Saturday 12th July 2014 was the date that Oulton Park was packed full with the most popular British manufacture of all time, the MINI, as the Cheshire circuit hosted its first ever Northern MINI Festival. With MINIs Old and New spread all over the famous venue, the action on track would be majorly competitive, as the BMW Coopers from the MINI Challenge took on rounds ten, eleven and twelve. After lots of fireworks and domination from Luke Caudle at Snetterton, the guys from the JCW class were raring to go, over three races, in just one day. So far in the championship, the class has so far been controlled by former champions Luke Caudle and Chris Knox, but championship contenders Lawrence Davey and Neil Newstead have been pushing all the way. Rounds eight and nine at Snetterton did see Luke Caudle wrap up wins four and five of the season and the series lead, but he has been challenged throughout and wouldn’t expect things to go easy for the rest of the year. Talk heading into the Northern MINI Festival still revolved around Lawrence Davey’s and Chris Knox’s crash in race nine at Norfolk, with the 2011 Champion still believing he would have been closer to Caudle in the standings if the incident hadn’t have happened. For Lawrence, Snetterton did see the double Legends champion leading before the incident and a podium position was ruined by a five second penalty, which unfortunately left him thirty-one points back from Caudle approaching Oulton Park and only three ahead of regular podium finisher Neil Newstead. As the rest of the JCW class were becoming ever stronger in taking podium places and challenging the regular front runners, this made for an exciting Northern MINI Festival around one of the toughest circuits in the United Kingdom. With three races in one day and plenty of competitive drivers in the field, it was expected that a lot could happen and no race would be predictable.
It Surely Was The Closest Qualifying Ever.
The early morning qualifying session for the MINI Festival saw fourteen cars take to the Oulton Park circuit for twenty minutes, with additional entities in the class, such as former Renault Clio Cup competitor Rob Smith, Team ES Racing team boss Chris James and Scottish MINI Cooper competitor Kyle Reid, making the class even more competitive than it already is. With focus on the battle for pole between the likely favourites and attention on Luke Caudle and Chris Knox, both championship contenders suffered their own problems. Chris Knox came into the session on a limited tyre supply, meaning the former champion would only complete three laps and hope to secure pole position. Knox would lap Oulton Park in a 1:54.854, but his time was only good enough for third position. With Caudle able to complete more laps and lying in fifth place, the championship leader suffered an ABS Sensor failure and found himself in limp mode. Drama would leave him in fifth and with work to do before race one. With the leading two Championship contenders having difficulties, Neil Newstead came and took his first pole position of his MINI Challenge career, but it was by the smallest of margins. As Chris Russell sat on pole with a 1:54.698 after three laps and looked favourite for pole, Newstead was able to demote him by 0.001 seconds, in what has to be one of the closest MINI Challenge qualifying sessions ever. As the top five were covered by less than a second, one championship challenge unfortunately failed to break into the top five. After lacking speed at Snetterton in the previous rounds, Lawrence Davey could only qualify in eighth place, 1.570 seconds down on Newstead’s pole time. One thing that is good for Lawrence and bad for others is his competitive driving enables him to get a good start and make up places quickly.
MINI Challenge, Oulton Park – Qualifying Top Five:
1. Neil Newstead (77 – Oakfield Motorsport) = 1:54.697
2. Chris Russell (18 – Lohen) = +0.001s
3. Chris Knox (888 – Shopplay.co.uk / Excelr8 Motorsport) = +0.157s
4. Henry Duprey (28 – ) = +0.325s
5. Luke Caudle (2 – Peak Performance Racing) = +0.356s
Knox Secures MINI Festival Opener as Davey Promoted to Fourth.
With Newstead and Russell side by side on the front row, the question of whether there would be any first comer dramas was on everyone’s mind. As Russell got bogged down and left by Newstead, Knox dived into second and followed Newstead tightly around Old Hall Corner. As Russell remained third and ahead of Luke Caudle, an absolute flyer by Lawrence Davey off the line saw him challenge Henry Duprey over fifth position. The two ran side by side to Cascades, before the double Legends champion took the position. By the time the field reached Cascades, a grassy moment from Chris Russell would see the end of Luke Caudle’s race with only a few corners completed. The incident for Caudle occurred when Russell re-joined and the championship leader had nowhere to go, collided with the rear of the No.18 JCW and damaging the radiator. A visit to the pits and retirement effectively gave the championship lead to Chris Knox, destroying all the hard work that he had done at Snetterton to take the series lead.
With Caudle sitting back in the garage, this didn’t stop Knox from continuing on and fighting for the race lead. As Newstead was under a tonne of pressure, the driver from Hastings unfortunately gave in on lap three, as a gap at Deer Leap allowed Knox to slip past at Old Hall corner on the start of lap four. With Knox out front, it was expected that he would disappear, but a small engine failure allowed Newstead to fight back moments later. The small fight between the two brought Russell right into contention for the race lead, but the order remained for a few laps.
