterton pitlane. It was a bold move, but one that worked well. As our rivals completed their stops, we emerged third on the road, behind Mussi and the race-leading Tolman Ginetta of David Pattison.
The rain continued to fall heavier and heavier, and with fifteen minutes to go, Graham aquaplaned clean off the track dropping the Optimum-prepared Ginetta to sixth. A spin at the exit of Riches on lap 17 while under pressure from an impatient GT3 Aston Martin meant Graham dropped down the order, but the race was red-flagged before the end of the lap and positions from lap 16 determined the race finishing positions.
That provided us with a valuable fifth-place finish, ahead of points rivals Issy Racing and Academy Motorsport, also enabling us to go to the grand finale at Donington Park in three weeks time, without any pitstop success penalty.
Quotes from Optimum Motorsport drivers post Snetterton:
Graham Johnson: “We should have put new tyres on for the second race! In all seriousness, we both had a cracking first race. I could almost match the Lotus’ pace during the race despite the fact that it clearly had a huge advantage over the rest of the field. I could also almost push the Academy Aston of Will Moore through the corners, but Snetterton’s two long straights meant it was virtually impossible to overtake it – the Astons are simply too fast in a straight line. I was disappointed with race two because my error cost us third if not the win. The conditions were awful with near zero visibility, but I had confidence to push – too much confidence as it happens! But I had to push because I wanted us to win and we had the pace to do it. Win or bust as they say, but it was bust this time!”