Topcats Racing celebrated a spectacular race win at Brands Hatch this weekend and clinched the hotly contested Britcar Class 3 Championship as they crossed the finish line.
Owen O’Neill and Henry Fletcher stayed cool headed despite a relentless pursuit from their rivals who could find no chink in their armour during the 3 hour race which started at dusk and ran into the darkness of the night…
The Topcats Class 2 Marcos driven by Jon Harrison and Neil Huggins qualified 7th with O’Neill and Fletcher in 10th.
The pole sitting works Ginetta G55 failed even to start the race and had to be pushed from the track leaving the door open for the Viper of Wilkins/Scott to head the field into the first corner on the opening lap.
Luck favoured the brave as places were exchanged in the melee of the first few laps. Fletcher had sneaked his way up the order and was now in 4th place. Huggins had made progress too but Fletcher had tricked his way ahead of Huggins as they ran nose to tail.
By lap 11 the Wilkins/Scott Viper had slowed down and was to retire on the next lap with mechanical problems. This handed the lead to the fast charging Porsche 997 of Barrett/Shepherd with Shepherd doing his usual trusty job for the team in the first half.
Huggins soon had his Class 2 car on song and was pushing Fletcher who conceded on lap 14 and continued to stay in range of one another as they began to close in on the leading Porsche. By lap 22 Huggins had the Shepherd Porsche conveniently in position and wasted no time in snatching the lead. Huggins was able to maintain a comfortable 1.2 sec gap but he would spend most of his time in the lead later fighting off the attention of other aspirants. The Ginetta G50 of Lee Mowlem was now joining the lead fight.
A safety car period on lap 38 though, had all the cars bunched up for the restart and Fletcher lost out to the Jones/Jones Porsche into the first corner as the lights went green again dropping him down to 5th.
The Mowlem Ginetta fancied taking advantage of the race restart too and was threateningly close as he tried to dive down the inside of Huggins but Huggins was too savvy and shunned his attempts, whipping the Ginetta into submission and although only 0.6sec behind never managed to make another serious move on him.
Yet another safety car and although it ate away Huggins time cushion from his rivals it did benefit Fletcher who was now only 4.45 seconds from the lead.
On lap 70 the Mowlem Ginetta G50 came in for its scheduled pit stop handing 3rd place to a grateful Fletcher. He was putting in quick laps, one after the other which consolidated his position on the track as others were dropping back.
Lap 80 was the start of troubles for Huggins though. He was certain that he had a puncture but an unscheduled pit stop showed nothing and Huggins was sent on his way again. By now he was down to 9th and was still uncomfortable with the handling of the car but managed to continue until his next pit stop to hand over to Harrison on lap 90.
It wasn’t long though before Harrison was back in the pits, this time aware of the problems that had been developing at the end of Huggin’s stint. A failed ‘O’ ring on the power steering had spewed oil onto the front tyres and Harrison became the recipient of no power steering.
This effectively would end the duos bid for the win that would surely have been theirs judging by Harrison’s lap times in the closing hour of the race.
Hopes now were pinned on the Class 3 Marcos still being driven by Fletcher who was pumping in quick lap times despite a bout of cramp! Fletcher took the lead fair and square from the Shepherd Porsche; they had no answer to Fletcher’s cracking pace. By lap 100 Fletcher had a 4 second buffer from the Porsche.
Harrison was back in the fray again on lap 102 with car fixed. Harrison had everything to gain and nothing to lose now. With the Viper out of the race, their position was secured and Harrison was clearly relishing the night conditions.
A short safety car period closed the gap again for the lead but sense prevailed and Shepherd did not tangle with Fletcher on the restart.
The team were expecting Shepherd to pit at least 20 minutes after Fletcher’s stop with the Porsche being able to run longer on a fuel load. Shepherd’s lap times had dropped off noticeably with Fletcher pulling ahead by 1 second a lap; further compounding the team’s speculation that the Porsche team were conserving fuel to run longer.
The team were to get a nice surprise though as with an hour and 5 minutes remaining, the Shepherd Porsche pitted to refuel and hand over to Rod Barrett. Delight was palpable in the Topcats pit garage as the situation really began to play into the hands of Fletcher and O’Neill.
It was the end of the race for the Production GTN Championship at the 2 hour mark having run concurrently with the continuing battle of the Britcar Endurance cars. A full course yellow allowed the Britcar drivers a breather while the Production cars exited the track and the race resumed for the final hour. With no pit stops allowed during that period, Fletcher was understandably spent and relieved to get the call to pit and hand over to O’Neill.
Fletchers searing performance still gave O’Neill a 1 lap advantage over the Porsche now being driven by Barrett as he rejoined the track.
By this time it really was a two-way fight and engineer Paul Steffens was heard to say to Britcar Principal, James Tucker, “This is a great way to end the race and the championship…two regular pilots sprinting to the finish line”. It summed up the situation perfectly.
Harrison meanwhile, was still hunting for a piece of the action. Having gone from 16th to 12th he was the fastest man on track as race leader O’Neill set the 142nd lap of the race. In the same moment though another mechanical gremlin was to haunt the luckless duo. An ignition switch failure forced Harrison to make another pit stop for repairs, albeit a short one.
Barrett in the 2nd place Porsche clearly wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. After all, 1st place in the race would decide whether the Topcats Marcos or the Shepherd/Barrett Porsche would take second overall in the championship. More importantly it would decide who would be Class 3 Champions; the hardest fought Class in Britcar. It was a fight worth risking and Barrett was pushing hard to beat O’Neill on lap times and gradually unwind himself from the 1 lap deficit. He was succeeding and had narrowed the gap to half a lap. O’Neill knew that he had to keep a safe distance but at the same time make sure he made no mistakes as even a small excursion off track would have Barrett breathing down his neck. Lap by lap, O’Neill was radioed to be told of the diminishing time gap between him and the Barrett Porsche. O’Neill radioed back to assure the team that he could knock a second or two off his lap times when the time came. For now, Barrett was lured into thinking that O’Neill was on the limit and continued to push hard. With less than 30 minutes remaining the two drivers were trading lap times, O’Neill quicker on one lap and Barrett quicker on the next. However, the intensity of the cat and mouse chase to the finish line proved too much for Barrett who was caught out as he spun passing a back marker.
Even though a handful of seconds were lost it gave O’Neill a comfortable 18 second lead and only 15 minutes to the chequered flag. Harrison had driven superbly too; his driving exploits would have been spectacular to watch had it not been dark!
The pressure was off and Owen cruised to the finish line in triumph, winning the race overall, 2nd overall in the Britcar Endurance Championship just behind the powerful Viper of Scott/Wilkins and Class 3 Champions of 2011!!
Harrison made a great recovery after their mechanical woes, finishing 8th overall but the focus was the fact that they had finished 2nd in the Class 2 Championship and 3rd overall which meant that Topcats Racing had clinched 2 of the top 3 overall championship positions for 2011.
To boot, Fletcher and O’Neill became Brands Hatch record holders as drivers to complete the most number of laps in a 3 hour endurance race….201 to be precise!
It should be noted that both Jon Harrison and Neil Huggins both competed in the class 3 Marcos at some races this year and many thanks should be extolled to them for their contribution to the championship result.
The team are delighted to finish on such high for 2011 and hope you can support us in 2012!