Domestic season off to a solid start for Rob Bell and Optimum Motorsport
13th April 2023
The Intelligent Money British GT Championship got underway during the Easter Bank Holiday with two action-packed sprint races, and saw Rob Bell back in action with Optimum Motorsport. Racing with Mark Radcliffe, making his GT3 debut, Rob finished P7 and P10 in the #27 McLaren 720S GT3 to start the 2023 campaign with a strong foundation of points.
Weather would prove to be a big talking point as the season-opening double header took place at Oulton Park, with Rob making his first full-season start for the first time since 2019, and his first competitive outing with the new Evo upgraded GT3 car.
The first qualifying session of the year saw Mark qualify in P10, before Rob headed out in the second session for his initial run to set the grid for race 2 of the weekend. The session saw a close battle at the front of the field, and Rob continued to improve over the quick-fire session. At the conclusion of the 15-minute shootout, Rob secured P8, and was the second quickest of the McLaren entries.
Race 1 started with a wet track and rain hanging, as a very real threat, over a packed Oulton Park. Initially opting for wet tyres as he left the pitlane, there was a drying line on the track as Mark made his way round to his grid slot. Seeing a possible strategic opportunity, the team called a switch to slick tyres, and Mark took the start from the pitlane. From here, he did well to navigate in slippery conditions, avoiding much of the chaos in the opening corners. The conditions started to improve as the stint progressed, and the track continued to dry, bringing more pace to the slick tyres as the pit window approached. Rob took over as the Optimum Motorsport team serviced the McLaren, and he rejoined the track with the order reshuffled as the field worked on different strategies. Now, with a dry track, but the first signs of rain starting to show at points around the track, Rob showed all his experience as he started to climb the order. Before the Safety Car was scrambled to deal with a car in the gravel, he had gained seven positions and was just outside the top-10.
As the race got restarted, the rain had increased but the field was still running on slick tyres, as a pitstop would drop them out of contention. As the track went green, Rob made a further position gain, and as the race neared the final 10 minutes, a second overtake was completed. The closing stages of the race would see action and incident across the whole field, as drivers battled to find grip as the rain intensified. Positions changed and experienced pro drivers worked hard to avoid skating off track. capitalised on the opportunity one final time as the clock ticked down, making a tenth and final move for position as the order continued to shuffle, crossing the line in P8.
The weekend’s second encounter would also start under a dark sky, and with a rain-soaked track as the race got underway. With roles reversed, Rob took the start and continued to show rapid, making up a position on the opening lap to run as high as P7. He maintained this position, defending well while also looking for further opportunities to progress through the duration of the opening half of the race, ahead of the pit window opening. As a car went off track just as the pitstop window opened, the team brought Rob in at the first opportunity, in the hope that Mark would be in the best possible position should a Safety Car be scrambled. However, this gamble didn’t pay off, as the incident was cleared, and racing continued. After the pitstop, as and the order reshuffled again, Mark was running just inside the top-10, but made moves to recover positions in the closing stages. The pace of the McLaren looked strong as the #27 held position but, with several cars going off track in the wet conditions, mud and gravel had been scattered across the racing line, and Mark’s visibility was impaired for the final five laps with mud on his windscreen. He battled on to the finish line, but in a final challenge for the weekend, he was unable to defend with limited visibility, dropping to P10 just before the chequered flag.
The results of the weekend see Rob and Optimum sitting fifth in the driver and team championship standings heading to round 2, the Silverstone 500, next month.
Rob explained: “It was a solid weekend, and good to get some points on the board across both races. The first race was particularly challenging, with the weather changing so much and grip levels different on every lap. Those final laps in the rain, on slicks, were definitely some of the most difficult I’ve raced in a GT3 car! It was a great effort by Mark on his British GT debut, and a big thanks to Optimum Motorsport for all the efforts over the weekend. We know where we can make some improvements for Silverstone, and will be looking for more points and to move up the order towards the podium.”