Ten wins out of sixteen races and a 100 point gap to the second place driver. 2018 will likely go down as one of Ant Whorton-Eales finest ever.
In a MINI Challenge JCW class that regularly produces some of the closest national racing the UK has to offer, the 24-year-old seemed virtually untouchable throughout the season and in doing so, claimed his second title in three years. For many of the drivers in the series, BTCC is the ultimate aim, and with one years experience under his belt, AW-E made the strongest case he could to return to that paddock.
To say his ride to the title was easy would certainly not be fair either. Fresh out of Ginetta Junior campaign, Jordan Collard soon proved to be the most notable rookie during the opening Oulton Park round, as JCW again returned to the British GT support bill.
Collard collected pole, but it would be AW-E who beat him off the line, holding off the young contender. With Guest driver Paul O’Neill completing the podium, the connections to the UK’s biggest Touring Car Championship was obvious to see. O’Neill would not be the only BTCC Guest either, as Matt Neal and Rob Collard both made appearances over the year.
The series of course has produced plenty of its own stars, as 2016 runner-up Nathan Harrison returned for another shot at the title. The Excelr8 Motorsport driver had won the opening race of the year, only to be later demoted. A crash at the first Rockingham race, meant that by the time he collected his first win of the season at Snetterton, he was already on the backfoot.
Fortunetly for the unaffiliated, Snetterton had proved to be a turning point. After Collard’s pole was striped from him, due to the team recording the wrong tyre serial number, Whorton-Eales soon ran into engine issues of his own. Harrison’s win, opened the doors for a surprise race two, in which David Robinson picked up his first professional win since 2015.
The result had seen him hold off Jac Maybin in the closing laps, with the pair going side-by-side over the line. The 0.02 second gap proved to be the closest gap of the season.
Collard and series regular Rob Smith took wins at Silverstone with AW-E and Harrison rounding out the podium on both occasions. The second race proved to be contentious for many, but most notably for Maybin and Ollie Pidgley who collided on the formation lap, taking out the second row of the grid. Pidgley would later condemn the actions of his teammate, who retired as result. He also pulled out of the series one round later as Maybin, who had been the star of Snetterton, failed to crack the top five for the remainder of the season.
One driver who appeared to have no such trouble was Whorton-Eales. The first MINI Festival event at Oulton Park, again saw four drivers dominate, but this time Collard could not repeat his first round heroics, with Robinson picking up a double podium as Smith won the opening race. With Collard failing to challenge the leaders during the race, Whorton-Eales took full advantage in the reverse grid event, taking his first victory in five races.
As it turned out, this would be the start of a run of success for the JamSport racer, taking a string of seven victories back to back. This included a dominant weekend in front of the DTM package and a triple victory just a few weeks later at the MINI Festival.
These weekends weren’t perfect. Brands GP saw Robinson take pole, but the Excelr8 driver could only round out the podium in what would mark an early end to his campaign for the year. Robinson and Harrison had been AW-E’s closest rivals throughout the middle of the year and with Harrison again finishing second to Whorton-Eales in the final Brands race, the series was set up for a formality going into Donington Park.
Nothing less than a perfect weekend for Harrison would help his cause, but despite Whorton-Eales worst qualifying of the year (fourth), the champion-in-waited dominated the opening race of the weekend as Harrison couldn’t make his way past Collard, who picked up his first podium since his Silverstone win.
Despite missing out on the title, Harrison ended the year on a high by taking the final win of the year ahead of Collard and Smith, who filled out the top four in the championship respectively.
Henry Neal was one of the years biggest improvers. After a 2017 season that saw him only pick up a surprise win at Oulton Park, no further podiums and ninth in the championship, he was more of a threat this year. Three podiums and fifth in the standings sees the son of BTCC racer Matt, move closer to joining the country’s top Touring car series. Should he return for another MINI campaign, expect him to be in contention for the title.
Robinson’s early departure from the series set up a battle for sixth in the standings going into the final round. However a lackluster round from Maybin and Luke Reade saw Robinson hold onto his place, equal on points with Maybin as Reade failed to live up to his early season form in which he’d been as high as third in the standings.
Ninth place Lewis Brown quickly adapted to the front-wheel cars. The Ginetta GT5 Challenge champion, was the highest placed driver outside the big four teams. The AReeve Motorsport runner collected his only podium at Snetterton and remained ahead of Jack Davidson, Lawrence Davey and Rory Cuff who completed the top twelve.
31 drivers would score points towards the championship throughout the year with sixteen further guests making appearances. The most notable would be TCR racer Alex Morgan, who picked up a second at Brands Hatch GP and Dan Zelos who recorded two-thirds when the JCW’s returned a few weeks later, while Ben Palmer picked up pole position during his one-off appearance at Donington.
With the series confirmed to once again support the British GT package next year and a new season finale at Snetterton in October, JCW will once again aim to be the UK’s most popular one-make Touring Car series.