This season’s series has a very different complexion about it compared to previous years. For the first time, 20 pro drivers will fill out the GT3 class, while 20 qualifying sim racers take part in the GT4 category.
Century Motorsport’s Fender was the form driver in the first race at Oulton Park. The BMW driver was able to take pole position ahead of overwhelming series favourite James Baldwin – known for his gaming exploits in McLaren Shadow, World’s Fastest Gamer, and the e-Race of Champions – by more than half a second, but his lead lasted for just two corners as Baldwin was able to get ahead going into Cascades. Almost as soon as he’d got the advantage, Baldwin lost it again. Under braking for Hislop’s, the McLaren driver seemed to move left and banged doors with Fender’s M6. The unsettled 720S skipped across the chicane unharmed, but lost momentum and Fender was past before the Water Tower kink.
Meanwhile Baldwin’s team-mate, and team owner, Jenson Button, was having a worse time, getting caught up in the first turn melee and ended up being ejected off the outside of Old Hall, backwards, after tangling with Ben Green’s BMW.
While Fender and Baldwin drove off into the distance, the action was all behind them – and roughly coinciding with the GT3 cars starting to lap the GT4s – as the racing started getting scrappy. Team Parker Racing’s Ryan Ratcliffe dropped his 911 on the approach to Shell Oils, taking out Barwell’s Jack Lemmer in the process. However as the duo went to rejoin, they ended up blocking the road for the approaching Tom Canning, which attracted a ten-second stop-go penalty for both.
Michael O’Brien was the next driver in the wars, as he – like Button – got too close to Green’s BMW in Old Hall and ended up spinning across the circuit. That precipitated a five car crash, with British GT champion Sandy Mitchell and Bobby Trundley both involved.
With the pit window open – all cars required to take one stop and take on fuel in the process – Baldwin took the early stop, and came out closer to Fender after the latter stopped, eventually closing in to mere tenths of a second behind. The move to recapture the lead came soon enough; Fender was caught up behind the GT4 cars of Nils Naujoks and Moritz Loehner exiting Knickerbrook, and Baldwin didn’t need a second invitation, sweeping past before braking for Druids. Fender was soon trying to get back past, and we saw a repeat of the opening lap incident – with slightly different results. Again under braking, Baldwin’s car twitched left and into the BMW. This time, it was Fender who ended up taking a trip through the grass, and the pair made further contact leaving the chicane, but came out in the same order they went in. That looked to be that, with Baldwin taking the chequered flag by just under eight seconds from Fender, but the stewards had different ideas. Baldwin’s lap time was garnished with a 30-second penalty – equivalent to an unserved ten-second stop-go – shuffling him back behind Fender, though the pair were so far ahead of third-place man Jody Fannin that Baldwin got to keep second.
The GT4 class, packed with well-known sim racers, was no less of a race of attrition. Again it was actually the class pole-sitter, Luka Berk in his Porsche Cayman GT4, that took the win, but for much of the race he was playing second fiddle to team-mate Jack McIntyre.
It wasn’t until Berk’s late-window pit stop that the class was decided, as the Slovenian driver pitted from the class lead and came back out with a healthy gap to Maciej Malinowski’s Alpine behind. Naujoks came home in third after Loehner, who he’d been scrapping with all race long, was taken out by Adam Morgan’s GT3-class Mercedes with five minutes left to go.
The top ten in the GT4 category not only earn points but also qualify automatically for the next round at Snetterton. That leaves ten further places open to public qualification, which anyone can participate in using the Assetto Corsa Competizione simulator on PC.