Three wins, nine podiums, and just under 3,700 racing miles. 2019 turned out to be a successful season for Balfe Motorsport in the British GT Championship, as it challenged at the front of the field in both GT3 and GT4 across the year.
There was plenty of interest coming into the season as the team not only returned with Graham Johnson and Michael O’Brien in their McLaren 570S GT4 but also gave the stunning new McLaren 720S GT3 its UK racing debut in the hands of Shaun Balfe and Rob Bell.
Opening the new campaign at a warm and dry Oulton Park over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, there was early silverware for Graham and Michael as they claimed a GT4 Pro-Am podium in race one despite qualifying gremlins leaving them down the order, and went even better in race two as they not only took a Pro-Am win but also finished second overall in GT4.
“Obviously, we had our little technical issue in qualifying which meant I had to start last and Michael had to start 13th,” said Graham. “The second race was great, but then I lost the radio when I got out there, so I didn’t really know what was going on. The car felt absolutely epic and credit to the guys because I think that’s the recovery of the century to come from last in qualifying to second.”
Things weren’t as bright for Shaun and Rob, however, as they opted to withdraw from the competition after qualifying when electrical issues with the new car caused the engine to cut out, with both drivers sensibly agreeing it would not be safe for themselves or other competitors to attempt to race.
Travelling to Snetterton for round two, things continued to go well as Graham and Michael added another podium finish in race one, though a stop-go penalty curtailed chances of a fourth-straight top-three result in race two. “Graham made a mega start in race one,” said Michael. “Race two started well again. We were up to fourth, made our pit stop, and came out in second overall in GT4 but got a penalty for contact which set us back slightly.”
For Shaun and Rob, the technical woes of the opening weekend were banished with a maiden podium of the season, though it could have been double success before Rob was forced off track while battling for second place in race one. However, to bounce back with silverware proved the team and drivers had the speed to compete at the sharp end of the grid.
“Rob was unlucky in race one; he was looking really strong, but these things happen,” said Shaun after the weekend. “I’m really pleased I could deliver a result for the team, McLaren, and everyone that’s put the hard work in.”
Carrying that momentum forward would be key for the longest race of the season – the 300-mile, three-hour Silverstone 500 in May. Indeed, it was looking promising for Shaun and Rob who fought their way into the lead of the contest heading into the final hour. Frustratingly though, the door of the car refused to close during the last scheduled pit stop which not only cost the team time but also earned a stop-go penalty for refuelling with it open, dropping the pair out of the top-ten.
“We were clearly challenging for the podium,” said Shaun. “When you consider it’s an expensive car with lots of things that could go wrong and it was a bit of debris that stopped the door from shutting during the pit-stop; there are no words to describe the frustration.”
It was a similar tale for Graham and Michael too, as the former dragged the car into second place early on, but mandated changes to the car’s refuelling procedure cost time at each stop, halting any chance of a GT4 Pro-Am podium finish. “In the race, we did well,” said Michael. “Graham had a good stint, but then the problem in the pits held us back and it was an uphill battle from there.”
The team also had a third car on hand for the first time during the season, as Pure McLaren GT Series competitors Mia Flewitt and Stewart Proctor joined the line-up for the first of three planned weekends with Balfe Motorsport. Both performed well and drove maturely in their debut British GT Championship appearance, finishing first in GT4 Am.
“I really enjoyed the race; I had a smile on my face the whole time,” said Mia, while Stewart added: “We didn’t have any real mishaps, didn’t spoil anyone else’s race, and we were pretty consistent with our times, so we can build on that.”
Heading into the mid-point of the seven-race season, Shaun and Rob were once again at the sharp end of the field as they demonstrated their upswing in form was no fluke. Shaun made a good move to take second place before pitting at the hour mark before Rob settled into a long battle for the lead with Jonny Adam.
That fight was complicated further by the lapped car of Nikki Thiim, team-mate to Adam, getting involved in the fray but managed to Rob cross the line in second place, another excellent performance for the team. “Second place in a Championship like this is hard to achieve and we shouldn’t underestimate that, said Rob. “There is disappointment because we were so close to the win, but we enjoyed it and it’s a great result.”
It was another frustrating weekend for Graham and Michael however, as they battled a couple of problems which eventually dropped the pair from a fight for the class lead to a finish outside the podium places. “The problems we experienced in both free practice sessions didn’t help and then the refuelling issue in the race meant we lost 34 seconds,” said Graham. “If it wasn’t for that we would have finished fourth overall and first in class by a country mile so it’s frustrating.”
Meanwhile, Mia and Stewart once again put in a good performance around experienced competitors, making up a number of places during the contest. “I’m really pleased with the result,” said Stewart. “Between Mia and I we didn’t make too many mistakes and had consistent lap times throughout the weekend.”
The second half of the season would begin at the challenging Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, but that’s for part two…