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Northern Ireland Drivers Shine as TOCA visits Donington- with Stephen Lynas

Five outright wins made it a very successful weekend for local drivers at the second TOCA race weekend (27/28 April) held at the Donington Park Circuit in Leicestershire.

Colin Turkington’s two lights to flag victories in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) rounds were matched by Jack Young in the Renault UK Clio Cup Championship with Dan Harper taking a win and a third place in the Porsche Carrera Cup UK rounds. Chris Smiley scored an Independent’s class win in the BTCC, with John Ferguson winning the AM in the Carrera Cup.

Reigning Touring Car Champion Turkington arrived at Donington needing a good weekend. He had left the first round at Brands Hatch disappointed after a lottery of weather and tyres contrived to limit him to a best result of 5th while his BMW team mate Andrew Jordan had taken the first win for the new Three Series BMW developed by their West Surrey Racing Team. However, subsequent testing and some fine tuning it to his style had left Turkington much happier with his car. And it showed once qualifying got under way. Right from the green light, Turkington was trading fastest times with team mate Jordan, the BTC Hondas of Cook and Smiley, Ingram’s Toyota and Ash Sutton in his Subaru. So hard were Turkington and Jordan pushing in fact, that they both lost their fastest times for exceeding track limits. Then, in what proved a turning point of the weekend, Turkington set a new fastest time mark just before the first red flag of the weekend, which denied Jordan completion of his next quick effort. When qualifying restarted, conditions had deteriorated just enough to make Turkington’s pole unassailable. Smiley finished 4th, claiming the stoppage had cost him a front row time with Cooke and Sutton 2nd and 3rd respectively. Jordan qualified 16th.

It was Turkington’s 18th BTCC pole and surprisingly his first since 2016 and West Surrey Racing’s first since 2015. “Dick Bennetts, (West Surrey Racing boss) had said the rain was coming,  explained Turkington, so I went like the hammers out of the pits and got my laps in when the track was at its best!”

Settled cloudy but dry conditions on race day removed any uncertainty from tyre choices and Turkington’s WSR Team BMW lined up on pole position with soft slicks and no ballast alongside the BTC Honda of Josh Cook, which sported the hard option slick and carried maximum ballast. Turkington made the perfect start to take the lead into Redgate followed by second row starter Sutton with Cooke already dropping back and bunching up the middle order as the 30-car grid weaved down through the Craner Curves. Exiting the Old Hairpin Andrew Jordan, who had started from 16th after his qualifying woes, was jostled in the bunch spinning him sideways and presenting a side-on target to Adam Morgan’s Mercedes which t-boned the Pirtek BMW in what Jordan described as the biggest hit of his BTCC career.

Six laps behind the safety car followed with Jordan being taken to hospital for precautionary checks before Turkington once again made a perfect start only to be slowed immediately by a second safety car to remove Nick Hamilton’s Ford Focus RS from the barriers. Another perfect restart from Turkington followed by a series of fastest laps including a new race record lap of 1:09.646 (beating Gordon Sheddon’s 4-year old mark) took the reigning champion to the chequered flag for his 47th victory. He was followed home by Sutton and his BMW teammate, Tom Oliphant- scoring his best BTCC result. Chris Smiley came home 7th after a race long battle with Matt Neal and Dan Camish also in Hondas and winning the Independents class. A delighted Turkington was full of praise for his car and his team. “I’m really pleased with the work the guys have done with the car; it was incredible out there. We didn’t know quite what to expect with the new 3 Series but they gave me a great car. A great team effort and it’s great to feel fast.”

Race 2 followed much the same script with Turkington leading from start to finish, again using the soft slick but this time having to manage carrying maximum success ballast of 54 kgs. Ash Sutton led the chasing pack but could not keep pace with the BMW 3 series which once again set a series of fastest laps. On the penultimate lap, Sutton eventually lost his second place to Matt Neal’s Honda which followed Turkington home to his second victory of the day. Chris Smiley’s run of bad luck so far this season continued. He was tapped by Jack Goff going into Redgate on lap 12, breaking the BTC Honda’s right-rear suspension, resulting in Smiley spinning off on to the infield at the Craner Curves and putting him to the back of the grid for race 3. It left the Carrickfergus driver to reflect on a “what if” weekend where his strong pace did not get the deserved results.

The draw for the reverse grid final race of the weekend put Turkington 10th, carrying maximum success ballast and for this race also having the disadvantage of running the hard slick. BTCC rules stipulate a hard and soft tyre which must be used at least once in the 3- race programme. Up front the new Toyota Corolla of Tom Ingram, last year’s championship runner up, took the win with Rob Collard second, scoring his first podium for his new Vauxhall team and BTC Racing’s Josh Cook, Chris Smiley’s teammate, finishing third. Smiley showed what could have been had he not been taken out in race 2, climbing 14 places from 25th on the grid to finish a very strong 11th. Turkington made up one place to finish 9th realising the importance of backing up his two wins with a finish. “It’s been an excellent weekend. What pleases me most is to score well in all three races; it’s no good having two wins and a DNF, you have to put good points in the bag three times. But the three times champion was well aware that it had been a mixed weekend for his team. I’m so sorry for Andy and we hope that everything is okay. He took an innocent, hard hit and it’s certainly a case of bitter sweet for the team.”

