Osman Usef and Rob Wheldon, driving the RAW Motorsport Radical RXC coupe, took a convincing win at the opening round of the Endurance Racing Series at Rockingham, aided by superior economy, but equally stymied by a gearbox issue late-on in the three-hour race. A late-race charge by Anthony Wilds, taking the final stint in the ING Sport BMW Z4 previously handled by dad Mike and Ian Lawson was thwarted by the chequered flag.
The story of the race wasn’t always about the closed-roof Radical, though; the more traditional open-topped SR8 version of Zac Chapman dominated qualifying, and led the field away from the rolling start, then the lead that it already eked out was brought down by the appearance of the Safety Car after just one lap, to aid the safe recovery of the Moss Motorsport BMW M3, which relative novice Chris Babbington had placed in the School Straight sandpit.
Once the caution was lifted, Chapmen streaked off at the front again, leaving Mike Wilds in the Z4 to ease away from Usef’s red Radical, which in time would attract the attention of Mark Radcliffe’s Intersport-run Lamborghini Supertrofeo.
Behind this leading quartet, the runners from the 360 MRC All-Comers Series (sharing the race) were mixing it with the ERS midfield. Intersport boss Kevin Clarke’s BMW E92 led the bunch, keeping in touch with his team’s Lamborghini (in which he would later take a stint) ahead, whilst a three-way battle of talented young chargers in hot hatches thrilled; Luke Wright, in the Lohen Mini-Cooper, eased himself away after a few laps, leaving Chris Knox (Mini Cooper) and David Pittard, in the Team BRIT VW Golf, to slug it out nose to tail and side-by-side, a battle that was sadly curtailed when Pittard pitted to check the effects of an oil warning light.
First of the ERS runners to take a pit-stop was Sarah Niblett, handing over the Hyundai Coupe to Steven Ayres; “The car was built for 45-minute races” she explained, while just afterwards Chris Babbington brought the Moss Motorsport BMW M3 in for Mike Moss to take over.
Zac Chapman pitted the SR8 from a 40-second lead just before the first hour of the race had elapsed, leaving Mike Wilds, in a Z4 that looked to be handling somewhat raggedly, with a very slim lead over Osman Usef. The Radical coupe took the Z4 as they crossed the start/finish line, but wily veteran Wilds was having none of it, and got the lead back through the infield, only to pit at the end of the lap to hand over to middle-stinter Ian Lawson with 63 minutes gone. Lone-driver Guillaume Gruchet took his first stop in the Newbridge Porsche 997 at this point too.
Gruchet, in fact, would be trading the Class 2 lead through the middle of the race with the Intersport Lamborghini, which now had Kevin Clarke on board. The second round of pit stops for this pair, and the race into the final hour, would seal the position though; an under-timed stop by Gruchet earned him a stop/go penalty, and a longish stop by the Lamborghini was exacerbated by devastating tyre degradation, leaving the London-domiciled Frenchman to take the class win, and the Liverpudlian businessman to tiptoe around, finishing a lap adrift.
Back to the overall lead – Usef went a stunning 80 minutes in the Radical RXC before pitting, and such was the margin he had built, that co-driver Rob Wheldon resumed in the lead, and began to open out a further gap over Chapman, who had endured an additional 20-second “success penalty” on his pit-stop duration. All was not well with the SR8, though, and Zac Chapman was back in the pitlane again just after the half-way mark of the race, this time to retire the car. ”The oil temperature was creeping up and up and up, then the water temperature too. We’re on a limited budget, and an engine rebuild is £10/12k – I couldn’t let the problem get too serious, so we’re playing it safe” he told pitlane reporter Joe Bradley.
Anna Walewska had taken over the Intersport BMW E92 from Kevin Clarke, and held the lead of the 360 MRC contingent, but with just 20 minutes of their two-hour race left, an engine problem saw her cruise along the main straight and park on the grass by the pit wall. The super-quick Rockingham recovery crew were out in double-quick time, needing the Safety Car to be deployed for a few laps, though none took advantage to pit at this point; all it seems, were sticking to their strategies.
The 360 MRC race was flagged-off, initiating the first-ever use of the MSA-regulation chequered-rim board, and the ERS race entered its third phase. Anthony Wilds had already relieved Ian Lawson in the ING Sport BMW Z4, though was now four laps adrift of the RAW Radical coupe. Wheldon got back in the Radical after the final stop 45 minutes from the end, with the gap now down to two laps.
Anthony Wilds had already got into the groove in the Z4, punching in the fastest lap of the race, but the RAW car was now slowing, and with a 4-5 second per lap difference, Wilds sniffed a slim chance of success, and was on a mission – twice he lapped the Gruchet’s Class 2 Porsche and the ailing Lamborghini as the race panned out, but progress was thwarted by the appearance of the Safety Car once again with 12 minutes to go. A puncture for Steven Ayres in the little Hyundai Coupe, which otherwise had run like a train, had thrown the car into the gravel at the Brook Chicane.
Racing resumed with just six minutes left; Wilds got a lap back from the Radical, and finished a minute and quarter behind as the flag fell. The RAW Motorsport team had been dominant where it mattered, enough to sustain the lead when trouble hit them towards the end- “there was a gearbox problem, it was stuck in fifth for the last 20 minutes” admitted Rob Wheldon, to which Anthony Wilds countered “when I heard over the radio I was 4 seconds quicker, I just had to go for it” Indeed, the BMW Z4 was as fast at the end of three hours as it was at the start, a testament to the quality of the car, the team and the three drivers, and that last-hour drive earned Anthony the Driver of the Day award.
Moss Motorsport made up for the early misdemeanours in the BMW M3, having a solid race thereafter and sealing the Class 4 victory for Mike Moss and Chris Babbington.
Class 5 was depleted when the Luke Wright/Andrey Magiy Lohen Mini Cooper came to and early, and oily, finish with a blown engine after 60 laps. After the last-gasp puncture, the small Circlesigns team went out for the final lap to take second place in their self-built Hyundai Coupe. This was great effort by Sarah Niblett and Steven Ayres, who had played endurance racing by ear, and come through.
The Class 5 win, though, went quite unexpectedly to Team BRIT. Head man Dave Player had made no secret of the fact that this was to be no more than a shakedown for the first-timers in their circuit-racing debut, but hotshoe driver coach David Pittard set the scene in his opening stint, acting an inspiration to Armed Forces veterans Martyn Compton and Danny Holland, who performed superbly throughout the race, despite the frustration of the overlong fuel fill procedure during the pit stops, due to the lack of a dry-break system – some sponsorship or donation investment needed there. Pittard, of course, is no stranger to holding a trophy aloft, but for the newcomers, under their challenging circumstances, this was a magical start to their journey to Le Mans, and they relished the spraying of the champagne.
The whole event had been a resounding start-up success for the new Endurance Racing Series, with a compact but quality field, well organised and some great racing. The series reconvenes back at Donington on July 11th.