Ben Barker and the plucky GR Racing team recorded their best result to date at the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race, finishing a strong fourth in the highly-competitive GTE-Am class at the weekend.
The British combination was making its seventh consecutive appearance at the world's most famous long-distance event and, having finished fifth twice previously, had an eye on at least a repeat of those results, despite the strength of the category.
Barker was thrust straight into the single day of pre-event testing, having flown in from the south of France where his latest appearance in the WGTCE series — the Paul Ricard 6 Hours — had finished at midnight on Saturday. Although the #86 car wasn't amongst the very quickest GT times, Barker — along with team owner Mike Wainwright and third driver Riccardo Pera — were pleased with the way it handled, setting themselves a solid foundation from which to build in the official practice and qualifying sessions that would follow later in the week.
"It was a busy start to the week with the Le Mans test being on the Sunday immediately after my GTWCE race," Barker confirmed. "A quick hop from Paul Ricard to Le Mans early on Sunday morning was the only way to get some track time at the test, but it wasn’t the most glamorous arrival considering how I felt after the six-hour race the night before! Fortunately, we managed to find a great balance on the #86 car, which meant that practice was more about deciding which compound of tyre to use in the different temperatures we'd face throughout the course of the 24 Hours, with a 20-degree difference — and highs of around 40ºC — between day and night laps."
Despite achieving the lofty goal of making the hyperpole session, for the top six qualifiers, at the 2021 event, Barker was just keen to ensure that the GR Racing entry was close to the front of the 23-car GTE-Am field this time around, banking a 'safe lap' good enough for P7 in the lone group session on Wednesday night.
"Qualifying went well enough," he noted. "Our aim was to line up close enough to the pointy end of the class that we wouldn't have to battle through a lot of traffic early in the race and P7 was good enough in the bigger picture."
As has become custom at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Barker was behind the wheel of the black-and-orange Porsche for the start of the race on Saturday afternoon, and made a brilliant getaway to pass two of the Ferraris immediately ahead of him by the end of the first 8.4-mile lap — before climbing all the way to second in class by the next time he crossed the start-finish line. Despite making a push for the class lead, the Briton also found himself having to defend second spot for much of his stint, eventually handing over to Wainwright with the #86 still holding P2. Despite his 'gentleman driver' status, Wainwright then produced a great run of his own, making no mistakes even though the setting sun frequently proved blinding, before handing the car back to Barker and Pera, who proceeded to rotate triple stints throughout the night.
"I made a great start and had my sights set on Harry Tincknell in the lead Porsche," Barker said of his opening stint. "However, I had my own battle defending from Matteo Cairoli and wasn't able to make a move stick. When Cairoli did get past, I used him as a tool to then overtake Tincknell, so I still came in to hand over the reins in P2.
"The idea was then to try and get four of Mike's six-hour minimum track time completed before the night rolled in, and he did a great job of dealing with the sunset and keeping it on the black stuff. Riccardo and myself were then able to rotate stints through the night, bringing the car from P19 back into the top eight."
Although the GR Racing team was forced into replacing the #86's front splitter after some minor contact, the repair coincided nicely with a scheduled front brake change and was completed in super-quick time to minimise the time loss. Such was the competitive nature of the class, the last three hours saw the GR entry fighting for fourth in class but sitting seventh in the order.
"We could get past the Ferraris, but had the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche to hold off for P4," Barker recounted. "Riccardo did a great job of defending the position through the penultimate stint, but we then lost the position in the last pit-stop. When I rejoined for the run the flag, I had a good fight with Jan Heylen before eventually passing him around the outside into the second chicane and establishing a big enough gap to hold P4."
Taking the flag just one place off the GTE-Am podium was not only a major achievement for the GR Racing crew, which maintained a 100% finishing record in the event, but also bettered their previous best result, fifth, from the 2020 and 2016 editions of the 24 Hours. For Barker, too, there was validation of his place amongst the very quickest GT drivers.
"We're obviously over the moon to come away with our best result ever at Le Mans," the Briton confirmed. "It's a shame it couldn’t be one place higher and allow us to step onto the podium but, considering where we came back from, we are delighted with P4. Riccardo and myself drove our skins off to get back up the order, and Mike played his role perfectly in keeping the car safe. The team, too, deserve so much credit for their faultless performance in the pit-stops, and I am super happy to set both the fastest average speed of all the GTE-Am drivers and the second fastest race lap, especially coming just a week after posting the best GT-Am lap at Paul Ricard. We now sit fourth in the world championship standings and are looking forward to Monza!"
Round four of the 2022 FIA World Endurance Championship takes place at the Autodromo Nazionale in Monza, Italy, over the weekend of 8-10 July.