For the penultimate round of the 2018 Mini Challenge JCW championship, the season returned to Brands Hatch, a few weeks after supporting the DTM earlier in the month, however this time it was headlining the Mini Festival on the Indy circuit. The driver to beat after a string of victories was JamSport’s Ant Whorton-Eales, coming into the penultimate round with 525 points. After a year in the Dunlop BTCC, Whorton-Eales had been on a mission in recent rounds to secure the JCW title. Holding a championship lead of eighty-three points, his closest rival was Nathan Harrison, competing for the Excelr8 Motorsport squad. Harrison had gone toe-to-toe with Whorton-Eales throughout the season but lost ground to his rival at the previous round on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit. Whilst Harrison was focused on closing the gap, he had to be weary of Jordan Collard, son of BTCC racer Rob. The gap between Harrison and Collard in the championship standings was only sixteen points and to make matters harder, Rob Smith was waiting in the shadows by only three points. Wins at Silverstone and Oulton Park earlier in the season have helped Smith on his way to challenge for an overall top three finish. With David Robinson missing from the Mini Festival, this allowed Henry Neal, son of triple BTCC champion Matt to close the gap over even move up the order to fifth. With fifty points on offer for a race win, there was plenty on offer at the MINI Festival and battles on track in the JCW class are always close to the flag.
Penalty hands Whorton-Eales victory
After an extremely tight qualifying session on Saturday morning, Jordan Collard grabbed pole position for the opening JCW race of the MINI Festival, ahead of series leader Ant Whorton-Eales by 0.100 of a second. In a session with twenty-six drivers on track for twenty minutes finding space to set a time was crucial. The session was frantic as twenty drivers were covered by less than a second and with points available for qualifying, Ant Whorton-Eales extended his championship lead as main rival Nathan Harrison would line up on row three in fifth. Row two for the opening race saw race winner Rob Smith third and former Fiesta driver Jack Davidson fourth.
Conditions were perfect for the opening race and when the lights went green, Jordan Collard got away well to force Ant Whorton-Eales into second. As Whorton-Eales kept on Collard’s tail, Smith and Davidson on row two lost out to Nathan Harrison, who dived from fifth to third to make sure Whorton-Eales was in his sights in their fight for the title. Davidson slipped back to seventh on the opening lap with Henry Neal climbing to fifth and closing on Smith’s bumper. Over the next couple of laps Collard controlled the pace, pulling out a gap of nearly a second over Whorton-Eales, whilst the top six broke off in battles of two with Harrison vs Smith for third and Neal vs Calum King for fifth.
As the race reached the half way mark the top six found themselves lapping the slower drivers and a mistake for Collard at Surtees nearly cost him the race lead. In braking to avoid a slower car, a gap was created for Whorton-Eales to strike, but the MINI UK backed driver held on to retain the race lead. This moment on track meant that Collard and Whorton-Eales would run bumper to bumper for the majority of the race, dicing through the traffic until the chequered flag. The gap between the two never grew more than 0.5 seconds and by the time the race concluded, Whorton-Eales had the gap down to 0.100 seconds.
In the battle for the final podium spot, Nathan Harrison had broken clear of Rob Smith and Henry Neal, with Neal and Smith swapping positions on lap ten. The traffic assisted Neal in passing Smith and once ahead, maintained the gap. Calum King lost ground on the top five in the second half of the race as he had to defend off Lewis Brown, who himself was bringing along Jack Davidson and Dan Zelos in a train of JCW Minis. King and Brown remained sixth and seventh at the chequered flag whilst Zelos passed Davidson on lap twenty-two for eighth. Completing the top ten behind Davidson was Jac Maybin, who for majority of the race battled with Brad Hutchinson and Rory Cuff.
When the chequered flag was thrown it appeared like Collard had recorded win number two of the season but as the evening went on, news broke that the officials had handed him a ten second penalty sitting outside his grid spot at the start of the race. The results promoted Ant Whorton-Eales to the top step of the podium with Nathan Harrison second and Henry Neal third. Rob Smith inherited fourth with Jordan Collard now fifth.
MINI Challenge JCW Race 1 – Top Five
- Ant Whorton-Eales (No.10) = 23 Laps = 20:03.249s
- Nathan Harrison (No.27) = +0.441s
- Henry Neal (No.42) = +1.573s
- Rob Smith (No.37) = +4.023s
- Jordan Collard (No.19) = +9.569s
Faults for Rival boost Whorton-Eales’ title chances
Results of Saturday’s race handed the drivers a revised grid for race two on Sunday morning and therefore Ant Whorton-Eales started on pole position, alongside title rival Nathan Harrison. With the two clean through Paddock Hill Bend at the start, it was behind that drama imploded, as Team Dynamics driver Henry Neal spun, collecting Jordan Collard in the process. After losing his win in race one, the incident heavily affected Collard as he took a rally moment through the Paddock Hill gravel trap, dropping down the order to eighth. As the dust settled, Calum King’s JamSport JCW was left beached in the gravel trap and the safety car was deployed. As Whorton-Eales bunched the field up, the championship leader led Harrison, Neal, Rob Smith and Clio Cup competitor Dan Zelos as the top five.
