Ben Barker very nearly started a new chapter in his sportscar racing career in the best possible way, contending for a podium finish on his first appearance in the GT World Challenge Europe series.
Barker, a regular in the FIA World Endurance Championship for the past half-decade, will combine his regular ride with GR Racing in the global series with a full-time role in Barwell Motorsport's #78 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 this season, getting his campaign underway at the picturesque Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola at the weekend. The Briton, who shares the car with fellow Britons James Dorlin and Alex Malykhin, has made a name for himself driving a variety of Porsche racers around the globe, so switching to the Huracan presented as much of a change as the GTWCE itself, but the trio acquitted themselves well to claim fourth in class at the chequered flag.
All three drivers familiarised themselves with the Imola layout during free practice, with Dorlin and Malykhin getting their first official international GT racing laps under their belts and Barker showing his pace by lapping just a couple of tenths of a second off the pace of the leading Lamborghini, fielded by the factory team, on his first run of the weekend. It was apparent from the outset that the Huracan runners were lacking the speed of the leading overall runners due to the differences in balance of performance rules, and struggling to find the ideal tyre temperatures on a weekend dominated by cool spring conditions, so 26th on the timesheets proved encouraging.
The problems continued into Sunday's qualifying, however, with Barker, in particular, hampered by tyre temperature woes. With the grid positions determined by the average time across all three drivers, the #78 crew fought hard to claim tenth in the Gold Cup class, but were only 43rd overall amongst a massive 52-car entry when the final positions were drawn up.
"It was a cold weekend, so all the mid-engine guys struggled to get the targeted tyre temperature," Barker confirmed. "The team also had an issue with the tyre tent which prevented my tyres from running at optimal temperature in qualifying, something that is critical in such conditions and meant that we were behind not only the front engined cars, and the likes of the Audis — which benefited from a better BoP figure — but also many of the mid-engined teams we had beaten in practice. However, the pace we showed in practice was encouraging and we knew we would easily find lap time with the correct tyre temperatures."
Malykhin took the wheel of the #78 for the start and managed to make up seven positions during his stint, before Dorlin did likewise, pushing the all-black Lamborghini up to third in class and inside the top 25 overall. However, contact with another car coming into the pits cost both time and track position for the crew as the team ripped off the front right bodywork. When Barker eventually rejoined, the car had slipped to sixth in class, but the Briton used all his experience to press on, eventually making up two places to put the #78 on the fringe of the podium before time ran out on him.
"My stint was tough, as the car balance was off with the front toe offset and the missing bodywork affecting the aero," Barker reported. "Despite that, however, I still could achieve the fastest time within our car and was averaging laps just 0.6secs off the Pro cars, coming back to finish P4 in class and P26 overall.
"What's even more encouraging is remembering that this is the first year for Alex and James at this level of endurance racing — and only Alex’s second year racing cars of any kind. He showed super impressive pace in practice, lapping only 1.5secs off the Pro times and his opening stint in the race was full of confidence and great pace, which impressed a lot of people. James, too, showed great speed in the race, getting us into the top three in class, and running ahead of the eventual winner before the damage. However, fourth is still a fantastic result for the first race and a great effort from the Barwell crew. We can’t wait for Paul Ricard, where we will be looking to translate our speed into an even better result."
Round two of the 2022 GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup takes place at the Circuit Paul Ricard, in southern France, over the weekend of 3-5 June.