Friday, 31 January 2014 00:00

M-Motorsport, Lamborghini’s rising stars Featured


M-Motorsport’s Justin McMillan had an initiation of fire in his maiden season of Australian GT last year, the two-time Victorian State Series Sports Car champion debuting a new car with a new team, and whilst the season ending report card might not have shown it, there were a number of flashes of brilliance from the Victorian-based businessman during his debut season.

“To be honest, it was harder than I thought it would be, but conversely, just as hard as everyone told me it would be,” he laughed.

“On reflection I probably made a rod for my own back by being so competitive at Bathurst. In the end I wasn’t too far off Steven Richards’ pace, and we kept the car straight and fast, so in my mind, I figured that I would be able to replicate that pace at the other rounds. Ultimately though there’s no substitute for experience - I discovered that the hard way a couple of times..”

“Realistically, Justin did a brilliant job,” Steven Richards admitted, the reigning Bathurst 1000 champion having reviewed McMillan’s data from the 2013 season.

“I think after everything that happened, he probably took in three years of experience in a single year’s racing, and whilst the end result may not have always been ideal, the experience that’s given someone as motivated and dedicated as Justin, is invaluable..”

The sign of a good racing driver, always take the positive view..

Campaigning what was arguably one of THE cars in the 2013 Australian GT Championship presented by Pirelli, the M Motorsport Lamborghini Gallardo FLII GT3 was state-of-the-art, the best car Reiter Engineering had ever put together, and McMillan showed that he wasn’t intimidated by the 600bhp V10 raging bull.

At Bathurst he, Richards and experienced team-mate Ross Lilley were quick, but a gearbox pump failure mid-race cost the team valuable laps in the pits, and from that point they used the experience as an extended test session.

On his own at round two on the streets of Adelaide, McMillan stunned the series regulars by posting the fifth fastest time in qualifying, just tenths of a second off the second row. Unfortunately, a wheel bearing failure early in the opening race forced a premature retirement, whilst in race two, he battled through the field to claim a seventh placed finish.

“The wheel bearing failure just messed everything up,” he admitted post-event. “I was looking forward to running with Roger [Lago], Andrew [Taplin] and Tony [Quinn], but that was difficult after starting rear of field, but I got my times down and had plenty of opportunity to drive in traffic, so I’m pretty happy with the recovery the team made.”

Despite debuting on two circuits that were all new to the M Motorsport team-boss, round three would see the series visit McMillan’s ‘home’ venue - Phillip Island. “I can’t wait,” he beamed in anticipation, “I love that circuit.”

Quick out of the box in practice, he continued to improve across the three Friday sessions to be within reach of the leaders ahead of qualifying, but it was clear from the crease in his forehead that all was not right, a quick spin on the run onto the front straight in session two clearly still playing on his mind.

“I should be quicker, I’ve done hundreds of laps around here over the last couple of years, I’m just not sure why I’m not further towards the front.”

By qualifying on Saturday, the team had uncovered some more pace, McMillan just over a tenth of a second slower than fellow Gallardo pilot Roger Lago to be fifth quickest. The trademark larrikin grin had reappeared, but it was clear the expectation was still there.. 

Quick off the line in the opening race, he held fourth off the start to be just off the tail of the leaders, but with the James Winslow Audi and Klark Quinn Porsche tucked under his rear wing. Unable to shake the two experienced young drivers, he spun for a second time on the run onto the front straight to start lap four, although this time he made contact with the tyres on the slippery outfield, and that was game over.

“I only have myself to blame,” he shrugged afterwards. “I was concentrating on the guys behind me when I should have been pressing on, and I ran wide. I got away with it in practice, but now we’re facing an overnight rebuild to be ready for action again tomorrow.”

Typically of the hard working M Motorsport crew, the car was ready to go for race two, McMillan showing he’d lost none of his now customary speed to work his way through the field to a fifth placed finish.

The mood was subdued post-event, McMillan admitting later that he’d put too high an expectation on himself and the car so early in the season.

“Bathurst, and probably Clipsal gave me the feeling that I was on top of things because we were so quick straight away,” he explained. “I then came to a track like Phillip Island that I’ve done countless laps on and put too much pressure on myself to perform, but I have to remember the guys ahead of me have been doing this for years. It’s all part of the learning experience I suppose, but I like to push myself as much as I can, that something I do in business, and something I do in life, so I was hoping that would translate to the circuit..”

