By: RUSSELL ATKINS on April 29, 2006

Warwickshire’s leading sportscar ace is shaping up for the season ahead with a steely resolve and heightened expectations.

Jamie Derbyshire has remained with the Balfe Motorsport team in the FIA GT championship, and this year the squad has snapped up a brand new 650bhp, seven-litre Saleen S7R for the Leamington-based star and team-mates Shaun Balfe and Neil Cunningham.

Jamie said: “The team got the car late which has put a bit of pressure on, meaning there has been a limited amount of testing compared to what we would have liked to have done. We are still playing catch up a bit, but overall preparations have gone pretty well.”

After covering 150 laps at Silverstone where the car “didn’t miss a beat,” the team headed to the official FIA GT test at Dijon-Prenois in France.

The 28-year-old said: “We saw the test as an opportunity to iron out a few little gremlins. We had to learn the track and lost a day’s running with a misfire and gearbox problems, but considering we didn’t run on new tyres and weren’t really chasing times we fared pretty well.”

Indeed, the Saleen showed as high as third on the timesheets at one point, ultimately finishing the two-day test ninth having showed encouraging pace in tricky conditions.

Jamie said it was still a case of getting accustomed to the car and getting some laps under his belt before the campaign starts.

He explained: “A lot of the teams have had experience of their cars in previous seasons, whereas we are still having to get to grips with the Saleen. We just kept a low profile and left the test pretty pleased.”

“The Mosler we raced last year was a road car turned into a race car, whereas the Saleen is the other way round. It feels much stiffer, there’s a lot less bodyroll and there’s a big difference in power. It’s got 150bhp more which translates into a lot more grunt when you put your foot down. The carbon fibre brakes allow you to brake a fair bit later too.”

Balfe Motorsport are up against some serious opposition in the FIA GT series, with big-budget operations and monster machines from Maserati, Aston Martin and Corvette.

Jamie said: “All the cars are pretty capable, so it’s just a question of getting a good basic set-up. The competition will be tough, with 11 top-line GT1 cars and some very quick drivers. Maserati have a massive budget and their car is designed purely to go out there and win GT races. The Aston Martin is a freshly-engineered GT car too, and the Zakspeed team has a big pedigree in Champ Cars and the DTM (German Touring Cars).”

One advantage Jamie does possess is familiarity with the family-run Balfe Motorsport outfit, having raced for the team not only last year but also in 2003, when he and driving partner Shaun Balfe came within a whisker of lifting the British GT crown.

He added: “It’s nice having continuity and knowing everyone there. It’s a very relaxed feeling and one less thing to have to worry about, meaning we can just get stuck in and straight down to business. It’s a very good relationship.”

Jamie said he was particularly looking forward to the Spa 24 Hours at the end of July, after Le Mans one of the most prestigious round-the-clock races in the world and the undisputed jewel in the crown of the FIA GT campaign.

Looking at the bigger picture, podiums are very much the aim, and Jamie has set himself the objective of securing a top five championship finish at the end of the year.

He said: “Lady Luck would definitely have to play a part for us to win a race but there’s always an outside chance. We just want to pick up points and see where we end up.

“We have to really turn it on at Silverstone and show what we can do. It’s always a bit of guesswork as to how competitive you will actually be in pre-season testing, but we are quietly confident.”

Silverstone is the opening round of the series on May 7, and a circuit where Jamie has enjoyed considerable success in the past. Last year he stormed to victory over a strong field in the inaugural Silverstone 24 Hour race, an experience he said would be useful in preparation for the Spa challenge later this year.

A repeat performance on home soil next weekend would be the perfect way to get his 2006 campaign off to a flying start.