While the 2016 Renault UK Clio Cup may have boasted one of the most talent-filled grids of recent seasons, full of young, hungry new drivers eager to make their mark at the front of the field, it was no surprise to see Ant Whorton-Eales and Mike Bushell emerge as the main players in what proved to be a thrilling championship fight.
2015 debut champion Ashley Sutton aside, in the previous three seasons it had been a driver in their third year of Clio racing which emerged as champion, and once again experience would prove to be key this season as Bushell and Whorton-Eales fought it out in their fourth and fifth full season of Clio competition respectively.
Back in pre-season all the eyes were on Bushell – the 2014 champion returning to the series after a season in the BTCC with the goal of becoming only the second driver in series history to win the title more than once, with a continuation of his partnership with seven time champions Team Pyro putting the rest of the field on notice.
Whorton-Eales meanwhile was getting set to tackle a Clio campaign with a fourth different team of his career, with a move to JamSport Racing in only their second full season in the championship producing an intriguing scenario for a driver who had title aspirations after finishing in the series top three for the first time last year.
While Bushell kicked off his series return with a podium finish at the Brands Hatch opener, Whorton-Eales’ campaign started with two sensational drives through the field after being excluded from a double pole position in qualifying, with 32 places gained in two races earning him a pair of top eight finishes.
That started a season filled with plenty of twists and turns for the title challengers, with Whorton-Eales quickly establishing himself as the man to beat early on with a brilliant run of five wins in the next six races – with one success at Thruxton coming after Bushell had won on-the-road but was handed a track limits penalty.
Tensions rose further next time out at Oulton Park as the duo came to blows on their way to a victory apiece, with it quickly becoming clear that qualifying supremacy and podium consistency would be key to Bushell’s title charge, while Whorton-Eales’ challenge centred around his all-or-nothing pursuit of race wins.
That approach would prove fruitful for Whorton-Eales, who would go on to win exactly half of the races across the season – a third clean sweep of the season on the penultimate weekend at Silverstone proving particularly crucial, with it ensuring that he headed into the Brands Hatch season finale only fourteen points adrift.
No-one could have anticipated the drama that would play out in Kent though. Bushell spinning himself out of the opening race whilst under the safety car was unexpected enough, but the unbelievable circumstances which led to Bushell crashing out of race two to crown Whorton-Eales champion will go down in folklore.
Bushell would therefore miss out on the honours despite a remarkable record of twelve pole positions out of the last fourteen on offer, and top five finishes in every race bar the season finale. While he couldn’t match that consistency, Whorton-Eales’ win record was enough to take him over the line.
While it was ultimately a two-horse fight for the title, there were two drivers at completely different ends of the Clio experience spectrum hovering not far behind the top two ready to strike if one or both hit trouble; former triple champion Paul Rivett and the standout ‘rookie’ in the field, Max Coates.
The achievements of the latter in his first season in the series shouldn’t be underestimated. In his first full racing campaign since 2011 and his first ever in front-wheel drive machinery, with a new team to the series in Ciceley Motorsport, the former Ginetta star and one-time BTCC racer was an absolute revelation.
Despite competing on a budget much lower than most his adversaries, which left him entering the season with limited pre-season running, Coates was able to hit the ground running against his more experienced foes, firing a warning shot their way with pole position on only the second weekend at Donington Park.
Coates would go on to make his podium breakthrough at Oulton Park to kick off a superb run of top three finishes in each of the last six meetings of the season. That would include an emotional first victory at his home circuit of Croft, with the popular Yorkshireman’s hard work and determination rewarded with third in the final standings.
Although Rivett missed out on an eighth top three championship finish of his Clio career, the 2002, 2004 and 2011 champion proved there’s plenty of fight left in the veteran yet as he was once again a regular visitor to the podium, with victories at Croft and Brands Hatch GP moving his championship record win tally up to 46.
While those four were the men to beat this season, back at Brands Hatch in April it was Lee Pattison and Paul Streather who had starred as they shared the opening wins – Pattison returning to the top step of the Clio podium for the first time in nearly three years, whilst Streather was victorious in only his third series start.
Both will therefore look back at the season with frustration after seeing their promising starts prove to be the peaks of their campaigns. That was especially true for Streather, who wouldn’t return to the podium for the rest of his first Clio year, though he did standout again with some sublime drives later in the year at Silverstone.