On the restart Nathan Harrison got momentum on his title rival as the two ran side by side around Druids. With Harrison running out of road and taking to the grass, Whorton-Eales had held onto the lead and slightly pulled clear. Harrison held onto second until he reached Surtees, as the back end of his JCW stepped out and sent him spinning across the grass and into the path of Rob Smith. The two collided as whilst Smith retired instantly, Harrison recovered to sit seventh but with damage. The field had spread slightly but not before the deployment of a second safety car, as Rory Cuff beached at Paddock Hill Bend and needed recovering, removing all the hard work that Whorton-Eales had done to pull away.
The restart was no problem for Whorton-Eales this time around as he broke clear of a defending Henry Neal, who found himself under pressure from Jordan Collard. After his earlier trip through the gravel, Collard was determined to overhaul Henry and on lap sixteen went for gap. Running bumper to bumper along the main straight, Collard locked up at Paddock Hill Bend and went rallying again, recovering in tenth. With Collard gone, Henry Neal wrapped up second 0.820 behind Whorton-Eales. Completing the podium was Dan Zelos in the Dunlop car, who had escaped Jack Davidson in the final few laps. After his earlier incident, Nathan Harrison recovered for a top five finish in fifth but had lost major ground to Whorton-Eales in the championship. Lewis Brown came home in sixth, two seconds ahead of Jac Maybin and James Loukes, who battled all race. Luke Reade on his local track ended ninth, only ever so slightly ahead of Collard.
With the final race of the day being drawn by a reverse grid, Ant Whorton-Eales would be down in sixth and only needed to extend his championship lead out to twelve or more points to secure the title before the season finale.
MINI Challenge JCW Race 2 – Top Five
- Ant Whorton-Eales (No.10 – JCW) = 18 Laps = 20:24.633
- Henry Neal (No.42) = +0.820s
- Dan Zelos (No.345) = +1.592s
- Jack Davidson (No.21) = +1.909s
- Nathan Harrison (No.27) = +2.253s
Whorton-Eales braves conditions for JCW win number 3
For the final race of the weekend conditions had completely changed from what the drivers faced earlier. Rain hammered down from about 12pm, flooding parts of the Brands Hatch Indy layout. Lining up on pole was Lewis Brown, the 2017 Ginetta GT5 Champion. With conditions favouring the brave, Nathan Harrison was the early leader, grabbing the lead on the opening lap whilst championship favourite Ant Whorton-Eales ripped the field apart, overtaking around the outside and slotting into second. Conditions seemed not to hamper Whorton-Eales, as the JamSport driver made light work of the gap Harrison had created in the early stages. With a few laps ticked by Whorton-Eales grabbed the lead into the final corner after forcing Harrison into a mistake, with his title rival slipping wide at Surtees and losing out on the drag race to the line. Whorton-Eales looked set to pull clear before a crash for Jake De Haan at the top of druids brought out the red flag. Haan had run on at the corner, collecting the barrier heavy and destroying the front of the Mini.
The race would restart after a small period of time, but unfortunately for the drivers conditions were continuing to worsen. Behind the safety car Ant Whorton-Eales would line up in pole position and once released, he set about destroying the field with his pace, pulling clear from Nathan Harrison and the rest of the pack. The race unfortunately wouldn’t last much longer as due to conditions, the stewards brought out another red flag and rewarded the race. The result gave Ant Whorton-Eales the Brands Hatch hat-trick at the MINI Festival and effectively one hand on the 2018 JCW title. Nathan Harrison would end up second and with that still had a chance of the title at the season finale, which would be in September at Donington Park. On his debut in the MINI Challenge due to a break in the calendar for the Clio Cup, Dan Zelos completed the podium in the Dunlop guest car, backing up his podium result from earlier in the day. Just outside the podium places were Jack Davidson and Henry Neal who had scrapped for position since the restart ahead of a recovering Jordan Collard. Collard’s weekend effectively had gone from bad to worse and a scary moment at Surtees during the race hadn’t helped his momentum towards the front. Lawrence Davey in the No.100 car finished seventh ahead of team mate Luke Caudle, whilst Will Neal and Rob Smith completed the top ten. Smith progress was certainly worth a mention as the former JCW race winner climbed from the rear of the field in the opening stint to gain eleven places.
MINI Challenge JCW Race 3 – Top Five
- Ant Whorton-Eales (No.10) = 4 Laps = 5:15.612
- Nathan Harrison (No.27) = +0.964s
- Dan Zelos (No.345) = +1.945s
- Jack Davidson (No.21) = +2.118s
- Henry Neal (No.42) = +2.376s
On the 22-23 September 2018 the MINI Challenge JCW finale will take place on the Donington Park international layout and Ant Whorton-Eales heads to Leicestershire with slightly one hand on the title. The JamSport driver sits on top of the JCW championship standings on 693 points, 110 points ahead of closets challenger Nathan Harrison. It looks very unlikely that Harrison would trouble Whorton-Eales for the title but in the Mini Challenge, anything is possible. Jordan Collard sits third in the standings, forty-five points behind Harrison, with what appears a comfortable gap to Rob Smith in fourth. With two races to end the year there are plenty of points on offer any many opportunities for drivers to swap positions in the JCW championship.
MINI Challenge JCW Top 5:
- Ant Whorton-Eales (No.10) = 693 Pts.
- Nathan Harrison (No.28) = 583 Pts.
- Jordan Collard (No.19) = 538 Pts.
- Rob Smith (No.37) = 496 Pts.
- Henry Neal (No.42) = 441 Pts.
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To keep up to date with the Mini Challenge, please visit https://www.minichallenge.co.uk/
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.