Published: 21:08, 30 August 2021
| Updated: 08:48, 31 August 2021
Kent team Jota Sport faces a race against time to repair its McLaren after a dramatic crash at Brands Hatch saw its car clear the barriers.
The squad – based near Tunbridge Wells – was leading Sunday's first GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup event with less than five minutes to go when the accident happened.
Driver Ollie Wilkinson escaped unhurt but the team now has just days to prepare the 720S machine for its next event at the Nurburgring in Germany this weekend.
Yorkshire's Wilkinson was lapping the Tempesta Racing Ferrari at Dingle Dell when he was tagged by second-placed Auto Sport Promotion Mercedes driver Raffaele Marciello.
The contact speared Wilkinson off track at about 115mph, with the McLaren clearing the barriers before coming to rest on a bank above the circuit.
Former Ferrari F1 junior driver Marciello took the chequered flag, but the incident was placed under investigation and the Italian was penalised for causing a collision.
He was handed a stop-go penalty, converted to a 40-second post-race penalty, which dropped the Mercedes to 17th position and promoted the Team WRT Audi R8 of Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts to first place.
Jota's chief engineer Nathan McColl said the squad supported the stewards' decision.
"It was an unfortunate incident for everybody involved – no one wants to see that – but they are extremely fast cars on an extremely challenging track and you need to treat that with respect," he said.
"We feel that our competitor didn't really treat it with the respect it deserved, but the stewards have handled it all and we are happy with the decision.
"Our main focus now is getting the car prepared and getting everything sorted out for the next round at Nurburgring.
"We are hoping with some parts supply that we will have the car prepared for Tuesday evening ready for departure to Germany.
"It will be a round-the-clock effort from everyone in the team to make it, but that's motorsport and that's why the guys do what they do. They are the best of the best and we'll get it done."
Wilkinson's team-mate Ben Barnicoat had produced a storming drive in the opening half of the race, climbing from third to first in just half a lap.
The Chesterfield ace grabbed the lead when he went around the outside of Marciello's team-mate Timur Boguslavskiy at Hawthorn.
He then built a large gap at the front of the field before pitting at the half-hour mark to hand over to Wilkinson.
Barnicoat, a former McLaren F1 junior, had put the 720S on pole during Saturday's qualifying session but was later penalised for weaving on the approach to Clark Curve.
The stewards decided his weaving had impeded the qualifying laps of two drivers, and a two-place penalty dropped him to third on the grid.
"It was a great first stint and I was really happy it went like that because the penalty I received after qualifying wasn't fair, in my opinion, and wasn't the right penalty to give," Barnicoat said.
"I knew I wanted to get the move for the lead done on the first lap as it's a very hard track to overtake on. I had a great run out of Surtees, saw my chance and went for it.
"There was no looking back from then on; the pace of the car was exceptional and the Jota guys have got the McLaren set up perfectly."
'He is one of the UK's finest talents, certainly in GT racing...'
Barnicoat, who had only driven on the 2.4-mile Grand Prix circuit once before, said Wilkinson "was definitely the innocent victim" in the race-ending crash.
"I was very happy with how my stint went but it's just a shame about the ending," he added.
"To be able to put in a stint like that on home soil is something I am really proud of.
"There's nothing better than pulling in from the lead of a race with a 20-second gap; it shows that everyone involved was doing an amazing job."
After Barnicoat had exited the car, Wilkinson lost time due to a slow getaway from the pits but still had a 10-second lead when he rejoined the circuit.
The Leeds racer, who was quickly reeled in by the fast-charging Marciello, was checked over at the circuit's medical centre following the crash but later returned to the Jota garage without any injuries.
"I’m thankfully OK, a bit bruised and battered but in a much better state than the car is – its outstanding strength really is testament to McLaren," he said.
"I’m just so disappointed for us all, Ben and the crew have done another outstanding job all weekend and this is no reward.
"It’s really disappointing to be denied the chance to properly fight for our first race win. Equally as frustrating is the knock-on effect of us now potentially having to miss the next GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup round at the Nurburgring."
Despite the frustration, Sydney-born McColl, who previously worked as a race engineer in Supercars in Australia, was delighted with the speed of the 720S.
"We've had really good support from McLaren – it's our first year running the car – and we're extremely pleased with it," he said.
"Before the unfortunate accident, we showed what we and McLaren can do.
"We are not new to sportscar racing but we are new to the GT3 fold and it's exciting to be leading a race in our first proper year as Jota in the championship."
McColl heaped praise on Barnicoat, who first raced at Brands Hatch in November 2015 when he beat current McLaren F1 star Lando Norris to the BRDC Formula 4 Autumn Trophy title.
"We can't be any happier with what Ben has produced – he has been exceptional for the team over the last few months and hopefully we can continue that partnership long into the future," he said.
"He is one of the UK's finest talents, certainly in GT racing.
"I said to him on Saturday when he got the penalty that all he needed to do was a solid job on the first lap and he would probably be first – and that was exactly what he produced.
"We know what an exceptional talent Ben is and he showed it on that first lap."
The second Sprint Cup race, which ran without Frant-based Jota, was won by the Mercedes Team Toksport WRT machine of Luca Stolz and Maro Engel after a last-lap puncture denied Boguslavskiy and Marciello.
Vanthoor and Weerts claimed second and wrapped up the 2021 Sprint Cup title with two rounds still to run next month.