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How a rookie pairing snared Britain's biggest GT prize

Dan Harper and Darren Leung formed a partnership in British GT that proved championship worthy, as the Century Motorsport BMW pair captured the GT3 title at the first time of asking. Autosport reviews the GT3 and GT4 classes of 2023, and picks out the year's best drivers

Darren Leung / Dan Harper - Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT3

Darren Leung / Dan Harper - Century Motorsport BMW M4 GT3

JEP / Motorsport Images

“It was a big choice from him because he could have had a lot more experienced factory drivers, but in the end, he went with me, gave me the opportunity and I think his trust in me just grew and grew.”

Dan Harper’s name might have been one unfamiliar to some readers prior to this season, the 2019 Porsche Carrera Cup GB champion having plied his trade successfully in Europe over recent years, which led him to becoming a BMW factory driver. But put alongside Am driver Darren Leung aboard Century Motorsport’s BMW M4, Harper took British GT3 by storm and the pair took the title in their first season in the championship.

The achievement was made even more impressive by Leung having only made one GT3 appearance before 2023, winning on his debut at last season’s Donington Park season finale, while 22-year-old Harper had never worked directly alongside an Am driver. And yet their partnership gelled from the beginning and was the foundation for their success.

“It was my first year working in a Pro-Am pairing and having the responsibility of not only developing the car for the team but also developing Darren,” says Harper. “Also, I hadn’t raced on the UK circuits since 2019 so there were a lot of things that needed to click.

“But as soon as they did, I would say around the mid-point of the year, then we didn’t finish one race outside the top six. So that was putting us in the right place and then the last weekend just worked out.”

During that weekend at Donington Park, both Leung and Harper put in arguably their best drives of the season when it mattered most, having headed into the event 13 points behind in the standings. Leung led from pole, only for safety cars to negate his lead, which dropped Harper down to 13th after the pitstops. But the Northern Irishman scythed his way up the order to an incredible second by the flag, which was more than enough for the title.

It was reminiscent of his drive during the three-hour race at Silverstone earlier in the year, where a washed-out qualifying meant the pair started 18th – times having been taken from FP2 when they suffered mechanical issues. Overtakes on title rival Jonny Adam and then race leader Sandy Mitchell in the final stint – two former champions in British GT, no less – underlined Harper’s prowess.

A storming drive to victory at Silverstone marked Leung and Harper out as serious contenders

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

A storming drive to victory at Silverstone marked Leung and Harper out as serious contenders

But the season wasn’t without its blips, Harper being on the receiving end of penalties on two occasions. Overtaking Jules Gounon before the start/finish line on a safety car restart cost a possible podium in the opening Oulton Park race, while another rostrum went begging at the Algarve Circuit. On that occasion, the BMW driver had overtaken cars exiting the pits under a safety car, which dropped the car to fifth at the flag.

“In a Pro-Am pairing the pressure’s always more on the Pro because he’s expected to do his job, and I think both those incidents were my mistake and obviously that wasn’t a nice feeling for me,” admits Harper. “But again, that’s where Darren and the team were just so good. They could have been annoyed with me, they could have made the situation a whole lot worse, but we just cracked on with it.”

Aside from briefly taking the lead in the standings after their Silverstone victory, Leung/Harper were forced to play catch-up to Adam and James Cottingham over the nine-race season. The 2 Seas Mercedes-AMG pairing hit the ground running with pole and victory in the Oulton opener, with further wins on the first visit to Donington and at Portimao.

"These championships not only come down to the penalties but it’s good management of the pace of the car and I think they did a fantastic job of managing the pace of that car” James Cottingham

Key to their success were strong qualifying performances, with Cottingham topping his Am session no fewer than three times from a possible six, while Adam helped “break things down for me really well, [and] focusing on the important parts”.

“Once you start from the front row of the grid, it does make the weekend a hell of a lot easier – that is the first win of the weekend,” says Cottingham on his second full-time season in British GT. “The tracks are narrow and it’s hard to pass in these GT3 cars, especially with the Ams. You don’t know how they’re going to behave or react. You’ve almost bagged points by being on the front row of the grid.”

Yet, like Harper, there were penalties for Cottingham, which proved pivotal. A collision with a GT4 car cost them a podium at Silverstone, while a front-row start in the opening Snetterton race was lost after an incident with another GT4 runner in practice. More dramatic was overtaking under yellow flags in the Donington decider that dropped the car out of the points, although Cottingham believes that, even without the penalty, winning the title was a tall order.

