MINI CHALLENGE, Oulton Park Rounds 1-2
Round: One Laps: 7 Weather: Cloudy
Mark Wakefield secured his first victory in the MINI CHALLENGE’S JCW class with an assured drive in a shortened opening race of the season at Oulton Park.
Wakefield, on tenterhooks with his partner in hospital expecting the birth of their child, looked in a rush as he made an excellent getaway off the line from his front row start and move into the lead past his Excelr8 team-mate and pole sitter Max Bladon up the inside at Old Hall.
Bladon suffered a less convincing start, quickly being swamped by last season’s runner-up Charlie Butler-Henderson, who made a lightning jump of three places from fifth. Bladon’s opening lap woes continued as Brett Smith snuck around the outside at the Brittens chicane.
Despite a good start, Rob Smith was soon heading backwards, losing out in a side-by-side duel with James Turkington up Clay Hill and into Druids, before losing sixth place to a recovering Reece Barr and immediately under pressure from Jeff Smith.
While Henry Neal was putting on an impressive surge, to move up five places to 13th by lap three, Butler-Henderson made his move for second with an excellent manoeuvre through Cascades. As in qualifying, last year’s champion David Grady struggled to make inroads into the top 10 as he and Neal passed Formula Ford 1600 convert Stuart Gough.
As Brett Smith set the fastest lap on the fourth tour to cut Wakefield’s lead to less than half a second, the local racer was forced on the defensive. But with Smith sticking to Wakefield’s rear bumper, their tussle began to slow each other down bringing Butler-Henderson into the squabble.
With the race reduced to only 13 minutes due to incidents earlier in the day’s timetable, Wakefield benefited from navigating the Cheshire circuit for only seven laps. By the final tour, Brett Smith was forced to focus his attentions on his mirrors as Butler-Henderson closed in further, enabling Wakefield to pull out the largest advantage of the race.
Bladon continued to pursue the leading trio, but with Turkington closing in his mirrors, fourth was the closest his would manage.
Barr took sixth place with Rob Smith managing to curtail any further place loss in seventh. He headed Jeff Smith with Brad Hutchinson taking ninth just ahead of David Grady.
“I got off to a lightning start, it was tricky as it was still wet on that side of the track and I did get wheel spin,” said a delighted Wakefield. “The car felt like it was pushing away from me but later in the race I managed to get it under control and it wasn’t until the final corner that I felt I’d got the win. I’m over the moon.”
Smith was full of admiration for Wakefield’s defensive skill: “Mark didn’t put a foot wrong. Charlie left the door open at Cascades as there was no grip on the outside which is where he had placed his car.
“It wasn’t worth the risk to try to pass Mark towards the end of the race. I’m targeting the title and didn’t want to score a DNF so early in the season.”
Butler-Henderson added: “We were on wet tyres with the track now totally dry, so we decided just to push the tyres and go for it. Under braking the car was a handful but it was good fun.”
Round: Two Laps: 8 Weather: Cloudy
Charlie Butler-Henderson scored victory in race two of the MINI CHALLENGE JCW opening weekend of the season at Oulton Park to once again stake his claim for a championship challenge.
With the top four finishers from the day’s opening affair reversed, Max Bladon sat on pole position once again with Butler-Henderson, courtesy of his earlier podium finish, alongside on the front row of the grid.
Butler-Henderson made a demon start, heading into the lead by the time the pack made its way to Old Hall Corner, as Bladon struggled with excessive wheel spin off the line.
“That was my first ever dry start in this CHALLENGE JCW car,” Bladon said. “I know what I did wrong and I’ll have to learn quickly.”
Race one victor Mark Wakefield was unable to repeat his earlier feat, being handed a 10-second time penalty for a false start despite challenging in third place on the road.
As Kevin O’Connor took a spin to the back of the field, Brett and Rob Smith, who vaulted his way up from seventh, tussled side-by-side through Cascades enabling the top three to further pull away.
Henry Neal continued his challenge for the top 10, moving into ninth and ahead of a battling Reece Barr on the second tour as brother Will Neal went for a spin at Hislops on lap three.
With Butler-Henderson pulling away from Bladon to a one-second advantage, Rob Smith had managed to nip ahead of his namesake Brett for third, but was a further five seconds back.
Last year’s champion David Grady profited from other drivers’ misfortune, making his way up to seventh place behind Jeff Smith, who was demoted four places after an earlier excellent start.
Butler-Henderson had more in the tank after a brief one-lap advance from Bladon to the flag, while James Turkington slid out on to the grass down The Avenue after contact with Jeff Smith.
“It was all about the start but I went wide at the Shell Oils hairpin on lap four, started hearing noises in the car and wondered if my luck was out,” Butler-Henderson said. “But I loved every single movement of that race.”
The leader was just far enough ahead to not have to defend from Bladon with Rob Smith taking third from Brett Smith.
Bladon added: “I’m happy with that result. I had the pace to force it towards the end when I closed up on Charlie, but around this circuit it would need to be a bold move, and when I saw that there were three laps left, I just decided to bank the points. To sit close to the top of the points is not a bad start to the year.”
Smith was in a reflective mood after taking third. “If I’d been able to get some clear air at the start, with the pace that we had in the car, I think we could have won that race,” he said. “But I’m happy to take third after not being able to show our pace in qualifying and with the grid position I had to contend with.”
Wakefield had to settle for fifth following his time penalty. Reece Barr worked his way up well to sixth, out-dragging Jeff Smith and David Grady to the line. George Sutton and Ryan Dignan completed the top 10.