Despite the disappointment of an early end to his debut Total 24 Hours of Spa appearance, Ollie Wilkinson can still count his first outing at the world’s greatest GT3 race with McLaren as a significant career milestone.

Just three years after starting his racing career, Wilkinson lined up alongside the world’s greatest sportscar drivers for the legendary twice around the clock race – and third round of the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup – sharing the Optimum Motorsport McLaren 720S GT3 with team-mates, Rob Bell and Joe Osborne.

Despite making it to the top of the GT3 ladder, and recording the car’s fastest lap across the race as the sole McLaren of the 56-car field, the Optimum crew’s race was forced to end in retirement due to damage sustained in the first few laps.

Starting from 30th on the grid after an expectedly tough qualifying against the GT3 elite, McLaren Factory Driver Rob Bell got the #69 McLaren off to a strong start to gain four places in the early stages. Amid the opening lap chaos, however, several cars suffered punctures and Bell was consequently powerless to avoid striking a large piece of tyre carcass exiting Blanchimont.

Bell continued in 26th whilst nursing front-splitter damage but power steering issues then forced him to pit approaching the one-hour mark. A swift repressure of the system got Bell back on track, only to return to the garage 20 minutes later.

Stellar team work from the Optimum outfit replaced the front splitter and sourced and fitted new power steering piping, to ensure the 720S GT3 was able to resume the race 39 laps later – albeit with the intention of treating the next few hours as an extended night test.

The Y.CO-The Yacht Company McLaren rejoined the race in Wilkinson’s charge as darkness descended, with 20hrs 40 minutes remaining. Finally able to make his 24 Hours of Spa race debut, Ollie executed a perfect double stint, his consistent pace bringing the car up the order from 54th place to 51st. Joe Osborne then took the helm for his two-hour stint, gaining more valuable setup knowledge through numerous pit stops for tweaks and changes, while gaining a three further places.

Appropriately, it then fell to event debutant Ollie to take the sole McLaren of the field through its final double stint into the midnight hours, setting its fastest lap of the race in the process. With all realistic ‘testing’ objectives achieved, the team collectively agreed to retire. Wilkinson brought the car home to pit for the last time from 45th position, after nine hours and 157 laps complete.

“It’s heartbreaking to retire from our first 24 Hours of Spa, so much effort has gone into getting us here and competing at this historic event, but we can still leave with our heads held high,” said Wilkinson.

“The McLaren 720S GT3 has been fantastic all weekend, just one incident at the start prevented us from giving the car the debut it deserved. As for the team, it’s all thanks to their spirit and determination that we could repair the damage, find new parts and get back out at all. They’ve been absolutely outstanding.

“It wasn’t the result we wanted but I really enjoyed testing the various changes we tried during my night stints. Through the disappointment we’ve learned a lot and we’ll come back stronger next year. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to taking our new knowledge into the final British GT round at Silverstone and last GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup outing at Circuit Paul Ricard next month.”

Photo credit: Gary Parravani

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