The 25th and 26th April saw the Leicestershire circuit of Donington Park host the opening round of the 2015 MINI Challenge Championship, as New cars and drivers kicked started the season in the same old entertaining way. In terms of major changes to the championship, the winter introduction of the brand new F56 MINI to headline the calendar had seen an influx of new drivers, including a few from the Clio Cup series, like Rob Smith and Lee Pattison for a first full season, whilst Charlie Butler-Henderson and Harry Vaulkhard had moved from the worlds of BTCC and WTCC after a few seasons away from the higher level. The regular drivers from the 2014 season were also looking to make an impact in the new car, with only one of the top four finishers from the JCWs in 2014 making the step up. After collecting the Best of Britain award at the end of the 2014 season, an overall fourth place finish in 2014 had led to Lawrence purchasing a F56, with the title in his sights. A run of unfortunate circumstances in testing had limited Lawrence’s progress ahead of the first round, but the double Legends Champion was confident of starting his season in the best possible way. One returnee to the top category of the MINI Challenge grid which brought a ton of positives ahead of this opening round was Student Jono Brown, who was back for a full season after nearly missing out on the whole of 2014 through Heart Surgery. It was great to see Jono back on the grid full time after recovering from Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome, which could have ended his career so prematurely.
Lap Times Extremely Close in First Session of 2015
With sixteen drivers making it onto the grid in the F56 MINI for the opening round, qualifying around the Donington Park national circuit would be extremely busy, especially as the drivers were combined with nine competitors from the JCW category. In the JCW class, the two front runners that stood out was third place finisher from 2014 Neil Newstead, with Oakfield Motorsport and Scotland’s Hamish Brandon, who was looking for his first win after a successful 2014 competing on regular terms with the front four. With there being a massive difference of nearly three seconds between the JCWs and F56s, the fifteen minute qualifier would see times of around 1:16s for F56 and about 1:18s for the best JCW, which was quite evident from the start. As most of the F56s hitting the 1:17s mark early one, a few broke away with 1:16s which lowered lap by lap. The early one to break from the rest was Harry Vaulkhard, before former Ford Fiesta front runner David Grady went top with a 1:16.284 on his seventh lap. When no one look set to go lower than that time, Rob Smith shot in a 1:16.126s on his final lap to take pole position for Saturday’s opening race. In what was Lawrence Davey’s first proper run in the F56 MINI around Donington Park, eleven laps of getting used to the car saw Lawrence lap around the 1:18 / 1:19 mark, with a fourth lap time of 1:17.145 putting the First4Vans backed F56 in fifth place for race one. A few more hits at the 1:17 mark showed Lawrence had pace, but he just couldn’t get the 1:16 that he desired.
MINI Challenge F56 Qualifying – Top Three:
- Rob Smith (No.37) = 1:16.126s
- David Grady (No.61) = +0.158s
- Ryan Rhode (No.71) = +0.392s
For the JCW class, Neil Newstead showed his experience of the car to take class pole on his final lap, with a time of 1:18.977 to drop another JCW regular, in the form of Kevin O’Conner to second in class by 0.272s. Hamish Brandon would line up third in the Panda JCW, after setting a time of 1:19.437 after nine laps. During this session, the second first4Vans sponsored car of Lawrence Davey racing ended in eighth, with VAG Trophy graduate Clayton Kingman behind the wheel of Lawrence Davey’s 2014 JCW. This was Clayton first proper run in the MINI and a lap time of 1:21.411 on his final lap showed that the former VW Golf racer was improving lap after lap around Donington Park.
MINI Challenge JCW Qualifying – Top Three:
- Neil Newstead (No.77) = 1:18.997s
- Kevin O’Connor (No.99) = +0.272s
- Hamish Brandon (No.8) = +0.440s
Rain plays its part in Season Opener
After being the dominating force in qualifying, Rob Smith backed it up in race one with a stunning drive in the No.37 F56, pulling clear when the lights went out to keep David Grady at bay by 0.630s on the opening lap. As Ryan Rhode slotted into third, the chasing pack of Charlie Butler-Henderson, Harry Vaulkhard and Lee Pattison battled over fourth place. The quickest mover though over the opening few laps though was Lawrence Davey, who moved up to fifth on lap two from seventh on the grid. As Smith pulled clear at the front, the front five were split by small margins, with Rhode trying to close on Grady and Davey chasing down Butler-Henderson.
Over the early stages of the race in the JCW class, Newstead held a comfortable margin over his rivals, with O’Connor and Brandon dicing for second, around the slower F56 drivers. By lap six of the race, the three were split by under a second, with Bence Balogh keeping Newstead distance from his rivals. When Bence dropped away down the order, Newstead’s lap times kept him ahead of his rivals, whilst the weather decided to play its part late on.
