Topcats Racing dominated the Britcar Endurance Championship race at Oulton Park this weekend not only by virtue of their visible presence; the team ran 3 cars in the 3 hour long enduro, but because the team took the lion’s share of the trophies for both overall and class win positions.
Owen O’Neill who has stayed at the top of the leader board since the opening round in March was looking to protect his investment in the championship. There could be fewer better to assist him than Rafael Fiorentino who was returning to the team after his last outings in 2011.
Another very welcome return to the team since 2011 were racing duo and father and son-in-law, Mick Mercer and Gary Smith who were looking forward to getting back into their Class 4 Ginetta G50.
Completing the trio was Team boss, Warren Gilbert, who raised a few eyebrows when he announced that he would be doing the entire 3hr race by himself in the sister Class 2 Marcos Mantis GT car, affectionately known as ‘Big Green’.
Despite gloomy predictions of a very wet race, it stayed warm but cloudy and dry for the duration.
Qualifying positions didn’t give a true reflection of the potential of cars and drivers. O’Neill had hoped to hand over a nicely warmed up Marcos to Fiorentino but he was unable to put in a fast lap as the diff oil breather tank had overflowed and was spilling onto the back tyres making it impossible to get traction. A very unfamiliar place for him to be, Fiorentino had to start 14th on the grid.
Gilbert encountered no problems but as he was doing this for fun didn’t want to budget for new tyres and instead relied on an old set from the last 24hr race at Silverstone! He managed to qualify 11th overall and 3rd in class.
Mercer and Smith, getting to grips with an unfrequented circuit and time away from racing, still managed to qualify 4th in class behind a set of highly accomplished drivers.
Despite a notoriously tricky circuit, no one fell foul to its challenges or each other and as the field trailed round the pursuits began.
Fiorentino, oozing confidence, was already up to 8th by the end of lap 3. Gilbert was biding his time and remained in 11th as was Mercer in 18th.
An early safety car period to recover a Chevron and the Holden TVR Sagaris after they clashed bunched up the field at the restart Fiorentino was ascending fast in 5th place.
Yet another safety car 30 minutes into the race marked an opportunity to pit Fiorentino for a refuel to allow him a long stint before handing to O’Neill. Gilbert followed shortly afterwards to allow him to run long before pitting again before the end.
As other rival cars pitted to refuel, Mercer enjoyed his time in 5th overall, staying out to run a longer first stint. It wasn’t long before Fiorentino was back to reclaim that position.
By lap 25, Fiorentino was up to third and taking 1 ½ second chunks out of the 2nd placed 458 Ferrari of Phillips/Storey who were on the same lap.
Mercer was enjoying a game of tag with his class 4 rival Lotus of Guglielmi; the latter passing Mercer but only for 2 laps as Mercer found a gap to repass. This battle would have continued had it not been for the Mustill/Berridge Aquila who crudely despatched Mercer onto the grass with a punt from behind. This would not be the only time Mercer would receive unwanted attention from Mustill. Mercer dropped from 10th down to 14th once he recovered and returned to the track.
Meanwhile, Gilbert was staying out of trouble setting his fastest lap of 1.44.010 on lap 34 and he was now up to 9th overall.
Fiorentino, however was about to hand a position to Gilbert when he had to make a pit stop after coming off the tracking and filling the air intakes with grass. The team would have run him for longer but the race was almost exactly half run and Owen took over to run to the end.
Gilbert was still flying and showing no signs of fatigue, he was in 7th with time in hand to make his 2nd pits top without loss of position. O’Neill was not relishing the prospect of racing for the 1hr and 40 minutes that remained. He was suffering with a chest infection which until now had him bed ridden when he was not in the car.
Mercer would fall victim to Mustill again on lap 45. The Mustill/Berridge car had been dogged with mechanical issues throughout the race. Mercer was about to become the unfortunate recipient of another as he was passing the slow moving Aquila with a snapped steering arm. The Aquila veered into the side of the fast moving Mercer which launched him onto the grass again and this time into the tyre and wall causing extensive body damage but miraculously the car remained mechanically OK. A pit stop to tape together what was left of the rear of the car and a quick driver change and Smith was back out albeit way down the order now. It was clear that Smith had to work very hard to keep the car pointing in the right direction now that the car was minus aerodynamics. Smith had to pit a further two times as the handling was so bad. He endured 27 laps and decided to hand over to Mercer on lap 72.
Whilst all this was going on Gilbert was proving to be very low maintenance for the team and had averaged significantly quicker lap times than the Phillips/Storey and had leap frogged them into an incredible 2nd overall behind the now leading works Lotus Evora driven by ex touring car driver, Martin Byford.
O’Neill was back up to 5th overall and still pushing on despite radioing to the pits that he had ‘fallen off the cliff’! He was in danger of being caught by Phillips and Storey before the chequered flag and deliberations in the team where intense until the decision was made for them as the safety car was deployed and Owen would get the breather he needed to keep them behind until the end. Phillips/Storey were a full one lap behind at the restart with just 10 minutes remaining.
Mercer was back up to 14th which was amazing considering that the back end of the Ginetta was just a bare chassis.
Always ambitious, Gilbert was still pushing hard to the end, he hadn’t given up on the possibility of catching the leading Lotus of Byford .
Their positions remained unchanged until the chequered flag, Gilbert took an incredible 2nd overall and 1st in Class. His achievement didn’t go unnoticed either; he was awarded the Sunoco ‘Driver of the Weekend’ trophy to add to his collection.
A relieved but rather poorly looking O’Neill finished 5th overall and 2nd in Class leaving the Phillips/Storey Ferrari to the final podium spot.
Mercer finished 14th overall and despite their war wounds, finished an incredible 2nd in class.
The next race is at Brands Hatch GP on 14-15th July.