Once upon a time at Snetterton (my British GT Preview)
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
(latest updated version, 22nd July)
I am sure you all remember the last trip, last party, or the last event you attended before Covid-19 lockdown.
It’s a bit like a last kiss. You do not know it’s the last whilst it happens but once it becomes “THE last one” it becomes unforgettable.
The last time I travelled to a racetrack before Conavirus froze life as we knew it was for the British GT Media day at Snetterton, Norfolk, a trip that I combined with a lovely two-night stay in the beautiful town of Diss.
I mostly went for networking – but I also tasked myself with the self-imposed homework of writing an article about the history of the sport. The original idea was to mix it with the history of the places I was visiting along the way, some sort of GT, History and Travel guide style article, and then I would try to get it published before the first race of the season on April 11th at Oulton Park.
But then, you know, Coronavirus.
As lockdown restrictions are lifted and sports events reactivated in the shape of whatever the new normal looks like, it’s time for me to come back to this – starting from the beginning.
I decided that I would write about the sports’ history because I found myself already researching it anyway, just for fun, to find out more about a sport that I was progressively falling in love with.
We had flirted before, GT and me. The first time was some years ago, when I was the Pit Lane Reporter for the circuit webcast of the 24 Hours of Barcelona.
The affair escalated last year, when I was the Pit Lane Reporter for the Lamborghini Supertrofeo World Finals. The Supertrofeo is one of the most competitive one-make championships in the world featuring the seriously fast Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo EVO.
Preparing some notes about the British GT, I decided to revisit how it all started.
As a History lover, I think that GT, Grand Tourer, has the most beautiful name for a discipline in the world of motorsports.
The concept of “Grand Tourers” as cars that can make a long-distance in comfort and style it is closely linked to the idea of the “Grand Tour”, a 17th to 19th Century traditional trip across Europe undertaken by rich young Englishmen to polish off their education. From Dover and via the English Channel this Grand Tour would take them to visit Paris, the Alps, Turin, Rome, Florence, Naples, then down to Malta.
The Grand Tour was a glamourous adventure, a series of long journey trips made in style – the same experience associated with GT cars.
In the most basic of its definition, the Grand Tourer is a type of sports car that is designed for high speed and long-distance driving, due to a combination of performance and luxury attributes.
However, as was pointed out in an article on cars.com, “GT badges have been tacked onto a variety of vehicles over the years, making this designation one of the oldest and most thoroughly abused in the history of automobilism” (*).
Most would agree that it began with cars like the 1951 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT or Ford’s first-generation Mustang in 1965, and Ford and Ferrari dominating Le Mans in the 60s is also one of the first things that comes to mind.
From there, the story takes multiple turns and bifurcations, and I discover that tracing back a timeline and lineage of sportscar racing is a complicated business– but that should not put you off from just watching and enjoying.
As described on the opening paragraph of a GT racing article on Red Bull.Com: “The world of GT racing, or sportscar racing, is very confusing, but if you get your head around it, thou shalt be rewarded. Incredible cars, varied driving talent and a truly global, multi-national, multi-class extravaganza are on offer pretty much every weekend with races lasting between one and 24 hours and gracing circuits from the Nürburgring to Mount Panorama and Daytona to Spa”.
To keep things simple, they then quote sports racing expert and commentator David Addison – and my “colleague” (and generous mentor), at the Lamborghini World Finals: “GT racing is the recognisable equivalent to sportscars you’d see and recognise from the road. If you’ve heard of a Ferrari or Porsche, these are the race versions of them.”(**)
GT1 and GT2 were the big thing in sportscar racing from the nineties until the end of the first decade of this century. But escalating costs and increasing manufacturer dominance meant a change was needed to keep it alive.
A much cheaper and highly popular GT3 class was introduced in 2005, and from here I am going to fast forward to the British GT or I will never get to tell you about my trip to Snetterton.
The national series were first organised by the British Racing Drivers Club in 1993, and the term ‘British GT’ was first used in 1995.
Nowadays the British GT Championship is organised by SRO Motorsport Group, the established international leader in GT racing, and consists of GT3 and GT4 classes.
The Media Day and Official Pre-Season Testing Day for 2020 was scheduled for March 3rd at Snetterton, where the British GT would proudly reveal a capacity 35-car full-season entry list including 19 GT3s and 16 GT4s.
Snetterton has an interesting story of its own. It was originally an RAF airfield called RAF Snetterton Heath, later used by the United States Army Air Force. The airfield opened in May 1943 and closed in November 1948. The main runway was 6,000 feet long with two secondaries of 4,200 feet each. The original Snetterton Circuit was laid out on the runways and taxiways of RAF Snetterton Heath in the early 1950s. Redevelopment over the subsequent 60 years has reduced the portion of the property used, but the modern circuit still largely conforms to the air base footprint.
Now let me tell you about the time that I went up there – my last pre-Covid-19 trip
I drive up to Diss the day before the Media Day, and that’s the first time that I have driven around East Anglia. I entertain myself with the impromptu thought that I have never been to New England in the USA but I think that it looks a bit like the East Anglia that I am discovering.
