Ashley Sutton emerged from a close-fought three-way title battle with Ash Hand and Ant Whorton-Eales as the 2015 Renault UK Clio Cup champion in a thrilling 21st season for the tin-top championship.
As 2014 top two Mike Bushell and Josh Cook embarked on their maiden BTCC campaigns, Sutton, Hand and Whorton-Eales battled it out to succeed them in the Clio Cup record books with a fascinating championship fight that played out from race one all the way to race eighteen.
Whilst Sutton hit the ground running at the start of his first Clio Cup campaign, it was Whorton-Eales who set the early pace with two wins and two second places in the opening four races, with four more podium finishes in the next six races maintaining his points lead until mid-season.
By that stage Hand was firmly the driver in form though as he embarked on a run of seven wins in ten races that included a dominant double at Thruxton – a meeting in which Team Pyro were a class apart as Sutton followed his team-mate home for a one-two in every session.
Another clean sweep for Hand at Knockhill secured him the championship lead from Whorton-Eales, who was having to change teams to series newcomers Maximum Motorsport following the surprise summer departure of established front-runners SV Racing.
Whorton-Eales remained fighting at the front of the field throughout though, with himself and Sutton closing the gap to Hand by sharing the wins at Rockingham and Silverstone, meaning the trio headed into the Brands Hatch GP finale separated by just eighteen points.
Hand saw his lead reduced following troubles at Silverstone, but maintained the advantage in the opening race at Brands with second place behind Sutton, whilst Whorton-Eales’ challenge came to an end following contact.
It all went down to a dramatic final race of the season then and as Sutton battled his way to victory once again to complete his first Clio Cup double, Hand could only nurse his troubled Clio to seventh place, giving Sutton the title by five points.
Sutton’s success means he makes history as the first Rookie champion since 2003, with a stunning qualifying record of sixteen front-row starts in eighteen races being integral to a title-winning campaign that featured six wins, an unmatched fourteen podiums and an unbeaten 102 laps led.
For Hand, a hugely impressive season was to end with immense frustration as the title slipped from his grasp, but his leading pace was clear with seven wins in the season, more than any driver in the series since 2010, as well as more pole positions and fastest laps than anyone else on the grid.
Whorton-Eales meanwhile produced a career-best Clio campaign. His fourth full season featured more wins, podiums, poles and fastest laps than he’d achieved before, with his potent partnership with Maximum made clear by four consecutive pole positions to end the year.
On the fringes of the championship picture throughout the season meanwhile was WDE Motorsport’s Paul Rivett, with the series stalwart not quite able to get himself in the hunt for an unprecedented fourth Clio title.
Rivett featured on the podium in seven consecutive meetings through the season, but found himself restricted to a solitary race win at Oulton Park in June and a single pole position at Croft later that month as he finished the year fourth in the standings.
The top four drivers proved to have a real stranglehold on the series this season though, with no other driver securing a race win or a pole position over the course of the year. In fact, it wasn’t until the final race of the season that different drivers led a racing lap or posted a fastest lap.
The competitiveness at the head of the field was hit by the early departures of impressive rookie Jack Mitchell and 2014 title contender Jordan Stilp, who both battled to podium finishes in the first half of the season.
Mitchell entered as the reigning Ginetta Junior champion and quickly settled in the top six, with strong qualifying pace being rewarded with a breakthrough podium at Donington Park and further top five results at Croft.
The 17 year old’s strong run with SV came to an end when they left the series though and when a move to 20Ten Racing for the Knockhill weekend didn’t work out, Mitchell made the decision to bring his season to an early conclusion.
It was a blow for 20Ten, who had already seen Stilp depart from proceedings during the lengthy summer break. As the highest placed returning driver from last season, Stilp had high hopes for the campaign but saw the desired results not come in the opening five meetings.
Third place finishes at Brands Hatch and Oulton Park were the best he could produce and after a tough weekend at Croft left him languishing a distant sixth in the standings, he departed the Clios for pastures new – eventually resurfacing with a late run in the Michelin Ginetta GT4 Supercup.
