Ollie Wilkinson and Bradley Ellis pulled off a stellar recovery drive in the British GT Championship’s flagship Silverstone 500, fighting from the back of the GT3 grid to claim a fourth-place finish and fourth Silver Cup class win in the Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3.
The Optimum Motorsport duo found themselves on the backfoot ahead of the three-hour endurance race after a disappointing qualifying session on Saturday. After encouraging pace in the wet morning practice sessions, Wilkinson clocking in joint third fastest in the second outing, hopes were high for a front grid slot.
Qualifying, however, marked the first dry running of the weekend and for the Optimum Aston Martin at Silverstone. A genuine error saw Wilkinson’s fastest time disallowed for track limits, meaning he had to settle for P6, while a brake issue prevented Ellis from recording a time. Consequently, the #96 car would start at the back of the GT3 pack, 15th overall, with it all to do.
Putting qualifying firmly behind him, Wilkinson got his maiden Silverstone 500 attack underway with a blistering start. Picking off several places from the lights and into Copse, the Yorkshireman scythed his way up to seventh, taking a total of eight positions on the opening tour.
Only temporarily dropping to eighth, as Glynn Geddie in the Team Parker Racing Bentley found a way through on lap two, Wilkinson soon regained seventh two laps later as he overhauled Beechdean AMR’s Andrew Howard.
Pushing on, Wilkinson found himself immersed in a four-car fight for fourth come lap seven, and soon seized the opportunity to pass Mark Farmer’s TF Sport Aston Martin at Aintree to claim sixth overall. Ollie moved up two further spots to run comfortably fourth ahead of the first driver change, 45 minutes in.
Ellis joined the pack eighth overall and second in class as the first phase of pit stops played out. Edging into the second hour, the former British GT Champion delivered a stellar stint as he cut down the Silver Cup leader to take Ryan Ratcliffe, now in the #7 Bentley, at Club corner for the top class spot and seventh overall. The 31 year-old then proceeded to peg-out a healthy gap ahead of handing back to Ollie for what would be a dramatic final hour.
Continuing his faultless weekend, Wilkinson was running fifth when he was knocked out of the Silver Cup lead with 52 minutes to go – a heavy rear-hit from a lapped GT4 car sending him into a spin at Farm. Down two places overall, the incident wiped out any hope of an outright podium finish, yet Wilkinson dug deep to try and close the gap to Geddie before pitting for the final time.
Although Ellis initially re-joined in eighth, trailing the Silver Cup leader, the #7 Bentley was yet to complete its last stop. While Ellis pushed as hard as he dared in the crash-damaged Aston Martin, the team’s pit stop strategy once again paid dividend. The Optimum machine re-took the Silver Cup lead, running nearly 10 seconds clear as the Bentley re-joined with less than 25 minutes to go.
Up to sixth as the final minutes counted down, further drama unfolded when the fellow Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3 of Jonny Adam was taken out of the lead in the final minutes, leaving Wilkinson and Ellis to take the flag fifth overall.
In a further twist of the roller-coaster weekend, fifth then changed to fourth following the post-race exclusion of the third-placed JRM Bentley. Ollie and Brad now head to Donington Park, on 22-23 June, lying third in the outright title fight.
Ollie Wilkinson: “It’s been quite an intense first Silverstone 500 for me. We made really good progress in the wet practice sessions, so to then have a dry qualifying put a spanner in the works. We’ve only tested here once before and that was in the wet, and a lot of our recent tests have also been in the rain, so we had to take a stab in the dark on set-up. We did pretty well on that but I was unlucky to lose a lap for track limits due to a mistake, which put us P6, but then the brake issue brought an end to our qualifying.
“To fight back from P15 to finish fifth at the flag, fourth post-race, is quite an achievement, it’s just a massive shame that we were hit off heading into the final hour. It wasn’t a mistake due to the drivers or the team, it was completely out of our control, so to lose a possible outright podium is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, we’ve got to take the positives away and be happy to take home a healthy points haul and how that helps our championship chances.”
Bradley Ellis: “If someone had told us we’d finish P4 and claim a fourth Silver Cup win after qualifying yesterday, we’d have been delighted! There’s always the ‘what if’ and this weekend our result would have been better had we not been taken out the class lead and P5 overall.
“Ollie had an amazing first stint to make up a lot of positions, it gave us a really strong start. We may have been lacking a bit of outright pace to guarantee a podium, but the way things have played out and the late and post-race developments, we came so close to a top-three result. That’s what we wanted, but that was always going to be a big ask from the back of the field, especially without any knowledge of the car in dry running. We walk away with our heads held high and still sitting in a promising championship position.”
Photo credit: Gary Parravani – Xynamic