Behind the podium three, a fight for fourth was taking place between Lawrence Davey and guest driver, Chris James. After making a perfect start from eighth, Lawrence had settled in fourth but the pressure was rising, from the challenge of Chris James. After James had climbed from ninth on the grid, he went for a move on Lawrence on lap six which resulted in contact. As Lawrence lost out and dropped to fifth, the incident was judged by the stewards to be unfair and the former BTCC driver received a ten second penalty for skipping the chicane. A fourth place finish therefore ended up as seventh, behind the Renault Clio Cup competitor Rob Smith. For Lawrence, he maintained a two second gap over Hamish Brandon for the rest of the race and was classified in fourth after the penalty for James.
Back at the front of the field, a shadowing Chris Knox targeted a race win in the final stages of the race, jumping ahead on the seventh lap, when the JCW crews caught the slower Cooper Class competitors. As Knox moved into the lead on the exit of the Shell Oil’s hairpin, Newstead moved back in front, before losing out again at Lodge moments later. After coming under pressure from Chris Russell, an incident with a Cooper Class competitor allowed Russell to run side by side with Newstead and snatched second at Old Hall Corner. With only a few comers to go of Oulton Park, Chris Knox drove to victory in race one of the Northern MINI Festival, followed home by Russell and Newstead, who were split by 0.490 seconds.
MINI Challenge, Oulton Park – Race One Top Five:
1. Chris Knox (888 – Shopplay.co.uk / Excelr8 Motorsport) = 11 Laps = 21:31.472
2. Chris Russell (18 – Lohen) = +0.956s
3. Neil Newstead (77 – Oakfield Motorsport) = +1.446s
4. Lawrence Davey (19 – Lawrence Davey Racing) = +7.779s
5. Hamish Brandon (8 – Excelr8 Motorsport) = +9.680s
Fourth Again for Davey as Knox Secures Festival Double
Race two of the Northern MINI Festival would see the rolling start come into play and as Chris Knox lined up on pole alongside Chris Russell, Neil Newstead was issued with a five place grid penalty. Contact in the final few laps of race one penalised Newstead to an eighth place start, moving Lawrence Davey closer to the front two and a massive treat from third. When the race got underway, Knox got a great start, but Russell found himself under massive pressure from Davey, who dived into second within only a few corners. As Davey looked to close on Knox, Russell matched his speed and kept in the slipstream of the Blue and Orange JCW MINI over the next few laps, snatching second back on his fourth attempt at Old Hall, only to run wide and hand the position back. Davey wasn’t able to resist Russell’s pressure and the Lohen prepared JCW was back into second straight away.
Whilst these two fought over second, this enabled Knox to break away within five laps to nearly a three second lead and some good news had reached the former champion by the end of lap four. After his rival hit retirement in race one, Luke Caudle’s bad luck had unfortunately followed him into race two. Starting from row six alongside Keith Issatt, Caudle had worked his way up the order pretty quickly on the first lap, but yet again he punctured the radiator. This time the incident involved Kevin O’Connor, who retired in the pits on lap six. The lead that Knox had created started to decrease once Chris Russell moved into second, as he became the fastest driver on track, setting the fastest time of 1:55.649 on lap six of eleven. After backing off mid-way through the race, Knox had to get a move on, once his margin got to within a second. Unfortunately for Russell, all the battling early on with Lawrence Davey had given Knox enough time to break away, but come the flag, the margin had been slashed to 0.248s, showing just how quick Russell had been going.
Completing the podium ended up being Chris James, who had been in a lengthy battle with Lawrence Davey, Hamish Brandon and Neil Newstead. After Lawrence had unfortunately fallen away from Chris Russell on lap six, the speed of the rest brought the four closer together, seeing the position for third change on lap eight. Once James moved ahead of Davey he was able to pull away, but pressure on Davey decreased as Brandon was defending off Newstead. Lawrence would go onto securing fourth place as Neil Newstead secured the final place within the top five. Hamish had worked so hard defending fifth but a mistake at Hislops allowed the race one podium finisher to take the position. A brief grassy moment from Newstead nearly lost him the position at Cascades, but he held on by 0.671 seconds.
MINI Challenge, Oulton Park – Race Two Top Five:
1. Chris Knox (888 – Shopplay.co.uk / Excelr8 Motorsport) = 11 Laps = 21:23.000
2. Chris Russell (18 – Lohen) = +0.313s
3. Chris James (778 – Excelr8 Motorsport) = +4.945s
4. Lawrence Davey (19 – Lawrence Davey Racing) = +9.476s
5. Neil Newstead (77 – Oakfield Motorsport) = +10.445s
Newstead Records First Win as Davey takes Second on Final Corner
The final race of the Northern MINI Festival would see the reverse grid format come into play, seeing Knox line up in sixth and Hamish Brandon on pole position. As Neil Newstead lined up in second, it was a great getaway from the green and black No.77 JCW that meant Newstead led into Cascades after going around the outside of Hamish at Old Hall Corner. As Hamish defended off an attack from Lawrence Davey, another quick mover had been Chris Russell. Starting in fifth, Russell moved into fourth and attempted to challenge Lawrence Davey, before launching himself on a sausage kerb and landing pretty hard, narrowly avoiding contact with Davey. The force of the impact wrecked an engine mount and forced Russell to limp to the pits, promoting Chris Knox onto the rear of Davey.
