McLaren professional Driver Ollie Wilkinson and Factory Drivers Joe Osborne and Rob Bell gave the McLaren 720S GT3 an outstanding GT World Challenge Europe debut at Imola, taking the Optimum Motorsport machine from 22nd to finish eighth and score their maiden points of the season.
The Optimum Motorsport trio expertly navigated their way through an incident-packed three-hour Endurance Cup race littered with five full course yellows, and plenty of penalties, their pace and text book consistency ensuring they stayed trouble free.
It was an epic recovery from an intense qualifying session on Saturday, in part due to Wilkinson losing 25 minutes of track time after a rival tapped him into the gravel in morning practice. The Y.CO – The Yacht Company sponsored McLaren still managed 22nd on the 46 car grid, of which the top 26 were split by less than a second.
Osborne took on the honours of the opening stint of 2020, but in a session neutralised by three full course yellows in the first 45 minutes, he had little opportunity to make much use of his strong pace. Thanks to his experienced hands, the #69 car avoided all incidents and gained two places before pitting under the third full yellow.
The first round at Imola marked Wilkinson’s inaugural series and race outing as a McLaren Professional Driver and he more than delivered. Picking up the baton in 20th place, Ollie wasted no time in getting the team’s race properly underway at the restart.
Whilst tens of cars received drive-through penalties for pit stop and full course yellow infringements, Wilkinson played out a supremely clean and consistently quick stint that kept the Optimum outfit climbing the order. Up to 16th come the halfway mark, Ollie steered his way clear to lie 13th amid the nine-car train of cars squabbling for fifth before bringing the 720S GT3 safely home to pit ahead of the final hour.
Despite two further full course yellows, Bell pushed the trio further up the order from 14th to 10th before the penultimate caution of the day. Just 11 minutes of racing remained after the last full yellow, but that was enough time for Bell to pick his way through the packed field to finish eighth and seal an outstanding series debut for the 720S GT3.
“What a race!,” exclaimed an elated Wilkinson. “I didn’t dare dream that we’d be able to turn 22nd on the grid into eighth at the flag, and gain our first championship points of the season in the first round. I’m absolutely buzzing after that.
“Joe had a really tricky stint with no real time to put his skills to use. I was determined to get our race properly started but I knew that keeping things spotlessly clean and consistent would be vital to surviving, let alone climbing the order. Everyone was eager to get going after the consecutive full course yellows, so it was really close out there, but I just kept pushing where I could. Rob then did a brilliant job to pick up those places towards the end.
“It was an outstanding team effort all round and I learned so much in my first McLaren and GT World Challenge race. I can’t thank Optimum, McLaren, Joe and Rob enough, or see what the rest of the season has in store.”
Full race results and championship points visit www.gt-world-challenge-europe.com
Wilkinson now heads back to the UK for the first round of the 2020 Intelligent Money British GT Championship at Oulton Park next weekend.
Photo credit: Gary Parravani