Ollie Wilkinson and Bradley Ellis came heartbreakingly close to taking their first International GT Open Pro-Am class win in the season-opening rounds at Estoril, only for gearbox failure to destroy their dreams on the last lap of the final race of the weekend.
Making the move up to full-time GT3 competition in only his second year since mounting his sportscar career, Wilkinson delivered an outstanding first weekend of his debut GTO campaign. Qualifying fifth in class and overcoming an opening lap incident to secure the Optimum Motorsport pairing’s first championship points for fourth in race one, Wilko and Ellis matched pace with strategy on Sunday, to make class victory by over 10 seconds look all but a certainty before disaster struck.
Wilkinson opened his GTO account with a strong first qualifying performance, clocking up a personal best of 1:37.963 to rank fifth – a particularly noteworthy drive against Pro drivers installed in the Pro-Am cars ahead, whilst battling understeer.
Although clean away for the first rolling start of 2018, Wilkinson was denied the opportunity to build on his qualifying form when he was collected in an opening lap incident. Slowing with the field to avoid a spinning car approaching Turn 3, the Optimum Motorsport Audi R8 was hit into a spin from behind, causing further side-on impact.
Re-joining 21st overall with his class podium hopes in tatters, Wilkinson mounted a stellar recovery drive. Past Marco Zanuttini on lap five, Wilko pushed on to pick off Miro Konôpka and Alexander Hrachowina in quick succession on his way to fifth in class, 15th overall come lap seven. But with substantial bodywork, wheel, exhaust and tracking damage, and with the next Pro-Am car 40 seconds up the track in eighth, Wilkinson consolidated his position ahead of the pit stop window.
Joining the fray with just over 30 minutes remaining, Ellis hauled the My Possible Self backed Audi R8 up to fourth in class early in his stint, remaining unchallenged to take the duo’s first championship points of their debut season as a driver pairing.
Taking on qualifying duties ahead of race two on Sunday morning, Ellis mastered the tricky, wet conditions with a best time of 1:49.930 to rank second fastest, fifth overall, with just 0.351 seconds covering second to fifth.
A strong start and run into Turn 2 saw the former British GT Champion up to fourth, sandwiched between the Lazarus Racing and Imperiale Racing Lamborghini Huracans. As the thrilling fight for the Pro-Am class lead and outright podium honours unfolded, Ellis had to strike a fine balance between attack and defence, as the pursuing pack threatened to close.
The experienced sportscar racer kept the latter Lamborghini at bay for over 20 minutes before letting Riccardo Agostini through, his class standing unaffected as he played the strategy game. As the pit window opened, Ellis pushed to pull out the best possible advantage, briefly leading the field before handing over to Wilkinson with 27 minutes to go.
Emerging as Pro-Am leader, lying fourth overall, the young Yorkshireman delivered another sterling drive amid intense pressure from the Pro drivers. Retaining the class lead, Wilkinson expertly extended the eight second gap to hold a 10.2 second advantage over Marcelo Hahn heading into the final lap before the gearbox failed, leaving him to limp home 15th overall and seventh in class.
Although cruelly close to victory, the Optimum Motorsport duo more than proved their GT3 potential. Ollie commented: “After the performance we pulled out this weekend, I’m absolutely gutted that we’re not walking away with a class win and further podium finish. We worked so hard to battle from the back to salvage fourth in race one. The class win was in the bag until two laps to go. I tried to nurse the car home, but the gearbox went with just a few corners to go and I could only limp back in first gear to take the finish. I’m really pleased with my own performance, it’s just a massive shame that it didn’t come together. I’m heartbroken for the entire team but we will come back fighter stronger.”
Teammate and driver coach, Bradley added: “After the disappointment of race one, we deserved to take the class win today. Ollie’s debut season performance has been outstanding all weekend, he was so strong in the last third of his final stint that he was consistently lapping in the outright top five against the Pro drivers. We’ve more than proved our strong driver pairing and we’ll only go on to battle for more podiums and class victories.”
Source. Ollie Wilkinson Racing/Photo. Joao FIlipe