The Blancpain GT Series is never short on action. While the battle for overall honours will occupy centre stage at Silverstone this weekend, the competition should be just as fierce in the Silver Cup, Pro-Am and Am Cup classes.
The booming Silver category has received significant attention lately – particularly since one of its entrants took overall victory in last weekend's Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe opener at Brands Hatch. Pro-Am is also firmly established as an integral part of the Blancpain GT Series, and indeed the GT3 racing scene as a whole.
To complete the pack, there has been a growing interest in the Am Cup during recent seasons. Reserved exclusively for Bronze-rated drivers, the class is hugely competitive. It features some of the most experienced and capable Am racers anywhere in the world run by highly professional racing outfits. Among them, British squad Barwell Motorsport has emerged as a particularly potent force.
It has been a quick adaptation for the Surrey-based effort, which only made the switch to the Am class last season. Victory at the 70th edition Total 24 Hours of Spa set the team up to capture the title at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, which they did in fine style with a commanding victory. When the 2019 season kicked off at Monza, the #77 Barwell Lamborghini won yet again.
What stands out about Barwell's wins is just how dominant they have been. At Spa the #77 crew won by five laps; in Spain, the margin of victory was well over a lap; and, in hugely challenging weather conditions at Monza, they triumphed by two laps. These winning margins are increasingly rare in the Blancpain GT Series, but Barwell has made a habit of them.
"We had a perfect race at Monza," reflects Chris Needell, the outfit's long-serving commercial director. "The drivers were fast and didn't make any mistakes, and the strategy was good from the team."
Barwell is now gearing up for its home race at Silverstone, a track the squad knows extremely well thanks to its long participation in British GT. Barwell also made its first appearance in GT3 racing at the circuit in 2006 and contested its maiden Blancpain GT Series event there in 2013.
There is added significance for the team’s Am Cup line-up as well: the Silverstone event in 2018 was the last time that the #77 Barwell Lamborghini did not finish on the class podium. Clearly, they have unfinished business this weekend.
GT3 stalwarts at home and abroad
A family-run effort that can trace its history back half a century, the Barwell squad has competed in a wide variety of series over the years. It was first established by Richard Lemmer in the nineteen-sixties, while the modern team came into being with his son Mark at the helm in the late eighties.
"We went through one-make saloons, then did the British Touring Car Championship for a few years in the late nineties and early two-thousands," explains Chris. "When GT3 started in 2006, we switched to GT racing."
Indeed, the Barwell squad can lay claim to an almost unparalleled history with GT3 equipment. The team was on the grid for the inaugural FIA GT3 European Championship race at Silverstone in 2006 and is one of a handful of stalwarts that remain active in the discipline more than a decade later.
"GT3 has come a very long way since then," reflects Chris. "We started out with the old Aston Martin DBRS9, which had the manual gear stick with a leather surround! Compared with now, it was very basic in those days."
Barwell has had a front-row seat for GT3's development both at home and overseas, competing in British GT for more than a decade and wrapping up two drivers' and three teams' titles along the way. Its maiden Blancpain GT Series outing came at Silverstone in 2013 and it has been a full-time participant in the Endurance Cup since 2014, running cars under its own name as well as for Ecurie Ecosse and Team Russia.
It was with the Scottish squad's BMW Z4 that Barwell achieved its breakthrough success in the series, with a Pro-Am podium at the Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2015 giving the team its first taste of champagne at the Belgian endurance classic. This result was replicated the following year under the Barwell name and using Lamborghini machinery. A trio of Pro-Am race wins followed in 2017 but the Barwell crew missed out on the class title, their campaign hindered by a frightening accident at the Total 24 Hours of Spa that left driver Adrian Amstutz with second-degree burns.
For 2018 the team changed direction, sticking with Lamborghini but running dual programmes in Am Cup and Silver Cup. It proved to be an inspired decision as long-time Barwell drivers Amstutz and Leo Machitski anchored a title-winning effort in the Am category. What's more, the squad bagged class victory at Spa – capping a remarkable comeback story for the indomitable Amstutz – while the Silver Cup crew also secured a podium at the 24 Hours.
Becoming the Am Cup benchmark
"We'd always done Pro-Am until last year," says Chris. "We had a really good 2017 season with Adrian, Patrick Kujala and Martin Kodric, but Adrian and Leo decided to go in the Am Cup direction because they wanted a bigger input. At the same time we started a Silver Cup programme as well, so for the first time we had cars in different classes.”
Though they may seem to be different shades of the same colour, Am Cup is in fact a very different challenge for the team compared with Pro-Am, as Chris explains.
"The main difference is that you obviously don't have a Pro driver in the car who you're focussing on for setup. You have to switch the engineering focus to come up with a car that all three drivers are happy with.
"It's about making the Am drivers comfortable so that they can extract the best from themselves. These guys aren't in the car every day: they run their businesses during the week and then turn up to go racing. When they first get in the car they have to reset their brains to racing driver mode; it's our job as a team to get them as far into racing driver mode as we can."
The difference, then, is that a Pro-Am car must extract the maximum from the Pro; in Am Cup, there is more balance. Three drivers with varying levels of experience and ability must all be comfortable and, while outright speed certainly helps, it is not as important as finding a setup that allows for consistency and reliability. It is very much the ethos of endurance racing.
Clearly the Barwell squad has found the sweet spot in this regard, though the guys behind the steering wheel must also operate at a very high level. Last year, Amstutz and Machitski spearheaded the line-up with tremendous success. So, what makes them top-level Am drivers?
"First of all, they have good natural ability," says Chris. "They also get on very well; they're kind of a double act and they motivate each other, because they're trying to out-do each other in each session.
"They've both been racing for a while and have the experience behind them, but they also have the hunger for success," Chris continues. "They don't want to do this just to make up the numbers. They know they can't fight a Pro car, but they want to be successful in the Am class and they're up for the challenge of doing that.”
This year the team has added Miguel Ramos – a driver who Chris describes as "equally strong and experienced" to the Amstutz-Machitski double act. It is a formidable line-up that will travel to Silverstone as the natural favourite for victory.
Having taken the Am Cup title, as well as race wins in Silver Cup and Pro-Am, Barwell has proven its strength at multiple levels of the Blancpain GT Series. This leads to an obvious question: could we eventually see the team take a shot at the top class?
"It's something we've always got an eye on," says Chris. "But, to be perfectly honest, there's not much difference between Silver and Pro this year. Monza made that clear: we qualified fifth overall [with the #78 Lamborghini] but were still only second in Silver Cup! Effectively, it's a junior Pro class.
"From Barwell's point of view, in anything we do we want to be competitive. We wouldn't do Pro for the sake of it; we'd need a good enough package to fight for wins.”
It is an interesting prospect for the long-term, though Chris and the team are currently more focussed on the immediate task of delivering a strong result at Silverstone.
"It's our home race and we're hungry to win again for sure. The target is to win every race, but we all know that doesn't tend to happen. The competition is strong, so it's just about trying to get the best result possible each time. If we can keep being on the podium, that's what wins championships."
There's little doubt that the #77 Barwell Lamborghini crew will be part of the battle for class honours this weekend. Should they leave Silverstone with another race win, it will further enhance the team’s reputation as the Am Cup’s dominant force.