2016 marks a landmark year for the Renault UK Clio Cup as the championship celebrates its 25th anniversary season, with the series looking as strong as ever this year as it continues to enjoy a prominent position on the support bill for the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship.
Starting with Steve Waudby’s inaugural title win in the first-generation Clio back in 1991, the championship has been on a winding journey in the intervening period, with four generations of car, nineteen different champions and sixty separate race-winners.
From the incredible 40+ entries in 2007 that came with the introduction of the Clio 197, to a low of eleven when the current car began its tenure two years ago, the series has been through its fair share of highs and lows.
Two of the key men currently behind the running of the Clio Cup, Jeremy Townsend and Will Fewkes, sat down with assembled media at Thruxton earlier this month to discuss where the championship currently stands and outline their hopes for the future.
Townsend, Renault UK’s Communications Director, was quick to express his pride at the series’ continued success within the biggest racing package in the UK: “Renault has had over forty years history with British motorsport and we’re committed to it through and through. It’s in our DNA, from Formula One right through to national motorsport,” he said.
“In the UK, our focus is on the Clio Cup and we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary of the championship this year. We’re been with the TOCA package for that length of time as well and we’ve signed a three year agreement to carry on until at least 2019, as this is the place to be.”
After seeing grid sizes edge over 20 during the thrilling climax to the 2015 season, the series was able to attract 23 cars for the opening rounds at Brands Hatch this year, the largest entry for a season opener for three years.
While the entry dropped to 21 for the Thruxton meeting with some drivers only completing part-campaigns due to work and education commitments, Fewkes is confident the championship’s grids will grow again as the season progresses.
“I think we raised the standards last year with the quality we had on the grid, and there was a brilliant title fight as well, and we’ve come out the blocks in 2016 with a grid that has been raised to another level,” said Renaultsport UK’s Motorsport Championship Manager.
“I think we’ve had a really positive start to the season and I’m expecting it to get a little bit better as the season goes on and we will probably see the grid swell to about 27 before the end of the year. The championship is going in a good direction.”
Not content with that figure though, Fewkes is determined to see the grid expand further in 2017 and believes the stability of running the established fourth-generation Clio, coupled with the level of service provided by Renault, will continue to attract new entries.
“I’d like to see the championship with 28 to 30 cars on the grid. Normally the product goes in phases of seven or eight years, and we’ve still got plenty of time left with this car,” he reflected.
“I think originally in 2014, we didn’t push this car enough when it came out, but I think that people are aware now of how good and reliable the car is, and the running costs, plus the support we can provide them.
“I think we will get more entries in. I’m talking to teams at the moment that are looking to come in and we’ve got cars ready to go. I think we’re in a good place at the moment, and on a whole we want to stay at the forefront of British motorsport.”
It’s not just the size of the grid that’s increased this season, but also the quality and competitiveness, with a number of new teams and drivers, including single-car entries, immediately making an impact at the head of the field as they take the fight to reigning champions Team Pyro.
“I am impressed with the standards that teams have come in with. It’s a tough championship now,” Fewkes enthused.
“Pyro have done a fantastic job over the past eight years or so with the success they’ve achieved, and people are now looking up to them and they want to be at that standard. I think it’s going to be really close this year.”
The class of 2016 has brought with it further connections to the BTCC, including two drivers with top-level touring car experience entering the ranks, Mike Bushell and Max Coates, along with leading BTCC outfit Ciceley Motorsport, whilst Team BMR have increased their driver support in the series.
Fewkes continued: “That’s been a big change for the championship, having people moving up to the BTCC and moving back to the series. It’s crucial for us and I feel it’s a testament to the quality of the championship that we’ve got people like that in it.”
Despite the strengthened links with the BTCC and the increased popularity of Britain’s premier touring car series, which drew a record 33,000 crowd to Thruxton, Townsend is keen to downplay the likelihood of a Clio champion stepping up to the BTCC in Renault machinery.
“To be honest, we probably have a phone call every couple of months from somebody with an idea about that and we do think about it a lot,” he explained.
“The British Touring Cars is very successful, with a big grid, and for Renault we could be one of that grid, or have thirty minutes of a grid of our own and that’s what we’re concentrating on. Let’s keep doing what we do and do it properly.”
Fewkes meanwhile was keen to stress that while the Clio Cup has established itself as the number one feeder series for the BTCC, the skills gained by drivers at the head of the field can also open doors to successful careers in other disciplines as well.
“The championship such a solid base for people that want to not only move into touring cars, but also GT’s,” he commented.
“We’ve got proven graduates in each formula, with some eighteen drivers on the current BTCC grid who came through Renault, and then also the likes of Jake Giddings who’s making a one-off return this weekend, who left Clios and went on to win British GT4, plus Tom Onslow-Cole and Jonny Adam who are GT champions.
“This is a championship that drivers know that if they’re at the front, they are building themselves a credible name and it really does help you go on and do other things.”
Some changes to the key personnel involved in running the championship at the beginning of 2015 is felt to have been the spark behind the recent resurgence of the series, with Townsend expressing his happiness with the current position of the series.
Both of the Renault duo acknowledge though that the challenge now lies with continuing the current positive spell for the series and ensuring the product doesn’t turn stagnant, but also making sure that any new ideas and changes don’t disrupt the key philosophies of the series.
Townsend concluded: “We made some changes to the team at the start of last year, and we’re very happy with the changes we made. We needed to raise our game and I always believe that if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll get the same result, so we wanted to make a change.
“It’s is always a challenge to keep it fresh and we’re always conscious of cost. This has to be an affordable championship and we’ve got a reliable and cost effective car at the moment.
“The current team are doing a great job and we’re very pleased with how it’s going. The grids are improving and we at Renault are very much committed to this championship.”
Fewkes added: “I think it’s safe to say the series got a little bit complacent. We’ve got a good product and it was about ensuring the right structure was there as well. It’s starting to flourish.
“The car we’ve got on track at the moment is a very good, reliable product. It’s great value for money. It’s a brilliant car and one that drivers who come into the championship can develop with.
“I think it’s about the service that we supply to the teams and drivers as well, you can’t match it anywhere else. We really work hard on ensuring we meet the needs of our clients.
“We work well with the teams and we’re always willing to listen to their opinions and ideas, see where they want the championship to go, and take them into consideration whilst looking at the whole picture.”