Ollie Wilkinson notched his first ever 24 hours race result in the TotalEnergies 24 Hour of Spa yesterday with a stand-out seventh place finish in the JOTA McLaren 720S GT3. The result marks the best finish for the marque and model at the historic race in Belgium.
Partnering fellow McLaren Factory Drivers Ben Barnicoat and Rob Bell, the trio tackled the world’s biggest GT3 event as a crew for the first time to fantastic effect. The #38 McLaren ran as high as second and within potential reach of a podium finish, in part thanks to Wilkinson’s stout defence of fifth place through the early hours of the historic twice around the clock endurance event.
Although a stand-out achievement, it was a race of what could have been as the JOTA boys fell victim to several cruelly timed pitstops which fell just ahead of full course yellows and safety car periods. That combined with a drive-through penalty for track limits – in a race where most of the 58-car grid suffered the same fate on several occasions – ultimately dropped Wilkinson, Barnicoat and Bell off the lead lap, leaving them to fight hard for a top-10 result.
Whilst a podium finish then seemed out of reach, Wilkinson hustled the sole Pro McLaren entry through the early hours of Sunday morning, wrestling back fifth position whilst contending with the dense night fog in the Ardennes forest.
The JOTA crew were in fine form from the off in Belgium, running strong in Thursday’s free practice and pre-qualifying sessions. Although Bell’s first qualifying stint didn’t run to plan due to two red flags disturbing his session, Wilkinson’s stellar effort in the pitch darkness of Spa helped Barnicoat join the top 20 Super Pole shoot-out on Friday and secure sixth on the grid of the staggering 58-car field.
Barnicoat encountered a difficult race start which required a lengthy safety car period due to the multi-car incident at Raidillon 20 minutes in. Navigating a restart which coincided with the heavens opening and necessitated a dash to the pits to change to wet tyres, Barnicoat hauled the #38 car up from fifth to second before handing over to Bell.
The next full course caution, however, fell with poor timing as the JOTA car had just pit, enabling the #63 Orange 1 FFF Lamborghini to get the jump. Bell charged on to chase down the Lambo on the tail-end of the lead fight whilst defending from the #35 Walkenhorst BMW, only to get baulked in traffic out of the Bus Stop chicane. Barnicoat duly retained fifth in his second outing until a drive-through penalty temporarily dropped the car to 17th place, but the crew were able to recover to fourth thanks to a series of consistent and clean stints.
Wilkinson joined the battle in the final hours of Saturday evening, delivering a seamless stint to hold fourth until varying pitstop strategies started to play out across the field, with the JOTA car yo-yoing between fifth and 13th as those around it pitted and rejoined. Wilko hauled the car into the top eight heading towards midnight, setting a consistently impressive pace as one of the fastest in the fiercely fought top 10.
Contesting only his second ever 24 Hours of Spa, Wilkinson’s next run proved even more crucial at the halfway mark as he took fifth place back from eventual podium finisher, Garage 59’s Nicki Thiim in a blinding move at La Source, then keeping the Dane at bay ahead of Bell’s next shift.
Ollie’s final stint approaching five hours to go brought the McLaren back up to eighth and on terms with the #63 Lamborghini, which would prove pivotal to the JOTA crew’s success in a battle that would run to the very end of the 24-hour encounter.
The end of the race proved almost as dramatic as the start when the heavens opened heading into the final 45 minutes. The resulting safety car in fact helped the #38 McLaren recover time lost through the majority of the team’s faultless 25 pitstops and 11 driver changes, many of which frustratingly fell outside of caution periods.
A stellar final charge from Barnicoat to reel in and pass the #63 whilst dancing the nimble McLaren through the standing water, ensured the JOTA outfit secured a sensational seventh at the flag.
“It’s absolutely amazing to score our first 24-hour race finish with JOTA and McLaren, I couldn’t be more proud of what we have achieved,” said Wilkinson. “Finishing seventh is an outstanding achievement for our lone GT3 McLaren 720S GT3 Pro entry, but it was a bit of a case of what could have been.
“We really didn’t get the luck of the safety cars and full course cautions, as we took the majority of our 25 pitstops under green and that cost us a lap on the leaders. The team have been outstanding all week, giving us the perfect car and delivering a perfect race performance. It’s down to that outstanding teamwork and fantastic driving that seventh was even possible.
“We can take a huge amount of positives away from our first 24-hours top-10 result in our first year together. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve for the rest of the season.”
Wilkinson is back in action when the Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS lands on UK soil later this month, with the latest round of the Sprint Cup at Brands Hatch, 28-29 August.
Source. Ollie Wilkinson