Back at the front of the F56 class, Smith had pulled out a three second advantage by the ninth lap, but when the rain started to fall; gaps were dropping throughout the field. With Grady dropping the gap lap after lap, Butler-Henderson closed on Rhode and created a tight fight for third place. On the eleventh lap, the final podium position switched, with Butler-Henderson taking Ryan Rhode and then dropping Rhode into the clutches of Lawrence Davey. As lap times fell, Lawrence closed to within a second of Rhode before going 100mph plus through the grass and gravel at the Craner Curves. With Lee Pattison trailing in sixth, Lawrence still held a ten second advantage even with the mistake, technically securing fifth position.
At the checkered flag, Smith took the first race win of the MINI F56, with victory by 0.728s, with Grady in second and Charlie Butler-Henderson in third. For the JCW class, Neil Newstead secured a comfortable win ahead of Hamish Brandon and team mate Steve Cocker, with Kevin O’Connor falling to fifth in class behind Alan Taylor.
MINI Challenge F56 Race One– Top Three:
- Rob Smith (No.37) = 21:01.840s
- David Grady (No.61) = +0.678s
- Charlie Butler-Henderson (No.15) = +3.857s
MINI Challenge JCW Race One – Top Three:
- Neil Newstead (No.77) = 21:55.200s
- Hamish Brandon (No.8) = 21:58.992s
- Steve Ruxton-Cocker (No.66) = 22:05.677s
Track Limit Penalty Halts Progress
For the first race of Sunday, Rob Smith lined up on pole position, with David Grady sitting on row one in second. With a fifth place finish in race one, the third fastest time for Lawrence Davey put the First4Vans backed F56 on row two in third. Ryan Rhode sat in fourth, looking for another strong result to back up Saturday’s fourth place finish. When the lights went out the front four went into Redgate as two by two, with Smith battling Rhode and Davey fighting Grady. With gravel thrown everywhere as Rhode bounced through the gravel, Davey slipped up the inside and slotted behind Smith in second. The carnage into turn one opened up the door for Charlie Butler-Henderson, who climbed from fifth to third, dropping Grady further down the order. By the third lap, Grady gained momentum and fought hard, climbing ahead of Butler-Henderson and then Lawrence Davey, who unfortunately got hit with a five-second time penalty due to track limits whilst lying in fourth place.
In the JCW class, Neil Newstead got another cracking start to break clear from Hamish Brandon, whilst Kevin O’Connor slotted into third. Behind the front three, the action early was very hectic in this category, with Jason Jefferys dicing with Erkka Lindstedt and Steve Cocker searching for another podium position. The closest one to the front three was Alan Taylor, but his progress forward was halted slightly by Bence Balogh, with the F56 driver colliding with Taylor at Redgate whilst trying to pass in the faster MINI. Clayton Kingman unfortunately was bringing up the rear in this category, struggling with set up after a DNF in race one. Whilst Newstead continued to break clear by the mid-way part of the race for the JCWs and record another victory, action intensified for second between Brandon and O’Connor, with the two swapping regularly between lap eight and the closing stages. By the time they took the flag, O’Connor had snatched second from Brandon by a gap of 0.249s.
Towards the later stage of the race, the front of the F56 class saw Rob Smith’s lead collapsed to within a few margins, with Butler-Henderson right on the tail of the race one winner. As the drivers entered lap twelve, Charlie lined Smith up and snatched the race lead, with Grady following through. With Smith’s dominance broken, it was discovered that the former Clio Cup driver was suffering with a broken clutch. The disaster dropped Smith into the grasp of Jono Brown, who had climbed the order ahead of Harry Vaulkhard. With only a few laps remaining, Smith was able to hold third and record another podium, to back up his win from race one, whilst Grady took another podium and Charlie Butler-Henderson took his first win since 1999.
Outside the podium places in the F56s, Harry Vaulkhard took fourth, only by 1.350s ahead of Jono Brown, who lost fourth on the final lap. With Ryan Rhode in sixth, William Phillips and Sam Osborne were promoted to seventh and eighth due to Lawrence Davey’s penalty. Throughout the final few laps, Davey had battled extremely hard to pick up as many places as possible, knowing the penalty was hanging over him. A great move at Redgate and the Craner Curves on William Phillips gave Lawrence seventh place, but five seconds dropped him to ninth, to back up a fifth place finish in race one. Ahead of the final race of the weekend, Lawrence would start on row five in ninth, alongside Lee Pattison.
MINI Challenge F56 Race Two– Top Three:
- Charlie Butler-Henderson (No.15) = 20:40.740s
- David Grady (No.61) = +1.091s
- Rob Smith (No.37) = +2.697s
MINI Challenge JCW Race Two – Top Three:
- Neil Newstead (No.77) = 21:31.115s
- Kevin O’Connor (No.99) = 21:36.358s
- Hamish Brandon (No.8) = 21:36.607s
Mechanical ends Weekend on a Down for Davey
With race three being the reverse grid race, Ryan Rhode made the most of pole position to lead on the opening lap, with Rob Smith making the most of a fixed clutch to move into second ahead of Charlie Butler-Henderson. The driver to lose out on the first lap was Jono Brown, who started on the front row but fell to fourth, slightly ahead of Lawrence Davey, who was on a flyer through the opening lap. Over the next few laps, Rhode continued to lead the way but Smith kept the race leader at bay, whilst Butler-Henderson lost ground on second and third. Behind the front three, Brown held fourth but Lawrence Davey lost ground, battling with Pattison and Grady over fourth, fifth and sixth. The sixth lap however saw the turning point in this battle, as Lawrence’s throttle stuck open and sent his MINI flying through the gravel trap. Recovering from this, Lawrence darted for the pits and rejoined in last place. Lawrence would work his way past the slower drivers to end tenth in class, out of eleven F56 finishers. The mechanical problem for Lawrence promoted Sam Osborne into seventh, but he too far from the battle between Pattison and Grady, which was now separated by just over two seconds. By this time also, there was a change for the race lead, as Smith overhauled Rhode and began to pull away.
