Three years ago, British Touring Car Championship fan Michael Crees was cheering on the likes of Jason Plato from the grass banking at Brands Hatch. After the opening three races of 2019, he sits a point clear of Plato after a surreal debut at the same venue.
“I’m still living the dream aren’t I?” said the Kent rookie after securing points on his maiden BTCC outing for Team HARD at a more misty Brands Hatch.
“I‘m watching it back, and I’m rubbing and racing with people like Mark Blundell. It’s crazy.”
’92 champion Tim Harvey claimed he hadn’t seen enthusiasm from a driver on their debut since a fresh-faced teenager called Tom Chilton made his mark in ’02, despite not having a driving licence at the time.
It was hard to decipher the BTCC’s latest rookie from fans during Sunday’s autograph session, as the brimming Crees mingled with opposition in between signing programmes and Team HARD memorabilia for the paying public.
It was equally as difficult to differentiate between race winner Josh Cook and the Volkswagen CC driver after the opening race of the season. Crees came home 47 seconds later than the winning BTC Norlin Honda in 12th place, but his fist-pumping show of emotion – door flung open – on the slow-down lap dwarfed even the sofa-bouncing antics of Tom Cruise, and showed just how much a strong start meant to him.
Yes, it was aided by mother nature. Yes, Crees was one of those on the correct slick compound required, but it was a moment made poignant by the short backstory of the local.
“It’s funny, because it was only a couple of years ago I was that person out there [as a fan]”, adds Crees. “You’d pay your ticket, go in and then try to see the drivers as you go.”
The racing CV of Crees is a slim one at the age of 35. Three years ago, he was among the crowds that flocked to the circuit, waiting for a chance to meet his idols on the pitlane walkabout in between Sunday’s packed race schedule.
A rapid rise through the ranks followed thanks to a venture into the Ginetta GRDC + Championship with Ben Hyland’s Want2race initiative, which came to fruition in ’17 after Crees was a competition finalist, helped by former race winner Paul O’Neill. The reward was a title in his maiden season of car racing, and that 100% record would only continue in ’18, after a substantial leap up the Ginetta stepladder into the GT4 Supercup’s Amateur class.
What began as a learning season with Century Motorsport soon became much more as Crees edged clear of his rivals in claiming 11 class wins and the title, batting off the experienced Colin White along the way.
Crees was soon testing one of the four Volkswagen CCs for Team HARD before completing the deal to make his BTCC debut within three years of the day he was once watching team boss Tony Gilham’s cars battling at the very same Brands Hatch Indy circuit.
“People like Jake Hill and Bobby Thompson have been my mates and they’re the ones I used to follow. I’ve got videos on my phone of when I used to be following them, and now suddenly I’m racing them. It’s mega.”
In fact, taking Dan Cammish’s hotly-hyped top-10 debut for Team Dynamics last season out of the equation for the moment, 12th place for Crees was the best result by a rookie in the BTCC in their first race since Ashley Sutton’s top-five showing for Triple Eight back in ’16.
First race results in rookie season (2015-now):
Results of 23rd and 18th followed, but a sloppy day for many was brought upon by the wet weather gods. Among those affected included reigning champion Colin Turkington who emerged just 10 points better off (13th overall), and double champion Plato who only salvaged three points from a Sunday which started brightly from the front row – one point less than Crees.
Take into account the experience difference of 20 years between the pair, and the cool-down lap delirium of Crees becomes understandable to any onlooker.
“The fans have really loved it”, he added. “It’s showing a bit of emotion, and it looked like I won the race when I’d come 12th. It felt amazing though. There’s a lot more to come from me this year.
“I always watched Plato. He’s always been the man; you say British Touring Cars and one of the first things you say is Jason Plato. Being on a Facebook Live with him on the Saturday and actually meeting him, we got on well and hopefully we can help each other in the future. He’s probably the person I’ve looked up to most in the sport.”
Another driver Crees briefly headed in the early standings was team-mate Jack Goff. The most experienced member of Gilham’s four-strong line-up was one of the many caught out by the weather, which better resembled an episode of Scooby Doo than a day at the race track.
Changeable conditions are a great leveller, but can create a nightmare scenario for a rookie. The field was split, predominantly towards wets which was the preferred choice for many names you would sway towards including Plato, pole-sitter Sutton, the West Surrey Racing BMWs and – more crucially for Crees – the similar Team HARD Volkswagen CC of Goff.
“Obviously it was a gamble; taking slicks on my first ever race on a wet track was quite a risk but I’m glad we did it – especially when Jack Goff had gone wets.
“He gets out of the car and can tell you exactly what’s going on, which has really helped me relate to the situation. When I saw he had gone wets I thought ‘well, if he’s gone for them… maybe this was the wrong decision’. We stayed with it, and it paid off.
“It was all about learning. We went for a pretty safe set-up because what we had we were happy with. We didn’t change anything in FP1 and FP2 because I just knew how to drive the car with that particular set-up. We got some laps under our belt, got quicker and quicker and every lap I was getting quicker.”
In fact, the entire field entered qualifying covered by a mere 1.5s, threatening lap record pace which was most recently lowered in testing by Sam Tordoff in an older Honda Civic. While the weather dilemmas left everybody wondering what the pecking order still is after the weightless barometer of race one passed by, the distraction was welcomed by the rookie ahead of the tough task lying ahead.
“It gave me the head-start that I needed”, he said. “My race pace was keeping me up there with [Senna] Proctor and Matt Neal – I know if I can qualify well then I can compete.
“I made just one mistake when I let Colin Turkington and Tom Oliphant through in race two. The next thing you know I went from 13th to 27th in one lap because I got hit a few times – it was a ‘welcome to BTCC’ and they were putting me back in my basket!
“Let’s not forget, we wanted top-20s all year. To get two of them in the first weekend was just unbelievable, and it just shows that I’ve got the pace to mix it with them.”
All Photos by Jakob Ebrey Photography