Oliver Wilkinson and team-mate Rob Bell opened their Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Sprint Cup campaign with a hard-earned top-10 finish for the JOTA McLaren 720S GT3 on home ground at Brands Hatch.
That outstanding result followed an equally impressive performance earlier on Sunday, when Wilkinson’s six-place charge from 21st on the grid paved the way for Bell to bring the #38 car home in 12th position.
The JOTA crew started their only UK round of the season on the back foot after experiencing difficulties adapting to the new Pirelli tyre and the recently-resurfaced areas of the 2.433-mile Grand Prix circuit on Saturday.
Despite building pace with every session, two tricky qualifying runs left both Wilkinson and Bell in 18th place and uncharacteristically down the starting order for both of the one-hour Sprint Cup encounters. A subsequent three-place grid penalty meant Wilkinson would start 21st on Sunday morning.
Putting the frustrations of qualifying firmly behind them, Wilkinson got the team’s recovery mission underway for race one. Gaining significant ground from the start and heading into Paddock Hill Bend, Wilkinson weaved his way through a mid-field incident to gain six places by the end of lap one.
After 12 minutes circulating under the safety car the field was released, allowing Wilkinson to chase down Moto GP legend Valentino Rossi and take the #46 WRT Audi on the inside of Paddock Hill Bend. The Yorkshireman then pressed on to catch the Garage 59 McLaren and Tempesta Racing Mercedes, making it a three-way fight for 12th right up until the pitstop window.
A slick pitstop and driver change earned the JOTA crew another position, leaving Bell the task of reeling in the #26 Sainteloc Racing Audi five seconds ahead. Whilst more than halving that deficit, Bell did well to keep the #46 Audi, now in the hands of Frederic Vervisch at bay to bring the JOTA McLaren home in 12th position.
Facing a repeat task for race two on Sunday afternoon, Bell ensured the #38 car climbed the order once again. Picking off a place per lap to lie 13th within the first three laps of green-flag running, the #38 McLaren continued to pressure for a break into the top 10 right up until the pitstop window.
Pitting early in a search for cleaner air, the team’s stellar pit work once again jumped the JOTA car up the order and Wilkinson joined the final fray of the weekend in 12th place. A superb final stint slashed the four-second gap to P11 and put Wilkinson on the tail-end of fight for eighth, led by Rossi.
As the five-car train battled line-astern, contact knocked the #33 car out of the order in the closing stages, ensuring Wilkinson 11th place at the chequered flag. A post-race penalty for the #87 car consequently promoted Wilkinson and Bell to 10th overall, earning their first Sprint Cup points of the season.
After a roller-coaster weekend, Wilkinson commented: “To go from 21st to 12th and then take a top-10 finish around a track like Brands Hatch, we’ve got to be happy with that. We weren’t where we wanted to be after qualifying on Saturday, but we worked hard through the night and took a few risks. Those risks didn’t all pay off, but we made some massive improvements that got us back in the race. We’ve learnt so much and you always come back stronger than ever from these sorts of weekends.”
Wilkinson returns to Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Sprint Cup action at Magny-Cours, 13-15 May.