Optimum Motorsport dealt a cruel blow while on course for 12H Italy-Mugello victory
Optimum Motorsport was the class of the field in the 2016 CREVENTIC 24H Series powered by HANKOOK 12H Italy-Mugello, but the team was left devastated when a maiden GT3 race win was cruelly snatched away in the final throes of the once-around-the-clock enduro (18-19 March).
General testing on Thursday (17 March) revealed that an inter-round Balance of Performance (BoP) adjustment had resulted in a notable straight line speed deficit for the Audi contingent, compared to rival marques in the 24H Series' headlining A6 division.
On such a fast, flowing circuit, Optimum Motorsport was shackled by its relative lack of power, but the team was quick to find a compromise that satisfied all three of its drivers – Joe Osborne, Flick Haigh and Ryan Ratcliffe – and this allowed it to utilise Friday’s (18 March) free practice session to simply scrub tyres and optimise its driver changes in preparation for qualifying and the 12H Italy-Mugello itself.
Osborne was elected to qualify the #14 Audi R8 LMS GT3 and, while the 27-year old was frustrated in traffic for the most part, he found some clean air with ten minutes remaining, only for the session to be neutralised.
The Code 60 was lifted with only enough time for a single flying lap and an enraged Osborne harnessed all of his anger to seal eighth on the grid with a 1m49.777s, and then continue moving up the order during the first 90 minutes of the once-around-the-clock enduro later that day.
The black and orange Audi could be found in sixth position at the completion of lap one, but the order shifted incessantly and Osborne surged to second overall as rivals tangled and a brief Code 60 caused some to alter their strategies.
A well-drilled driver-change saw Haigh take and hold on to the initiative until the end of her stint, while 'Welsh Wizard' Ratcliffe saw Optimum Motorsport to 18.00 and the completion of the first four-hour phase of the 12H Italy-Mugello, following one final strategic fuel and tyre stop, designed to place the team on the front foot on Saturday (19 March) morning.
The final eight-hour instalment started well for Optimum Motorsport. The Wakefield-based team entrusted Osborne with the restart and the 27-year old did a stellar job to keep his nose clean in the melee and then gain track position.
The lead was Optimum’s once again on lap 127 and Osborne did his utmost to keep the hard-charging Massive Motorsport Aston Martin V12 Vantage at bay while carefully threading his way past sometimes uncooperative lapped runners.
Osborne was eventually given some respite and responded by setting a new fastest lap – 1m50.201s – shortly before handing the reins to Haigh, who held her own out front and became evermore decisive when overtaking as her stint progressed.
In fact, Optimum Motorsport had almost two laps in hand when Ratcliffe took the wheel for his first outing of the day and some quick, yet controlled driving combined with slick pit stops ensured the team maintained a convincing lead.
That was until a gearbox problem left the #14 Audi stranded at pit entry with Haigh at the wheel and less than 90 minutes to run. Mechanics sprinted to retrieve the stricken car and, in a determined display, they quickly diagnosed the rectified the issue to get the car back out in second position and no more than one lap adrift of the leading #333 Renault RS01 GT3.
Ratcliffe replaced Haigh for what was supposed to be the final dash to the flag, but a fuel glitch brought the Optimum entry to a halt out on track, where it was collected by a fast-moving Porsche with catastrophic consequences.
Mercifully, both drivers involved in the spectacular high-speed collision escaped unscathed, but the damage to the Audi was extensive and the atmosphere within the Optimum Motorsport camp sombre as all concerned came to terms with the fact that the team's victory push was over.
Devastated to have had the win snatched away in the dying embers of the race, Optimum Motorsport Team Principal, Shaun Goff, said: “It was very painful to go out of the 12H Italy-Mugello in the way we did, having led the race in such a convincing way for so long. However, Joe (Osborne), Flick (Haigh) and Ryan (Ratcliffe) and the Optimum Motorsport crew did everything to the highest level to ensure that race was ours to lose and I believe it's only a matter of time before we're standing atop the podium."
Optimum Motorsport’s next outing is in the British GT Championship curtain-raiser at Brands Hatch on 15-17 April), while Round 3 of the 24H Series is scheduled to take place at Circuit Park Zandvoort on 6-8 May.