Quick success in a battle of endurance


November 20, 2014 and we’re sat round a table in Carluccio’s restaurant in Bicester Village. The weather’s turning and Tom Onslow-Cole is telling me about his switch to full-time GT racing.

He had spent seven years in the British Touring Car Championship (“I grew up watching it, it was all I knew”) and he was staring down the barrel of a complete change. By November 2014 he had Spanish GT, British GT, V de V and Blancpain Endurance Series experience.

Fast-forward a year and he’s already a GT champion having won the 24-Hour Series in Ram Racing’s Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3. When we met a year earlier he was still getting used to 24-hour racing having only done the 2014 Dubai 24 Hours. “I was so excited I couldn’t sleep,” he admitted at the time.

That inexperience didn’t last long as in the same race the following year (his second 24-hour enduro) he finished second. This was followed by second-place finishes in the 12 Hours at Mugello and the 12 Hours at Zandvoort. At Paul Ricard in July he finally took his first 24-hour win. The word ‘finally’ is perhaps a little inappropriate considering it was only his third round-the-clock race. A third followed in the Barcelona 24 Hours and a second in the 12 Hours at Brno, which secured the title.

“The 24-hour races have been so cool,” he tells me now. I ask whether, when I called earlier and couldn’t get hold of him, he was celebrating his win with champagne and hot tubs. He was actually in the gym. Such is the life of a modern professional driver.

“The machinery is so capable now they’re just long sprints. There’s absolutely no holding back and you’re completely accountable for every tenth, every overtaking manoeuvre. It all adds up to how far you get down the road in 24 hours.

“I love that. It’s a huge challenge, but if you do your homework and arrive better prepared you do get the benefit.” I guess that explains the gym vs hot tub.

When we met in 2014 you got the impression Onslow-Cole was a man happy with his decision to leave the BTCC. There was, however, something that told me he wasn’t convinced by GT racing. He seemed to be in a good place in his personal life, but it was clear he was nervous about his professional direction.

The list of recent touring car drivers to move to GTs and make a success of them is not huge. Andy Priaulx won the Nürburgring 24 Hours in the same year he won his first WTCC title. He then went on to win the GT class in the 2011 Sebring 12 Hours. Meanwhile Darren Turner was already racing GTs when he started his three-year BTCC stint in 2006. There are others – Steve Soper, Bernd Schneider, Hans Stuck, Dirk Muller and Jörg Muller off the top of our heads. However you look at it, BTCC to GTs is a bold move without manufacturer backing.

“I knew leaving touring cars was the right thing to do,” Onslow-Cole says today. “I didn’t know, though, whether GTs was the right path. It’s now been confirmed and my career is going better than it ever has in terms of future prospects. It’s better from an earning one as well…”

So what next? The 24-Hour Series is not the most competitive in the world; Onslow-Cole is the first to admit that. For 2016 he’s keen to defend his title, but is also looking at other options. “Ram Racing is one of the best teams I’ve driven for,” he says of the Northamptonshire-based outfit that took him to the 2015 title. “That’s not to say I haven’t kept my [2016] options open. I hope I’ll keep my silver FIA grading which might make me desirable for the World Endurance Championship or something in America. A professional silver is usually quite helpful.”

Onslow-Cole with team-mate and fellow 2015 champion Thomas Jäger

Ah yes, the FIA driver grading system… Depending on experience and results each GT driver is labelled either a Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze and each team/car must field the correct combination in Pro-Am races. The five-page FIA document explaining the criteria is a thrilling read.

So, the American question. “It is enticing,” he admits. “But Le Mans is a massive hook. It’s at the top of my list of races that I really want to do. It’s not directly in front of me at the moment. That said, a single deal could change everything and I could be in GT LM or GTE in the WEC and Le Mans will be part of the calendar. Back to America… It’s not necessarily the land of opportunity as it’s pitched in most films. Yes, the racing is professional and as a professional driver you’re treated as such. Getting through the door is harder than in Europe, though.

“There are lots of drivers who have done it. I raced with Jeroen Bleekemolen in the Barcelona 24 and it was interesting to talk to him as he’s had a great career racing all over the world for various teams and manufacturers. A works drive might not be the best way forward if you want the freedom to race elsewhere. That’s good business.”

“LMP3s are also an option,” he adds. “The good thing about them is that the route to LMP1 is now a lot clearer. Before you had to do GP3, maybe GP2, or something like that, which carries a huge expense. Now there’s LMP3, LMP2 and there are some well-funded teams you can drive for. I’m not chasing LMP3s, though, as there’s so much opportunity in GTs.”

We were speaking just after the BTCC showdown at Brands Hatch, which was filled with drivers punting each other off, some letting others through to help with championship battles and then insults and accusations being thrown after the racing. Does Onslow-Cole miss those days? “Umm…” There’s a long pause when it’s clear he’s trying to tread carefully. “Looking at it from the outside…” Another long pause. “I don’t miss the off-track drama,” he finally relents. “The racing was great, but I am having similar dices in GT racing – it’s really hard to get past another GT3 car with a similar pace especially when you take the aero into account.” Onslow-Cole is a much happier man now that he’s settled into GTs and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

The next few weeks will be spent confirming plans so watch this space. I did offer my services to his GT endurance efforts, but admitted that I lacked both the talent and the financial backing. “We would have taken you if you had the money,” he replies, “we can work on the talent.”

Now get back to that hot tub Tom, we all know you weren’t in the gym.

Our thanks to Casio for their help with this feature.


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