Fulbeck racing team on the podium at Brands Hatch
Having just missed out on a podium finish at Spa Francorchamps in the last round of the British GT Championship, the Balfe Motorsport McLaren 720S finished a strong second at Brands Hatch, after starting the race from pole position.
Both free practice sessions on Saturday were used mainly for set-up before qualifying later in the day.
“We gained about 0.5 seconds on set-up changes in FP1, but the car was a bit stiff and felt like it was rolling a bit in some of the bumpier bits,” said Caythorpe's Shaun Balfe.
They had been sixth quickest in the first session, but improved to fourth in the second.
It was dry and fairly warm for the short sharp qualifying sessions, with Balfe out first in the GT3 Am session. He was the first into the 1min 25sec bracket and briefly held pole. As he pitted to end the session, he was only 0.130sec off the top, but had slipped to fourth after Oli Wilkinson’s Aston Martin snatched it on the last lap. Balfe said: “It was really good and I was able to attack. We had a good set-up but it was still unsettled over the bumps.”
Although Bell was eighth in the Pro session, only 0.540 sec off pole, it was enough to give the Fulbeck-based team their first pole position with the 720S on aggregate time.
“I just went for it, maybe there was another 1/10th to come,” Bell added.
After an untroubled morning warm-up on race morning, the grid assembled for the two hour race, which got underway at 1pm.
Balfe lost out to the Aston Martins of Oli Wilkinson and Graham Davidson as they headed for Druids Hairpin, while Angus Fender’s BMW was tucked in behind him.
The lead quartet started to make an early break, as Balfe started to threaten Davidson to retake second. He kept the pressure on, which also enabled them to shake-off Fender’s challenge.
Two laps later, Wilkinson spun out of the lead as they exited Paddock, moving the battling Davidson and Balfe to duel for the lead.
Glyn Geddie’s Bentley then tangled with a GT4 Aston Martin, which brought up the first half hour and the safety car for the next seven laps.
Fender threatened again from the green flag as Davidson briefly consolidated, but all three held station until the driver changes were made.
“The car didn’t have the grunt at the bottom end, but I had hoped to hold second at the start. Then kept an eye on Fender, as he kept closing and then falling back,” Balfe explained.
Bell rejoined in second, but Jonny Adam still led after taking over from Davidson.
With Jack Mitchell in for Fender, they remained a threat too, but the order remained the same, with Bell taking the flag 6.276sec off the lead.
“The safety car cost me a few seconds in traffic, but it was hard graft, as you could have four laps with no traffic and then a GT4 battle to get through. But we are still making progress with the car,” Bell added.
It was quite a traumatic and disappointing day for Graham Johnson and Michael O’Brien in Balfe Motorsport team's 570S GT4. After the Am qualifying session, Johnson was disappointed to be only sixth best ProAm.
O’Brien brought them up to 20th in the GT4s, but still sixth ProAm.
In the race, Johnson pitted from fifth in class. “My side window blew out, but up to then we had no problem with the car. But after Michael took over he made good progress, then the wipers came on, the other side window blew out and it started to cut out,” Johnson explained.
O’Brien was not only into second but poised for the lead: “It was looking good, then it hesitated and died on me,” he concluded as their race was over prematurely.
Balfe and Bell are now fourth in the GT3 ProAm standings, with Johnson and O’Brien still second in GT4 ProAm, but now a long way off the lead, with only the final round remaining at Donington Park on September 15.