The "Old Girl" done good! Neil Cunningham made an impressive return to the British GT Championship at Donington Park with a remarkable third place in last weekend's second round event. Co-driving a somewhat venerable Porsche 911 GT2 with...
The "Old Girl" done good!
Neil Cunningham made an impressive return to the British GT Championship at Donington Park with a remarkable third place in last weekend's second round event. Co-driving a somewhat venerable Porsche 911 GT2 with the car's owner Peter Cook, the two experienced GT racers injected fresh vigour into the elderly chassis, proving once again that the nine-eleven is still the archetypal endurance racecar.
What made their achievement even more notable was the fact that they started the race from the back of the grid. It was a very much a last-minute decision to take part at all, and the team didn't arrive at the track until early on raceday morning. Unable to participate in official qualifying, Cunningham and Cook were offered the special dispensation of using the morning warm-up to satisfy their personal three-lap requirements. It didn't allow them to set a time, but it did mean they could start the race - from the last row.
Peter Cook took first stint, so lined up on the grid with a field of 20 cars ahead of him - plus a Brookspeed Viper at the pit exit (having missed the pitlane closure) and an Ultima with engine problems. Undaunted by the prospect it soon became clear that he had every intention of rising to the challenge, and as the leaders powered through Redgate to begin the first lap, Cook was already picking his line through the tail-enders.
To begin with it was almost a case of four steps forward and three back, as the places he'd made up on the opening lap nearly went for nothing. Coming round to complete the first lap he had to take drastic action to avoid being the involuntary participant in the coming-together of the #22 Stealth and the #47 GNM Porsche. It cost him several hard-earned positions and he crossed the line eighteenth, just three from the back, but with his concentration sharpened he resumed his charge with even greater determination.
Running as much as two or three seconds a lap quicker than those around him, Cook carved his way through the field. He moved up two positions on the second lap, another on the third, two more on the fourth, and was running eleventh by the end of the sixth. It didn't stop there. While many eyes were concentrating on the battle for the leaders, Cook's progress continued. He had risen to eighth by lap ten. The smoky demise of Paul Stephens' #19 TFM-GT Marcos LM600 on lap thirteen saw Cook inherit seventh, although he'd been catching the yellow and white Marcos steadily for some time.
With twenty minutes of the race completed the pitstop "window" opened, and competitors started to make their compulsory driver changes. Cook stayed out until lap 24 - very nearly the halfway point in the race - by which time he was running third overall. The hand-over to Neil Cunningham went surprisingly smoothly, considering they'd had no opportunity to practice, and by the time the pitstop confusion had unraveled the Australian was holding sixth place. That became fifth when Ian McKellar spun out in the leading Saleen with an electrical problem, and his next target - Martin Short in the #55 TVR Tuscan-R - was already visible. "I pushed as hard as I could," said Cunningham. "I think my first lap was an eleven (1:11.759 in fact), and the next was down into the tens (1:10.497). The old girl was certainly on race pace!"
Setting lap times that were often two seconds or more quicker than the Tuscan's it was not long before he'd caught and passed Short, which he did on lap 31. It was also the car's fastest lap of the race at 1:10.050. The Tuscan driver tucked in behind and followed as best he could. In doing so he started to close on the GTO leader, Godfery Jones in the #77 Eurotech Porsche. Cunningham arrived on the Porsche's tail three laps later, sweeping past into fourth place overall with eighteen minutes of the race remaining.
His next target was the Speedworx Stealth B6 with Nigel Greensall at the wheel. After a strong first stint from co-driver Terry Pudwell the Stealth had begun to encounter handling problems, but it was still running very fast - especially in a straight line. "I'd passed a few of the GTO cars pretty easily," explained Cunningham, "and then I was closing in on the Stealth. He was exceptionally quick in a straight line, and also through the left-handers, but seemed to have difficulty with the rights. I think he had a problem of some kind, as he was definitely slow there, but it made him very difficult to pass." Cunningham was stuck on the tail of the sleek black and silver car for five laps before he finally saw his opportunity. "I eventually got by just after the Old Hairpin. I just stuck in there through the left-hander, pushed him off camber a little, and was able to power past him up the hill." Third place was now Cunningham's by rights.
In reality this was probably better than either he or Peter Cook could have hoped for. Having started from the back, and with a race of constant overtaking and traffic, there should have been little hope of being in contention for a podium at all, yet the car was now running a strong third and pulling well clear of Greensall's Stealth. Cunningham drove a steady and, towards the closing stages, restrained race to the flag. "The warning light started to flash on the fuel gauge about four laps from the end," he explained, "so I went a bit easier towards the finish." A quick check after he'd taken the chequered flag revealed less than three litres of fuel remaining - probably just enough to have completed one more lap! It was a close-run thing.
"Peter and I are just such a good combination," said a beaming Cunningham after the race. "Neither of us have driven the car for a while, but Peter drove a brilliant first stint." It was exactly the kind of result the pair needed as they decide what to do for the rest of the season. "I've got an ASCAR test next week with the Cadbury's Mongoose car," explained Cunningham. "I felt we had a very warm reception here today, and that's made me feel very encouraged about the future. I now think there's an excellent chance of doing more in this championship. I do have an offer to drive the Stealth, and the invitation to co-drive with Peter again is till open. In addition, I hope to be able to race with Paul Hogan (Racing) at some time later in the year. I think what you may see is Paul, Peter and I coming together. That could either be in the 911 GT2 again, or perhaps with Peter's GT Viper. He's considering fitting the new European-specification go-faster kit (to the Viper), which would make it far more competitive, and we could even consider some FIA races after that."
More than anything else, Neil Cunningham appears surprised that he has such a choice. "I'm very happy to be getting so many opportunities to race once again," he conceded, having considered "retiring" only a few months ago. Endurance racing, however, is one discipline in motorsport where there's no substitute for experience, and Cunningham has that, and talent, in abundance.
-Thomas Erdos Racing