Over halfway through the 2016 season and it’s all to play in the Renault UK Clio Cup, with just three points separating Ant Whorton-Eales and Mike Bushell at the top of the standings after ten races full of thrilling action and plenty of twists and turns.
In a campaign that has seen a host of established names and standout new talent making their mark in the tin-top championship, it’s fifth year contender Whorton-Eales who currently leads the way from 2014 champion Bushell, who returned to the series after a year in the BTCC.
Drawing comparisons to Bushell’s duel with Josh Cook on his way to the title two years ago, their battle has been close fought, as shown best of all at Oulton Park as they went wheel-to-wheel in both races to take a win apiece.
Alongside some great racing, their battle has also had its fair share of drama, with both drivers losing a race win courtesy of the stewards – Bushell’s due to a track limits time penalty at Thruxton, Whorton-Eales at Donington Park with an exclusion for a technical infringement.
The points leader’s penalty was later reversed however, meaning the JamSport Racing ace has five victories to his name for the season compared to a solitary success for Bushell, however the Team Pyro man holds more podium finishes, seven, and pole positions, five
While it looks set to be a two-horse race for the title, you can never rule out three-time champion Paul Rivett, who has positioned himself in third in the standings – his highest position at this stage of a season since 2013, when he was in contention for the title until the final rounds of the year.
Rivett started his third season with the WDE Motorsport squad in great fashion with podiums in each of the first four races, and then followed up a low key spell by converting pole position into a 45th career Clio victory at Croft last time out to keep his hopes of a fourth title alive.
Hot on his heels though is a driver at the other end of the Clio experience spectrum, Max Coates, who is making a huge impression in only his first season in the series with Ciceley Motorsport, themselves also a new addition to the burgeoning Clio paddock.
Three top six finishes in the first four races and a superb pole position at Donington set the tone for Coates, with a podium breakthrough at Oulton Park being followed by a stunning maiden victory at home circuit Croft, a result which has made the Yorkshireman an outside bet for the title.
While Coates is very much the driver in form at the moment, two drivers who have seen strong starts to the season fade in recent meetings have been Lee Pattison and Paul Streather, the two drivers who shared the wins at the Brands Hatch season opener.
2010 vice-champion Pattison hit the ground running on his full-time return to the series, leading the standings with three podiums in the first three races. While he’s been a regular top six finisher since, no returns to the top three have dropped him back to fifth in the points.
Streather meanwhile was straight back at the front following his remarkable series debut at the end of 2015 with three top four finishes in the first four races. The Finesse Motorsport ace has found the going tougher since though, with only one top five finish in the last six races.
Closing in on Streather and the top six of the standings are a trio of closely-matched Clio young guns, with just nineteen points separating Charlie Ladell, Josh Price and Senna Proctor – all of whom have taken maiden podium finishes within the last seven races.
After knocking on the door throughout the second half of 2015, Ladell finally made his rostrum breakthrough at Donington Park with WDE Motorsport, a result that comes amongst an impressive tally of six top five finishes so far this campaign.
Price’s standout weekend came at Thruxton when he starred with a pair of podium finishes, which he followed up with another top three at Croft, whilst in-between his Team Pyro stablemate Proctor turned a front-row qualifying performance into a third place finish at Oulton Park.
One DNF to Price’s two means Proctor sits above his team-mate in the Graduate Cup standings, albeit over sixty points shy of runaway class leader Coates, whilst there’s an even larger gap in the Masters Cup with Pattison over 100 points ahead of the only other class regular Graham Field.
Two experienced drivers who have shown they have the pace to trouble the front-runners are Daniel Rowbottom and David Dickenson. Both have showcased their potential with front-row starts at Brands and Croft respectively, but have so far been unable to convert it into podium results.
With Dickenson being one of four Pyro drivers in the top eleven of the standings, they currently hold a huge 83 point lead at the top of the Entrants Trophy. WDE and JamSport are locked in a close battle for second, whilst Cooksport are fending off Finesse and Ciceley for fourth.
Alongside Pattison, Cooksport’s contenders are second year drivers George Jackson and Rory Collingbourne. Both drivers have taken top ten finishes, but haven’t featured towards the front of the field as much as they would have hoped – their only top six coming from Jackson at Donington.
With similar top six ambitions are a quartet of drivers aiming to work their way towards the championship top ten. Anton Spires has achieved the feat with a fifth and sixth at Thruxton, whilst Luke Kidsley, Ollie Pidgley and Rory Green have shown in glimpses that they have the pace to do so.
One driver who clearly has the pace to be the front-runner, but has arguably been the unluckiest driver on the grid so far this season, is Dan Zelos. The Ciceley man has accrued five retirements and just a best finish of sixteenth, however his pace is clear with three top six qualifying performances.
As usual in the Clio Cup, a handful of drivers have made sporadic appearances in the series. Two of those, Jake Giddings and Paul Plant, have secured top ten finishes, whilst 20Ten Racing duo Sam Watkins and Tom Butler have not been far away.
Eight races remain for the Clio Cup field then, and while the championship battle looks set to be a two-horse race between Bushell and Whorton-Eales, anything can happen in the all-action Clio Cup and both Rivett and Coates will be ready to take advantage of any slip ups for the top two.
It’s not just about the title contenders however, as the ultra-competitive series has seen eleven drivers qualifying in the top three across the five sessions so far, with seventeen drivers finishing in the top ten in the races, meaning a host of talented drivers are capable of battling at the front.
The series returns to action next weekend (30/31 July) at Snetterton in Norfolk, before they have a four week break before the next rounds at Rockingham (27/28 August). The penultimate meeting comes at Silverstone (17/18 September), with the season finale at Brands Hatch (1/2 October).
Full championship standings ahead of Snetterton can be found here.