Clare's Ben Barker has frustrating weekend in World Endurance Championship finishing seventh in class at Spa-Francorchamps
Ben Barker experienced one of the more bizarre FIA World Endurance Championship races for many years as the series returned to Spa-Francorchamps for the penultimate round, where he found all four seasons rolling through the Ardennes in the space of the weekend’s six-hour event.
Things looked encouraging when the Clare-raised driver posted the fastest time amongst the GTE-Am entries in the opening practice session.
Despite the promising results, the ominous forecast for raceday – which predicted snow early in the morning before sunnier conditions later in the day – prompted the Gulf Racing team to take a conservative approach to qualifying.
As a result, the team found itself towards the rear of the GTE-Am field, but with the anticipated advantage of fresh tyres for each stint of the race.
As things turned out, the prediction of light snow dusting the region on the morning of the race proved woefully inaccurate, with several inches settling across the Ardennes, causing drivers and engineers alike to rethink their strategy even as the sun came out. The track was dry by the time the field took the green flag, but foreboding skies overhead meant that nothing could be taken for granted as the six hours rolled by.
As conditions worsened, Barker took over behind the wheel, completing his first spell in the midst of another blizzard, but still rising to second in class by the time he handed the car.
But then the Porsche’s rear diffuser became detached on one side, drastically reducing its effectiveness and forcing the team into a longer-than-expected pit-stop to change the damaged part. Barker found the weather closing in again, leaving him to battle wintry conditions for the majority of his last run and finishing seventh in class.
“It was possibly the most bizarre race I’ve ever done in terms of the ever-changing conditions,” Barker noted. “But we brought the car home with only minimal damage and scored some points so we can take something positive from the weekend.
“Obviously, even though it only took four minutes to replace the diffuser, that was enough to drop us a lap behind the leading GTE-Am runners, limiting our potential for a podium finish, but I think we proved that the Gulf car was again capable of running at the front.
“I don’t know which weather god I’d angered, but I seemed to get the worst of the conditions on both of my stints. To get snow like that in May was unexpected, to say the least, but then this is Spa after all!
“The changing conditions made the race something of a stab in the dark for everyone, with strategy changes having to be made on the fly, but the Gulf team reacted well to the short-notice calls and were exemplary as always.
“As a driver, running in snow made for an extremely challenging – not to say entertaining – afternoon, with grip and visibility at a premium, but, with the outcome largely out of our hands, it was also immensely enjoyable at the same time.”
The final round of the season takes place at the Le Mans 24 Hours in France over the weekend of June 12-16, but Barker and the Gulf team will be back on track for a two-day test at Monza as early as next week in preparation for the blue riband event.
Clare’s Gary Paffett resumes his maiden Formula E campaign in the Monaco ePrix, at the Circuit de Monaco, this Saturday. Paffett sits 18th in the standings.