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Balancing Acts

The delicacies of Balance of Performance (BoP): well what else did you expect a British GT racer to discuss in his first column?! In fairness, I’m possibly better qualified than many to discuss the pros and cons of the current balancing act given that I’ve raced both a Ginetta G55 GT4 (the car that took Mike Robinson and me to the title last year) and now we’ve switched mid-season to the McLaren 570S GT4 car. 

Drive the Ginetta and you’re effectively driving a race car. It’s raw, hot, edgy, intimidating to the uninitiated even. My track-widow wife, who’s never driven on a track, probably wouldn’t get out of the garage in a G55. Now swap to the McLaren as Mike and I have. It’s easy by comparison. Simple, soft, forgiving, road-car like. My wife could drive it. 

And so these two cars compete head-to-head, with just ride heights and weight to balance the difference. One weighs just over a ton, the other almost a ton-and-half. One has electric windows and mirrors, with air-conditioning to soothe the bronze driver. The other has holes cut into its plastic windows and doors that peel open as the speed increases! More significantly, one car is so incredibly responsive; turn-in, changes direction, stops with a light prod of the middle pedal. The other, the road- car-based one, rolls into corners and shifts its mass around like a fat guy dancing to his favorite tune. 

We last raced the Ginetta at Snetterton, the UK circuit with two very long straights – and while in clean air the G55 laps at a similar pace to the McLaren, it was nigh-on impossible to keep the Ferrari-rival behind you with the steering wheel at the straight ahead. “Stay right!” shouted my engineer down the radio as the McLaren exited the last corner onto the straight five or six car-lengths behind my Ginetta. Well, that was a waste of time: the Macca had whizzed by before I’d even got halfway down the straight! Yes, I could’ve carried more speed into the preceding corner, but I was nowhere close enough to challenge in the braking zone, and given there is another short straight before Turn 2 at Snet, I wasn’t in a position to attack then either. Indeed, for the rest of the race it was simply a case of waving goodbye to the McLaren in anything resembling a straight, gaining under braking of every corner, but never being close enough to even think about overtaking. Same lap time, but the way in which each car achieves that lap time is completely different. Trying to race against a McLaren in a Ginetta at Snetterton is not fun! 

Fast-forward to our first round in the McLaren, which took place at the Blue Ribbon British GT Silverstone 500 in June. Silverstone also has very long straights. We qualified dead last in a car that we’d not had time to set up (the car was delivered just two days prior to the race weekend!), but come race day, our team (Optimum Motorsport) had reworked literally every setting with the help of McLaren and we were back to our Championship-winning pace – and it was a hilarious experience to ‘race’ our former Ginetta colleagues! 

Yes, a Ginetta qualified on pole, but I almost felt guilty as I bolted past the Ginettas come the first straight of the race. It didn’t matter what my exit was like, I could have overtaken a Lewis Hamilton-piloted Ginetta in a straight line such was the speed advantage of our new steed. How much faster? 23km/h in places! This despite 100kg of BoP ballast and a 20mm front ride-height tweak for our car. Again, on BoP letterheaded paper, the Ginetta and McLaren complete a clean-air lap of Silverstone in a very similar time, but the reality… Before the race, I joked with Ginetta factory driver Mike Simpson that I’d point him through under braking so he could carry his true cornering speed as long as he promised to wave as I drove back past him on the next straight! 

So what would I – and probably all drivers – like to see regarding BoP? I’d like to see BoP tests conducted with more than one car on track at a time with two genuinely independent drivers. They don’t need to race each other, but they do need to drive the cars in convoy to see the differences for themselves. And to overcome any driver-performance issues, each driver can drive each car. To do so will open the eyes of those setting BoP. Lap time is important, but so is the way in which the cars make that lap time. As it stands, I’m expecting the defending skills I’ve developed over the last two-odd Ginetta seasons to wane significantly! 

As a McLaren driver, I suppose I should now argue that the current balancing act works rather well, but in the interests of fairness and ‘the show’, the speed-measurement process needs to be enhanced.

 

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