Those exits left Charlie Ladell with a fairly unchallenged run to the final spot in the championship top five in his first full season in the series. It was by no means an easy campaign for the 19 year old though, who changed teams mid-season from Team Cooksport to WDE Motorsport.
The return to the team he ran with in 2014 didn’t produce a podium breakthrough as hoped, but an impressively consistent campaign saw him regularly head the mid-pack to finish in fifth or sixth place in half of the races contested.
Ladell’s former home Cooksport had enjoyed an all-round impressive maiden campaign in the category, with regulars Rory Collingbourne and George Jackson, the latter an early mover from JamSport Racing, both finishing in the top eight of the championship.
The standout weekend for the team came at Rockingham, when both drivers starred with season’s best fourth place finishes. Collingbourne took two other top six results at the end of the campaign, while Jackson also finished well with five top eights in the last seven races.
Jackson left behind Dan Holland and Tom Grundy in the JamSport awning, two drivers who had seen their season start in nightmare fashion with a heavy accident in the season opening race, which was eventually abandoned and rescheduled for Donington Park.
Grundy took a while to establish himself in the championship top ten, but once he did at Croft he went on to show great progress, qualifying in the top six for each of the last five races and taking a best finish of sixth in the final round.
Holland was a regular top ten finisher over the middle of the season with JamSport, but it was after a late move to WDE that he really showcased his potential, taking his first Clio podiums with third place finishes at both Silverstone and Brands Hatch GP.
Holland’s WDE move saw him run alongside Rory Green, who encountered a tough learning year with only one top ten finish in the first six meetings. His perseverance was rewarded though with a positive end to the campaign including a breakthrough fifth place finish at Rockingham.
In the end, only ten drivers competed in all nine race meetings across the season, with early exits coming from Freddie Hunt, whose much publicised entry with Team BKR produced an entertaining spell before funds ran dry, and Pyro’s Brett Smith who took four top six finishes in an eight race run.
Clio Cup veterans James Colburn and Lee Pattison both battled at the front during one-off returns with Team BKR and Cooksport respectively, with Colburn finishing a best of seventh at Thruxton, Pattison taking a fifth and a fourth at Knockhill.
Both Team Cooksport and JamSport Racing saw their driver coaches put in impressive performances on track meanwhile, Cooksport’s Jon Maybin finishing on the podium at Brands Hatch GP, JamSport’s Luke Kidsley taking a fourth at the same meeting.
A late surge of entries for the final few meetings saw newcomers Luke Price (Pyro), Alex Sedgwick (Cooksport), Ben Davis (Rangoni Corse), Tom Witts (Maximum) and Ben Palmer (20Ten) all take top six race results, with Tom Butler and Sam Watkins also making impacts on their debuts with 20Ten.
The standout performance from the new pack came from Paul Streather though with the returning Finesse Motorsport, the 2015 Michelin Clio Cup Series vice-champion stunning the paddock as he swapped the lead with Sutton in the final race of the season, eventually taking second place.
In the Masters Cup, a depleted entry saw Mark Howard and Graham Field being the only constants for the majority of the season. Howard had the edge over his adversary, with fourteen class podiums taking him to the title.
Ben Seyfried and Paul Knapp were early class winners meanwhile with SV and Cooksport respectively before disappearing four races in, while Peter Felix, Michele Puccetti and Pattison boosted the class entry at points as the season wore on.
Felix took three class wins in four races at Croft and Rockingham with 20Ten, while Pattison was a double victor at Knockhill, a feat matched by Clio Cup Italia regular Puccetti during his appearance at Silverstone with Rangoni Corse.
Howard’s Masters title success came as part of a clean sweep of all the championships on offer by Team Pyro. Alongside Sutton’s overall title and Graduate Cup victories, they dominated the Entrants Trophy in a season which saw them win their seventh drivers title in the last eight years.
That success came at the end of a fascinating championship battle full of great racing and plenty of twists and turns, in a season that saw a number of bright talents emerge as potential Clio stars of the future and increased entry numbers towards the end of the campaign hint at a positive 2016 season.