Rising British sportscar star, Ollie Wilkinson and teammate Bradley Ellis wrapped up their debut International GT Open campaign with an outstanding recovery drive in Barcelona, storming from 26th and ninth in class to finish sixth overall and second in Pro-Am. 

Returning to the circuit where the young Yorkshireman proved his GT3 potential with a second place last October, the Optimum Motorsport duo’s efforts also secure a remarkable fourth in the Pro-Am championship standings despite not contesting every round.

The 22-year-old’s form was all the more notable, considering it was touch and go as to whether Wilkinson would compete, after he fell ill and was forced to miss all of Friday practice. Feeling stronger come Saturday morning, Wilko was determined to sign-off his season in style.

Thanks to another solid qualifying performance from experienced sportscar champion Ellis, the Optimum Motorsport pair would start P5 in class, ninth overall for the first race of the weekend.

A stellar start put the My Possible Self-backed Audi R8 LMS up to eighth after successfully avoiding the congestion through the first three turns of the challenging Catalunya circuit. Shaking off Richard Gonda in the BMW M6 GT3, Ellis focussed his attentions on Allam Khodair, never straying more than 0.6 seconds from the Mercedes AMG GT3’s rear bumper.

As Ellis hassled Khodair, David Perel joined the battle, making it a three-way Pro-Am fight for fourth ahead of a 10-minute safety car period. Back to green just as the pit window opened, Ellis continued to keep Perel’s Ferrari 488 GT3 at bay while posting consistently rapid laps. Leaving his stop as late as possible ensured he peeled into pit lane second overall and in class.

Success penalty free following a miserable last round at Monza, Wilkinson joined the fray a promising fifth overall and third in Pro-Am, the Audi once again sandwiched between the Drivex School Mercedes and the Rinaldi Racing Ferrari.

As Ollie began to real-in Marcelo Hahn amid an intense building battle, the Optimum Motorsport duo sat in strong Pro-Am podium contention. That was until contact sustained around six minutes into Ollie’s stint forced him to pit with right-rear wheel valve failure and settle for a ninth class finish.

With valuable points lost and facing a nine-point deficit to fourth in the Pro-Am title fight, Wilkinson and Ellis dug deep for the season finale on Sunday. Ollie clocked in ninth fastest amid an intensely close final qualifying session where just 0.170 seconds separated the Audi from fifth in Pro-Am.

Nailing an awesome start from 26th overall, Wilkinson was on a blistering charge, picking up six outright and three Pro-Am places within the space of two laps, before a short safety car briefly halted his progress on lap three.

Clean away at the restart, Wilkinson continued to hunt down Phillippe Denes, who stood between Ollie and his next Pro-Am target of Rinat Salikhov, while edging a gap from Pro-Am threat Valentin Pierburg. Consistently the quicker, Wilkinson bided his time until Salikhov was handed a drive-through penalty, leaving Ollie to conclude a seriously impressive rookie GT3 term and pit from fifth.

Once the stops played out, Ellis emerged retaining class position and 14th overall. Capitalising on every opportunity to charge through the fierce midfield, the 31-year-old was soon embroiled in a six-car scrap for fifth. Consistently lapping among the fastest of the 30-car field, Ellis leapt to eighth overall and a provisional podium points-paying position on lap 24, then chased down and took Mario Plachutta for Pro-Am second the following tour.

Although class leader Christian Hahn remained out of reach, a penultimate lap pass on Marco Cioci ensured Ellis took the chequered flag a jaw-dropping sixth overall – 20 places up on the team’s starting slot. The sensational second-place podium means the pair sign-off 2018 with a brace of Pro-Am wins, at Spa and Silverstone, plus a further third place in Belgium more than underlining their international sportscar potential.

An emphatic Wilkinson commented: “Today is unbelievable, just amazing. I’m so happy that after everything, all the illness (not just me but my family and some of the team too) and the race one disappointment, we actually come away with such an epic result.

“Saturday was a real struggle. I felt better but I hadn’t eaten, so I was low on energy. I was so ill that I wasn’t sure I’d be racing, but I was determined to make it. I felt stronger today, but far from 100 per cent.

“I had a superb start and from there I just took every chance I could for a clean pass. Brad did an amazing stint to take our fourth podium. We’ve been robbed of at least one class win and some podiums, but I’m chuffed to bits with what we’ve achieved. I can’t thank all the Optimum Motorsport crew and Brad enough for everything they’ve done in developing me to the driver I am today. This means the world to us all. Now we can enjoy some long-overdue celebrations!”

Ellis added: “What a way to finish off our first year in GT3. That blistering start from Ollie put us in contention from the first corner and from there we just capitalised on everyone else’s mistakes. Optimum Motorsport has done a top job all season, but particularly this weekend, overcoming all the issues and illness. As for Ollie, he did a mega job to fight back from being so unwell and deliver such a tremendous drive today.

“Thanks to a complete overhaul by the team last night, the car felt much better today. We had a brake issue in Ollie’s stint and that made it tricky to closely follow other cars so we had to be careful, but we managed everything beautifully to get the long-overdue podium we deserve. Overall, it’s been a strong season of performance and consistency. There’s lots to learn and take onboard as we work to return to GT Open in 2019, when we’ll be aiming for regular podiums and fighting for overall top finishes.”

Photo credit: FotoSpeedy

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