Jenson Button's Team Rocket RJN McLaren squad hadn't intended to enter the British GT Championship in 2020. But disruption following the coronavirus pandemic meant the team, co-owned by 2009 Formula 1 world champion Button, switched its focus from the GT World Challenge Europe and last weekend scored a sensational British GT victory first time out.
The win by James Baldwin and Michael O'Brien not only underlined the pace of the McLaren 720S, but also showed that the Silver-Silver driver line-ups will be right in the championship mix against the Pro-Am crews that traditionally dominate GT3.
Esports convert and World's Fastest Gamer winner Baldwin fired a warning shot in GT3 Am qualifying, which set the grid for the first one-hour encounter, by apparently snatching a late pole position. That time was disallowed for a track-limits infraction, but he still lined up fourth.
Lewis Proctor led the early stages in his Optimum Motorsport 720S, chased by the 2 Seas McLarens of Jordan Witt and Angus Fender, and Baldwin. Proctor had pipped Witt to pole by just 0.001 seconds, but gradually edged away, only to lose his advantage in traffic just before the handover to Ollie Wilkinson. Witt came in two laps later and co-driver Jack Mitchell rejoined ahead of Wilkinson. Baldwin had hounded Fender throughout the opening stint and his change to O'Brien was quicker than Dean Macdonald's takeover from Fender, which gave the JTR/RJN car third.
A mistake by Wilkinson then allowed O'Brien into second, but Mitchell looked comfortable with an 8s lead. That was until he was handed a 10s stop/go penalty for a pitstop infringement by one of the crew. He came in, was caught speeding, and had to serve another stop/go.
That left O'Brien with a small advantage over Wilkinson, who had a queue of cars behind him that included Macdonald, Sandy Mitchell (in the Barwell Lamborghini started by Rob Collard) and Patrick Kujala.
This pack demonstrated the problems the Pro-Am combinations will face in 2020 - the top five Silver cars had track position. Not only is Oulton Park tough to pass on, but the pace of the quintet was such that the Pros could make little impression, despite the Silvers having to run heavier. Yelmer Buurman got himself onto the back of the group in the RAM Racing Mercedes started by Ian Loggie but never looked like making places, while Phil Keen could only chip away at the 9.5s deficit he had to the top six.
There was a late test for O'Brien when the Academy Motorsport GT4 Ford Mustang brought out the safety car. There was enough time for two laps, but O'Brien's fine restart meant victory was his. Macdonald completed a McLaren 1-2-3.
O'Brien himself was surprised to be challenging for wins right from the start of the season. "We want to fight for the championship, but we didn't expect in that first weekend to be fighting for the win against a strong GT3 field," he said. "I think we surprised ourselves and a lot of other people as well."
It was the Pro-Am line-ups' turn to head the field in race two, which was sadly ruined by a bizarre accident just after half-distance.
Keen led Barwell Motorsport team-mate Mitchell from pole as the two Lambos disappeared down the road. They were helped by a feisty Marcus Clutton, who hurled his JMH Huracan down the inside of Buurman at Old Hall and around the outside of Kujala's RAM Mercedes at Cascades. Buurman followed Clutton through, but could not overcome the 2011 British GT4 champion until lap 12. He started matching the leading duo, butthe gap to Keen was 15s.
Keen stayed out until the last possible moment before handing over to Adam Balon, who completed his out-lap 4.3s ahead of Collard. The ex-British Touring Car racer had been quicker than Balon in qualifying, so the chase was on - until the safety car was called.
Contact between Connor O'Brien's GT4 Aston and the GT3 Mercedes of Nick Jones on the run to Cascades sent both off. In the ensuing accident, the Aston lost a wheel, which struck Fender's McLaren. All three cars ended up at different parts of the circuit, bringing out the full-course caution.
There were still more than 20 minutes to go, raising the prospect of Collard attacking Balon, but the restart never came. Problems moving the stricken 2 Seas McLaren meant the race finished under yellows.
Behind the Lambos, Loggie lost third thanks to a 30s penalty for a pitstop time infringement, handing the spot to Kujala/Sam De Haan.
"The plan was not to score too many points here because normally when we do well at Oulton we don't do well at the end of the year," joked perennial nearly-champion Keen. "But we need to take the points we can."