With Steven Richards alongside again at Sydney’s Eastern Creek for the fourth round of the championship, an experienced hand was once again guiding the ship, and there the former V8 Supercar factory Ford pilot topped the opening practice session ahead of veteran John Bowe and Phillip Island standout Jack Le Brocq.

McMillan was behind the wheel for sessions two and three, working his way back into a steady pace to be fifth quickest at the close of day one, but whilst the team were fired up and looking for a solid return to form, fate once again intervened, or rather, another fast-tracked lesson..

One of the first drivers out the gate for qualifying, the cool conditions on cold tyres caught McMillan out on his out lap, and despite a relatively innocuous low-speed spin into the concrete barrier, the damage was enough to retire the gorgeous #48 Gallardo from the session, and ultimately see it’s withdrawal from the opening race.

“It’s done a little bit of suspension damage, but apart from that it’s going to be a straight forward fix,” M Motorsport’s Ash Seward admitted. “Sadly though, with the quick turnaround between qualifying and race one, we won’t make race one, but the car will be fixed for tomorrow.”

Whilst the damage was largely superficial to the pristine Lamborghini, it had a harder impact on the team’s lead driver who took full responsibility for the incident.

“They keep telling me that it’s a learning curve, but I like to always be ahead of the curve, and in this instance, I shouldn’t have been. It’s tough, because I know I need to take it casually in the early laps of a session, and I honestly thought I was, but again, it comes down to experience, so lets chalk that one up to lesson #2 and try to avoid it happening again..”

Despite starting rear of field for the second one hour race, the McMillan/Richards combination were quick in race two, but it was clear the car was still suffering the side-effects of the qualifying contact.

“Justin did a ripper job in the opening leg, but the car wasn’t 100%,” Richards confirmed afterwards. “We did as well as we could have, and the team did a fantastic job to have the car right for today, but there were clearly bigger issues that needed to be addressed in a workshop. He’ll be right come Queensland Raceway though, the car is seriously quick.”

Despite the setback, McMillan still held down eighth place in the championship with two rounds remaining, he was ahead of some of the more experienced campaigners in the field, and only a couple of good results outside the top five.

On his own once again at Queensland Raceway for the penultimate round of the championship, McMillan was full of expectation heading to another venue he’d never competed on previously. “It’s all me this weekend, so I’ll complete the three races alone, and I’m looking forward to it. We’ve had a restructure in the team too, so we’re moving more towards a focused professional race team, and a bit more away from me and a couple of mates having a good time. That was okay in state series, but we’re running against some pretty serious players in this championship, so we’re upping the ante a bit.”

Stepping up the game also meant that there were some new systems in place, one of them being team strategy, something McMillan revealed post-qualifying after placing seventh just tenths away from the second row of the grid.

“By starting seventh I saved five seconds on my compulsory pit stop [CPS] time, and I’m quicker than the two Audi regulars in front of me, so across the three races, I should be able to get ahead of them during the stop if not before,” he explained.

Jumped off the start of race one by Formula 3 points leader Tim Macrow in the second of the Audis, McMillan settled into a strong opening rhythm, gaining a spot in the process as Liam Talbot spun at turn four in the other Audi.

By the time the CPS window opened, he was eighth, following Tony Quinn, Liam Talbot and John Bowe down pit lane. Courtesy of his qualifying strategy though he rejoined in sixth place, having displaced first Dean Koutsoumidis in the pits, and then Rod Salmon on track immediately afterwards. From there it was just a matter of consistency as he worked his way across the line to be classified P6.

“That was pretty good in the end,” he grinned afterwards. “I was pretty nervous off the start, especially in that company, so I dropped back a little to get into a rhythm and then just concentrated on getting my lines right, and I was getting quicker with every lap. Now it’s into the darkness [race two], that will be really interesting..!”

Off row three for the start of race two in the intense darkness of a Queensland winter, McMillan jumped into fifth place off the rolling start, immediately behind John Bowe [Ferrari 458 Italia]. 

Locked in under the rear wing of the Ferrari, he was looking good until a spin on the second lap at turn four. “I got to my braking point, turned in and looked down, and it was nothing but dirt,” he laughed. “In the darkness I just missed my turn in point, so around we went.”