As places swapped and the top four in the championship found themselves in the top four positions, Chris Knox and Luke Caudle set about closing in Neil Newstead. With Knox lapping faster than Newstead by about half a second, attempts to pass at Old Hall and Knickerbrook were continually blocked by Newstead, allowing Caudle to close in. As Caudle challenged Knox, this gave Newstead a bit of freedom, but it wasn’t very long before Newstead’s mirror was full of the brightly coloured No.888 JCW. The speed of the three out front had removed Lawrence Davey from a challenge for a podium spot but things all changed on the final lap and set up a thrilling finale.
The first piece of drama for the final lap involved the unfortunate Luke Caudle, who ended up suffering his third retirement in a row. Caudle limped out of third place after the engine died, handing the final podium spot to Lawrence Davey. With a massive fight on for who would finish first and Knox hunting the treble, Newstead and Knox came across Cooper Class competitor Gideon Cresswell. As Newstead went for a move to overtake, the two had a coming together and Cresswell flew on two-wheels and into retirement. Knox took avoiding action and came out with an advantage, but Davey closed right in on the rear of the two. As Newstead continued on, Knox looked to challenge at Lodge, as Davey stuck his MINI up the inside and forced Knox onto the grass down Deer Leap. Davey snatched second as a result and put on a challenge for the lead on the run to the chequered flag. Newstead held on by 0.248 seconds, with Knox completing the podium. Outside the podium positions, Hamish Brandon secured fourth, just ahead of Rob Smith by a couple of seconds in a thrilling end to the MINI Festival.
MINI Challenge, Oulton Park – Race Three Top Five:
1. Neil Newstead (77 – Oakfield Motorsport) = 11 Laps = 21:32.023
2. Lawrence Davey (19 – Lawrence Davey Racing) = +0.248s
3. Chris Knox (888 – Shopplay.co.uk / Excelr8 Motorsport) = +0.502s
4. Hamish Brandon (8 – Excelr8 Motorsport) = +1.115s
5. Rob Smith (27 – Excelr8 Motorsport) = +2.241
As the MINI Challenge leaves the North and heads West, the first weekend of August will see the venue of Castle Combe host rounds thirteen and fourteen, on what is a fast and technical circuit. With Saturday 02nd August holding qualifying and two races, the action will of course be ultra-competitive, especially as some drivers will want to stay in the title race as the season finale is fast approaching. One driver who is heading to Castle Combe to restart his challenge for another MINI Challenge title is Luke Caudle, who surely had one of the worse meetings ever. After an ABS failure in qualifying, nothing improved over the three races as two radiators fault and an engine cut out left him with three DNFs. As Chris Knox wrapped up two wins and a third, the former champion retook the championship lead, which he lost at Snetterton. In dominating the Brands Hatch MINI Festival, Knox showcased a similar effort in Cheshire and now holds an advantage of thirty-two points over Neil Newstead. For Newstead and his team Oakfield Motorsport, the Northern MINI Festival was his strongest meeting to date, securing his first win in the championship in race three and taking a well-deserved podium in race one. With Caudle scoring no points and Lawrence Davey finishing outside the podium in races one and two, Newstead saw himself move from fourth to second in the standings. Talking of Lawrence Davey, his performances over the meeting were a lot better than Snetterton, especially in the last race, where he grabbed second from Chris Knox on the final corner. The result in the second race of fourth probably should have been higher after challenging Chris Knox for the lead earlier on, but the team were happy to finish on a high. In terms of the standings, Lawrence remains in third and has a gap of only one point to make up on Newstead. With a gap of eleven points separating Davey from Caudle, Lawrence knows that at Castle Combe, Luke will come out all guns blazing and keeping him behind in the standings could be very tricky. More podiums and a race win can’t be too far away for Lawrence, but a gap of thirty-three points to make up on Chris Knox might be quite tricky with only eight races remaining.
MINI Challenge JCW Championship Standings:
1. Chris Knox (888 – Shopplay.co.uk / Excelr8 Motorsport) = 196 Pts.
2. Neil Newstead (77 – Oakfield Motorsport) = 164 Pts.
3. Lawrence Davey (19 – Lawrence Davey Racing) = 163 Pts.
4. Luke Caudle (2 – Peak Performance Racing) = 152 Pts.
5. Hamish Brandon (8 – Excelr8 Motorsport) = 130 Pts.
For more photos of rounds ten, eleven and twelve of the 2014 MINI Challenge Championship at Oulton Park, please click here to see the album.
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.