Baldwin and O'Brien provided a fine example of that. They had survived, and recovered from, a lap-one off at Island by O'Brien to finish sixth. They lead the championship but, with five crews - four of them all-Silver - covered by eight points, the fight really has only just begun.
British GT4: TF still a force to be reckoned with in GT4
TF Sport may not be able to defend the GT3 drivers' title it took last year with Jonny Adam and Graham Davidson, but the Oulton Park season opener showed that the Aston Martin team will once again be a force in GT4.
TF's Jamie Caroline and Daniel Vaughan left Cheshire tied at the top of the points with HHC McLaren duo Patrik Matthiesen and Jordan Collard, but it was arguably Connor O'Brien who impressed the most.
Three of the four qualifying sessions across the two classes were incredibly close - the exception was O'Brien recording two laps good enough for pole in the GT4 Am group. His best would have put him third in the GT4 Pro session, indicating how strong the combination of O'Brien and Patrick Kibble could be this season.
O'Brien drove a brilliant first lap in race one too, and continued pulling away from Sam Smelt, in Speedworks Motorsport's new Toyota GR Supra, in the early stages. O'Brien stayed out for 35 minutes and handed Kibble a comfortable lead, which he extended further. When Matt Cowley went off at Island in the Academy Motorsport Ford Mustang and brought out the safety car, Kibble was handed a bonus advantage and took the class win by a lap.
The Toyota should have been second but its pitstop penalty promoted Collard into the runner-up spot. Matthiesen, Jordan Albert (in the Mustang) and Vaughan had battled mightily in the early stages, the Ford and Aston swapping places several times.
Collard built a gap during the second half of the race, but Cowley and Caroline remained locked together. Only when the Mustang went off did Caroline secure TF's 1-3.
After an eventful first race that included an off-track excursion and a pitstop penalty, Euan Hankey started the second encounter from pole in Balfe Motorsport's McLaren. He was jumped at the start by Caroline, who edged away while Hankey defended from Kibble, but former TF driver Hankey knew that both Astons would have to serve longer stops in the pits thanks to their success penalties, and his Pro-Am partnership with Mia Flewitt meant they would stop for 14s less regardless of the success penalties.
Co-driver Flewitt found herself in the lead after the stops and, when Nick Jones's GT3 Mercedes clumsily hit O'Brien, the race finished behind the safety car, giving the Balfe McLaren victory.
Caroline/Vaughan were forced to settle for second, with Matthiesen/Collard also taking their second podium finish of the day.
BRDC British F3: Dream start for American Frederick
Kaylen Frederick was living the American Dream after leaving Oulton Park last Sunday, having secured a brace of victories in the opening round of the 2020 BRDC British F3 Championship.
The Carlin driver - back for a second season in the category - may have been the man to beat across the weekend's four processional races, but it was series debutant Louis Foster who claimed pole for the opening encounter.
The British F4 race winner proved too quick for his own good, however, initially jumping the race-one start before coming to a halt several feet in front of his box. Once the lights went out, it was fellow front-row starter Frederick who got the jump and duly led home Double R's Foster - awarded a 10-second penalty for his transgression - and Douglas Motorsport drivers Kiern Jewiss and Ulysse De Pauw on the road.
But Frederick was also judged to have jumped the start and was handed a 10s post-race penalty, which dropped him to eighth. Jewiss, another sophomore driver, thus took the win from De Pauw and Carlin racer Nazim Azman.
"I saw him [Foster] jump and my knee-jerk reaction was to lift the clutch slightly and I jumped out of the box," said Frederick. "It was my bad, it wasn't like I was focused on him but he was just in my peripheral vision.
"The rest of the race though was just amazing, it's a shame it was taken away but without that safety car [to retrieve Josh Mason's stricken car] we could have won the race even with that penalty."
Winning with a 10s penalty in a one-make category as close as British F3 might seem almost laughable, but Frederick showed his true pace in race three on Sunday. In an uninterrupted race, he won by 8.65s - the third largest race-winning margin of the series in its current guise - having again got the jump on polesitter Foster, only this time both starts were judged legal.
