Top ten season review: No.3 Max Coates – real star potential

It’s rare for a driver to just breeze into the Renault UK Clio Cup and start mixing it up with the more established names but, even with a team that was also new to the game, that’s just what Max Coates did in 2016 en route to a richly deserved third in the standings.
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The North Yorkshireman is still only 22. Yet when he announced his plans to join Ciceley Motorsport for its first venture into the UK Clio Cup it already felt he had been around for ages thanks to bit-seasons in a number of the British Touring Car Championship’s supporting categories, plus a one-off in the BTCC itself.

The results were spectacular: he was on pole position for only his third race (at Donington Park); he took a maiden win at, of all places, his home circuit of Croft; there would be seven podium results in all plus another pole (at Silverstone); he followed Ashley Sutton as a convincing winner of the Graduates Cup title for young, first-year drivers.

Not only that but Coates did it all – get this – on a modest budget compared to many of his rivals and using the same car and engine as raced by Charlie Ladell for the WDE Motorsport team in 2015.

“We didn’t have the budget to run new tyres in the Friday tests at events and we also saved a lot in terms of damage – I finished every race and was the only driver to do so inside the top ten every time. That’s a record I’m very proud of,” says Coates.

“Above all I’ve massively enjoyed my racing in 2016. To finally get a full season together meant a huge amount as it enabled us to put a proper plan in place with sponsors and looking ahead. It’s done wonders for me in terms of performance and profile, too.

“It’s why I work hard away from events on the sponsor side – I’m not in the luxurious position where I don’t need sponsors – and also on media presence. You know when I did that BTCC event I saw a little bit how Colin Turkington operated and he seemed to me to be the ultimate professional. It’s how I like to go about my racing.”

But what about those results? Coates feels it was at Oulton Park – the fourth weekend of the nine-event calendar – where he really got into his stride.

“Sure we had the pole at Donington but I’d say at that stage things were still gelling between me and the car – I was quick for a single lap which is what qualifying is about, but there were still a few small mistakes in the races. At Donington, for example, both my starts were dreadful.

“At Thruxton we had a problem in qualifying with suspension and brakes which put us way down the grid. No, definitely Oulton was where it started to come alive for us. We got our first podium there and every event afterwards we were in the top five and fighting for podiums if not wins.

“Looking back, the first three events at Brands Hatch Indy, Donington and Thruxton… that’s where we lost our chance maybe of taking it to Ant (Whorton-Eales) and Mike (Bushell) at the end of the season.

“There’s a lot of ground to be won and lost in those opening events but I suppose it was to be expected – we’d barely done any pre-season testing and it was all a bit new to me and Ciceley so it was going to take a bit of time to get into the swing of it.”

Coates’s win at Croft was undoubtedly a major highlight – probably even of ITV4’s live coverage of all things BTCC in 2016! But so, too, was a podium result at Snetterton where there were just as many tears after learning one of his greatest supporters, his grandfather ‘TRAC’ (see Coates’s car), had passed away.

Coates has already announced he will return in 2017 with Ciceley so how does he feel about going into the new season as, gulp, ‘a title favourite’?

“I hope people will look at me favourably like that,” he continues. “But it is never that easy. If Paul Rivett and Josh Price are back, for example, they are immediately going to be very hard to beat. Look how they finished the season – both won.

“For 2017 we’ll have more budget to run tyres in Friday testing and we’ll get more running in pre-season. And iron out any mistakes from 2016. But for my first full season in anything for quite some time and in something as tough as the UK Clio Cup I can’t complain about my year.”