Ollie Wilkinson and JOTA team-mate Ben Barnicoat wrapped up their maiden Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS Sprint Cup season with a fourth-place finish in race two at Valencia.
Although the stellar result from 11th on the grid equals the duo’s best result this term, it was very much a story of what could have been in Spain. Wilkinson was once again on course for a certain podium finish when he was hit out of second place in the first one-hour race of the weekend.
Wilkinson and Barnicoat arrived in Spain intent on finally claiming the maiden series podium that has alluded them all season, most recently with race victory snatched away at Brands Hatch three weeks ago.
With the 25-year-old soon proving he was back to full fitness for the final Sprint Cup outing of the year, the JOTA duo ran strong from official practice to then place the JOTA McLaren top of the 27-car field in Pre-Qualifying.
That paved the way for Barnicoat to steal pole in the final seconds of the first qualifying stint on Saturday afternoon with a time of 1:32.711. Wilkinson then continued the charge, delivering a blistering lap to knock another 0.152 seconds off the #38 McLaren’s best time. Although a pole-setting time in Q1, the quicker second session placed Wilkinson 11th on the grid for race two.
A strong start from pole on Sunday morning ensured Barnicoat took the early lead, but his progress was soon suspended with 10 minutes spent under full course caution thanks to an opening lap incident. With a further safety car seven minutes later, Barnicoat had little green flag running in which to pull a gap ahead of the pitstop window.
The five second advantage proved not quite enough and the #6 Toksport Mercedes got the jump in the pits, sweeping past Wilkinson just as he joined the track from pit lane. That left Wilkinson with the #14 Emil Frey Lamborghini and #88 AKKA Mercedes looming large in his mirrors, but another stellar defensive drive from the Yorkshireman ensured the JOTA McLaren remained under pressure but unchallenged.
Wilkinson was holding on strong to second place approaching the final 10 minutes when, once again, he was knocked off the podium and out of the race – a long lunge from the #14 Lamborghini resulting in rear contact which spun the McLaren into retirement.
Putting that bitter disappointment behind him, Wilkinson lined up P11 in race two. The importance of his superb qualifying effort would soon become clear, becoming the launchpad for the JOTA duo to once again threaten the podium.
Clean away in searing hot conditions on Sunday afternoon, Wilkinson navigated his way through the opening lap tussles and lap two safety car to bring the #38 McLaren back on the cusp of the top ten. Progress, however, proved tricky with the field running line astern, yet Wilkinson kept Markus Winkelhock’s #26 Audi in his sights whilst fending off the #66 Attempto Racing Audi and gaggle of cars behind.
Losing time and advantage in traffic, the team’s call to pit just as the window opened proved the right one, enabling Barnicoat to unleash the McLaren in clear air. Running ninth after the pitstop cycle, Barnicoat picked his way up to fifth, then slashed the gap to take fourth in the closing stages, finishing just 2.6s away from the podium.
“Fourth is a great result for JOTA and McLaren after they worked hard to repair the car for race two this afternoon,” said Wilkinson. “It’s been a tough weekend, though. It’s gutting to be hit out of another certain podium, but it’s been amazing to show so much pace and progress. After losing the win at Brands Hatch and second place here today, it’s disappointing to not have the results to show for it. Here’s hoping for some better luck in the last Endurance Cup round in Barcelona next month!”
Wilkinson and Barnicoat will be re-joined by Rob Bell for the final round of the 2021 GT World Challenge Europe in Barcelona, 8-10 October.