2011 is set to see a return to form for the AirAsia Renault Clio Cup UK as the series looks forward to what should be an exciting season. With grid numbers suffering in recent years, a series of changes have been introduced to reduce costs and increase interest in the series, and they look to have worked, with big grids expected for the new campaign.
Last year, an incredible season for Dave Newsham saw him completely walk away with the championship. He took twelve wins in the eighteen races he contested and finished outside the top four in just one race all year. He now leaves the series to compete in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, continuing the Clio Cup's tradition as being the main feeder series for the BTCC.
Off track, changes see the Stephane Ratel organisation (SRO) take over as the new organisers of the series, while AirAsia have joined as the series' new title sponsors. On track too, the main difference will see the season run over eight meetings rather than ten, joining the BTCC at all its meetings bar Knockhill and Silverstone. A budget cap, limit on official pre-season testing and a limit on tyre allocations have also been implemented.
The early championship favourite from the class of 2011 has to be former double champion Paul Rivett, who is returning to the series full time with Stancombe Vehicle Engineering. The Clio Cup veteran enjoyed a brief but successful spell in the series last year, taking two wins and four second places in the eight races he contested. If he shows that pace again, he could prove hard to beat as he looks to add to his 2002 and 2004 title successes.
His main competition will come from two of the stars of last season, JHR Developments' Lee Pattison and Total Control Racing's James Dixon. Pattison finished best of the rest behind Newsham last season, but the pace he showed to take two wins and twelve other top four finishes means he will be a real title contender this year. Dixon, who finished sixth in the 2010 standings, will hope to build on his first two Clio Cup wins that he picked at the Brands Hatch finale last year and put in a real championship challenge.
Joining the list of potential championship contender's is fellow series returnee, Westbourne Motorsport's James Colburn. Entering his third season in the series, the 18 year old will be looking to challenge for wins consistently and add to the four podium finishes he picked up last year.
Another frontrunner from last season returning to the series is Jake Packun. Running with Get On Track Developments, he will hoping to continue showing the pace that saw him secure three podiums last season. Also returning and looking to build on a best result of fourth in the final race of 2010 and pick up his first podium finishes will be Jack Goff, who is leading the line-up for reigning champions Team Pyro.
Two drivers who feel a title shot isn't out of the question are Matt Allison and Luke Wright, both running for the new Scuderia Vittoria team. Former BTCC driver Allison has made brief appearances in the series in the past, picking up a best result of third during four races in 2008, while Wright switches to tin tops from single seaters after competing in the Formula Renault BARC Championship, in which he took five podiums last season, including a win at Croft.
Running alongside Dixon at title-winning outfit TCR are two newcomers to the series, Nicolas Hamilton and Tom Grice. Inspired by his brother Lewis’ achievements in Motorsport, Hamilton has decided to make the jump into racing himself and will hope for a solid start to his career in racing, as will Grice, who despite stepping up to the series straight from karts, told TCF he is looking for race wins.
Returning to racing in the Clios this year is experienced racer Mark Proctor. The former BTCC racer initially retired from the sport after a horrific incident in the Ginetta G50 Cup at Oulton Park in 2009, but was unable to shake off the racing bug and has come back, completing TCR's line up for 2011.
Joining Goff at Team Pyro are two graduates from the Ginetta Junior Championship, Adam Bonham and Chris Swanwick. The duo were team-mates last season and after both picking up podium finishes in the series, could be frontrunners again this year, especially Bonham who topped the timesheets at the Clio's recent official test at Rockingham.
Also racing in 2011 will be Darren Wilson with 20Ten Racing and in selected rounds, Matthew Munson with Stancombe Vehicle Engineering.