14/08/2015

MID-TERM REPORT: ANT WHORTON-EALES

Staying in front in the Renault UK Clio Cup is hard enough; leading it all the way even harder. But so far that’s exactly what Ant Whorton-Eales has managed to do although he’s well aware of just how tough life could be about to become as the season enters its second half…
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The SV Racing ace won the opening race at Brands Hatch after a last lap, last corner lunge on Team BMR with Pyro’s Ashley Sutton for the lead and took another victory a fortnight later at Donington Park where he annihilated the lap record.

Things have not gone his way since, though, and although always consistently at the sharp end he has seen a once handsome gap to Pyro’s Ash Hand – fourth after Donington some 45 points behind – whittled down to just five as the title race prepares to head to Knockhill in Fife.

“It’s gone pretty well,” said Whorton-Eales. “We had a strong start but then I think it’s fair to say we’ve also had quite a bit of bad luck – nothing horrendous but definitely some hiccups. There have been some challenges in qualifying which have left us facing difficult races but we’ve always come out of them strong.”

Too true. A gamble to switch to slick tyres on a damp but drying track in qualifying at Brands Hatch did not work out and the result was sixth on the grid, but talk about going out and getting the win the next day. A mesmeric start put him into second and after shadowing Sutton all the way he made his move – robust but fair said the officials – at the final bend to win.

He was in the hunt in all three races at Donington and ended the weekend there with victory number two, a pair of seconds and a new lap record as well as an increased championship lead. His, luck, though, was about to take a dive...

In qualifying at Thruxton he was judged to have exceeded track limits and, with his best times disallowed, he was left to start the two races from seventh and then 11th on the grid.

“That didn’t help and I don’t think I was the only doing it, to be honest,” added Whorton-Eales. “It’s always satisfying overtaking lots of people and getting two decent results (a third and a fourth were his reward) but you don’t want to be starting that far back in the first place. If you’re near the front in qualifying then most of the work is done. If you’re not, then in the race you really can’t afford to hang about.”

Oulton Park and some controversy was next on the agenda. Whorton-Eales qualified fastest outright – his first pole position of 2015 – only for Paul Rivett to beat him away from the line and lead him all the way in race one (for his and WDE Motorsport’s first win of 2015).

In race two ‘AWE’ was quickly into the lead, however, and after rebuffing a bid by Sutton looked as if he was on course for win number three. A determined Hand had other ideas, though, and found a way past Whorton-Eales at the hairpin. Moments later their cars made contact, Hand was sent half-spinning down to second and Whorton-Eales came crossed the line in first. Cue the clerk of the course’s office and, after some deliberation, their positions were reversed with Hand being awarded the win with Whorton-Eales – his move on the Pyro driver having been judged unfair – demoted to second.

It meant more points had been lost to Hand and a few weeks later at Croft life became even harder when Whorton-Eales, on his first flying lap in qualifying, lost control of his car and crashed heavily. Although repairable, a relatively tame seventh in race one was all he could manage from the back of the grid, although in Sunday’s encounter he was able to scorch through to third – albeit behind both Pyro drivers.

“I feel slightly disappointed at losing the win at Oulton,” continued Whorton-Eales. “But I still had a pole and two seconds there. Twelve months ago I’d have been over the moon with that.

“At Croft we knew they (Hand and Sutton) put on a lot of tyres in testing whereas as we only ran two new fronts. If I could put on as many new tyres as they do then I’d be that fast too. In qualifying the tyres we had and the set-up we were running… it’s almost like the car had too much grip which is why I probably crashed. Without that then I think it would have been a totally different story in the races… I think we would have had some serious pace. My oval racing background served me well that weekend, at least – I’m used to racing cars that have been patched up after a bang.”

So, four events/eight races to go and the heat is on for Whorton-Eales, Hand, Sutton and Rivett who remains in the title hunt, just, heading to Knockhill. Whorton-Eales is aware that when the Clio Cup’s dropped score rule is applied then currently he is 11 points behind Hand but he says it is important not to over-react.

“There are two ways to look at dropped scores,” he continued. “Both Hand and Sutton have got one already (non-scores at Donington and Oulton respectively) whereas my worst is a seventh so from their side that’s a positive. But in effect they can only afford one more really bad one each whereas I’ve still got both my lives left to play with so that’s a positive for us.

“Besides it’s way too early to really start factoring in dropped scores. We’re only just over half-way into the second in effect. My goal is to leave each weekend still leading the championship – if we can extend the gap then proper job. If they catch up a bit then it’s not the end of the world.

“Of course I want to win every time I go on track but a win is not as important as some people make out. It’s just a trophy. I’m not getting myself bothered about winning every race. Hand has five wins so far but that’s no good if he can’t stay up there. The key is to remaining in the title hunt so you have a good chance at the final rounds.”

Finally, while not ruling out Rivett, Whorton-Eales clearly sees Pyro pair Hand and Sutton as the men he ultimately needs to beat.

“It’s those two,” he said. “We just look at it as Pyro – not one driver or the other. Riv’ might be there in a few races, but I don’t think he’s a massive threat. It’s the two Ashes and me.

“Sure it’s not going to be easy – it’s going to be properly hard racing and on four tracks that I love. I’m not a cocky person but I’m feeling plenty confident we can take the fight to them – I certainly don’t feel they are at some other level. It’s going to make very good telly…”