MINI CHALLENGE, JCW, Rockingham, Rounds: 6-8

 Round: 6       Laps: 14        Weather: Cloudy, dry

Nathan Harrison claimed the MINI CHALLENGE championship lead, and then lost it after being stripped of the first victory of the weekend.

Harrison crossed the line first, but gained the lead after an accidental collision with Brett Smith, for which the stewards dropped Harrison back to third on the road and stripped him of 15 of his 40 championship points earned for third. It cost him the championship lead to rival Charlie Butler-Henderson, but only by a whisker after trouble for the reigning champion.

While much of the result hinged around Harrison’s fate, Brett Smith enjoyed his best Saturday yet in a JCW. Smith swapped to running with the Oakfield Motorsport team for Rockingham, with his father Jeff’s Eurotech squad on BTCC duty at Croft. Brett Smith made the change count too, by annexing his first series pole position by almost half-a-second.

I have no idea where that came from but the car felt great,” said Smith. “Gaps like that just don’t happen much in single-make racing, but I really nailed that lap. I feel we’re still lacking a little grip, which might hurt the tyres later in the race, but for qually that was pretty good!

Harrison had his engine removed and rated prior to the event and was found to be a touch down on power. With that fixed he still struggled for rear grip and complained of sliding around the faster turns, but managed to salvage second on the grid ahead of Jono Brown, Chris Smith, David Grady and Rob Smith. One driver in trouble was Butler-Henderson, whose qualifying troubles continued.

I’m just not very comfortable in the car at the moment and seem to be having oversteer everywhere,” said CB-H. “It’s costing me badly in qualifying with Nathan on the front row.

When the lights went out Brett Smith got a good start to lead the pack away as Brown slotted in behind, with Harrison on his bumper. Harrison piled the pressure on and eventually slipped past Brown into Tarzan for second on lap six, before closing on Smith, who was struggling to find pace on his tyres and pull clear.

Harrison dived for the lead at Tarzan again and locked up hugely, running too deep and allowing Smith to reclaim the lead using a cut-back out of the corner. Then came the flashpoint next time around. Harrison tried the same move, locked up again, and T-boned Smith as he turned in.

It was totally accidental,” said Harrison. “I apologised to him after the race as that’s not on and I’m not a dirty driver, but I was struggling with braking and the first lock-up gave me a huge flat spot, so made the second one worse.

Harrison got off the throttle to try and allow Smith the place back, but Brown was there to pounce. Brown slipped into second and Harrison had to get the hammer down to avoid losing two spots instead of one.

Harrison eventually crossed the line first, a few seconds ahead of Brown and the recovering Smith in third, but the stewards later handed him a time penalty to drop Harrison back to third, giving Brown the win and Smith second.

It’s not the way you want to win a race, but it’s the stewards’ call not mine,” said Brown. “It’s good points for the championship. I knew something was going to kick off ahead of me so I just bided my time and when they collided there was a nice gap for me. I figured Nathan would get a penalty so didn’t make too much of an effort to catch and pass him in the final laps.”

Smith said: “It was annoying, but Nathan apologised and that’s racing, things like that happen to anybody. To be honest I don’t think I had the car under me to win anyway. The ambient temperature has gone up since qualifying and I didn’t seem to have the same grip as earlier.

Behind the top three Chris Smith was a lonely fourth ahead of a great fight for fifth. Rob Smith made a lightning start to grab the place, but had another fast-starter in the form of Henry Neal all over him. Neal attacked repeatedly into Deene, forcing Smith to defend hard and the pair ran side-by-side through Yentwood, only for Smith to hold on through the tighter line. Their fight gave Butler-Henderson some hope too, as he closed in to make it a three-car fight, but couldn’t find a way past and had to be content with seventh. That earned him 30 points, two more than the penalised Harrison, who netted an extra three for fastest lap.

Grady, who had run third on the opening lap but then suffered an off at Yentwood, took eighth after a tight fight with Lawrence Davey. Luke Reade took an impressive tenth ahead of Neil Newstead, Mark Wakefield, Adam Cunnington and James Turkington.

Round: 7       Laps: 14        Weather: Cloudy, dry

While much of the attention centres on the title fight between Charlie Butler-Henderson and Nathan Harrison, Jono Brown is stealthily making his way into the picture after doing the double at Rockingham.

Brown led every lap of the second outing from pole, but only barely after a stunning fight with Excelr8 team-mate Chris Smith. Brown got a good launch to lead into Turn One, with Chris Smith behind. But Brown was up against it in the opening laps.

I had no temperature in the rears for some reason so I was sideways all the way around the first lap,” said Brown, who got a huge slide on through Pif-Paf and opened the door for Smith to slip onto the inside line. The pair ran wheel-to-wheel around the corner but Brown held firm on the outside line to retain the lead into Tarzan.