A strong weekend for Turkington is just what he needed to kick start his championship challenge. He now lies third, 5 points behind 2017 champion Ash Sutton and 2 behind Josh Cook. With Sutton still to score a win, Tom Ingram’s Toyota taking its first win and the Hondas looking very strong the 2019 BTCC is shaping up to be another very close competition. Thruxton is the next BTCC venue with the first of its two visits this year, for rounds 7,8 and 9 on May 18 & 19.

If Colin Turkington was delighted with his own success at Donington he will have been just as pleased with the performance of Jack Young (above) in the Renault UK Clio Cup Championship, who matched his mentor Turkington’s results in his two-race programme at the East Midlands venue. The battle between the two favourites for the Clio Cup title, begun at Brands, continued in qualifying at Donington with Belfast’s Young edging rival Max Coates by just two tenths for pole. It had been going comfortably Young’s way until his best times were excluded for exceeding track limits. That handed to advantage to Young’s teammate Brett Lidsey. Then in a dramatic second half of qualifying, Young and Coates traded fastest times with Coates having the advantage until a last minute pitstop for Young to dial out some understeer gave him the advantage. But that was as close as the two raced all weekend. Coates, together with his Team Hard team-mates Jade Edwards and Jamie Bond had all their qualifying times removed and were each given an additional ten second penalty putting them to the back of the grid after their cars’ roof mounted air-boxes were found to have been taped off which is only permitted when wet weather tyres are being used. That changed the racing weekend completely and, while it presented Young with a great opportunity to narrow the gap in the championship, the 17-year-old was quick to recognise “That obviously gives us a stronger chance to bag a lot of points but wins are never guaranteed. I’ve got [teammate] Brett to think about and he is right on the pace!” And Young was right to be on his guard. Predictably in race one he shot off into the lead with Lidsey giving chase but a lap 5 safety car allowed Coates, who had started ten seconds in arrears, to close up on the leaders. After his Brands mishap there were no mistakes this time for Young managing the restart. A fastest lap from Coates moved him up to third position just 3s behind Young and the race was on. But it all ended in a cloud of smoke with Coates pulling off the track on lap 9 with a mechanical problem. Young put in several fastest laps to open the gap to Lidsey and crossed the finish line to become the youngest winner ever of a UK Clio Cup race and lead home Team MRM’s first 1- 2 finish.

Race 2 was much less eventful with Young setting a series of fastest laps to win from Lidsey by almost 10s with Coates again having to overcome a 10s penalty climbing to third place a further 6s adrift. Young now leads the championship by 15 points from teammate Lidsey with Coates 23 behind. "An awesome weekend," was how Harper summed up his races, "and to leave as championship leader is exactly what we set out to achieve. I had to maximise the results and I’m pleased to have done that!” The next races for the Renault UK Clio Cup Championship will be at Croft in mid-June. Young and Coates may also get the opportunity to continue their rivalry at the Paul Ricard Circuit in France; Young won the International Clio Cup there last October; if their teams take up the invitation to complete in a Clio Cup support race at the French Grand Prix, also in June.

In what was turning out to be a very successful weekend for North Irish drivers Dan Harper was not going to be outshone by his fellow countrymen at Donington, a circuit where he has enjoyed considerable success including his first car racing win in 2016 and first Carrera Cup podium last season. Having topped the time sheets at Donington in March pre-season testing and free practice it was no surprise that with ten minutes to go in qualifying Harper was on provisional pole, but a slight improvement in track conditions dropped him to 4th just 0.439s behind returning 2014 champion Josh Webster who claimed pole position with George Gamble 2nd and Lewis Plate 3rd. The Pro Am pole and 7th fastest overall was taken by Karl Leonard. Pulling away from the starting grid, the cars on the left-hand side, Gamble and Harper, had more grip and made the better starts. Gamble outdragged Webster into Redgate and Harper followed through into second at the Old Hairpin. Plato took third on the next lap and soon bunched up with Harper and Gamble.

After setting a fastest lap of 1:07.005, Harper made his move at Redgate on lap 9 and quickly pulled out a lead of 0.5s. Track conditions were changing all the time keeping drivers on their toes with a fall of light drizzle causing Harper to lock up under braking for the Old Hairpin on lap 11. That was the only obvious moment for Harper as he extended his lead to win by 2.366s from Gamble with Webster third. “To be able to come through was particular pleasing,” commented the race winner. “The changing conditions meant it felt different on every lap and it was difficult to know how hard to push.” In the reverse grid race, Harper started from 6th place and adopted a no risk strategy looking for a good finish from that far back on the grid. Josh Webster took the early lead leaving Plato, Vaughan, Harper and Gamble to squabble over the remaining podium positions as he made his getaway using the clear track to record a fastest lap of 1:06.659. On lap 19 Harper finally passed Vaughan to secure a 3rd place podium finishing 3s behind Plato and 8s behind winner Webster. Two eventful races for Karl Leonard netted him 3rd and 4th Pro Am finishes while John Ferguson took a win and a 2nd in the Am class in his first drive with new team Redline Racing.

For Harper, it was mission accomplished- extending his championship lead to 7 points from Lewis Plato and George Gamble before competition resumes at Croft in mid-June. “I’ve always loved the Donington Park circuit and I really felt at home this weekend,” said Harper. “JTR gave me a perfect car for every session and that gave me the confidence to push it to the limits in the races and go for the silverware. Extending the championship lead is brilliant, but we know there’s a long way to go and we need to keep this form up.

Stephen Lynas

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