In the first of our #DoningtonDecider interviews, Graham Johnson explains why it would mean so much for he and PMW Expo Racing/Optimum Motorsport co-driver Mike Robinson to win the GT4 crown at Donington next weekend.
2.5 points. That’s the oh-so slim advantage Graham Johnson and Mike Robinson will carry into next weekend’s British GT4 Championship decider at Donington Park following a season that has ebbed and flowed at the top of the standings.
The PMW Expo Racing/Optimum Motorsport crew began this year with the sole aim of landing the crown after finishing second in class at their first attempt 12 months ago. One year on and they stand on the edge of completing that mission.
Not that it’s been easy. GT4’s increasing popularity in recent years has seen its ranks swelled by young drivers eager to carve out a sportscar racing career. That’s highlighted by Silver-graded crews claiming the last two titles, while more teenagers than ever before entered this season.
Bucking that trend are Optimum’s championship leaders whose Pro-Am status chimes more readily with GT racing tradition. Indeed, most of Johnson’s time is taken up running his business, while 33-year-old Robinson’s ‘Pro’ status is based on a season of single-make tin-top racing.
And it’s for those reasons that Johnson, 42, is especially proud to be heading a field full of young whippersnappers, as well as Pro-Am crews able to compete fairly against their full-time rivals.
“Let's not forget that I’m an Am driver,” he emphasises. “I'm not young, I run a business seven days a week, I have a young family, I started racing later in life, and I’ve not had the experience and opportunities those behind me in the championship have had.
“As for Mike, he might be a Silver driver because he had the chance to start racing a littler earlier than most Ams and because he competed in the Clio Cup, but the guy runs the conference division at our company! He's a businessman first and foremost, and he’s only at the track when I’m at the track. And I’m not at the track very much! So damn right I’m proud of what we've achieved this year.”
Standing in their way is Jack Bartholomew, the archetypal young former single-seater driver hoping to climb the GT ladder. Their task is also made all the harder this weekend by the return of reigning GT4 champion Ross Gunn, another Pro who excelled after stepping up to Beechdean AMR’s GT3 ranks in the wake of his title triumph.
The maths is reasonably simple: whoever finishes ahead in the top-eight positions will be crowned champion.
Instead, it’s pit-stop success penalties that might provide the biggest complication. Winning the second race at Snetterton ensures Bartholomew and Gunn will remain stationary for five seconds longer during their mandatory driver change than Johnson and Robinson, who finished second last time out. The final stint could therefore be extremely compelling between two Pro drivers chasing championship glory.
Johnson, though, fully expects only one outcome.
“Both Mike and I are heading to Donington expecting to win the title,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’ve overcome every hurdle that’s been thrown at us this year, and we’re still leading the points race. Between us, we’ve taken four pole positions, two further front-row starts, two second-place finishes and three wins. And the Ginetta hasn't always been the car to have. Of course we’re confident of taking the title.
“We’ve both made errors, but we’ve come out stronger because of them. Honestly, I don’t think either of us have ever been driving better than we are now. I’ve started every quali session this year expecting to be on pole. I haven’t always achieved it, but that mind-set - one that is disappointed when you don’t start P1 - comes from having absolute faith in the team, the car and yourself.”
But there’s another element at play here, too: a couple of mates fighting the Pro-Am philosophy’s corner against a younger generation.
“I don't know if things will be in our favour at Donington - it’s not traditionally a Ginetta circuit - but we know what we need to do and we genuinely believe we’re the best driver pairing on the grid,” asserts Johnson. “We’ve known each other for over 20 years, been best mates for almost 15, and now we’re determined to win the title that we’ve dreamt of and worked towards for so many years.
“I'm telling you: no one else is better prepared than us to take the title and no one else wants it like we do. Others may like it, but to be British GT champions: it’s the pinnacle for Mike and I - and we’re going to do it at Donington.”
The final round of this season’s British GT Championship takes place at Donington Park on September 10/11. Reserve your tickets here.