Recovering at the rear of the field, McMillan charged in the fire-breathing Gallardo, disc brakes aglow under heavy braking, the Victorian working his way from last to sixth at the flag.

“That was hard work,” he admitted post-race. “Hard work, but a hell of a lot of fun. Without the spin we may well have been a contender for a podium after Bowey crashed out in the pits and the Audi’s came together, but regardless, our pace was good.”

Off the third row for the final race on Sunday afternoon, it was clear the GB Galvanizing Lamborghini was quick, McMillan working his way into contention to pounce on the V10 Audi’s in the closing stages. Within sight of the finish, he made a big diving move on Rod Salmon into the infield left hander, but Salmon moved across to protect, and with the limited visibility in the modern GT3 cars, cut across on the Gallardo, spinning them both.

As they gathered it up again, they made contact a second time, with both cars suffering extensive cosmetic damage.

McMillan managed to bring the car home, with smoke pouring from the rear tyres where the bodywork was rubbing, stopping just after the line having recorded his third consecutive sixth place finish.

“I had to go for it, and the opening was there,” he lamented afterwards. “They [the Audi team] think it was my fault, but the officials don’t see it that way.. For me it was a racing incident; I wanted the corner, he didn’t want to give it to me, and there was contact. The worst part is the bulk of the damage came after we’d stopped. I was trying to restart and I copped a hit in the rear.”

Having moved ahead of series regulars Peter Edwards and Andrew McInnes in the championship points, it was now onto New Zealand and the much-publicised Highlands 101 event.

On a level playing field against his series rivals [none of whom had competed previously at Highlands], and with new M Motorsport recruit Dale Wood onboard to replace the previously committed Steven Richards, the team arrived at the picturesque South Island venue with a plan and a goal.. 

“I think for our maiden season to be classified sixth in the championship is a pretty good result, so we’ll be doing everything we can in the final two 40-minute races, and see where we end up before heading out in the ‘non-championship’ 101 race on Sunday for a bit of fun,” McMillan said.

True to their word, the M Motorsport team were quick in the opening practice session, in fact so quick that Dale Wood’s name, and that of the M Motorsport Gallardo, sat at the top of the time sheets.

“That was so much fun,” the Dunlop V8 Supercar Series champion-elect admitted. “The track is awesome, and the car has so much grip!”

After a pre-event publicity stunt that saw him teeing off at the top of the ‘Remarkables’ mountain range, a Jetboat ‘cruise’ on some of New Zealand’s roughest white-water and jumping out of an aeroplane (“I had to check my personal insurance was intact first” he admitted prior), McMillan was ready for the on-track portion of the weekend, but sadly his journey was cut short after a 12G impact with the wall of the Pirelli bridge on his opening lap, an impact which winded him, but more tragically, created significant enough damage to the #48 Lamborghini to see it withdrawn from the event.

“What can I say,” a visibly shattered McMillan asked afterwards. “Cold tyres, too quick, and a lack of grip. I have to wear that one, I was just pushing too hard, but there were more lessons in that.

“I’m disappointed for the team more than anything. We showed when we were on the circuit that we could mix comfortably with the established stars of the series. Okay, so we weren’t quite on the pace of the front-runners, but we weren’t far off.

“I’ve learnt a lot this year, and we will come back bigger and better in 2014. We may not be in contention for the outright win at every round, but I’d be surprised if we aren’t shaking the podium on a few of occasions through the year..!”

Despite separating the Australian GT Championship from the season-opening Bathurst 12-Hour this year, McMillan has elected to enter the first event of the year with an extension of the team that ran so strongly at Bathurst in 2013.

“Dale Wood will join Richo, Ross and I. He’s a great little driver, and showed just how quick he is with victory in the Dunlop Series last year, something which has earned him a full-time gig back in the V8 Supercar Championship Series this year. 

“We’ve also just taken delivery of a brand-new Reiter Engineering built Lamborghini Gallardo FLII which will replace the 2013 car, and are pleased to reveal that Interlloy has stepped up to become the naming rights sponsor for the team for the 2014 season after being an associate sponsor last year.

“Steve [Richards] will be with me all year as co-driver and team-manager of M Motorsport, so we will have his guidance and wisdom to draw on throughout the year, and I think my accelerated learning experience last year will put us in good stead in the championship. It won’t be easy, not by any stretch, but we’ll give it a good crack, and have a few laughs along the way!”

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