It might be easy to forget that 22 year-old Ollie Wilkinson has just five races in GT3 machinery to his name and that 2018 is only his second ever season of car racing.
When he and teammate Bradley Ellis put being tagged and spun in the first International GT Open race at Spa-Francorchamps behind them and bounced back in stunning fashion to take a first class win of the season, it looked every inch the drive of experienced shoulders.
The Optimum Motorsport duo were starting on the back foot from 21st on the grid. But a well-judged start from Wilkinson meant he kept his nose clean into La Source and from there was in prime position to pull a stunning pass on the Belgium Aston Martin Vantage GT3 on entry into Eau Rouge. Wilkinson kept climbing and ended the first lap with four scalps to his name.
He ran in 17th in the Audi R8 LMS with the next car in the same Pro-Am class up in P9. But after a series of flying laps, Wilkinson dived into the pits early on, handing over to Ellis fifth in class and 16th overall.
Optimum’s call to stop early gained the team four positions after the field pitted. Motivated by a gearbox failure with three corners to go at Estoril that cruelly denied them a first class victory, Ellis was at times lapping four seconds faster than those around him. Dispatching of Valentin Pierburg’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 and soon after the Ferrari 488 of Alexander West, Ellis ran second in class.
A five car fight for fifth overall ensued ahead, and Ellis made the call to leave them to scrap it out rather than throw away points. It was the perfect decision and he was able to pick up the pieces, passing Marcelo Hahn’s Mercedes for the class lead with only minutes remaining. He duly held on to the spoils after an imperious stint.
That sweet success followed on from the previous day’s longer, 70-minute first race in which Wilkinson and Ellis claimed a hard-fought Pro-Am podium. Ellis took the race start and flew from 12th to sixth under braking into La Source. But at the end of the opening lap, while existing the Bus Stop chicane, rear contact sent the R8 into a spin and caused a knock-on multiple car incident. Ellis was forced to rejoin at the back and mount a characteristic recovery charge. He picked his way through the order to run seventh in class come only lap six.
Wilkinson took over at the halfway stage and resumed third in class. After bedding into his stint, he hounded down class leader Giuseppe Cipriani’s Huracan while keeping Tom Onslow-Cole’s Mercedes at bay.
In the closing stages, with the damaged bodywork increasing tyre wear, Wilkinson had to ease and that allowed Fabrizio Crestani to close. Having made the R8 as wide as possible to keep him behind, Crestani tried to bully Wilkinson off the road under braking into Les Combes. The contact sent Crestani across the run-off and he rejoined alongside Wilkinson as the pair attacked Malmedy side-by-side.
But with the damaged rear aerodynamics increasingly hampering corner speed, Wilkinson had to concede in the dying seconds to consolidate a very respectable third in class.
Ollie Wilkinson: “I’m over the moon, it’s my first race weekend ever here at Spa, fifth weekend in a GT3 car. So I went out in qualifying this morning and only ended up P6 in class which I knew in myself I could have done a lot better. But then I managed to get away with a good start in the race, kept my nose clean and chipped away at it. I don’t think I’ll ever lose the disappointment of being three corners away from a win [at Estoril], but this certainly softens the blow.
“It’s great to be up on the podium after the unfortunate Race 1 incident with Bradley at the start which lost us 32 seconds! I was sat in the garage thinking, ‘we’ll have to see where we can get to from here’. But I never had any hopes of getting up on the podium at all. I definitely noticed the damage from the car as, comparing it to practice from yesterday, it was definitely struggling around the right handers.”
Bradley Ellis: “I only overtook half the cars, Ollie did the others! So he did make it fairly easy and pitted in a good position. Even his in-lap was really good because we had a factory Pro car behind us. Normally those boys are hot but we didn’t lose anything to him. When we came out of the pits we were in front of them which is really good. I played a bit of a strategy game for the last car and had to put a good move on Hahn but it paid off in the long run. I can’t fault the team and the car felt the best it’s felt all weekend.
“In Race 1 I had a really good start, I timed the lights perfectly which was both a bit of luck and judgement. There was just a gap which opened up on the inside which wasn’t my original plan, but I went for it. A few cars went wide and I was borderline P5, P4 on the exit but I didn’t fancy driving into the old pitlane as I was being pushed to the right! Unfortunately, a Ferrari was a bit out of shape coming into the last corner and completely rear ended me. It spun us around in the middle of the pack, I couldn’t move as I was facing the wrong way and we lost a lot of time on lap one. If you take that off our race time we would have been a lot higher up. These things happen.
“Ollie did a good job catching up people in our class and was fighting for the class lead at one stage which was a really impressive fight. He did an absolutely amazing job and to be able to race as good as that against some of the Pro drivers, I think he’s shown very good potential. The car had a fresh set of tyres at the stop, but the rear was still badly damaged and Ollie did so well to perform the way he did in a car that had lost quite a bit of its aero performance. It’s outstanding.”
Photo credit: FotoSpeedy