MINI CHALLENGE Oulton Park, rounds 15-16
Round: 15 Laps: 4 Weather: Intermittent rain, cloudy
Jeff Smith may have broken his MINI CHALLENGE duck with the first win in a turbulent Oulton Park double-header, but much of the focus centred on a frightening accident for championship leader Charlie Butler-Henderson, which ended his event early.
A fragmented first race left many with dented cars, but none more so than Butler-Henderson, who walked away after a turn two accident in which he made heavy contact with the barriers before rolling to a stop in his written-off machine.
The weekend hadn’t started easily for Butler-Henderson either after mixed conditions qualifying left him with a mountain to climb. The wet morning meant all cars began the 20-minute session on wets, but with half of the session gone a dry line began to emerge, prompting some to dive into the pits for slicks.
Butler-Henderson didn’t and stayed out on wets. Although he was fastest for much of the session, the runners that opted for either full-slicks or a mixture of wet rears and slick fronts made up too much ground. Before he knew it, Butler-Henderson was consigned to 10th. “I should have pitted as it was drying but I didn’t react,” he admitted.
However, championship rival Nathan Harrison was also struggling. He pitted first and went for a wet-slick hybrid, before changing his mind late on and stopping again for all-slicks. By the time he got a lap in the session had ended and he was a disappointed 19th.
With the main championship players struggling, Rob Smith put in a time good enough for pole on a hybrid tyre set, just 0.008s quicker than the all-slick shod Jeff Smith, whose final lap was good enough for the front row. David Grady shared the second row with Jono Brown, with Chris Smith and series debutante Michael O’Brien behind after an impressive first session in the turbocharged class.
Things looked good for many of the championship hopefuls to make up ground, but the first race was reduced to an eight-minute sprint after a lengthy safety car for Butler-Henderson’s shunt, and more, as chaos reigned at the start.
Jeff Smith got the jump on Rob off the line and Rob was then shoved onto the grass in the pack before spinning into the Clearways gravel. But worse was to come behind. Contact in the pack spat Ben Seyfried’s car wide and straight into Butler-Henderson, whose car speared across the grass before slamming into the Armco and rolling dramatically. Seyfried’s car also hit the barriers head-on.
All drivers walked away, but it took most of the race behind the safety car to clear. When things did get going, Jeff Smith controlled the restart perfectly to shoot away from Grady and Chris Smith. That was until a familiar factor came into play – rain.
“It started tipping it down and we were all on slicks,” said Jeff. “I went into Hislops and totally lost the back end as there was no temperature in the tyres.” Jeff held the slide but had Grady crawling all over him.
Behind, Luke Caudle was the man on the move. Having worked his way up from ninth on the grid, Caudle made his way into the top three, despite a controversial moment when running together with Chris Smith, which ended Smith’s race in the Shell Hairpin gravel.
Regardless Caudle pressed on and dived for second on the inside of Grady at Old Hall before crawling all over Jeff Smith’s bumper. But with the rain intensifying, officials erred on the side of caution and threw the red flags. That ticked the results back a lap, handing Grady back second and demoting Caudle back to third.
“It was absolutely the wrong decision to stop the race because my car felt like it was on rails, I had loads of grip,” said Caudle. “I think given the final few minutes the win was definitely on.”
Jeff Smith said: “I think it was right to stop it as so many of us were struggling. It feels great to get the first win.”
Brown took fourth ahead of O’Brien, Neil Newstead and Mark Wakefield. Calum King took his best result of the season eighth ahead of the returning Chris Boon, Bence Balogh and James Turkington. Nathan Harrison could only climb as high as 12th on his salvage mission.
Round: 16 Laps: 7 Weather: Raining, wet
With Butler-Henderson sidelined for race two also it looked certain that he’d lose his championship lead. It happened, but some divine intervention certainly limited the damage for the reigning champion as all of his rivals hit trouble.
The record books will show that Brett Smith claimed his second win of the season in what was declared as a wet race, but that doesn’t tell half of the story.
As the field was dispatched to the grid, the heavens opened and soaked the circuit. The lower half of the grid had the time to dive straight into the pits to fit wet tyres before the green flag lap got underway, the rest didn’t and had to tackle the soaked track on slick Dunlops.
The massed pit entry turned the early stages into a pit stop race, and it was Team Dynamics that got Henry Neal’s car turned around fastest to get him first into the queue to rejoin, closely followed by Brett Smith from Eurotech Racing.
On track, Neil Newstead inherited the reversed grid pole and led the gripless half of the field away for the first lap, pursued by Brown and Jeff Smith. But when the wet-shod runners arrived, they flew up the order.
Neal was into fourth by the end of the first lap after circulating 15 seconds per lap quicker than those on slicks. By the end of lap two he was in the lead, with Brett Smith on his tail. Smith pushed hard to find a way past, but Neal defended for a handful of laps until Brett found some space and grip on the outside of Cascades to snatch the top spot with two laps to run.
“The race was insane, and in truth I think it was won in the pits,” said Brett. “The lads got the wets fitted so fast and we got out and I was flying as the slick lads were going nowhere as it was chucking it down. We never expected to win this race, what a bonus!”
Neal secured second to take his first podium of the season and his first in the Challenge’s turbocharged class. “It’s a great result but I just couldn’t keep Brett behind,” he said. “We never got the chequered flag first time around so we just kept going until we saw the yellows to slow. It was a strange end to a race.”
Rob Smith completed the podium suggesting he took too much life out of his wets early in the race to challenge the top two. His result meaning the entire top three at the finish started beyond row 11 on the grid.
Lawrence Davey took fourth ahead of Luke Reade and James Turkington. Of the title challengers only David Grady and Jono Brown managed to make any form of impact. Both struggled on slick tyres, with Brown coming home 14th and Grady 15th. Grady’s second place in race one means he has taken the championship lead, but only by 11 points. Perhaps the unluckiest pair were Nathan Harrison and Chris Smith. Smith retired with damage having collided with Jeff Smith to complete a double DNF in Cheshire, while Harrison’s title chances were dented by a broken driveshaft retaining bolt on the green flag lap.