The 2017 MINI CHALLENGE – JCW season proved to be the story of one man, with Brett Smith wrapping up the title even prior to the final round. The Eurotech Racing star would claim six wins and multiple podiums in a year of pure consistency.
Dropped scores eventually became a non-issue as Smith eventually built up such a lead, that the question soon turned to ‘when’ he’d seal the title. With the exception of one seventh place at Rockingham, he’d never finish outside the top four.
Brett’s season cannot be underrated, even holding his own against BTCC driver and father Jeff Smith, who appeared for a few rounds throughout the year. With the unrelated Rob Smith also in the championship hunt, it’d be rare to see anyone not named Smith atop the podium.
By the time the field arrived back at Oulton Park for the MINI Festival, only Reece Barr was able to stop Brett before the Eurotech driver walked away with the crown.
Smith though, did not lead the series from start to finish, as Max Bladon and Charlie Butler-Henderson left the season opener as the drivers to beat, recording a pole & podium and a double podium respectively.
With CBH back in the field along with defending champion David Grady, many would have expected the pair to dominate, but instead Grady failed to record a podium at Oulton while the 2015 champion took an early lead in the standings.
Mark Wakefield had won the opening race, but soon found himself dropping from the leaders as wins from Reece Barr and Bladon at Rockingham saw them close up to CBH.
The top three in the championship seemed to be emerging, but the field was once again tipped upside down as they arrived at Snetterton.
BTCC driver Jeff Smith would enter alongside son Brett and with the circuit favouring the car allowed the pair to dominate. The champion-to-be had crashed in qualifying, but made a remarkable comeback in the race to steal third as Jeff dominated.
As Sunday rolled away, B Smith proved his skill, by pulling away from his father in race two, before climbing into the lead for race three and inheriting the championship lead as CBH failed to even start.
While many expected CBH, Rob Smith and Barr to fight back at Silverstone, Brett was not prepared to give up his advantage, taking pole and a race one win as Bladon took the second win of the weekend in a three lap sprint.
Two second places from Rob, ensured he was one of the few who could keep up with Brett Smith as the field joined the Cooper Pro class at Brands Hatch Indy.
Rob secured three consecutive second places as wins were shared by R Smith, CBH and Grady. It seemed to be a return to form for Butler-Henderson, but may have seemed too little too late as the Eurotech driver already had a stranglehold on the championship.
On the fields return to Brands Hatch in August, R Smith and Lawrence Davey proved to be two of the quickest drivers in the field, though another win from Brett simply saw him extend his lead as Barr’s consistency brought him back into play.
The penultimate round at Oulton Park Island was to be the JCW’s last chance to stop the consistent Brett who had well over a 100 point lead in the title fight.
Maiden wins for Henry Neal, who had started to show potential at Brands Hatch Indy and George Sutton gave many of the midfield drivers hope, though were frustrating for the front-runners as Brett’s second and fourth were enough to put it beyond the chasing Barr and Butler-Henderson.
The pressure was thus off the Eurotech driver, though he would not let up in the final round, winning both races and ensuring he finished the year on 823 points (756 with dropped scores,) a mighty 227 (191) points ahead of Barr.
Smith would record the most fastest lap points throughout the year, more than any other driver combined.
While he was forced to settle for second, Barr would secure the Rookies Cup and Retailers Trophy, after a successful maiden year with Excelr8. Behind them, the 2016 champion Grady, beat the 2015 champion; Butler-Henderson to third, as Rob Smith’s up and down year ensuring he finished fifth.
Grady had fallen away for some of the middle rounds, but made a spectacular comeback away from the British GT support bill, while Butler-Henderson’s poor results at Snetterton and Silverstone cemented his chances long before the final round.
On raw pace R Smith was arguably one of the fastest in the field, but like CBH suffered from a few unfortunate retirements, while his rivals were the personification of consistency. He recorded more pole positions than any driver. Should he return to the series, a championship charge is surely on the cards.
Joining the leaders would be Bladon. While many were hindered by poor starts to their campaign, the Cheshire driver was one of the quickest out of the blocks, only falling back in the latter rounds. While he would often be a contender for pole, often found it hard to retain track position.
Behind them, Wakefield and Sutton were often regular front-runners, though performance would vary greatly round from round. Meanwhile Neal and Brad Hutchinson rounded out the top ten.
Elsewhere, Paul Bell secured the Directors Cup, while Rebecca Jackson easily took the Ladies Cup, though will arguably be disappointed with nineteenth in the overall championship.
JCW has announced it will return to the GT support bill as it looks on course to maintain its regular grid of 26 cars.