McLaren Factory Driver, Ollie Wilkinson and JOTA team-mate Ben Barnicoat came one step away from scoring their first Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Sprint Cup podium, finishing fourth on their series debut at Magny-Cours today.
The JOTA duo steered the sole McLaren 720S GT3 of the field to its first championship points of the season on their maiden outing as a driver pairing, without Endurance Cup teammate Rob Bell, on what was also the first encounter at the French circuit for both drivers.
The tireless efforts of the Le Mans-winning JOTA outfit combined with a stellar recovery drive from both drivers ensured a climb from 22nd to finish eighth in class in Saturday night’s 60-minute sprint. With more gains made overnight, Barnicoat was placed in prime position to battle for pole on Sunday morning.
Turning third on the grid to challenge for a place in the top two from the outset – battling the WRT Mercedes of Maro Engel and Emil Frey Racing Lamborghini of Albert Costa – Barnicoat’s superb stint ensured the #38 McLaren pitted from the lead on Sunday afternoon.
A slight fumble in the driver change just past the halfway mark, however, meant Wilkinson joined in fourth with little chance of making progress under a full course yellow that would take up half of his session. The 26-car field returned to green flag racing for little more than five minutes when another full course caution was required with 10 minutes to go.
Despite the mounting pressure from the throng of cars building behind at each restart – the last with only three minutes remaining¬ – Wilkinson remained unphased. Nailing each getaway, the recently-recruited Factory Driver impressed with a sturdy defence and even threatened for third in the closing corners.
Sunday’s fourth-place finish was made possible thanks to the foundations laid earlier in the weekend. From the first qualifying session on Saturday afternoon, it was clear just how close the 2021 Sprint Cup would be with 19 cars covered by just 1.1 seconds, but a tricky session for Wilkinson put the #38 car 13th in the Pro class, 22nd overall, for the one-hour night race.
With some work to do, Wilkinson got his mission off to a strong start with a stellar first lap charge, picking up two places by the end of lap one. Emersed in the battle for a place in the top 15, Ollie jostled for position up and down the order as they raced into the night. As others hit trouble, ultimately resulting in a full course yellow which delayed the pitstop window, the JOTA McLaren steered clear and up to 16th position at the halfway mark.
Barnicoat picked up where Wilkinson left off, consistently climbing the order while taking full advantage of the woes of others, to finish eighth in the Pro category, 13th overall, ahead of Sunday’s podium charge.
“It’s been quite a weekend for my first Sprint Cup event but I’m delighted to take fourth today,” said Wilkinson. “Ben and the team put in a mega first stint this afternoon and it really looked like we might have a shot at the win, or certainly a podium. Unfortunately, our driver change wasn’t as slick as we’d have liked it to have been and we lost a bit of time.
“I really wanted to crack on and get that time back, but with three quarters of my stint spent under full course yellow it became a case of managing the restarts. In the end it was a sprint to the flag, for a moment I thought we were still in with a chance of a podium as the two ahead squabbled, but we’re very happy to take the points for fourth.
“The JOTA team did a fantastic job all weekend, not only in developing the car and calling the strategy, but working late into the early hours to get the car fixed and ready for race two. We will fight even harder as we head back to the Endurance Cup at Paul Ricard later this month.”
Wilkinson and Barnicoat will reunite with fellow Factory Driver Bell, for round three of the 2021 GT World Challenge Europe and the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000km on 28-29 May.
Images: Xynamic Automotive Photography