Oz: Barker wins Australian title by 0.05secs!
27 October 2010
Ben Barker survived a weekend of almost unparallel drama 'down under' to claim his first international motorsport crown in only his second season of car racing.
With just a single season of Formula Ford in the UK under his belt, the Briton held his nerve in a thrilling triple-header at Sandown Raceway to emerge as winner of the 2010 Kumho Tyres Australian F3 Championship, and the prestigious Australian Drivers Championship's Gold Star, in the closest finish in series history.
Despite holding a eight-point advantage over main rival – and Team BRM team-mate – Mitch Evans, Barker had the disadvantage of never having been to Sandown before, while his opposition was all more familiar with the quick 3.1km circuit. With just two half-hour sessions to get acquainted with the venue, the 19-year old was delighted to eventually be lapping within a couple of tenths of his Kiwi team-mate, but knew that he still needed to step up the pace if he was to secure the title.
A wet-dry shoot-out to determine the top six grid positions provided another test of Barker's resolve as, having made it safely through the first phase of qualifying, he knew the right call on tyres would be crucial.
“I called for slicks as the end of the session would be okay for them,” he revealed, “I ended up fourth fastest with my last lap, but was running first on track and therefore took the chequered flag before everyone else as the circuit continued to dry.”
A slipping clutch at the start of race one on Saturday afternoon saw the Briton lose a couple of places off the line, but he quickly regained them at turn one, only to find championship outsider Tom Tweedie harrying him for the remainder of the race as he benefited from a low-drag aerodynamic set-up. Barker dropped to fifth on the penultimate lap, but again used the opening corner to reclaim his position, running around the outside of Tweedie and securing the inside line for turn two.
With Evans second on the road, the points gap closed slightly, but Barker continued to lead going into race two on Sunday morning. Another bad start, however, appeared to have put his title hopes in jeopardy when another BRM team-mate, Zhang Shan Qi, slammed into the back of the #5 machine entering turn one.
The Chinese driver rode over Barker's rollhoop, having already demolished his rear wing and front suspension, and came close to injuring the Briton after making contact with his crash helmet.
“It was a massive impact, and I was very lucky as one of his wheels scraped my helmet, but, worse than that, I got back to the pits thinking my championship was well and truly over,” Barker admitted, “It was a horrible feeling.”
Incredibly, however, the Briton's luck continued as, just a couple of laps later, a second major incident brought out the red flag and, instead of Evans and Tweedie having the chance to open out a significant points advantage, the decision to abandon the race left Barker nursing a five-point cushion with one round remaining later in the day.
Team BRM had another race on its hands, however, as it attempted to rebuild the shattered #5 machine in time for Barker to make the start, but achieved the feat with time to spare, even if the Briton would not uncover its pace and performance until he lined up on the grid.
With Evans starting second alongside race one winner Tim Macrow, Barker knew that he either had to make up places or at least secure the bonus for fastest lap if he was to be crowned as champion. A good getaway appeared to have made his task easier, as he again used the outside of turn one to good effect and seized third place from Chris Gilmour. The rebuilt Dallara was clearly not suffering from its race two ordeal, and Barker was able to lap faster than Evans, but the Kiwi wasn't going to make life easier for his rival with the title at stake.
A couple of robust defensive moves eventually backed the Briton up and allowed Tweedie to capitalise on his better straight-line speed to claim third place, leaving Barker again in need of fastest lap as his attempts to retake the Australian were thwarted. With three of the 15 laps remaining, the Cambridge native dropped back to give himself some clear track and popped in a 1min 09.6563secs effort to provisionally claim the extra point. Evans wasn't done, however, and with room of his own, produced his best lap time as he passed under the chequered flag, only for the clocks to show it 0.0502secs slower than Barker.
“It was incredible,” the Briton admitted, “My heart hasn't slowed a beat since the end of the race – what a way to win it! Once Tom passed me, I knew what I had to do, put my head down and just went for it, but everything still rested on how Mitch would respond. Even as I took the flag, I didn't know how things had worked out – and the team kept me in suspense a little longer. It was like being on a game show! When they finally told me I'd won, it was a huge relief
“I feel so proud to walk away with Australia's top motorsport award, the Gold Star, and continue the UK's strong recent record in this competition. I could not have done it without the team getting my car out for the last race – and making it so fast! The backing of CARS Europe, Driving Solutions and RaceFit was also vital, as was the support of friends and family overseas.
“This day is dedicated to my mum, who was supposed to be here but is instead in hospital following a motorcycle accident.”