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Ben Barker ready to take off brakes and put foot to throttle on FIA World Endurance Championship return

Ben Barker. Picture: Grove Racing
Ben Barker. Picture: Grove Racing

As first halves of a year go, it has probably been more eventful for Ben Barker than most.

It is a mixture of the lockdown restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic that have impacted the world, and personal highs and lows.

Barker made a barnstorming start to 2020, winning the Dubai 24 Hours – which was cut to eight hours due to torrential rain and thunderstorms – and taking first place at the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours in Australia, where the Grove Racing team were 10th overall among the professional drivers.

There was also encouragement in Austin, Texas in the World Endurance Championships with Gulf Racing, where a fifth-place finish put them fifth in the LM GTE AM class overall standings.

With a suitcase packed and about to head out the door for the next round in Sebring, Florida, the race was cancelled, the calendar put on hold as the world came to a grinding halt.

“It was a mega start to the year – I had a string of podiums and, also, with Gulf Racing, who is my usual contract,” said Linton-based Barker.

“We had a bit of a roll going. The Dubai 24-hour was cut short to an eight-hour race but we still won it and we still deserved to win it because we put in some hard stints and were fast.

“We were leading before they called it, and that was in a Mercedes as well so it was a new experience for me. It was a new manufacturer, a new car.

Ben Barker on his way to winning the Pro-Am class Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours. Picture: Porsche Media (35356993)
Ben Barker on his way to winning the Pro-Am class Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours. Picture: Porsche Media (35356993)

“I did the Bathurst 12-hour with Grove again, and it was a mega-race. It was very hard, and even harder in a GTE3 car.

“It was quite intense but we had a really strong performance there, and came away with the class win and 10th overall for a pro-am for a field of 25 pro cars – so that was mega, with a bronze driver in the car was really impressive. We got a lot of good feedback from Porsche.

“We had one race in Austin just before lockdown. We were fifth in the end, and we’re fifth in the championship out of 12 cars and relatively close to P3 in the championship.

“We’ve stepped up the game from the WEC point of view in the Gulf car. We’ve upped performance and I think we’re a lot more competitive in challenging for realistic podiums now.”

With momentum building, it was providing added confidence and self-belief to help performance, but Barker does not believe the extended break will be a hindering factor.

He cites the saying ‘you’re only as good as your last race’ and that his last results were good so uses that as the starting point for when the season resumes.

Also, it is not as if any individuals or teams are getting a lead on the field, motorsport is shut down globally.

“For me, and for most people, it is just frozen time, if you like,” explains 27-year-old Barker.

“It’s all just paused so no-one has moved. The team has stayed exactly the same, the only thing that can hinder a result is obviously performance of the driver, and of the team of course, as well as through potentially having a gap and not being as on it.

“I don’t think it’s a hindrance really, you’ve just got to be positive.”

Ben Barker in action for Gulf Racing in the FIA world Endurance Championship. Picture: Porsche Media
Ben Barker in action for Gulf Racing in the FIA world Endurance Championship. Picture: Porsche Media

As eventful as it was for Barker on the track at the start of the year, he has also been affected by Covid-19 off it.

The driver believes that he contracted the virus. A close friend tested positive and now Barker is waiting on an antibody test to determine if he also had it.

“I’ve been self-isolating because I think I had coronavirus about eight weeks ago,” he said.

“I went through all the symptoms – I had loss of taste, couldn’t smell for two weeks – so I was keeping out of the way of people.

“Hopefully I have built up some immunity. I will be very surprised if I hadn’t had it because a friend of mine who I was with got tested and had it.”

In the meantime, Barker is just trying to keep fit.

He is getting a daily dose of exercise, doing a lot of cycling and also using the downtime to catch up with family and friends, which is not always possible with a life on the road.

On that point though – the life on the road – it is easy to wonder why motorsport was not one of the first sports back in action.

After all, in many cases it would look like one person behind the wheel of a car – a form of self-isolation in itself. But that masks all the effort and personnel behind the scenes that go towards getting the vehicles on the track, even if it is behind closed doors.

“You look at it on paper and think they could get back to it easily,” says Barker. “But you look at some of the garages in the paddocks and they are pretty cosy.

“We’re the smallest team really, and we’ve got 15 to 16 people all in a tiny little garage, going in and out of the truck, unloading, packing up the truck – it all requires being relatively close to each other.

“I think there are certain things they can do like put a mask on and stuff like that, but the point is it’s as close contact as a football team really.

“We’ve got a lot more going on behind the scenes, whereas football and rugby you see on the scene a mass of people because of how big the teams are.

“It’s definitely a challenge, even for motorsport.”

Ben Barker in action in the Lone Star Le Mans in Texas. Picture: Porsche Media (35356941)
Ben Barker in action in the Lone Star Le Mans in Texas. Picture: Porsche Media (35356941)

Barker is waiting for the green light for some of the tracks in the UK to open and, when they do, he will be able to resume coaching.

It will all be done from a safe distance as the professional does not get in the car with the student, and works off reference times.

And there could be a return behind the wheel of sorts later this month, in the Le Mans Virtual 24 Hours.

Barker admits to not being a big fan of simulation racing, but could be set to take part in the team challenge – although his role will be very different to that of in the normal car.

“Sim racing, I’m not really interested in,” he says. “I don’t have the concentration span for sitting in front of a computer monitor.

“I think it’s cool what they’re doing. I think doing it on the same weekend as the Le Mans 24-Hour is cool. It should be exciting.

“My mission is basically not to crash – being fast is one thing, but not crashing is another. I suddenly turn into the amateur driver on the simulation thing.

“It should be a bit of fun.”

A provisional WEC calendar has been posted for the final three events – the reorganised Le Mans, Spa and Bahrain.

The first of those is aimed to be the Total Six Hours of Spa Francorchamps from August 13 to 15, depending on the ability to comply with government instructions with social distancing.

It will take place behind closed doors though.

“They should be able to commence, it’s just whether the infection rate spirals back up again,” says Barker.

“It’s also about travel implications with quarantine, as if you have to isolate for 14 days then that’s not going to work. Whether there is going to be some business/sport quarantine waiver, I don’t know.

“I think they are going through that now with the FIA.”

He added: “I can’t wait.”

And if Barker can get back up to speed as quickly as he did at the start of the year, who knows what the finish of 2020 will bring.

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