Azman finished second, with Foster completing the podium after a poor getaway - but only after De Pauw had been disqualified for setting his fastest lap while yellow flags were waved at Knickerbrook for the beached car of Nico Varrone.
The winning gap may not have been as large in the fourth race of the weekend - where the grid was determined by a driver's two fastest race laps from two of the three previous races - but it was the same result as Frederick secured a lights-to-flag victory as Hitech GP's Kush Maini, third in the 2018 British F3 standings, and Lanan's Piers Prior completed the podium.
Prior had already had his moment in the sun on Saturday having taken the full-reversed grid win from pole, ahead of Maini and Lanan team-mate Bart Horsten.
But it was Frederick who had set down the marker ahead of the next round at Donington Park, with the American eight points clear of Jewiss in the standings and Azman a further point behind.
BTCC supports: Parker leads the way in Porsches
There was no disputing which of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB squads was team of the weekend at Donington Park. With Josh Webster, Harry King and Esmee Hawkey completing a podium lockout for Team Parker Racing in race one, it was a great start to the season for the veteran Carrera Cup squad.
It was new Porsche GB Junior King who starred in qualifying as the reigning Ginetta GT4 Supercup champion claimed a debut Carrera Cup pole. But even more surprising was the identity of the driver who lined up alongside him, as Pro-Am contender Hawkey produced a very impressive time to qualify second.
Hawkey lost out to the fast-starting Webster in the opener, but King had already built a decent margin at the front. That was until he clouted the Recticel barrier at the chicane. It was a hefty whack and left King with a slightly wounded Porsche. "That made things very difficult," admitted King. "It meant I was carrying a lot of understeer."
Sure enough, Webster instantly zoomed in on his team-mate and King was regularly locking a wheel as he struggled with his ill-handling Porsche. Inevitably, four laps after making his error, King lost the lead as Webster dived ahead on the inside at the chicane, but King was still able to take second at the flag.
Completing the TPR podium trio was W Series driver Hawkey who, despite coming under increasing pressure from Ginetta GT5 champion Scott McKenna and defeated Porsche Junior finalist Lorcan Hanafin, took a surprise third overall.
"No, I definitely didn't expect that!" said a delighted Hawkey. "I was trying to manage the gap [to McKenna and Hanafin], but it was a tough last lap as there was a backmarker!"
King was able to make amends for his race-one mistake by winning the finale. Starting third on the partially reversed grid, he jumped Hawkey off the line and passed McKenna too further round the opening lap. From there, he was never troubled as he took the win, while a queue of cars formed behind McKenna. Webster was at the front of those but, having damaged his splitter early in the race, was struggling with understeer.
"I was pleased to catch Scott and with one more lap maybe I would've passed him," said Webster. "I have to thank Darren and Patrick, my mechanic and engineer, for doing a great job."
Elsewhere, Alex Connor endured a weekend of wildly contrasting fortunes at Donington Park, but it was the consistency of Zak O'Sullivan that enabled him to take the early British Formula 4 points lead.
Saturday ended on a positive note for Arden driver Connor. Despite qualifying fifth among the incredibly close F4 grid - the top 13 were separated by less than a second in qualifying - he won the opening race.
Polesitter James Hedley kept the lead at the start while Connor instantly began to make progress. He was up to third by the end of the first tour and then despatched Roberto Faria into Redgate on lap two. Connor soon had Hedley in his sights and, as the JHR driver was defending heavily, his rival went around the outside at McLeans to take the lead. From there, Connor charged on to a comfortable win as Luke Browning passed Fortec team-mate Faria late on, while Hedley slipped behind O'Sullivan to fifth.
"I think the warm-up lap was really good - it helped me a lot on the first couple of laps," said Connor about his strong start. "Hedley defended at Turn 4 so that helped me all the way up the hill and I got a better run and went round the outside."
But that proved to be the highpoint of Connor's weekend. Sunday's first race began with him colliding with Faria out of Coppice, leaving the duo's cars stranded in the road and necessitating a red flag. To compound Connor's misery, he was given a five-place grid penalty for the finale and that left him only eighth at the finish.
Polesitter Casper Stevenson led for the first half of the restarted race two until the impressive O'Sullivan grabbed the lead on the inside at Redgate.
