The opening round of the 2023 GB4 season threw a huge number of challenges at the championship’s 14 rookies – namely rain in two of the three races. It was in the rain-affected reverse-grid Race 3 that debutant Liam McNeilly shone, winning from ninth on the grid in his third-ever Formula 4 race. Feeder Series caught up with the Fox Motorsport driver following his dramatic first race win of the year.
By George Brabner
As 2023 came around, Fox Motorsport was set to take on a new challenge in the form of the GB4 Championship. Competing in single-seaters for the first time, Fox signed two of their 2022 Ginetta Junior Championship stars, one of those being McNeilly, who had raced with the team in Ginettas for two consecutive years.
Pre-season testing was a success and left both parties feeling good before the season commenced at Oulton Park. After qualifying for Round 1, McNeilly lined up fifth and third for the first two races. Although it was a strong start to the season, he still desired more.
“I knew we had good pace,” McNeilly explained. “I was a little bit disappointed with qualy. I thought we definitely could have maximised a bit more in qualy, but to be honest, from where we were on Thursday and Friday, I didn’t think we would be qualifying top five. I thought that was definitely out of the equation,” he said.
“Expectations really going into Oulton weren’t super high. We knew we had good pace, but obviously. overtaking is very difficult and when you qualify fifth. It’s sort of mid-pack and it’s hard to overtake,” McNeilly said.
Setting a new lap record in the single dry race
Qualifying and Race 1 were the only sessions not held in wet conditions. McNeilly, who started fifth for the first race, went on to finish in the same position after making a mistake at Hislops in the opening laps.
In free air, he pushed to catch KMR Sport teammates Jeremy Fairbairn and Tom Mills, who were battling for victory, and the pack forming behind them.
“Obviously, I wanted to be at the front, but I could see they were fighting and stuff like that, and I could see that I was gaining quite a lot on them. Obviously, I had quite clear air, so I could push on it a lot more than the people at the front, so I managed to sort of get into a bit of a rhythm,” McNeilly said.
“And they were quite consistent [lap times] as well, so like I think I did four laps that were within like two tenths and that sort of pulled me a lot closer to the front. Even though I didn’t quite get to the front, I think we were like eight seconds back at one point and we brought it back to like four and a half seconds or something like that, so that was very positive.”
As the gap ahead fell, McNeilly set the fastest lap of the race on multiple occasions. He eventually set a 1:35.250, taking with it the new Formula 4 lap record for the Oulton Park International layout – a huge showing of pace which was below his best on low fuel.
“We actually went quicker in the race than we did in qualy, so that shows that our pace was maximised in the race compared to qualy and it shows that there definitely was a bit more in qualifying at Oulton, but we definitely made some changes in driving and in the car to make it a good race car,” McNeilly told Feeder Series.
Keeping it cool in a wet Race 2
With a day’s pause in on-track action for Easter Sunday, Monday brought torrential rain, which would affect both of the following GB4 races as well as the neighbouring action from GB3 and British GT.
Race 2, in which McNeilly finished second, provided treacherous conditions and a minimal number of racing laps due to lengthy safety car interruptions. Nonetheless, the Fox Motorsport driver took second, and with it a sizeable haul of points, following winner Mills to the flag.
“[The race] was good. We definitely had some pace in the wet. Visibility in Race 2 was pretty poor. … Mid-race it down poured quite a lot, and I was keeping [Mills] on his toes. He was making mistakes.
“Definitely he had a bit more pace, but I was just keeping him honest and staying with him. I mean, that’s all that you can do when you’re following in the rain. Visibility is so poor that it’s really tough to overtake – especially around Oulton, when if you go off, you’re going on the grass and you’re in a barrier,” McNeilly explained.
“The conditions were pretty awful and I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make a move because of the conditions, so just bringing it home in P2 was all that I could do.”
Victorious from ninth on the grid
Race 3 of the GB4 weekend always provides an opportunity for an outside winner. A full-grid reversal – as long as every driver is within 103% of the Race 1 pole time – means someone who qualified in the lower portion of the field will almost invariably score big.
With a point on offer for every position gained, the incentive to carve through the field in Race 3 is great. Despite starting ninth on the grid, the Brit took the first win of his single-seater career.
“It didn’t really sink in after the race,” McNeilly told Feeder Series. “Coming from ninth and winning, I didn’t really expect that at all. If you told me I was going to win before the race, it was like ‘no chance!’ But I got given a really good car to just lean on it from lights out.”
If you told me I was going to win before the race, it was like ‘no chance!’Liam McNeilly on winning Race 3 from ninth
With the pack forced onto wet tyres but the track quickly drying, drivers had to balance speed with intense tyre management. But McNeilly excelled.
“There was a dry line [in Race 3], but being able to hit the brake and bleed off, it was sort of trying to find the limit but stay within it because the tyres were going to overheat and the tyres were going to go off. The team had done really well with the tyre pressures. The car didn’t really go off at all. I mean, I watched [the race] back, and a lot of drivers’ cars went off quite early on.” he said.
Forging his own ‘Lap of the Gods’
McNeilly really showed his worth on Laps 2 and 3 of Race 3. He passed Ruhaan Alva at the end of Lap 2 for fifth, Harri Reynolds three turns later for fourth, Jack Clifford at Turn 5 for third, and Jason Conzo after the Turns 10 and 11 chicane for second.
“Regarding the lap with those three overtakes within five or six corners, I didn’t really know what to expect with reverse-grid races, especially in the wet. It’s hard to overtake in the dry, and then in the wet, it’s going to be even harder,” McNeilly explained.
One lap after making his way into second position, he passed his Fox Motorsport teammate Sid Smith for the lead of the race, with Reynolds following him through. By the end of Lap 4, he had a 1.6 second lead over Reynolds, which grew to a comfortable 3.8 seconds by the chequered flag at the end of Lap 10.
“Compared to Race 2, I had a lot of speed, so I knew I could get on the podium, but to win, and those overtakes, I just had loads of confidence on the brakes and I got given a really good car to bring it home.”
With an extra 28 points to his name from Race 3, McNeilly leaves Oulton Park with a total of 74 points, putting him second in the drivers’ championship. Only Mills, who currently has no confirmed drive for the remaining GB4 races in 2023, lies ahead. McNeilly has high hopes for Round 2 at Silverstone and beyond.
“Second in the championship, seven points back going into Silverstone, I mean, in pre-season we’ve been fast at Silverstone, so I don’t see why we can’t win a race outright in the feature races.”
Header photo credit: GB4 Championship / Jakob Ebrey
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