More wins than anyone else; more miles led than anyone else; more laps led than anyone else… Ash Hand ended the first half of the Renault UK Clio Cup season well and truly on a roll but even he admits that just two rounds in he was starting to wonder if his title hopes might already be over.
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It’s fair to say that this year Hand is a changed man in not just his application to his sport but also in dealing with pressure. Back with his team of old, Pyro, and now receiving tutelage from touring car megastar Andy Priaulx – one of the most headstrong drivers in the business – he is a much calmer individual and has found the consistency to match the speed that was already evident.

But more of that later. First to those early season doubts which raised their head at Brands Hatch’s opening race and escalated further at Donington Park…

Hand said: “Brands was OK. I was on pole for the race but third place at the finish was not what I’d planned. I spent the first laps defending too much while Ashley (Sutton) and Ant (Whorton-Eales) got away up front. I closed them down in the closing laps but it was nothing exceptional for me. In my own eyes it wasn’t good enough.

“So I went to Donington already thinking this might not be a good season and retired in the first race after a scrape with Paul (Rivett). In hindsight it was needless. It was early on in the season and a case of ‘who’s gonna be the man?’ Maybe a battle we didn’t need to fight…”

Consider that Whorton-Eales had won at Brands Hatch and Hand’s new team-mate Sutton the race in which he’d just retired at Donington. Hand was not in the best frames of mind as he went to sleep that night but Sunday at Donington changed everything.

“I woke up the following day a different guy,” recalled Hand. “My mindset was totally different. If I was going to be the guy who was going to win more than 50 per cent of the races then I had to be on form, have a plan and always be going forward at every point. I had to make sure that I wanted every aspect more than the others.

“And I won the day’s first race by a big margin.” A fourth place in the second race that day – the third of three fraught races at Donington – followed when he admitted: “The car wasn’t quite perfect and I overcooked it at the Old Hairpin and ended up very close to the wall – it was a massively hairy moment and I shouldn’t have pushed that far.”

Thruxton was next up and Hand was utterly invincible with two pole positions, two race wins and two fastest laps for a maximum score. Sutton was always in his mirrors, however, and there was a dramatic conclusion to the second race when their cars collided and left the circuit briefly.

Hand added: “I’d say I always had the upper hand – I was faster and better than him – but he played the slipstream well and stuck with me. But I’m ready for that. It’s all the changes I’ve made in my own head and applied. That win at Donington and the two wins at Thruxton were a big turning point. Suddenly I could look in the mirror and say ‘I know how to do it’.”

Oulton Park and another win followed and Hand reckons his victory there is his best drive of the season so far because of how he kept his cool in the car when tempers could so easily have flared following a controversial on-track incident with Whorton-Eales. Fighting for the lead their cars collided, Hand was tipped into a dramatic slide and Whorton-Eales won on the road – only for officials to later reverse their positions.

Hand continued: “It was a tough one – Oulton has never been my best circuit and it took me until the end of the weekend to get there. I ended it unbelievably fast and able to pass people and that is always going to boost your confidence.

“The move I put on Ant for the lead at the hairpin before our incident was probably the cleanest move ever at that corner. I’d put him under pressure and he bailed and I sliced perfectly up the inside of him.

“What happened next happened – it’s never easy holding on to a car when it’s trying to go backwards – and is why it stands out for me as my best drive so far. I could have lost my head but instead kept cool, opted to stay in second and let it be sorted by the officials. I knew what their decision would be…”

On to Croft. Hand was third in race one as team-mate Sutton romped to the win. Sunday, though, saw Hand back on the top step of the podium with win number five ahead of Sutton. “It sounds stupid but I was slightly disappointed – I’d gone there with the mentality I would win both races. When you go with such high expectations sometimes you are going to be disappointed,” added Hand.

“But I’ve spent the mid-season break getting myself even better prepared for what is to come – trying to understand how to get even more out of myself. I even did a European karting event to stay sharp and finished third despite not having been in a kart for three years. I’m feeling very good about things…”

Indeed the season is about to resume and, with just four race weekends to sort out the title, the pressure is sure to start mounting soon on Whorton-Eales, Hand, Sutton and fourth-placed Rivett who have broken clear in the point table.

Hand concluded: “All three are very good, in many different areas. Paul is very fast and experienced and you never count him out. Sutton is always very fast, very good at overtaking and always on the ball. You never know where you stand with him – you can be dropping him in a race and then suddenly he can be right on you. Ant… he’s always fast, he has the experience in the Clio Cup but can be unpredictable.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I don’t think I’ll feel the pressure because of the way I work which is race by race, logical and being clear on my plan and strategy. Pressure is an emotional thing and I’m not emotional. So long as I stick to what I’m doing now then I won’t feel it. If I do then it will be off the track, certainly not in the car…”