Ollie Wilkinson and Optimum Motorsport teammate Bradley Ellis notched up their first International GT Open podium in the season opener at Paul Ricard, narrowly missing out on a Pro-Am class win whilst finishing within the top six overall in the Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3.
Second in class on Sunday followed a sixth-place Pro-Am finish in Saturday’s opening race, ensuring solid points were already in the bag. Mounting their first championship attack in the V8 Vantage GT3, positive gains made overnight helped the duo progress up the grid and be in with a chance of battling for Pro-Am honours.
A solid start for race one put Wilkinson in the midfield melee, but temporarily dropped to 18th whilst retaining eighth in class amid the opening lap jostle. The 22-year-old set about chasing down Najiy Razak in the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo to regain 17th place, before both Razak and Wilkinson took Davide Roda’s Mercedes AMG GT3 just ahead of the one-hour mark.
While Razak initially stretched out a 1.9-second advantage, Ollie knocked that down to 0.3s within five laps before making the move for 16th with 49 minutes to go. With Fabio Onidi dropping down the order as the pit window approached, Ollie moved up another slot before handing over to Ellis.
Optimum’s strategy once again paid dividends, with the only Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3 in the field running seventh in class after the pit stop cycle. From there, Ellis was intent on hunting down a top-six finish as he initially held Raffaele Giammaria and then Christoph Lenz in his sights. Catching and passing Lenz’s Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo on lap 25, Ellis achieved his goal with 17 minutes to go.
Continuing his relentless pace in pursuit of Kang Ling’s Vincenzo Sospiri Racing Lamborghini amid a four-car fight for what would be fourth in Pro-Am and ninth overall, Ellis kept up the pressure to the flag to finish just 0.4s adrift of fifth, and on the cusp of the top 10.
With tweaks to the Optimum-run Aston Martin made overnight, Ellis secured fourth fastest in class and a sixth row start for race two. Despite a strong start, Ellis was forced to take action to avoid the opening lap drama and sat eighth – fourth in Pro-Am – ahead of the resulting 10-minute safety car period.
Eager to make up for lost time, Ellis was ready to pick off Miguel Ramos’ Mercedes AMG GT3 for outright seventh at the restart. A four-car fight for sixth soon developed, with Ellis pegging down class rival Giammaria ahead, until pitting late in the pit stop window.
Pit stops complete, Wilkinson joined the fray lying fourth in the Pro-Am order with 25 minutes remaining, and soon found himself immersed in a multi-car train fighting for the Pro-Am spoils.
As the battle intensified on lap 18 and the order changed ahead, Wilkinson pounced past Jiatong Liang’s Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo to lie second in class before challenging the former race-leading Mercedes AMG for the Pro-Am lead the following tour. Although unsuccessful on that occasion, Wilkinson bided his time to take the top-spot later that lap, in a stellar move exiting the final turn.
The Yorkshireman pushed on in an effort to pull clear from the pursuing pack, but a loss of front-aero due to earlier contact meant the #19 Lamborghini was able to close the gap in the final minutes. ‘Wilko’ had the chequered flag in his sights when he was forced to relinquish the lead as he dealt with a dangerous last-minute lunge halfway through the final lap.
Wilkinson and Ellis still walk away from their Paul Ricard race debut with their heads held high, having shown encouraging progress and their class-winning potential to finish second and score the first of what’s sure to be many visits to the 2019 GT Open podium.
“I’m absolutely gutted to miss out on our first class win of the season,” lamented Ollie. “We worked so hard to take the class lead, only to have it ripped away in a dangerous last lap move that would’ve ended both our races if I hadn’t taken avoiding action.
“Overall it’s an encouraging start to our GT Open season and we’ve made strong progress throughout the weekend as we understand the car more and more with every outing. We’re going to be pushing hard to re-claim our first win of the year from here.”
“It’s been a reasonably good start to our GT Open campaign,” added Ellis. “We’ve raced well and continue to work on getting the pace we need. We’ve made some great steps forward and that showed in race two.
“We were close to where we needed to be in qualifying today, then I was able to push hard after the safety car and get us back to where we should be. Ollie did really well and was on it from the pit stops to work his way up to the lead. We lost that through a really risky last lap move but we’re certainly not disappointed on progress made this weekend.”
The duo now sit second in the Pro-Am standings ahead of round two at Hockenheim, Germany, 25-26 May.
Photo credit: Gary Parravani / Xynamic