Having already seen Faria and Connor go out - along with Hedley, who had been hit by Roman Bilinski - Stevenson admitted he didn't defend the place too hard. "There are a few aggressive people out there so trying to avoid that - second is better than last!" he said.
Browning was another to lose out after he ran wide at Old Hairpin, meaning Rafael Villagomez completed the podium.
Hedley bounced back in the final race to lead throughout - although he was aided by a late call to end a safety car period, which caught out Browning and allowed O'Sullivan to briefly sneak ahead.
Three-time Mini Challenge runner-up Nathan Harrison will have made the trip home to Oxford blessing the dropped-scores ruling after the JCW class made its maiden Clio Cup-replacing appearance as a staple of the TOCA package. Gearbox dramas in the final Donington race meant, after a win and a second, Harrison (above right) could only watch from the pits as 2018 champion Ant Whorton-Eales seized the initiative.
Whorton-Eales's win in the opener was a masterpiece of defensive driving. The Jamsport racer had the Excelr8 Motorsport Mini of Harrison crawling all over his back throughout, but Whorton-Eales prevented a proper attack from Harrison. Harrison was, in turn, under pressure from Dan Zelos for much of the distance before Lewis Brown, who had dropped to sixth at the start, picked his way through to wrest third from Zelos on the penultimate lap.
Harrison finally imposed himself on Whorton-Eales with a superb manoeuvre around the outside of Redgate on lap four of the second race, but already the first-race victor was suffering with a failing front-right damper, from which all the oil leaked as he tumbled to sixth. Zelos this time held on from Brown as they fought over second, while Tom Rawlings passed Max Coates for fourth on the final lap.
TOCA-package veteran Coates got revenge with a terrific drive in the reversed-grid finale, from sixth to the lead within two laps. He had to defend mightily thereafter from Kyle Reid, as Whorton-Eales was third.
A lot was very different to normal at Donington Park for the first TOCA event since the coronavirus pandemic struck. But some things never change as Ginetta Junior again produced some frenetic action.
Race three was the pick of the bunch as Georgi Dimitrov and Joel Pearson (below, leading) had a cracking battle for the lead. The pair were regularly side-by-side, but it was Dimitrov who eventually prevailed as Zak Taylor narrowly completed the podium.
"I knew I had the pace to win but it was difficult to try to break the tow," said Pearson. "He just found that gap! It was a great race and an exciting welcome back to racing."
Pearson also had a spell leading the opener, but it was his R Racing team-mate Bailey Voisin who triumphed.
Dimitrov controlled race two, while Tom Lebbon - who admitted it was tricky adjusting to Ginetta Junior racing from karting - recovered to second after earlier dropping back. Aston Millar completed an all-rookie podium for the first time since the 2014 finale when a certain Lando Norris headed the trio of first-year drivers.
Will Burns and Tom Hibbert are regular Ginetta GT4 Supercup frontrunners, boasting 181 series starts between them. But, despite all of their experience behind the wheel of a Ginetta G55, it was category debutant Gus Burton who starred to take pole for the opener.
Burton had shown flashes of speed in Ginetta Junior last year but had never been able to convert that into strong results. That changed with his step up to the GT4 Supercup.
However, the greater experience of Burns and Hibbert showed in the opener as Burton made a poor start and the duo both passed him. But Burton closed right in on Hibbert late on, nearly grabbing second.
He did manage to achieve that in race two, however. Burns and Hibbert were the top two throughout until, on the final lap, Burton passed Hibbert on the inside at McLeans.
Burton then completed a brilliant first weekend in the series with victory in the finale. He initially lost out to Hibbert but, when Hibbert ran slightly wide at Coppice on lap three, Burton pounced approaching the chicane.
Cadwell Park BRSCC: Byrne still the Caterham master
The Caterham Seven 420R category may have been rebranded as the Caterham Seven UK Championship for 2020 to reflect its new national status, but there was no change at the top of the order, with reigning champion John Byrne dominating the season opener at Cadwell Park.