“When you really watch it, multiple overtakes around the outside of hairpins [by Harper]. That just doesn’t happen normally,” he says. “I think a lot of these championships not only come down to the penalties but it’s good management of the pace of the car and I think they did a fantastic job of managing the pace of that car this year.”

Elsewhere, sustained opposition failed to materialise, with reigning champion Ian Loggie and team-mate Gounon in the sister 2 Seas Mercedes only able to win a torrentially wet second Oulton Park race. Raffaele Marciello and John Ferguson in the RAM Racing Mercedes lacked consistency, with the latter’s firm defensive drive giving them a sole victory at Snetterton. And Barwell Motorsport drivers Mitchell and Shaun Balfe took time to adapt to the new uprated version of the Lamborghini Huracan, winning at Snetterton and the Donington finale.

GT4: Academy pair graduate with first

In the final year of the current generation Mustang, Academy Motorsport gave it the best possible send-off with the GT4 title

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

In the final year of the current generation Mustang, Academy Motorsport gave it the best possible send-off with the GT4 title

At the fourth time of asking, the combination of Academy Motorsport and Matt Cowley finally prevailed to take the British GT4 drivers’ title in 2023, alongside championship newcomer Erik Evans. But while Cowley and Academy Motorsport have been title contenders before, finishing second in 2021, their outright success this term was unexpected given a lack of performance and results at points during the season.

It took until the penultimate round at Brands Hatch before Cowley and Evans even stood on the top step, and an unlikely victory in the season finale at Donington Park – Cowley having remarkably climbed from 10th to first – sealed the title after overturning a 16.5-point deficit.

“Even though the car wasn’t necessarily competitive to be at the front in the middle of the year, we were still fighting to gain as many places as we could,” says Cowley. “I think that difference in points is what really helped us still be in with a shot going into the last couple of rounds.”

The late upturn in form coincided with more favourable Balance of Performance changes for the team’s Ford Mustang – in its final season of racing in 2023 – while Evans was getting to grips more with the car. The young American had made only one appearance last season in British GT and was given most of the running during test sessions “to bring him up to pace”, according to Cowley. It showed at Brands, as after qualifying a season’s best fifth in his session and starting third on combined times, Evans avoided first-corner trouble to lead during his stint and pave the way for the crew’s victory.

The season had started well with a runner-up finish at Oulton Park, where Academy claimed a 1-2 with team owner Matt Nicholl-Jones and Will Moore leading home after the team gambled for slick tyres on a damp track at the start. A second rostrum came in the three-hour Silverstone race as Cowley/Evans recorded three further points finishes, but the low point came mid-season at Snetterton. An altercation between Evans and Michael Crees post-race meant the Academy car was disqualified from both race results, although the car had finished outside the points both times.

If Cowley/Evans’s rise to clinch the title had been remarkable – at one stage being 58.5 points in arrears – then the fall of pacesetters Charles Clark and Jack Brown was just as unlikely. Aboard Optimum Motorsport’s new-for-2023 McLaren Artura, the duo hit the ground running with wins at Silverstone and Snetterton 2, along with two runner-up finishes.

Brown and Clarke appeared destined for the title until a remarkable sequence of misfortune struck them in the final three rounds

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Brown and Clarke appeared destined for the title until a remarkable sequence of misfortune struck them in the final three rounds

“It wasn’t what I was expecting in such a competitive year,” says Clark, the Porsche Sprint Challenge graduate following in his father Steve’s footsteps into British GT. “I thought it would be nice to have a couple of podiums here and there and maybe a couple of pole positions, but I didn’t think we’d be fighting for the overall championship coming into the last round.”

Such was the dominance of the Clark/Brown/Optimum combination that they had a mathematical chance of clinching the title at Portimao, race seven of nine, before an incredible run of unfortunate events. Brown was hit from behind in Portugal, which damaged the car as it limped to ninth in the final order, while at Brands Hatch a coolant pipe came undone, sending the McLaren into a spin on its own fluid and retirement.

At the Donington decider and still with a 10.5-point lead, Brown had been running fifth – more than enough for the title – but a freak battery failure at the pitstop meant the car would not restart. Once it had finally fired back up, Clark had lost a lap and with it any chance of the title.

