22/12/2016

Top ten season review: Champion Ant Whorton-Eales - the man who would be king

Blistering opening lap pace, stunning overtakes, incredible car control, a 50 per cent win rate… from the moment the pit lane opened for first qualifying in 2016, Ant Whorton-Eales looked every inch the man to beat in the Renault UK Clio Cup and so it proved, although a highly charged season finale meant he was still made to sweat before being certain of the crown.
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The Lichfield racer was finally assured the 2016 title in the very last race of the year – a seventh place finish on the Brands Hatch GP circuit more than enough to do the job after arch rival Mike Bushell had crashed out following a clash between the pair. To that later…

In the meantime, here are some raw statistics that underline just how devastating Whorton-Eales’s form was for the rest in 2016.

He achieved ten podium results from the 18 races. Nine of those were victories! He never finished third. Bizarrely he qualified on pole position just the once, for race two at Donington, which brings us nicely onto his overtaking prowess. Indeed asking him to make up places was like a red rag to a bull…

In every race Whorton-Eales contested he made places, with the only exceptions Snetterton (retirement) and Brands GP when, with a title at stake, a little caution was perhaps required. Add up all the places he made – grid position to end result – and it comes to a staggering 74 across the season. Twenty third to eighth and then 23rd to sixth in Brands Hatch Indy’s opening two rounds immediately stand out. As does tenth to first in atrociously wet condition at Rockingham. As does fifth to first (at the first corner!) at Thruxton. It goes on…

A fortnight later at Oulton Park he twice started fourth yet took second and first places. Despite a perilously narrow stretch of track he did it again at the start, sweeping past Messrs Bushell, Proctor and Rivett in the opening few hundred metres…

Fifth to first by Thruxton’s first corner (all right, then, the second one, Campbell) and fourth to first into Old Hall at Oulton… nobody got the UK Clio Cup race car off the line quite like Whorton-Eales. No arguing there.

However it is possibly his inspirational move in the second of Snetterton’s two races that people will remember the most during 2016 when he timed to perfection a run on JamSport team-mate Luke Kidsley and Bushell (fighting for the lead) to pass them both on the exit of the rapid Riches corner.

“I’m not one for bragging but I’ll admit that was 100 per cent planned” recalls Whorton-Eales. “Well I thought I’d clear Mike, not necessarily Luke. You can plan a move as much as you like but there’s never any guarantee the other drivers will go where you expect them to go. It just worked out perfectly, I guess. Luckily Luke held on to second behind me and we got the first one-two result for the team which made it extra sweet.”

Thruxton had marked something of a turning point in Whorton-Eales’s career. Two wins on a circuit not known to be his favourite (the legacy of a big crash there some years back) thrust him into the championship lead after some turmoil in the opening four races at Brands Indy and Donington.

As mentioned above, he twice came through from 23rd on the grid on the tight Brands Indy circuit – the consequence of being excluded from qualifying because of a technical infringement with his car after he’d set times good enough for pole position for both races. It was a bitter blow.

Having won race one at Donington he went and did it again in race two only to be removed from the results some hours later, again because of a suspected technical irregularity with his car. This though would later be over-ruled just prior to Croft and now, with two wins at Donington confirmed, another two at Thruxton plus victory and second at Oulton Park, he was on top of the table.

“It was a challenging start to the year to say the least” adds Whorton-Eales. “But I had no doubts in JamSport’s capabilities of winning it and that’s why I went with them. In the end I suppose the biggest feeling was one of relief – that finally we’d got the job done and now we can move forward.”

He adds: “When I look back on the season, obviously the double overtake for the lead at Snetterton was a bit special. But Thruxton was good as well after not qualifying so well there. Tenth to first in just over a lap in the wet at Rockingham and then going on to win by a big margin was a nice moment, too. I don’t mind those conditions too much with all the stock car experience I’ve got, but even I’ll admit at times it got very hairy out there!

“Oddly enough the biggest pressure in any of the races came at Silverstone. I was in front pretty much all the way holding off a long queue of cars who were all benefiting from the slipstream effect behind. That was tough work.”

Whorton-Eales’s two wins at Silverstone – numbers eight and nine – meant that heading to the final two rounds on the Brands Hatch GP circuit he was most people’s favourite for the title. But not everybody’s for Bushell was still very much in contention.

In race one there things swung very much in AWE’s favour as Bushell span out on a greasy track. But still the job wasn’t finished. It was going to come down to the very last race on the Sunday. What happened next has been well documented – Whorton-Eales was sent into a lurid slide by contact from Paul Rivett and, in fighting to regain control of his car, he and the following Bushell collected one another. Bushell went crashing out of the race meaning Whorton-Eales was automatically guaranteed the championship.

“It’s not the way I’d ever want it to finish – Mike definitely did not deserve that,” concludes Whorton-Eales. “Whatever happened, going into that race I was always confident we would still come out ahead. Our race pace as we showed time and time again in 2016 was generally superior to everybody else’s… so winning the title wasn’t like a big shock. If anything, looking back, I’m disappointed I didn’t go for it a lot more when I knew Mike was out. I was Champion whatever. Instead I drove like Miss Daisy in that race!

“I’d say Mike and I over the course of the season were quite equal. He was the better qualifier and I was better in the races. We shone in different areas.”