Last weekend we accompanied supported athlete Tom Rawlings to Spa-Francorchamps as he competed in a first major event outside of the UK with British GT’s annual trip to the iconic Belgian circuit.
In the week prior to the race we joined Tom at Base Performance Simulators in Warkworth to conduct a focused schedule of simulator work. The aim of this was to ensure that he had the best possible preparation for his biggest race of the season, at a circuit which although visiting for the first time has been on his bucket list to drive ever since he started racing. You can read more about exactly how we structured this pre-event training via the dedicated feature here.
The weekend began with unexpected disruption at ports affecting outbound travel for drivers and teams heading over to Belgium from the UK, resulting in delayed arrival at the circuit on Thursday for many. This had a knock on effect on the weekend schedule, with delayed set-up meaning that our planned track walk on Thursday evening to ingrain and review the simulator work we’d done was now not possible. In addition to this, there was the factor of unexpected fatigue and travel stress for both drivers and team members about to perform at one of their biggest weekends of the season. Fortunately the Friday testing schedule was mostly afternoon based for British GT, allowing teams to catch up on their paddock set-up and equipment installation on the Friday morning for those who had arrived very late on Thursday.
Tom was looking forward to getting out on track and experiencing his first laps of the challenging circuit on Friday, and two one hour sessions shared between him and teammate Chris Salkeld would provide plenty of track time to feel the key differences from his virtual practice of the circuit a few days beforehand. Unfortunately it was evident from early in Friday’s running that the BoP (Balance of Performance) allocation for the Century Motorsport BMW cars was to set the tone for the weekend and meant that result-based goals had to be reassessed. The enforced addition of 55kg of ballast, a ride height lift and change in air restrictor across all three cars meant the team felt that only P7/8 was realistically possible for them in clear running around the long straights of Spa.
Despite this being known from early on in Friday testing, both Tom and Chris stayed focused on the factors within their control; also knowing that based on previous races around Spa it only takes one incident or Safety Car deployment to provide an unexpected opportunity. There was also the ever-present threat of the infamous Ardennes forest micro-climate, although in the end the paddock sweltered in near 30c heat all weekend.
Both drivers managed to complete some productive long race runs in their Friday sessions, but struggled with setup in the fast sweeping corners of Double Gauche, Stavelot and Blanchimont. The key issue was that the car was understeering at approximately 140 -150 mph, causing the drivers to lose over a second in just those corners. In addition to this, under rotation in some of the slower corners was costing further time, and though the duo were pleased with the running they had completed, they knew that there was more work to do to improve the set-up in practice time ahead of qualifying on Saturday.
"The biggest difference from the simulator prep we did was probably the [lack of] visibility driving through Eau Rouge into Radillion. As the car climbs up the hill I quickly found that I was having to pick a tree on the horizon and use that as my reference point for where I wanted to place the car as it launched over the crest of the corner."
Friday ended with the team lodging an official complaint to the organisers about the BoP situation, in an attempt to salvage some hope that they would not have to go through the whole race weekend at a disadvantage to their key competitors in both GT3 and GT4 classes.
Saturday practice saw Tom and Chris having to go out and conduct some routine work on bedding in new brake pads before they were able to get back into continuing their set-up work. After the practice sessions were complete they were happy that they’d made some small improvements, although a compromise had to be struck between managing understeer in the high speed sections and oversteer in the slower corners around the 7km circuit.
Qualifying sessions in British GT last only ten minutes, with one session each for the sharing drivers in GT4 class. Tom therefore knew the importance of getting out and up to speed quickly, as with an approx 2m 30s lap time around Spa it was likely there would only be time for a maximum of three push laps. Tom went out and pushed hard from the start, acknowledging that he was over-driving in some places attempting to counteract the BoP pace deficit. Despite coming in and saying that he could not have found any more speed on his quickest lap, it was a disappointing P10 qualifying position in GT4. Chris was able to find a little more time having the extra experience of racing at Spa in this car last season, but their aggregated grid position was still only good for P10, with the sister BMW M4 of Jack Brown and Will Burns (also battling the same BoP restrictions) qualifying just ahead of them in P9.
The day started with drama as several drivers were forced to withdraw from the event due to sickness caused by suspected food poisoning. While many had been eating evening meals at the circuit due to the late scheduled sessions, luckily Tom and his family had been commuting back to their hotel near the circuit in Malmedy, and were therefore unaffected by this. Sunday morning's twenty minute warm up session saw the number 9 car just scrub some new tyres in preparation for the race, but was still useful information for the drivers giving them data for the latest track conditions on what was building up to be a warm day.
Tom was nominated by the team to start the two hour race, and a 13.00 start meant that after scheduled team briefings and a chat with teammate Chris about race strategies, there was plenty of time to go through rehearsed pre-race routines. We’ve found that Tom is very relaxed before races and usually likes to be left alone to listen to music, sometimes even taking a pre-race sleep in the quiet space of the Century Motorsport team transporter. This weekend his family had accompanied him to watch the race, so time with them was important to also factor into his pre-race schedule and activity. Finally, given that racing at Spa-Francorchamps represented the fulfilment of a boyhood dream for Tom, it was important to keep the normal pre-race routines to ensure the significance of the event did not cause any extra undue perceived pressure.
Once the lights went out Tom stayed out of trouble in the GT4 field and had made up two places at the end of the first lap. He then started to settle into the rhythm of his anticipated 65 minute race stint, but by lap four began to experience some issues with rising tyre temperatures caused by a DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) sensor failure. The team were giving Tom advice over the radio to manage the issue, which involved having to back off for a cool down lap every so often to reduce temperatures, all the while having to keep cars behind him. An early safety car period caused by one of the GT3 McLaren cars crashing at Radillion was helpful in giving time to manage this issue with no pressure from cars behind. Once racing resumed and the DSC issue was under control, Tom settled into what he called “quite a boring race” in clear space, only occasionally having to manage an attack from behind while not really having the straight line speed to make ground on the GT4 cars ahead.
After keeping Tom in the car for as long as possible into the GT4 pit window, the team brought him in for the driver change, and Chris took over the car in P2 as due to the long first stint some other cars had pitted beforehand. Chris resumed in a net P8 and experienced the same issues as Tom in having to manage the temperatures over the course of his 55 minutes in the car. Chris did all he could to try and battle his way forward but to no avail, and was getting caught very quickly by the P9 driver, only just managing to hold P8 at the flag finishing just behind the sister Century Motorsport car that finished in seventh position.
While it had been a frustrating weekend from the outset with the BMW cars having their wings clipped by the BoP adjustment, the drivers took it in their stride, amended their goals for the event, and focused on maximizing the package they had for the weekend.
"We all as a team did the very best we could with what we had for the weekend, even though the BoP was not the best. I still had an amazing weekend at an iconic track, and still have a big grin on my face when I think of going up through Eau Rouge and into Radillion."
The British GT grid now takes a short summer break before heading on to another iconic circuit, Brands Hatch GP on 10 September. Tom is already looking forward to taking on the blind corners and fast sweeping bends at a circuit he ran very well at in the GT Cup championship last year.
All photos courtesy of Sprite Photography