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Tom Onslow-Cole British GT Rockingham Report

British GT Rockingham: click to enlargeTime to gather the thoughts of our resident race-ace once again as he takes to the impressive complex at Rockingham Motor Speedway to try his new Aston Martin GT3 car for the very first time. Safe to say, he’s got his head round the new car already!

Tom. Rockingham is an interesting place. It’s a fantastic facility, and really great for the fans to spectate from – particularly with the great view of the pits. But, from a driver’s point of view, we’re almost using it a little out of context. It’s a high-speed oval really, with a very tight and twisty infield, meaning it’s a challenge for a big GT car like the Aston. It’s a fight I always enjoy, though!

I can’t tell you how excited I was to be driving the Aston for the first time in anger. It’s a wonderful opportunity. After all, it was a similar spec car that won the BGT championship last year, and as a driver, it’s always a good feeling to be sitting in machinery that you know is capable of hitting the top step. When the chance arose to drive the ex-BILSTEIN-liveried car, which took pole at the N24 last year and won at Silverstone in Blancpain too, it was a no-brainer. This is the very car that made me want to get into British GT in the first place. The Nissan that I drove at Oulton is a superb bit of kit, don’t get me wrong... but the Aston is far more refined and brutally quick. The differences between those two GT cars are very much like the differences between the road-going equivalents, I think, only massively amplified.

On arriving at the track, I’ll be honest, we were quietly confident that we had a good chance here. Ironically, it’s not the best track to unveil our new secret weapon, as the Aston prefers leggy, power tracks like Silverstone, Spa or Snetterton. All that stop, squirt and sprint that the Rockingham infield demands doesn’t really suit this car, but we still felt like we could put on a good show, nonetheless. Both Paul (my team mate) and I felt we could place the car somewhere near the front, all things being equal.

Saturday’s driving was a little “tricky”. I did my 5 laps to simply bed in some brakes and then handed over to Paul. He also did a few laps but then had a somewhat nasty argument with the tyre wall, which rendered the Aston a little less beautiful than it had been that morning. When it arrived back in the pits it all looked fairly minimal, but as he and I scrutinised the onboard footage, watching just how bad the shunt was, and the team starting peeling back the mangled parts, we could see how bad it all was. There was a lot of damage; the front panels, aero, ‘A’ pillar and chassis leg were all pretty torn up, so it was going to be a long night! Luckily our techs are originally from the rally side of the team, so they’re never happier then when they have to fish a ton of dirt and gravel out before they start work! They worked liked troopers and did a stunning job - but we had to miss Free Practise 2 in the end… We were ready for qually though, and that’s what matters most!

Despite the fact the car was freshly repaired, I felt very confident when I first went back out. I had only done 5 laps, so I needed to get on intimate terms with it very quickly. The trick with the Avon rubber is to maximise the tyre ‘peak’ – that sweet spot when the fresh tyre gives its optimum performance. When they’re immediately ‘in’ and warm these Avons are worth 2.5 seconds a lap in terms of time, then immediately, they lose half a second a lap for the next 4 or 5 laps until they plateau at their race pace. So, you really have to make sure you’re “on it” for those first few laps and maximise what they are capable of delivering. Everything works so well during those early minutes and I really couldn’t fault the car in any way. It’s mad when you consider the engine mods you would need to make to gain that kind of lap advantage, so it’s a whole new part of my BGT learning curve, making sure I factor it in to my strategy and work the tyre percentages. I’m still appreciating how to get the very best out of it for qualifying. Getting it in that sweet spot and hooking up that one fast lap is everything. The car is just so far away from my old BTCC car, it’s simply crazy. The speeds and forces are a very different experience and I’m loving the mental and physical challenge that this brings.

After a great session, I had managed 9th and with Paul’s run, we were 14th overall. Chatting afterwards, we both agreed that moving from the GT-R to the Aston was a good idea. Paul was understandably a little tentative after his smash, but we were both hugely optimistic about our chances in the race.

As the first longer race of the season, it required a different approach. Being a 2 hour stint, our 14th place wasn’t really an issue. It’s much easier to make up those places over such a long race, so our realistic aim was to get inside the top 8, and try to be one of the three fastest Astons on track. Paul started in our 14th slot and did a great job of getting us up to 9th, just before the pit stops, getting a bit of luck along the way as the Safety car bunched the field up. A problem with our fuelling rig cost us a little time, but we were only 7 seconds adrift of where we were, and back to 12th, but we were still very much in contention, that was the main thing! I was able to make up 2 places immediately, before the Safety Car bunched us up again. Chasing down the Aston GT3 of Richard Abra and then passing Jonathan Adam in last year’s championship winning car felt really satisfying, I can tell you! It also proved what a superb job the team had done with the repairs! I managed to get us up to 5th on the road, but the hard drive to get us there had really hurt the tyres. My only option was to defend for the last quarter of the race, but 7 years of BTCC has more than equipped me for that, don’t worry!

Ultimately, the with the 4th place Ferrari being penalised, we gained 4th overall, exceeded our aim by being the quickest Aston, and the first past the post! Posting the 2nd fastest lap overall didn’t hurt any, either! As first outings with a new car go, that one certainly ticked all the boxes. Better yet, next up we have Silverstone, where this car really should shine, so here’s hoping we can stay near the front once again!