While Byrne took a comfortable double victory, the battle for second proved less predictable. In race one, a poor start dropped Henry Heaton down to sixth from the front row, but he recovered to take second ahead of reigning Caterham 310R champion Gordon Sawyer. Heaton briefly led the second race before conceding to Byrne on the lap two, and then lost second to Sawyer midway through the contest. Heaton attempted to fight back on the final tour but, in a photo finish, Sawyer held off Heaton by just 0.001 seconds.
The 310R championship shared the track with the top Caterham category. Despite qualifying on pole position, 270R graduate James Murphy was unable to claim victory, finishing runner-up in both encounters. In race one, Gregory Monks came out on top in a late three-way battle to grab the spoils. Tom Grensinger won the second race, leading all the way after making a great start from the second row and holding off Murphy by a quarter of a second at the finish.
The spoils were shared across the three Fiesta races. Luke Pinder won the opener in dramatic fashion after Samuel Watkins crashed out of the lead on the final lap at Barn Corner with a suspected brake issue. Watkins's brother Joshua inherited second.
Samuel Watkins bounced back in fine style with second place in race two - behind his sibling in a race shortened due to poor weather conditions - and then took victory in a dry race three ahead of Spencer Stevenson. Fiesta Junior champion Oliver Turner went on to grab a brace of third-place finishes after pulling off from pole position before the start of the first race.
These races also featured the first appearance of the new-generation Fiesta ST180, which is being developed this year ahead of its official introduction in 2021. David Nye and John Cooper ran the cars in an invitational class, and were comfortably the fastest in the field. A one-lap handicap given to them at the start of each race prevented them from taking overall honours.
Luke Herbert passed polesitter James Blake-Baldwin to win the first Mazda MX-5 Supercup encounter, but an ECU infringement resulted in Blake-Baldwin being disqualified from second place, with Samuel Smith inheriting the position.
Smith won race two after passing Jack Sycamore just before the race was red-flagged due to an incident further down the field. Early leader Patrick Fletcher finished fourth after an off, while poleman Herbert was taken off on the opening lap.
British GT racer Martin Plowman took part in the races for his newly created Paddock Promotions Motorsport team. A clutch issue in race one and then a first-lap incident put paid to his chances of a good result, but he hinted at further outings after enjoying the club-racing experience.
Brands Hatch BARC: Janicki's Skyline flies through field
James Janicki charged through from eighth on the grid to claim victory in an opening combined Classic Thunder and Blue Oval Saloon Series race that boasted plenty of action and an impressive 31 starters (above).
A rapid start initially propelled the BMW E46 of Jasver Sapra into the lead, but the intervention of traffic soon meant he was reeled in by Janicki's Nissan Skyline R32, the Alfa Romeo 33 of Adrian Hawkins and the Holden Monaro of poleman Andrew Wilson. After Janicki hit the front and pulled clear, the battle for second between Sapra and Hawkins ended in a clash where both hit the pitwall, bringing the race to a premature end.
James Card won race two in his E46 M3 after early leader Wilson retired. Andy Robinson (Ford Falcon) took second, while former British Touring Car driver Jason Hughes stormed through to third in his ex-BTCC Vauxhall Vectra after starting from the pitlane.
Danny Harrison and Jem Hepworth claimed a double success in the two Britcar Endurance contests in their Praga R1T, albeit under different circumstances. The pair cantered to a lights-to-flag win in race one ahead of the similar car of Jack Fabby and Garry Townsend. In the second contest, a clash involving Hepworth and the BMW 1M of backmarker Charlie Lamb caused the race to be red-flagged. With the Praga undamaged, Harrison charged through from the back to claim the win in the restarted event from Fabby/Townsend and the Ferrari 488 Challenge of reigning Britcar champions Paul Bailey and Andy Schulz.
In the Britcar Trophy category, Barry McMahon took a dominant race-one win but, when his Alfa Romeo 156 T hit trouble in the second event, a five-car battle for the lead ensued. Ex-BTCC racer Rob Smith, sharing a Peugeot RCZ with Charlie Campbell, snatched victory from James Colburn's Renault Clio in the closing stages of a safety-car-interrupted contest.
