Howard started the season with 20Ten Racing before switching to multiple title-winning outfit Team Pyro from Thruxton onwards – giving him a privileged ‘ring side seat’ of the inter-team battle for the outright crown between its two young hot shots Ash Hand and Ashley Sutton (see separate story).
Mid-way through the season Howard comfortably leads the Masters Cup class for older drivers, although his campaign did get off to just about the worst start possible when his car was badly damaged in a nasty pile-up with JamSport drivers Thomas Grundy and Dan Holland at Brands Hatch.
“The onboard camera showed there was less than a second between seeing them in front of me to impact – 20Ten did an amazing job to have my car ready for Sunday’s race but it’s a weekend I want to forget,” he said.
“That accident had a knock-on effect for race one at Donington which replaced the called off-race at Brands – it meant I had to start from the pitlane and we seemed to get released very late after the others had cleared the first bend. I also have a mental block with the Craner Curves at Donington after a very bad roll there in 2010 and couldn’t overcome it. At the last corner of the last race I got a whack from Freddie Hunt and we both ended up off the track – I went easy on him with the clerk of the course. He owes me one!”
So on to Thruxton and the switch to Pyro and, Howard believes, a change in fortunes. He added: “I wasn’t even going to go – I’d been ridiculously off the pace in pre-season testing – but Pyro encouraged me to do it. I improved by an utterly crazy amount compared to the test.
“Oulton was next and it stands out as my best event so far this year just because of race two. Race one I was knocked off track by Rory Green – it wasn’t intentional, he’s a sound lad and he will have learnt from it. But in race two I had one of the best battles I’ve ever had in more than 25 years of racing with Grundy, George Jackson and a few others. I lost it at Cascades on the last lap – the back end stepped out and although I caught it several drivers came straight past. But it didn’t matter – it had been close fought all the way with totally clean racing.
“There was more of the same in race two at Croft. In race one the car conked out with a wiring loom problem but in race two it was just a long very fun battle again. Croft is an old school circuit with some really ballsy, fast stuff out the back which I’ll admit can be a psychological battle for someone of my age…”
Ah, the age thing. At 50 years old Howard – a Renault 5 Turbo champion in the early Nineties – says he’s been left mightily impressed by the level of commitment and skill being displayed by those in their late teens and 20s who make up the majority of the current Clio Cup grid.
“First of all I feel I’ve improved hugely and keep doing so every time I go out in the car,” continued Howard. “Take Oulton for example – last year I was three to four seconds off Jordan Stilp, my team-mate at the time. This year it was only three quarters of a second.
“Part of it is down to age and being a bit more fearless – there are chances a younger driver will take. There have been times when I’ve been screaming into my helmet doing a move or going for a gap to keep up with these lads. There’s a real battle of the mind as well as the physical aspect of it and that is one I am winning – I’m nearly two stones lighter than last year as I’ve been training to keep up my concentration levels in the car. The level in the Clio Cup has stepped up again this year so you need to be more professional to compete with these young guys as they have so much talent. That is the fun part of it.”
In addition to the level of competition and hard but fair action on-track, Howard says the atmosphere in the Clio Cup paddock and the manner in which the championship is organised is hugely attractive to racers both young and old.
“Everything is very professional and I really look forward to each event. It’s very important to always have a big smile on your face before you’ve even turned up…” he said.
“We’re coming up to some of my favourite tracks and I’m aware I need to get on top of my starts – I’m giving away places and losing touch with that midfield pack too easily. I’m also starting to get to grips with how the Pyro car behaves now but it is totally on the money. There’s a wealth of information and sharing of data within the team which is a real boost when you arrive at the circuit.
“I’ve had the three wins so far in the Masters Cup and a 45-point lead might sound a lot (over nearest challenger Graham Field) but I’m not cocky enough to say it’s mine for the taking. Never underestimate anyone! The Masters Cup is great fun for an older driver (over 38s) and I’d encourage any driver in their 40s and 50s to come and do it.”