It might be the architecture, the steep, triangular roofs and tall spirals that I have seen in photos and movies in New England, USA, which also features in the skyline of the quiet villages that I am passing by. Or It might be that both share stories of witch hunts and similar legends and folklore.
I drive through long open roads that divide in two endless, sparkling golden fields on a crispy sunny afternoon. I feel something a bit eerie in the air and I am enjoying it immensely.
By the time I get to Diss it is too late to visit its famous Mer, described in a local guide as one of the deepest natural inland lakes in the country set within lush green parkland. Diss actually gets its name from ’Dic’ or ’Disce’ which is Saxon for ‘ditch of standing water’ and its focal point is that six acre mere, formed by geological action right in the centre of the town, dating back some 12,000 years to the ice age.
I am very intrigued by it and it’s a pity that I can’t visit but such is the life of a motorsport reporter – we travel lots, not always for the views.
The next morning, around 12 minutes before arriving to Snetterton my GPS tells me to proceed across what looks like one a very narrow lane in the middle of the country side – more like in the middle of nothingness. First, I wonder if this is correct, if this is really the right way to a circuit holding a major national motorsports event.
Then I remember the MotoGP Grand Prix in Italy and the very rural route through farm lanes to get to Mugello circuit from the iconic Monsignore della Casa Hotel and I decide to carry on.
Oh Yes, the way to major events venues can sometimes look like that.
The best way to describe the atmosphere in the British GT paddock is that of “Celebration”.
It sounds like it’s the season for more milestones to be achieved, for more records to be broken and for more history to be made.
Exciting announcements keep coming up from the garages and in the Media Centre.
A 2020’s full-season entry featuring 19 cars in GT3, including the addition of GT4’s last two Pro/Am title-winning crews and its current overall champion, Tom Canning. It is the largest GT3 entry since 2014 and the first since that year to feature more GT3s than GT4s.
Both reigning GT3 champions returning and split across TF Sport (Aston martin) two entries. Graham Davidson aiming to become the first amateur to successfully defend the GT3 crown, Jonny Adam looking to clinch a record-extending fifth title with as many different co-drivers.
Record holder Sandy Mitchell (youngest driver to claim victory, pole and fastest lap) is confirmed to pair up with 15-time BTCC race-winner Rob Collard in the second of Barwell’s Motorsports Lamborghini.
Intelligent Money becomes title sponsor. Pirelli is bringing new tyres to both GT3 and GT4, with the new constructions expected to improve consistency and durability in all sort of weathers. McLaren also returns for a fifth season as British GT’s official Safety Car partner.
The journalists start to gather in the Media Centre for the afternoon Press Conference and not that I am ears dropping but I just happen to be right behind the Championship Press Officer when he leans on the person next to him to whisper something along the lines of what a great surprise it is to see the room that full. The other man nods. They sound genuine.
It’s all good news, so when Lauren Granville, Championship Manager, says at the Press Conference that the championship is in very good health, it does not sound like fanfare, it sounds like fact-checked reality.
The Championship might have been in very good health, but the world was silently being infected by an invisible serial killer and we were just about to find out.
Within days, Covid-19 revealed itself as one of the biggest pandemics and worst crisis that the planet has faced in decades if not centuries. By the end of that month, Britain had gone into lockdown, life as we knew it stopped, sports events were cancelled or delayed.
It is summer now and little by little we are coming out of this global nightmare. We are returning to some sort of “new normality” and sports events are progressively returning with the British GT now starting at Oulton on the first weekend of August.
The virus has however taken its tolls. The sports and media industry, as pretty much any other industry has undoubtedly been severely hit.
It has also changed the landscape in the pits.
In GT3, TF Sport is now unable to defend its Drivers’ Championship due to a combination of factors caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ferrari has taken one of the two vacated slots and will line up Duncan Cameron and Matt Griffin in an upgraded 488 GT3 Evo.
The second of TF Sport’s vacated entries has also been filled by a returning British GT3 team, with the organisers confirming that further details will be announced shortly.
The lines between e-sports and real-world racing have also blurred – proof of this is that Jenson Team Rocket RJN will contest this year’s British GT Championship with 2019 World’s Fastest Gamer winner James Baldwin, who will pair up with Michael O’Brien. 0’Brien makes a debut in GT3 after two seasons in GT4 with McLaren.
More announcements have been pouring in over the last few days.
Reigning Intelligent Money British GT3 Silver Cup champion Ollie Wilkinson will return to defend his title in 2020 with Optimum Motorsport and GT4 graduate Lewis Proctor. Patrik Matthiesen and Jordan Collard will team up in the second of HHC Motorsport’s two Intelligent Money British GT Championship McLaren GT4 entries this season. Luke Sedzikowski and Dave Whitmore will race a Century Motorsport-prepared BMW M4 GT4 in selected Intelligent Money British GT Championship rounds this year.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in the horizon for everybody, and some of the challenges ahead are not easy to predict, but the British GT Championship is preparing to return to action.
And I too look forward to the day when I can return to that paddock.
One would not like to miss out, when one has the feeling that we were just getting this party started.
Thank you to my dear friend Robert Roggers for his hospitality – he help me make my visit to Diss and Snetterton possible and I can’t wait to visit again (the British GT Paddock, and beautiful Diss)