Round Five of the Mini Challenge JCW Championship took place at Oulton Park this last weekend. Rob Smith and Ant Whorton-Eales both took wins in the heady temperatures being experienced in the current heatwave. The vehicles run Quaife QBM2M 6-Speed Sequential Gearboxes.
Rob Smith left it late to snatch pole position in a challenging qualifying session at Oulton Park, which kick-started the annual northern edition of the MINI Festival.
During a session that was punctuated by two red flag stoppages for cars hitting trouble around the Cheshire track, local man Smith kept his head and banged in a lap good enough for top spot with just 10 seconds of the session remaining.
“From the first lap of testing this weekend, the car has felt great. We’ve really found a solid balance and I just love it around here,” said Smith. “I tend to finish the year pretty strongly, so hopefully this is the start of a comeback and I can sneak into the title fight under the radar!”
Provisional pole had belonged to David Robinson for much of the session. Robinson went fastest early on, and was on for an improvement when the first red flag curtailed his hottest lap. He did improve in the final five-minute dash after the incidents had been cleared, but couldn’t quite match Smith.
“I’m well chuffed with that session, but at the same time I know it could have been better,” said Robinson. “My best lap got cancelled by the first stoppage, and after that the tyres started going off a bit. But it’s ended my trend of having disappointing qualifying and I know I can do something good from here.”
Rory Cuff celebrated his career-best qualifying by grabbing the third-fastest time in what was a very impressive performance to pip title chaser Nathan Harrison to lead row two.
Jack Davidson will start fifth, ahead of championship leader Ant Whorton-Eales, who struggled with a changing balance in his JamSport-run car.
“We tested on used rubber and the car felt great, but when we fitted fresh Dunlops for qualifying the balance just kept changing,” said AW-E. “One corner it would push and one it would oversteer, it’s very weird. But the positive is we know the car is great on scrubbed tyres, which is better for a race distance.”
Lewis Brown was seventh quickest, ahead of the returning Paul O’Neill, Jac Maybin and guest entry Rob Collard.
Collard Sr led the way for his son Jordan, who wasn’t happy with his session, having been a serial top qualifier so far this season.
“We’ve got a few traction issues on corner exit so it wasn’t the best, and the two stoppages made it impossible to get a rhythm,” said Jordan. “I’m only half-a-second off, which would put me about sixth somewhere like Silverstone, but here I’m 11th as it’s so tight. Still, we’ll make the changes and I’ll be on a charge. I have to beat the old man at least!”
Rob Smith celebrated his second successive Mini Challenge JCW victory after successfully converting his pole position into a narrow victory in race one at Oulton Park.
Having broken his season duck last time out at Silverstone, Smith was confident when he lined up on pole for the opener in Cheshire. His hopes were then boosted when he minimised wheelspin to get a great launch to head the pack into Old Hall for the first time.
“For once I got a really good start and that gave me a bit of breathing space so I figured I’d take things a little slowly and build the tyre pressures as I knew it would be a warm race,” said Smith as he held the chasing David Robinson at arm’s length for the race’s opening stage.
Then, once he was happy his car had come to him, Smith opted to push, but hit trouble. “I think I went a bit too hard on the fronts,” he said, explaining why with two laps to run Robinson was now right on his tail. “The track had rubbered in since qualifying and I was struggling with a bit of understeer and getting the car slowed down into Knickerbrook and Druids. All the time I could see David gaining in my mirrors…”
Robinson had also brought Ant Whorton-Eales with him, and with just minutes to run the top three were blanketed by less than half-a-second. Smith just held on at the front, adding: “That was really hard work without a safety car… I was so happy to see the flag!”
Robinson said: “Rob got a bit of a gap on me but then I think my tyres went off a little less and I was really attacking in those final few laps, but it’s so hard to pass here. The chance just didn’t come up. But I can’t complain about second.”
Whorton-Eales’ car worked better in the race, as he predicted. “I’m happy with third and the race pace was good,” he said. “I think we may have set the car up a little too much toward the rear, which may have hurt the pace a bit, but I’ll happily take third and the points.”
Nathan Harrison secured fourth, despite concerns that his front Dunlops cried enough a little earlier than he’d have liked.
After his tough qualifying, Jordan Collard put on a fine charge to finish fifth, and with it take the fastest lap. “I killed my tyres at the start just trying to gain places whenever I could, but the pace is definitely in the car ahead of race two,” he said.
Paul O’Neill was sixth, ahead of Rory Cuff, Lewis Brown, George Sutton and Luke Reade. The family Collard battle was ruined right at the start when Rob Collard suffered a clutch issue that denied him second gear off the line. He had to pull into the pits to retire.
Despite leading the championship from the first round, it had been a long wait for a victory for Ant Whorton-Eales before the second JCW race at Oulton Park.
The long-time points leader started the year with a run of three successive wins, but since then has struggled with a mixture of technical niggles and setup tweaks as his JamSport team worked hard to get on top of the JCW. But for once his luck was very much in during the finale at Cheshire, as he took a narrow, if rather fortuitous, victory.
With race one winner Rob Smith drawing the top eight to be reversed for the race two grid, Lewis Brown inherited pole ahead of Rory Cuff, Paul O’Neill, Jordan Collard, Nathan Harrison and Whorton-Eales.
When the lights went out Brown got a good launch, but not as good as O’Neill, who steamed into second place into Old Hall. However, the order was shaken up when Brown lost the rear into Cascades. “I went in a bit too quick and it just snapped on me,” he rued. “From then on I was reliant on others not hitting me!” He escaped in one piece, but eventually retired with overheating issues.
That incident jumbled the pack. O’Neill got a few whacks as the pack avoided the sliding leader, and when the order shuffled through, Whorton-Eales was ahead. “It was mental, but I found a gap and just managed to get through,” said AWE, who had Collard, Harrison and David Robinson glued to his bumper.
AWE defended hard, but Collard eventually towed by on the run into Old Hall on lap four and then looked to pull clear, until disaster struck. “I accelerated out of the last corner and the gearbox just jammed in sixth,” said a disappointed Collard. “I did three laps of defending using only sixth gear, but then it just wasn’t happening for me. Gutted.”
With Collard out, AWE resumed the lead but had Harrison all over him. Wary of the closing Robinson, Harrison made several lunges on the brakes into Old Hall, but couldn’t find the decisive gap as AWE held on to the flag.
“It’s a mega result because it’s been a really long time since I stood on the top step,” said AWE. “People were saying to me at the start of the year that it was looking easy, but it really hasn’t been. At the moment we can’t live with Collard, he’s got some insane traction in that car. I need to borrow his setup book! But we got lucky here and it’s a big boost in the championship.”
Harrison attempted to stay with AWE, but Robinson just snuck by on the run to the chequered flag, snatching second by just 0.057s.
“I knew I had the pace in the car but I just couldn’t use it as all of us in the top six were running in formation, trying to second-guess each other,” said Robinson. “I knew I had the drive out of the final corner and just managed to sneak it. It’s been an awesome weekend.”
Harrison added: “Third is more good points for the championship, and I was really driving that car on the limit. It’s clear we need to find that little bit more to compete with Collard.”
Smith fought to fourth place after some measured late-race passes, holding off O’Neill at the flag. Brad Hutchison fought to sixth ahead of Henry Neal, Ollie Pidgley, George Sutton and Scott Jeffs.