"We’ve come close but just never really had that luck when we needed, whereas this year we had that little bit of luck on our side" Matt Cowley

“It [the battery] had never failed like that before throughout the 15,000km we did this year, it hadn’t failed once,” says Clark. “When I was sat there and the screen went blank, I just knew it’s just not meant to be this year.”

Also in contention heading into the final round was the Century Motorsport BMW M4 of Chris Salkeld and Michael Johnston. The duo had taken victory in Portugal and two third places at Snetterton 1 and Brands. They had even led the standings and were provisional champions at one stage in the final Donington stint until Cowley’s charge up the order, which marked a fitting end to Academy’s association with the current model of Mustang after several years of coming so close.

“Previous years we’ve won races, been in the fight for the championship before,” says Cowley. “We’ve come close but just never really had that luck when we needed, whereas this year we had that little bit of luck on our side.”

Cowley and Evans's late surge put them to the head of the standings after Optimum's woes

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Cowley and Evans's late surge put them to the head of the standings after Optimum's woes

Top 5 GT3 drivers

5. James Cottingham
Pips Darren Leung to final spot for having generally been the benchmark Am driver. Took three wins alongside Jonny Adam – more than any other pairing – and showed great tenacity in pursuit of win at Snetterton 2 and Algarve, falling just short in the former. Silverstone misdemeanour led to only non-score, proving crucial.

4. Ross Gunn
Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage driver should have walked away with at least one win. Lost chances included team-mate Andrew Howard not attaching safety net properly at Donington 1, penalty for a short pitstop in Snetterton 2 and being baulked by a backmarker at Brands Hatch.

3. Sandy Mitchell
Went under the radar as one of the best Pros in the championship, as overall results were sometimes lacking. Cruised to Snetterton 1 win after co-driver Shaun Balfe led from pole, with alternative strategy putting him in prime position for Donington Park finale victory after passing Marcus Clutton.

2. Jonny Adam
Brought best out of team-mate James Cottingham as experience blended with pace put them on cusp of title, having finished outside the points just once. ELMS commitments meant he missed Donington Park finale, but absence likely would not have altered final standings given outright pace of Century BMW.

1. Dan Harper
The revelation of the season in his maiden British GT campaign, and at times made the likes of Mercedes factory drivers Jules Gounon and Raffaele Marciello look ordinary. Brilliant race-winning overtakes at Silverstone and Brands Hatch were eclipsed by a comeback drive at the Donington Park decider that was worthy of a champion.

In his first season racing on UK tracks since 2019, Harper starred on his way to the crown

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

In his first season racing on UK tracks since 2019, Harper starred on his way to the crown

Top 5 GT4 drivers

5. Aston Millar
Almost nothing to choose between Millar and team-mate Rowledge over the season. Lost likely Oulton Park 1 podium after pitting too early and was in prime position at Donington 1 before car issue. Recovered well for second in Snetterton 2 with damaged car. Millar and Rowledge deserved at least one win from the season.

4. Josh Rowledge
The 2022 Ginetta Junior champion was impressive on his and DTO Motorsport’s debut in British GT. Patiently waited for opening to pass Freddie Tomlinson for the lead in Donington 1 before mechanical issue denied best shot at victory. Four podiums showcased consistency and maturity from the teenager.

3. Jack Brown
Dominated first half of the season with Clark and Optimum McLaren, recovering from third to win Snetterton 2 after Clark hit into spin. Blameless in the Portimao collision that crippled car as reliability problems outside his control at Brands Hatch and Donington 2 ultimately cost the pair the title.

2. Matt Cowley
Sacrificed track time to boost performance of team-mate Evans as he used his wealth of British GT experience to maximise results when outright pace was lacking. Came to the fore at Brands Hatch after losing spots in pitstop, and climb up the order at Donington Park finale showcased his true potential en route to title.

1. Charles Clark
Three fastest times from opening three qualifying sessions underlined his pure speed. Led at Oulton Park 2 and hunted leader Tom Wrigley down in Donington Park 1, only to be denied wins both times by compensation penalties. Slight blot came after passing Evans for second on final lap at Oulton 1 before spinning.

Clark may have missed out on the crown, but the Optimum driver boosted his reputation considerably in 2023

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Clark may have missed out on the crown, but the Optimum driver boosted his reputation considerably in 2023

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