Ollie Wilkinson opened his debut British GT Championship account with a historic first series podium in the season opener at Oulton Park. The Aston Martin Academy driver and teammate, former champion Bradley Ellis, scored the first UK podium finish for the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage GT3 and became the first silver-silver pairing to score an outright podium since 2017.
The Optimum Motorsport duo followed that with a top six finish in race two, sealing a brace of Silver Cup class wins in the process, to sit fourth in the overall title standings.
Qualifying brought a challenging first day competing in the premier British sportscar championship, with both Ollie and Brad giving their all to each classify 11th overall amid their constantly improving pace.
Easter Sunday may have been a ‘day off’ from racing, but the Optimum crew and drivers continued their relentless work throughout the day and night, seeking improvements for Easter Monday race day, and improve they did.
Wilkinson got his maiden British GT outing and first race aboard the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage off to a blistering start, making up two places come the end of lap one and two further positions, thanks to the leaders clashing at Hislops, on lap two.
After the resulting 10-minute safety car, Wilkinson nailed the restart to tail the fight for third, closing on Richard Neary’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 while pulling clear of Graham Davidson in the TF Sport Aston Martin. For the following six laps, series newcomer Wilkinson piled on the pressure before taking sixth at Cascades ahead of the pit stop window.
Excellent strategy combined with a flying in-lap from Wilko and immediate rapid pace from Ellis ensured the Optimum car moved up three spots in the pit stop cycle. That left Ellis defending from another former title holder, Jonny Cocker, for the final place on the podium.
Despite carrying a further 30kg of silver-silver pairing ballast over the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo, Ellis delivered a superb stint to stave-off race-long pressure with Cocker never far from Ellis’ rear bumper for the remaining 35 minutes, even battling through intense GT4 traffic. But the Optimum man refused to be rattled and even held off Cocker’s final lap dive into Old Hall to take the pairing’s maiden class win and outright British GT podium.
Race two on Monday afternoon and Ellis served up another strong start, picking up three places to lie eighth ahead of the lap two safety car. Back to green with 46 minutes of the one-hour race to go, the 2007 champ led the battle for eighth from the TF Sport Aston Martin of Jonny Adam and Ben Green’s BMW M6 GT3, Ellis doing a stellar job to keep the lighter GT3 cars at bay behind before opting to be the first of the field to pit.
With a five second pit stop success penalty to serve from race one, Wilkinson re-joined the fray with just over 30-minutes to go, just as a second safety car was required.
Emerging in ninth place once clear of the pit stops and safety car, Ollie was immersed in the ten-car battle running line astern for second. Despite once again coping with the silver-silver ballast, Wilkinson fought hammer and tong with Davidson, now in the TF Sport car, and Team Parker’s Ryan Ratcliffe as the trio shuffled order among the multi-car fight for the podium spots.
Past Adrian Willmott’s BMW M6 GT3 then taking advantage of Ian Loggie’s slip from third to lie seventh entering the final stages, there was still time for some last lap drama. Although Ratcliffe briefly found a way through to take the Silver Cup lead three laps from the flag, both Davidson and Ratcliffe made mistakes on the final tour, leaving Wilkinson to continue his faultless run to another class victory and seal his weekend with a top six finish.
“After a challenging test on Friday and qualifying session on Saturday, I didn’t imagine we’d be walking away from our series race debut with an outright podium, two class wins and a top six finish, to sit fourth in the standings,” beamed Wilkinson. “We absolutely nailed the pit stops and the entire team, including Brad and myself, delivered a faultless performance. But it’s been pretty hard work, particularly with the ballast around a circuit like Oulton, where it’s hard to out-brake or get the run on someone as we’re that bit slower.
“A lot of hard work has gone into turning things around from qualifying and getting these results in the bag. We haven’t stopped pushing – not only have Optimum once again proved their champion status, but Brad and I have also shown our series potential.”
Ellis, who has coached and mentored Ollie since he started racing, added: “It’s quite an achievement to be the first silver-silver drivers to take an outright podium since 2017 – that’s the year Ollie started racing – as everyone knows that the weight hurts and it’s hard work. I’m really happy with the weekend and especially Ollie’s performance. His race one start was just the best, amazing to watch, so I’m really proud of him.
“We knew we’d struggle in race two, but we were still aiming for a top six result and that’s exactly what we’ve got. We had a bit of luck go our way, but Optimum has worked so hard and pit stops have been seamless, so we were able to capitalise and make up places when we could. The big thing is that neither the team nor the drivers made a single mistake and through that we’ve come away with good points. Now we can go away and find a bit more performance ahead of the next round at Snetterton.”
From the Cheshire track, Ollie and Brad now head to the south of France for the first round of the International GT Open championship next weekend, 27-28 April.
Photo credit: Gary Parravani / Xynamic