Ben Barnicoat made a welcome return to the Sprint Cup with McLaren Customer Racing team JOTA over the weekend as the Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS season continued at Magny-Cours in France. The young Brit showed impressive form as he helped the team score a top-10 result in the weekend's opening night race, before race-winning pace saw Ben set up a grandstand finish for teammate Oliver Wilkinson to bring the #38 McLaren home in 4th against truly world-class opposition.
Ben has proven himself as a worthy contender at the wheel of a McLaren 720S GT3 already this season. After a troubled endurance weekend in Monza three weeks ago, the Chesterfield-born star was looking to bounce back and continue his rich seam of form at the opening round of the Sprint Cup with British sportscar team JOTA.
The early sessions of the weekend were crucial for Ben and teammate Oliver, with both racing at Magny-Cours for the first time, while Oliver was also making his Sprint Cup debut. The opening practice session saw both drivers working through set up programmes and getting to grips with the track, running solidly in the mid-field and making steady progress to move up the order during pre-qualifying.
With Oliver qualifying 22nd, he would also take the start for the first race. A frantic start in almost pitch-black conditions saw the #38 McLaren make up three positions in as many laps. As the race settled down, Oliver moved up as high as 18th before a Full Course Yellow period just before mid-distance. With racing back underway and the pit window looming, Ben prepared to take over for the sprint to the flag with the JOTA McLaren running slightly longer than the leading pack which saw Ben rejoin the track in 20th place.
Ben quickly got up to speed and settled into a rhythm as he immediately set about closing the gap to the cars in front. Each lap saw Ben improving his laptimes as he became more comfortable and confident with the conditions, chasing down positions and moving up to 14th overall with 10 minutes remaining. He continued to push, posting personal best and overall best sector times in the closing stages, and a retirement for one of the podium challengers saw Ben gain a further position. Such was Ben’s pace and determination that he posted his quickest laptime on the penultimate lap, crossing the line 13th overall, and 8th in the Pro class.
“The first race was a really interesting challenge, running at a new circuit in the dark, but it definitely grabs your attention! The circuit is great and we showed some good pace to move up through the field, but there is no real room for error with the gravel traps. It was always going to be a big challenge, but I am pleased with a top-10 Pro class finish and some important championship points.”
Ben was once again immediately on the pace during the short Sunday morning qualifying session. Building on the pace he had shown during the night race, the 24-year old topped the timesheets to set the provisional pole position benchmark. A second flying lap further strengthened his position until the closing stages of the session when he was narrowly edged out. A late spin by one of the Bentleys on to the start-finish straight would prevent any further improvements, with Ben securing a second-row gridslot.
Ben maintained position from the rolling start and looked to capitalise immediately, making a push for 2nd place. After being pushed slightly wide on to the grass, Ben remained undeterred and ran close behind the leading pair, biding his time. With the gap to 2nd-place at around 0.5 seconds, Ben posted the quickest lap of the race to close right up to the rear wing of the Lamborghini before a bold move around the outside of Chateaux d’Eau corner secured the position.
Now running in clear air, Ben set about reducing the two second gap and quickly reeled in the race leader as the pit window approached. Further personal best sectors saw Ben close the gap and he continued to run longer as the race leader pitted. Now taking over the lead, he worked to maximise the advantage over the chasing pack before bringing the #38 McLaren into the pits. Once again, the commitment and determination saw Ben post his quickest first sector time as he made his final tour of the 4.412km Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours to hand over to Oliver.
A slightly fumbled driver change cost the pair slightly as Oliver took over, but he rejoined in 4th place, before a heavily interrupted final 25 minutes of the race. Two Full Course Yellow periods followed by Safety Car restarts, and a late coming together between the podium contenders, would test the resolve of the young Brit on his championship debut, but the final three lap sprint to the line eventually saw the green and red JOTA McLaren claim a hard-fought 4th place.
“The track was quite different between my night stint and this morning’s qualifying run, but the JOTA team has done a great job with the car and it felt great. We knew we had a good set up, and I had so much confidence on those quick laps to really push for a time. The first run on new tyres was really strong and it’s a shame the second run got a little compromised as I felt pole position was on the cards but, overall, I am really pleased with the result.
“The race was really great fun, and it was good to be pushing for the race lead from the start. I knew I had to make a move as quickly as possible and I got pushed on to the grass which compromised me slightly, but we had the pace and it was just a case of maintaining the pressure and making a move at the right time. Once we were running in clear air, I was able to find a bit more pace but the tyres were going off at the end of the stint. We lost a little bit of time in the pitstop as I switched for Ollie, but the team did a great job and Ollie managed the pace and did well defending the position with the two safety car restarts.
“Overall, it was a hugely positive weekend and great to get some points on the board for the season. It was great to have been able to demonstrate the raw pace of the 720S GT3 on its debut in the Sprint Cup. We’ve always known it has this kind of potential, so it was great to prove it in one of the toughest championships. We still have a bit of work to do, but we know what needs to be done and I’m feeling confident we can push for more points.”
The Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS continues with the Endurance Cup event taking place at Circuit Paul Ricard, France over the weekend 28-30 May.