“I’m really proud to be able to put my name on the list of Renault UK Clio Cup champions.”
For Ant Whorton-Eales, the dream finally came true this season as he was crowned the 2016 Renault UK Clio Cup champion, a success that marks the culmination of five years of hard work in the BTCC support series.
In his first season with the JamSport Racing squad, Whorton-Eales was embroiled in a season-long duel with his former team-mate Mike Bushell for the honours, with the duo proving almost inseparable during a rollercoaster campaign.
It started off with huge highs and lows at the Brands Hatch season opener, with Whorton-Eales bouncing back from an exclusion in qualifying that deprived him of a double pole position to fight through from the back of the grid to a pair of top seven finishes.
That fighting spirit would be perfectly combined with superb raw pace through the season, with Whorton-Eales at his absolute best as he picked up five wins in the next six races, a run that launched a title-winning campaign that would eventually feature a sensational nine wins in sixteen races.
“It feels fantastic to finally win the title, I can’t believe it,” an elated Whorton-Eales told The Checkered Flag.
“We’ve been fighting hard for this all season and there’s been some massive ups and downs along the way. We’ve kept pushing, bringing the wins and the points home to make sure we came into the finale in contention for the title like last season.
“We’ve been in the championship lead then lost it, then got it back and lost it again. We’ve taken nine victories, but Mike has still been there throughout as he had the qualifying and the race consistency nailed, while for us the race starts and the race pace we have had has been mega.
“I’d have been very disappointed to have worked this hard all year and just miss out again, especially as it’s been made difficult for us with the same culprits thinking they can control who’s going to win the title. Luckily it’s all come together for us this year and I’m over the moon to finally get the title!”
Whorton-Eales’ title victory came in dramatic fashion during the Brands Hatch GP season finale, which he had headed into fourteen points adrift of Bushell, before seizing the advantage with a hard-fought fourth place finish in the opener as his rival retired.
That meant it all came down to the final race of the campaign in front of the live ITV4 television cameras, with the pivotal moment of the season coming on lap four as Whorton-Eales led the field after a short safety car period.
Heading into Graham Hill Bend, heavy contact from behind sent the leader sideways and as he got back on track, an inadvertent touch on the rear of Bushell’s Clio sent him into the barriers and out of the race, meaning the 22 year old took the title after nursing his car home to seventh.
“It was a tough weekend and we took some big hits, but luckily she held together and brought the title home. I can imagine it was quite dramatic to watch for the fans and on TV, trying to work out who was going to win it, but obviously it wasn’t how I wanted it to end,” he reflected.
“In an ideal situation, I wanted to be battling one-on-one with Mike [Bushell] for the lead of the race and have a proper fight to the finish. For me to be involved in an accident through no fault of my own and then tag Mike and put him out of the race, I was really gutted for him.”
Whorton-Eales’ success also marked a first Clio Cup title for the JamSport team, completing a remarkable rise for the Northampton-based squad who only made their series debut in the second half of the 2014 season, and have since grown into one of the top teams running up to seven cars.
“There’s a combination of things that have come together for us this year. The engineer I had at the end of last season with Maximum Motorsport stayed with me, so we brought that to the JamSport table alongside the amazing knowledge and skills that the team already possessed,” he enthused.
“I’ve not been with a Clio Cup team that has so many top level people just working on a Clio. It’s like a touring car set-up, and I’m confident that if they had a touring car in the awning, the staff they’ve got could make that car quick in the BTCC.
“Alongside the engineering talent that JamSport have, I’ve also been developing as a driver, learning new things, improving my racecraft and being more consistent, and it’s all just clicked. They all did such a fantastic job, the car has been spot on all season, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Looking ahead to 2017 and Whorton-Eales has his eyes set on the BTCC, aiming to follow in the footsteps of a number of Clio champions who made the step up in the following season, including Dave Newsham, Jack Goff, Mike Bushell and most recently Ashley Sutton.
Whorton-Eales got his first taste of BTCC machinery back in June when he tested a Team HARD Toyota Avensis at Snetterton, and the Lichfield-based racer says he is in talks with current teams to get more experience under his belt.
“100% the BTCC is where I want to be next season, and I want to copy what Ash Sutton has done, win the Clio Cup champion and twelve months on win the Jack Sears Trophy. Whether it’s where I’m going to be I’m not sure though, I know how difficult it’s going to be to get the budget together,” he commented.
“We’re in talks with a couple of touring car teams at the moment about arranging tests. They’ve both got drivers in their teams that have shown they know what they are doing, so it would be great to be able to go in, overlay my data with theirs and hopefully get close to the limit.
“The Snetterton tyre test in the summer with Team HARD went brilliantly, so hopefully if we can get a couple more tests under our belts with different teams and they go well, it will fill me with confidence that we could do it if the budget comes together.”
If Whorton-Eales does move on to pastures new next season, then it would bring to a close a five year tenure in the Clio Cup, during which he has grown from a 17 year old debutant at the end of 2011 to the 20th different champion in series history.
During his time in the series, Whorton-Eales has competed for Westbourne Motorsport, Scuderia Vittoria/SV Racing, Maximum and then JamSport, with two seasons spent as part of the coveted KX Akademy programme.
Whorton-Eales has finished in the championship top eight each season, improving his final position in the standings each time, with a total of 87 race starts producing 14 wins, 34 podiums, 57 top six finishes and 9 pole positions.
“It’s been a mega spell in this series and the championship has done so much for me. I remember back in 2012, my first full season with Westbourne, I couldn’t believe I was actually racing a Clio Cup car as ever since I had started racing, that was where I wanted to be,” he concluded.
“I was lucky enough to do two years in the third-generation car which was an absolute animal. They were a monster to drive, they were really loose, all over the place and you really had to drive them on the edge, so two years with them taught me so much.
“As I was developing as a driver, Renault were developing the new cars and to gain the knowledge of how to drive the fourth-generation cars properly, then bring myself to the front of the field and then win the title, it’s fantastic. It’s a brilliant championship on the best package in the UK and I’m really proud to be able to put my name on the list of champions, and now aim for bigger things.”