Pattison meanwhile would go on a fifteen race barren spell between podiums at Donington Park and the Brands Hatch finale, though he did come away from the season with a title to his name after winning the Masters Cup honours – though in truth he was rarely challenged through the season, taking all the class wins bar one.
While both drivers would remain in the series top six for the majority of the season, Streather was eventually pipped to the final berth by the impressive Josh Price – a late switch that meant the series just missed out on having six different teams represented in the top six positions (JamSport, Pyro, Ciceley, WDE, Cooksport and Finesse).
Price burst into the spotlight with a sensational display at Thruxton, a pair of top three qualifying results being converted into his first two podium finishes. Following a couple more top threes, the Pyro ace starred again at Brands Hatch GP, narrowly missing out on the race one win before scoring his maiden victory in the finale.
Another impressive new talent on the grid came in the shape of 2015 Ginetta Junior vice-champion Senna Proctor, who enjoyed a positive transition to front-wheel drive competition with Team Pyro. Once he’d sorted out some early qualifying difficulties, deserved podium finishes came his way at Oulton Park and Snetterton.
The trip to Norfolk also provided Luke Kidsley with a brilliant maiden Clio podium as he followed Whorton-Eales home for a JamSport one-two. That was one of two big moments for Kidsley this season, the other being a dramatic barrel roll at Brands Hatch GP – a fate that also befell Proctor, George Jackson and Dan Zelos this season.
Zelos endured a generally difficult first Clio campaign, having been tipped pre-season as a potential surprise package alongside fellow Ginetta Junior graduate Proctor. The Ciceley man showed flashes of his pace with top six qualifying results at Brands Hatch and Thruxton, but could only muster one top ten result all campaign.
Jackson meanwhile joined his Cooksport team-mate Rory Collingbourne in being unable to build on a strong end to 2015. An early sixth place finish at Donington would prove to be Jackson’s best, with a mid-season move to JamSport not changing his fortunes, while Collingbourne would only pick up five top ten finishes.
One driver who was a constant presence towards the front of the field meanwhile was Charlie Ladell, who secured a long-awaited first podium finish early on in the year at Donington. While the WDE man couldn’t turn that into regular top three results, he did return to the rostrum in the final race of the season.
Unlucky not to join him on the roll call of podium finishers this year was David Dickenson, who secured a best finish of fourth at Rockingham and qualified in the top three on two occasions, while Ollie Pidgley’s best chance came when he qualified in the top five for the season finale, but a race one incident ended his weekend prematurely.
As is the case in the championship every year, a number of drivers would dip in and out of the series for part-campaigns in 2016. That group included Daniel Rowbottom, who was a staple part of the top ten for the first five meetings of the year and had kicked off the season in style with the opening pole position on offer at Brands Hatch.
Anton Spires and PP Motorsport made their Clio Cup debuts this season, with Spires’ standout weekend coming at Thruxton when he carded a pair of breakthrough top six finishes. He wouldn’t contest the final two meetings though, with familiar face James Colburn taking four top ten finishes in his place.
Another former Clio talent to return to the grid was Jake Giddings, who took a best of tenth during a three weekend spell with family team Finesse, while an exciting addition to the grid from Snetterton onwards was BTCC dropout Chris Smiley, who immediately settled in the top ten and secured a best finish of fifth at Rockingham.
32 different drivers would compete in the championship across the season, including Paul Plant who took a top ten finish on his debut with Vanquish Motorsport, 2016 Mini Miglia champion Shayne Deegan who impressed with Cooksport, and two drivers who enjoyed competitive late one-off outings, Ben Davis and James Grint.
With no less than 22 of those drivers posting top ten finishes across the campaign, and six different teams represented in the top seven positions in the drivers’ championship, the 2016 Clio Cup campaign will go down as one of the most competitive of all time, with an incredible strength in depth down the grid.
That looks set to continue next season with all the big teams set to be back in action alongside returning former front-runners Westbourne Motorsport, and while Whorton-Eales has set his sights on following five of the last six champions in making the step up to the BTCC, the grid is sure to be blessed with lots of talent again for the 2017 campaign.
Full championship standings at the end of the season can be found here, while you can read our champion interview with Whorton-Eales by clicking here. Keep an eye on TCF in the coming weeks as well for a full statistical breakdown of the 2016 campaign.