“We could be about to witness what could be the strongest and most spectacular season in history” – those are the words of Renault UK Clio Cup championship manager Will Fewkes, and as we look ahead to the 22nd running of the prestigious tin-top series, it’s hard to bet against him.
Following a spectacular 2016 campaign, the championship is going from strength to strength heading into the new campaign, with a huge 24 car entry filled to the brim with talented drivers – including six of last season’s seven race-winners.
With reigning champion Ant Whorton-Eales making the natural transition to the BTCC, it’s his chief title rival from last year that tops the bill this time around, Mike Bushell, who heads into the new season determined to add a second Clio title to his résumé.
The 2014 champion will once again compete with Team Pyro, a partnership that proved practically unbeatable in qualifying last season as he secured twelve pole positions out of eighteen, whilst the same tally of podium finishes saw him take the title fight down to a dramatic season finale.
Aiming to lead the challenge to Bushell will be the biggest revelation of the 2016 campaign Max Coates, who would exceed all expectations in his first season of front-wheel drive competition and firmly establish himself as one of the brightest young talents on the grid.
The popular Yorkshireman impressively notched a pair of pole positions and seven podium finishes including a breakthrough victory at Croft. Following that success, both himself and the Ciceley Motorsport squad have title aspirations in their second seasons in the series.
Paul Rivett will hope his experience can give him the edge this season though as he targets a record-extending fourth Clio Cup crown – the 2002, 2004 and 2011 champion aiming to push forwards after finishing fourth in the standings in each of the last two years.
Rivett leads a hugely impressive WDE Motorsport line-up that also features the two other race-winners from 2016, Paul Streather and Lee Pattison – both of whom join the WDE ranks hoping for more consistent front-running campaigns having seen early success fade away last year.
It’s not just the returning stars that will be fighting it out at the front of the field this season however, with a number of exciting new talents joining the grid – a pack headlined by a trio of strong prospects leading the charge for reigning champions JamSport Racing.
The most experienced of the three is former SEAT Leon Eurocup front-runner Lucas Orrock, who is joined by the reigning MINI Challenge vice-champion Nathan Harrison and former Ford Fiesta Junior champion Aaron Thompson – with all three more than capable of being series front-runners.
James Dorlin is one of the most exciting young talents joining the grid, having won both the JSCC and Clio Cup Series titles in the last three years. His graduation to the Clios comes with the returning Westbourne Motorsport, who also house former Ginetta Junior racer Myles Collins.
Both drivers will be able to benefit from the support of the ultra-experienced James Colburn. The 2011 vice-champion returns to the series full-time since 2014 with PP Motorsport, who will run from the same awning as Colburn’s family Westbourne outfit.
Two 2016 debutants back for more action this year are Dan Zelos and Ollie Pidgley, who have both jumped ship from the Ciceley squad. Top three qualifier Zelos hopes a move to WDE will produce more consistent front-running finishes, while Pidgley heads to Pyro for his second season.
They are replaced at Ciceley by three series debutants, with MINI Challenge graduates Sam Osborne and Luke Reade making the transition to the TOCA package, while former British GT racer Jade Edwards becomes the first female driver in the series since Mel Healey a decade ago.
Another team housing three series newcomers are Pyro, who will run karting graduate Jack McCarthy alongside Ginetta Junior front-runners Kyle Hornby and Cameron Roberts – all three of whom will contest the Graduates Cup against Harrison, Thompson, Dorlin and Collins.
One final Graduates Cup entrant comes in the shape of Shayne Deegan, who has set up his own SDR Motorsport team after competing in selected rounds last year with Cooksport. Another single-car entry comes with DRM’s Daniel Rowbottom, a top six finisher in 2016.
Westbourne are bringing some international flair to the series meanwhile with Italian racer Ambrogio Perfetti and Swiss driver Oscar Rovelli, with the latter set to battle for Masters Cup honours against Rivett, Pattison and JamSport’s series stalwart Graham Field.
The Clio Cup will run alongside the BTCC for nine of its ten meetings this season, skipping the visit to Knockhill, and with no less than fourteen alumni on the BTCC grid this year, the Clio Cup will once again be must-watch racing as the future touring car stars of the future look to make their mark.