Chris Smith wasn’t done, and when Brown slid wide again on lap three he tried the same thing and briefly got his headlight ahead before Brown swept ahead again around the outside of Gracelands. It was stunning to watch.

Once out front, Brown’s rear tyres came to him and he could gradually pull a gap and ease clear to a second win to cement his status as a championship challenger, now just eight behind Butler-Henderson.

That was race such hard work as I just had no grip at all in the early alps and Chris was all over me,” said Brown. “I didn’t expect two wins this weekend, so to have these results really helps in the championship.”

Chris Smith added: “I have no idea how Jono kept the car on the track in the first few laps as he was all over the place, but he did so well. I really enjoyed that race because it was perfectly clean and there were just inches in it sometimes.”

Butler-Henderson edged ahead in the championship with a fine drive to third, after holding off rival Harrison. Butler-Henderson started back in seventh but ran fifth after a strong start and then engaged in a great fight with third-placed Brett Smith and MINI UK team-mate Rob Smith.

Rob Smith attacked Brett into Pif-Paf on lap four and nosed ahead, but delayed both allowing the opportunistic Butler-Henderson to slip past both on a gap on the inside. Once into third, Butler-Henderson faced a stern test from a determined Rob Smith. Rob briefly usurped CB-H from third around Pif-Paf mid-race, before losing out again into Tarzan and being elbowed wide, losing two places to CB-H and Brett Smith.

Harrison, who had started sixth after a grid penalty to add to his race one dramas, kept a watching brief and gradually picked his way through the pack until deposing Rob Smith for fourth into Deene. He then closed on Butler-Henderson, but couldn’t find a way through.

I had no idea Nathan had a grid drop penalty so I was surprised to see him starting next to me,” said CB-H. “I got the better start and it was great racing with Rob Smith. Everybody was leaving nice little gaps for me to race into and all of the moves were clean. I’m smiling today to keep Nathan behind too.”

Behind the top four, Brett Smith stole past Rob Smith for fifth place, while Henry Neal – who had briefly run third after a blinding start and daring late-braking move at Deene – took seventh ahead of Luke Caudle. David Grady was ninth after suffering from a vibration believed to be differential-related, with Mark Wakefield rounding out the top 10.

Round: 8       Laps: 13        Weather: Cloudy, dry

After his difficult start to the weekend, Nathan Harrison provided the perfect turnaround with victory in the final race at Rockingham, the win establishing him back into the lead of the championship.

Harrison started back in third and was gifted the lead when both leaders hit trouble in a bizarre incident early on. Rob Smith was drawn on pole ahead of Brett Smith and both ran together into Deene. Brett went wider and swept into the lead through Yentwood as Rob fought back through Pif-Paf to try and regain the momentum. He couldn’t find a way through, but worse was still to come.

Into Yentwood on lap two Brett got sideways, as did Rob, and the two collided, with Brett’s car being stuffed into the gravel and Rob sustaining radiator damage. “It was really strange, like there was fluid down or something,” said Rob. “Brett got a slide on, and so did I, I tried to brake but by that time he was broadside across the track and I had nowhere to go.”

With both leaders out of the running, Harrison picked up the pieces to lead ahead of Butler-Henderson when the race was stabilised with a safety car. The reigning champion pushed hard to try and overhaul Harrison, setting the fastest lap as he towed on to the rear of Harrison after the restart, but the race leader wasn’t going anywhere and responded by stretching the gap to the flag.

I needed that badly,” said Harrison. “I felt the penalty for race one was too harsh for something so little, so when the leaders went off and I got in front I really needed to make it count. Now it’s on to Brands Hatch and we’ll have to see if we can keep the results flowing.

Butler-Henderson took a clear second. He said: “I pushed as hard as I could but Nathan wasn’t making any mistakes, if he had I’d have pounced. It’s still a good result to come away with another podium after a difficult start to the weekend. With Jono down the order too it means we’ve pulled away a little in the championship.”

David Grady emerged ahead of a tight scrap for third. Henry Neal held the place for much of the outing, but he out-braked himself into Deene on lap six and glanced the barrier, which put him back down to fifth. Neal’s off allowed Grady into the place with Mark Wakefield following closely.

Chris Smith was fifth, having lost time after accidentally thumping the rear of Grady’s car after the safety car restart. Neal eventually took the flag in sixth ahead of the charging James Turkington, who drove superbly to fly up the order to seventh. Luke Caudle finished eighth after a time penalty for disobeying track limits, but did snatch the fastest lap of the race away from Butler-Henderson, meaning Harrison holds a slender four point lead heading to Brands Hatch.

The race was less fortunate for double winner Jono Brown, who finished a lowly 16th after a spin at Gracelands which in turn caused overheating issues due to grass caught on the front of his car.