Ben Barker and the Gulf Racing team battled to the end of the Six Hours of Silverstone to claim valuable points in the opening round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship.
The team overcame a costly late-race pit-stop to finish in fourth position in the hotly-contested GTE-Am class at its home race, erasing the memory of last season’s unfortunate exit at the hands of another car as rain and safety car interruptions marked a dramatic start to the new 2017 campaign.
After a winter of focused preparation, there was early encouragement for Barker and the Gulf team as the Briton topped the second of three free practice sessions in the #86 Porsche 911 RSR, ahead of the regular cohort of Ferraris and Aston Martins that will provide opposition throughout the nine-round competition.
Come qualifying on the Saturday afternoon, however, the close order had been shuffled once again, with the WEC’s use of combined times and a slight mistake towards the end of his flying lap leaving Barker to line up fifth in the class status.
With his new ‘gold’ status making him the lead driver on the three-man Gulf crew, Barker took the wheel for Sunday’s midday start, and quickly gained a couple of places to be challenging former F1 driver Pedro Lamy for second in class.
However, having seen several attempts to claim the spot rebuffed by the Portuguese veteran, Barker gradually started to lose ground as his tyres faded and dropped to fourth before pitting for the team’s first driver change of the race.
While the race took a dramatic twist at the front of the field, the ensuing safety car period bunched the GTE-Am class with Gulf newcomer Nick Foster at the wheel, and the Australian briefly led through one cycle of pit-stops before handing back to team owner and co-driver Mike Wainwright.
It was at the next change, however, that the Gulf crew’s afternoon turned for the worse, with the #86 needing an extended visit to the garage prior to Barker setting out on the final stint of the afternoon.
For a team that had enjoyed unprecedented levels of reliability in 2016, it was an unfortunate turn of events that dropped the car out of contention for a place on the podium.
But Barker was eventually able to rejoin the racing action and was rewarded for soldiering on to the chequered flag by impressively picking up a position two corners from the finishing line.
A last-lap incident involving two of the GTE-Am cars ahead of him eventually promoted Barker and the Gulf team to fourth in class simply by dint of seeing the chequered flag, giving the Briton and his colleagues 12 points that earlier had not looked likely.
They will carry those into round two of the season, at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, over the weekend of May 4-6.