Darren Turner collected his third trophy in the space of eight days when he made a happy return to the International GT Open Championship at Hockenheim in Germany on Sunday.
Having recorded a class second, and third, in last weekend’s Nürburgring N24 qualifying race with the AMR Performance Centre’s two Aston Martin Vantage GT4s, this week the three-time Le Mans 24 Hours class winner was asked to join Ollie Wilkinson in Optimum Motorsport’s GT Open Vantage GT3 programme. The team hopes that driving alongside Turner will give the 23-year-old Aston Martin Racing Academy driver a unique insight into the processes involved in being a works Aston Martin racer as he furthers his rapid development. Indeed such is the speed of Wilkinson’s progress that he, among with some others, was promoted from a Bronze to a Silver-classified driver after qualifying 12^th overall for the first 70-minute race of the weekend. The team was given the option to stay in the Pro-Am class with a 5-second performance penalty to be taken in the pit stops, or move up to the top Pro class; which it chose to do. “We all discussed it but Ollie was clear that he didn’t want to take a penalty and that he wanted to race in the Pro class," explained Turner. "That then became an easy decision, and it was very clear what the targets were.” The duo finished a competitive eighth in their first race together. Wilkinson made a strong start and solid progress through the field, handing the car to Turner while running 10^th overall and seventh in class. That became seventh and fourth (in class) as Turner emerged from the pits. The Briton withstood considerable pressure from rivals, before finally relenting a place late on as tyre degradation became a factor.
"Ollie did a very good job and brought the car in within shouting distance of the leading bunch,” said Turner. “I did my best, but there is still a lot to learn about these Michelin tyres and how the Vantage GT3 behaves on them. “We hadn’t quite optimized the set-up and our tyre degradation was a little bit higher than it needed to be.” With a race under their belts though, and with a wealth of data to build from, Optimum’s engineers came up with a fresh approach for Sunday’s 60-minute race, for which Turner qualified third on the grid. “This was the first time I experienced the car on fresh tyres, and the car felt very strong,” said Turner. “It was unfortunate that we got traffic because I think the car had great potential for pole position. We all felt pretty confident that we had made progress overnight.” Starting the race, Turner discovered quickly just how competitive GT Open is, as he was shuffled out of third position as the pack jostled for position aggressively into Turn 2. “It was really feisty in the first couple of laps!” he said. “But I managed to fight back up to fourth position and pitted in the leading group.” This meant that Wilkinson emerged from the pits in second position, which became third when he was passed by the pace-setting Lamborghini. “The Lambo was coming through whatever and Ollie did a good job to fend him off for as long as he did, but eventually he found his way past,” explained Turner. “But at the end Ollie had 10 minutes of intense pressure from a McLaren and he produced a great performance to keep third.” Turner had not raced in the GT Open since 2014, and admitted that he thoroughly enjoyed the cut and thrust of one of the world’s most fiercely contested GT series. “The series is very competitive. It runs to its own BOP. The cars are more powerful and they are able to run more downforce so it’s great fun to drive. “It’s quite a feisty championship as well. It’s very much a sprint, as I found out into Turn 2 today! It’s very competitive. You don’t want to turn up to races where it is easy, you want to turn up to races where it’s a challenge, and that is definitely what GT Open is.”