Rising sportscar star Ollie Wilkinson and team-mate Bradley Ellis were cruelly denied the chance to fight for a second British GT Championship podium by a freak refuelling fire at Donington Park today.
Wilkinson and Ellis were well in the hunt for a rostrum finish aboard their Optimum Motorsport Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3 when disaster struck during their mandatory mid-race pit stop, putting an early end to what had otherwise been a very strong weekend for the duo.
Heading into the sixth round of the British GT season, the pair were leading the GT3 Silver Cup points and sat third in the overall drivers’ championship. Hopes were high for a strong result, with Ollie returning to one of his strongest circuits – and the scene of his breakthrough competition debut just three years ago.
The pair showed solid pace across Saturday’s practice sessions, despite toying with braking setups in an effort to get the maximum from the Aston’s anchors without them overheating on a circuit that incorporates several heavy braking zones each lap.
But it was in qualifying that things really came together and Wilkinson could show his hand. Heading out for the GT3 Am session, the Yorkshireman put on a starring display to gradually whittle down his best lap time to come within 0.082sec of the pole-sitting TF Sport Aston Martin.
Ellis took over for the Pro session and looked set to bank a strong grid position on combined times, but a mid-session red flag for a beached Mercedes disrupted his run and the downtime meant his tyre pressures dipped below their performance window. Ellis did enough to ensure the car would start back on row four for Sunday’s two-hour race.
Wilkinson took the start and was keen to make early progress, diving past both of the championship-leading Barwell Motorsport Lamborghinis on the opening lap to run fourth.
Wilkinson then pulled off a great move to pass the WPI Motorsport Lamborghini on the brakes at the Melbourne Hairpin as he charged into a potential podium place. As the race settled down before the mid-race stops, Wilkinson was forced to cool his brakes, but pitted for Ellis with 58 minutes left on the clock. And that’s when disaster struck.
As Wilkinson vacated the car for Ellis, a freak flash fire erupted as the team removed its dry-break refuelling rig. The Optimum crew did a great job to extinguish the visible fire swiftly, but when Ellis pulled away something sparked beneath the rear of the car, cutting its engine and causing thick smoke to envelope the cockpit, forcing Ellis out before he could rejoin the race.
It was a costly result, but both Wilkinson and Ellis, and the Optimum Motorsport team all escaped uninjured and minimised the damage of the incident.
Ollie Wilkinson said: “I’m gutted. It’s such a shame our weekend had to end that way as we deserved a lot more from this one, but that’s racing I guess. I was very happy with my stint. I picked my gaps early and was right with the frontrunners when I had to manage the brakes before the stop, which meant braking much earlier into turns like The Old Hairpin. But the idea was to hand the car over to Brad in the best condition. It’s a shame that it was all for nothing in the end. The upside is we’re all OK and ready to go again at the next round, where we’ll hopefully have a bit more luck on our side.”
Bradley Ellis added: “Ollie drove brilliantly in his stint. But from my point of view I didn’t get much of a race. There’s a lot of equipment under the rear of the car, like the fuel and oil lines, so we need to investigate exactly what happened. I just know I saw a load of black smoke and had to get out pretty quickly. It’s a huge shame, but we’ll be back fighting next time.”
The next round of the British GT Championship takes place at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps on July 20/21.
Photo credit: Gary Parravani