Ollie Wilkinson delivered a stand-out performance in his debut Circuit Paul Ricard 1000km race, helping JOTA team-mates Rob Bell and Ben Barnicoat to bring home the top McLaren 720S GT3 of the 47-car field, 14th in the Pro class.
Undertaking his first season as a McLaren Factory Driver, Wilkinson delivered two stellar stints, bringing the #38 JOTA car up the order from 15th to 11th in his maiden 1000km outing. The recently-turned 25 year-old, who celebrated his birthday earlier this week, then backed that up with a fighting drive to keep them within reach of a potential top-10 finish.
Although an enforced late-race visit to the pits curtailed their plans, a faultless penalty-free performance ensured that Wilkinson, Bell and Barnicoat completed their first Endurance Cup round of the season.
Carrying forward the same form that secured a fourth-place finish last time out for the Sprint Cup at Magny-Cours, the JOTA squad showed promise from the outset with fourth fastest in Free Practice and 10th in night pre-qualifying on Friday.
That paved the way for the trio of drivers to deliver impressive qualifying stints and achieve a combined qualifying position of 19th overall, 15th in the Pro class, amid yet another incredibly close session where less than one second separated the top 22.
With Bell taking on starting duties, the experienced McLaren hand got their campaign off to a flying start, making up four places on the first lap. Temporarily dropping to 16th on lap two, Bell pushed to re-catch the AKKA ASP Mercedes and spent the majority of his stint swarming over the rear of the #87 car before pitting from ninth 60 minutes in.
The first round of pit stops complete, Wilkinson began his first 1000km outing lying 15th overall, chasing down the Garage 59 Aston Martin. Reeling in the #159 car, Wilkinson dispatched Alex MacDowall 30 minutes into his stint and soon repeated the exercise on the #26 Audi for 12th overall.
Pushing on at a blistering pace on par with the race-leading pack, Wilkinson had climbed to 11th position come the third round of pit stops but a delay meant Bell re-joined 15th. As night began to fall, he soon re-took the #159 Aston Martin to once again chase down the #87 Mercedes.
Taking the helm for his final stint, Wilkinson re-joined in 13th place, just past the halfway (three-hour) point. Picking up where Bell left off, another stellar drive clawed back the #87 car’s advantage whilst fending off the #4 Mercedes.
Wilkinson’s hard work came undone when the only full course caution of the six-hour race fell after almost four hours of undisturbed racing, shortly after Barnicoat took charge of the 720S GT3 for the final double stint. Thankfully brief, Barnicoat was able to get underway from 16th place, albeit with around 30 seconds to make up on the #14 Emil Frey Lamborghini.
Despite chipping away to come within six seconds, an enforced late pit stop with 18 minutes to go dropped the #38 McLaren to 18th overall. Undeterred, Barnicoat charged on to secure 16th overall on the final lap, bringing the JOTA car home as the highest-placed McLaren, 14th in the Pro class.
Ollie commented: “It feels really good to get our first Endurance Cup finish under our belts, we can be very happy with that result. The entire JOTA team, Rob and Ben did a superb job, the car was spot on and it shows we are getting stronger as a new outfit with every outing. With 47 cars out there, we knew it was going to be busy and that certainly effected each of our qualifying runs, we all had more to give, but that’s always a positive position to be in heading into a six-hour race!
“Rob got us off to a great start and from there I was able to bring us up to just outside the top ten. Unfortunately that work was undone and the only full course yellow of the entire race fell just after Ben had made his stop so we lost out there, but we kept pushing until the final lap. Above all, JOTA gave us a really strong package and we all delivered a faultless, penalty-free race so lots to carry forward to the next Sprint Cup round at Zandvoort where we’ll be aiming for our first podium.”
Wilkinson and Barnicoat will team up once again for the fourth round of the series and next instalment of the Sprint Cup at Zandvoort on 18th-20th June.