In the JCW category, the early stages had seen Hamish Brandon stand out as the early leader, with Neil Newstead stuck in traffic and fourth in class. The driver to be weary of was Erkka Lindstedt, as the Finnish driver chased down Brandon and second and snatched the JCW lead on the fourth lap. As Newstead chased down the two in third by this time, O’Connor had climbed to fourth and tried hard to close in on his rivals. At the front though it only took Brandon a lap to regain control of the race, with Newstead following his rival into second on lap eight. As Brandon lapped three seconds faster than Newstead, the Scotsman was able to hold onto his lead, whilst Lindstedt closed on Newstead but had to settle for third at the flag, ahead of Kevin O’Connor.
Back in the F56 class, lap ten had seen a change for second, with Butler-Henderson rejecting Ryan Rhode to third, with David Grady now up into fourth after struggling from a poor start, which had seen the retirement on Harry Vaulkhard at Redgate. As the race reached its final stages, positions remained as they were, with Smith recording his second win of the season and Butler-Henderson on the podium for the third time this weekend. With Rhode taking the final podium spot ahead of Grady, Sam Osborne secured his highest finish of fifth, ahead of newcomer Chris Boon completing the top six.
MINI Challenge F56 Race Three– Top Three:
- Rob Smith (No.37) = 20:36.095s
- Charlie Butler-Henderson (No.15) = +6.065s
- Ryan Rhode (No.71) = +6.986s
MINI Challenge JCW Race Three – Top Three:
- Hamish Brandon (No.8) = 21:29.811s
- Neil Newstead (No.77) = 21:32.628s
- Erkka Lindstedt (No.73) = 21:32.837s
With round one of seven now firmly behind everyone, attention now turns to their first trip of two at Brands Hatch, with the first visit taking place around the famous Grand Prix circuit, in support of the Blancpain GT Sprint Series on the 9th and 10th May. The Grand Prix circuit saw a terrific JCW tussle during the 2014 season finale and will now see Rob Smith as the man with the target on his back, as he leads the standings after two wins and a third. A race win for Charlie Butler-Henderson leaves the former BTCC campaigner in second place in the standings, with the Oakfield Motorsport driver confident of more race wins as the season progresses. Newcomer David Grady had a strong weekend during his MINI Challenge debut by being on the podium twice and impressed in race one with victory in his grasp. This means that the former Ford Fiesta driver is third in the standings and could be a strong contender for the title after showing how competitive he can be in the F56 MINI. With many of the F56 front runners having a disappointing round one, in terms of missing out on podiums, you can expect that the likes of Harry Vaulkhard, Lawrence Davey and Jono Brown should be back on the pace at Brands Hatch, opening up the potential for an exciting tussle on the Grand Prix circuit. As in previous seasons, the MINI Challenge is never decided on the opening weekend and this was evident at Donington Park.
F56 Championship Standings – Top Five:
- Rob Smith (No.37) = 158 Pts.
- Charlie Butler-Henderson (No.15) = 137 Pts.
- David Grady (No.61) = 128 Pts.
- Ryan Rhode (No.71) = 112 Pts.
- Sam Osborne (No.46) = 92 Pts.
In terms of the JCW Class of the championship, the battle for the title should be between Neil Newstead and Hamish Brandon, as of the 2014 front runners coming out on top over the weekend. With Newstead picking up two wins to Brandon’s one, the Oakfield Motorsport driver leads the class standings, with Kevin O’Connor waiting in the shadows in third. Two drivers who could be a threat in this class once experience has increased is Finnish driver Erkka Lindstedt and the second Oakfield Motorsport JCW of Steve Cocker, after the pace of both drivers increased as the weekend went on. Lastly, one driver to mention was the second First4Vans backed MINI of Clayton Kingman, who in his debut MINI Challenge weekend unfortunately struggled with set up in the Lawrence Davey Racing JCW. Clayton has stepped up from the VAG Trophy and found the first round difficult but is sure that the more experience gained behind the wheel of the MINI will help in the next round at Brands Hatch.
JCW Championship Standings – Top Five:
- Neil Newstead (No.77) = 159 Pts.
- Hamish Brandon (No.8) = 137 Pts.
- Kevin O’Connor (No.99) = 118 Pts.
- Alan Taylor (No.32) = 108 Pts.
- Steve Ruxton-Cocker (No.66) = 106 Pts.
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs – www.collierhousehold.co.uk