Driving the new Revolution A-One car, Alex Kapadia won the first Sports Prototype Cup race after passing Scott Mansell's Revolution at Druids on lap 10 of 39. Fuel-consumption concerns dropped Kapadia back into Mansell's reach as the race neared its end, but he held on. The pair resumed their personal duel again in race two until Kapadia spun off at Paddock Hill Bend at mid-distance. Mansell was left to reel off the remaining laps out front, although Bradley Ellis kept him honest.
The first Classic Touring Car Pre '83 race also featured a two-way battle for honours in the early stages, but neither David Howard in his Jaguar XJ12 nor the Ford Escort Mk1 of Stephen Primett would claim the spoils. A collision between the pair at Druids opened up an opportunity for Mike Luck to snatch the win in his BMW E21 320, which he gratefully accepted. Primett took just two laps to move into second from the rear of the race-two grid, but he was unable to deny Luck a double victory.
Lewis Saunders kept cool under intense pressure from Charlie Hand in both Junior Saloon encounters to maintain his unbeaten start to the season, as Alex Solley claimed a pair of thirds despite taking a trip into the Paddock Hill Bend gravel in race one.
Fergus Campbell was never headed in either of the well-supported MG Owners' Club Championship contests in his ZR 170, despite the best efforts of David Mellor in his similar car. Reigning champion Steve McDermid recovered to third in the second event after being delayed in race one by the spinning MG F of Martin Wills.
Castle Combe CCRC: Cooper keeps Fisher at bay
If the opening Castle Combe meeting of the season last month appeared to set up a Luke Cooper-and-Felix Fisher duel for the circuit's Formula Ford 1600 championship this year, then last Saturday's two races confirmed that.
Fisher in a Ray GR06 was the early leader in race one, but 2018 Combe FF1600 champion Cooper in his Swift SC18 was not to be denied, setting up the decisive pass at Quarry on the second lap before making the move stick down Farm Straight. American Bryce Aron held on to the pair, finally passing Fisher on the penultimate lap with a majestic sweep around the outside of Avon Rise.
Race two was a masterclass by Cooper in absorbing race-long pressure as he spent eight laps eyeballing his mirrors for any attempt by either Fisher or Aron behind. It came to a head on the last tour, with Fisher pulling side-by-side at Camp Corner, but Cooper held on to win. Second was still a good result for Fisher, who almost didn't make the grid but was handed a lifeline when a delayed start meant the marshals allowed him to take up his pole position grid slot.
Adam Prebble got a better start than polesitting older brother Gary in the Saloon Car Championship's first race to take the lead. The pair traded the top spot until a rattling front bonnet (below) for the younger Prebble's Vauxhall Astra meant a meatball flag was deployed, effectively handing his brother's SEAT Leon Cupra the win. Prebble Jr left the pits in sixth having secured the bonnet, and did well to pump in times good enough to recover to third behind the Volkswagen Golf of Chris Rawlings.
Simon Thornton-Norris suffered condensation in the crank-sensor plug of his Mitsubishi Colt in race one. He started from the front row in race two, but had to cede to the faster Adam Prebble. Reigning champion Thornton-Norris collected himself well and stalked the Astra throughout, but had to settle for second. Gary Prebble, who was due to line up on pole, suffered a split turbo pipe and was unable to start.
Jeremy Cooke and Charles Hyde-Andrews-Bird took their BMW M3 to the top step of the podium in the 45-minute Dave Allan Trophy by a healthy 42s from Honda Civic Type R driver Alyn James. The race had looked to be a straight duel between James and the Mazda RX-7 of Steve Putt, but two key moments handed the BMW crew the win.
First was a safety car at the end of lap seven, which gave Cooke enough of a reason to head into the pits for the driver change, while James opted to go longer, not making the most of the reduced laptime loss under the safety car and instead being the last of the leaders to pit for the mandatory one-minute stop at two-thirds distance.
That gave Putt the net lead again after enjoying clean air out front from the off. But, shortly after James's stop, Putt's Mazda started issuing smoke, prompting a retirement that handed the BMW the lead.
Reports by Kevin Turner, Stefan Mackley, Stephen Lickorish, Marcus Simmons, Steve Whitfield, Mark Libbeter and Jason Noble. Pics by Jakob Ebrey Photography, Mick Walker, Gary Hawkins and Steve Jones. For more national reports and news, see the 6 August edition of Autosport magazine. To subscribe, click here