CATERHAM ACADEMY DEBUTANTS CONQUER WET CONDITIONS AT OULTON PARK


It was a special occasion for a particular group of drivers over the BRSCC’s opening race weekend of the delayed 2020 season at Oulton Park, as the latest class of the Caterham Academy ventured on track for the first time in their fledgeling racing careers, taking on wet and treacherous conditions in their first-ever competitive track action.

The Caterham Academy is a series that is dedicated to drivers that have never held a competitive licence before. Since 1995, the Academy has turned ordinary people into fully-fledged racing drivers, taking them through their ARDS test together before taking on a handling and setup day, and a joint test day before heading into competitive racing action. Typically, the Academy would head to a sprint for their first event, however, due to the pandemic causing the postponement of all motorsport activity in the UK, the drivers would instead get their season underway on track in Cheshire.

First out on track for their inaugural race would be the White Group, where the honour of the first pole position went to Hugo Bush by almost seven-tenths of a second, with James Walker (aka Mr JWW on YouTube) claiming a front-row starting spot alongside him for his first racing start. German rookie Domenique Mannsperger would start in 3rd with Simon Shaw on the second row of the grid, ahead of Ian Brown and Taylor O’Flanagan, then Nick Timpson, Sam Gibbons, Ryan Meager and Eike Schick.

Bush was able to get a great jump away from pole as Walker struggled off the line and was beaten away by both of the second-row starters Mannsperger and Shaw. O’Flanagan was also able to take advantage too and the two yellow cars of Shaw and O’Flanagan were into podium positions with Walker dealing with an early attack from Mannsperger behind him. The pair went side by side through Shell Oils with the German gaining the place on corner exit on the outside line, but Walker had a chance to retake it heading into Knickerbrook which he ultimately had to give up. Bush, meanwhile, would end the opening lap in the lead ahead of Shaw and O’Flanagan with the leader already trying to escape up the road.

Given that the conditions were far from ideal for the first-ever race for these drivers, the majority appeared to be handling them incredibly well given their lack of experience. Walker managed to give Mannsperger a taste of his own medicine with an outside pass at Shell Oils to reclaim 4th and then attacked O’Flanagan for 3rd heading into Hislops to no avail. He tried again at Druids with the two cars making light contact without compromising either driver, but finally, the move was done with a daring dive inside at Cascades – albeit only briefly as on corner exit Shaw would take the position back, allowing both O’Flanagan and Mannsperger to remain close.

Walker tried again into Hislops but had to sit back for a second as Shaw’s hesitance to put the power down in the wet closed everyone together. Then, Walker’s race took a nosedive as a loss of grip through Druids sent him spinning in the middle of the track, leaving O’Flanagan to take to the grass in avoidance. Such was the gap to the cars behind them that Walker was able to rejoin still in 5th place ahead of Nick Timpson. With Bush still leading and Shaw still holding 2nd, Mannsperger was now up to 3rd place ahead of O’Flanagan as he took advantage of the mishaps moments before. Further back in the pack from the leaders, Ryan Lovett lost control heading into Hislops, breaking a distance marker board and glancing off the barrier before swiftly rejoining after a few moments stationary in the run-off area. Back with Mannsperger, he wasted no time in taking his turn to apply pressure to Shaw and soon passed him to claim 2nd place and it was clear that in the ever-changing conditions, the German had better pace in the latter stages of the race.

A new fastest lap from Mannsperger saw him gain almost 1.5 seconds on leader Bush, and he continued to push through the rain over the next couple of laps to steadily bring the gap down. Behind them for 3rd, Shaw impressively held on to the position from O’Flanagan by taking the outside line through Island Bend to deny a pass. Staying close of the next few corners, O’Flanagan passed for P3 inside of Lodge and maintained the place despite instant retaliation from Shaw. Meanwhile, Mannsperger’s confidence was sky high and he made a high-speed dive into Cascades just as the pair came across backmarkers, with the German making it stick and remaining in front from there.

Despite a couple of hairy moments lapping backmarkers in the final lap and a half, Mannsperger took it all in his stride and charged to victory in his first-ever race to win the White Group portion of the day’s racing. Bush claimed a strong 2nd place from pole despite applying pressure late in the day in the final few corners, while O’Flanagan stood on the final podium step in 3rd ahead of a close finish for 4th place that saw Shaw just beat Walker. Timpson, Brown, Gibbins, Alex Vincent and Christopher Broom filled out the second half of the top 10.

Not long afterwards, it was time for the Green Group to take their turn on a track that was considerably drier than it had been for their White Group counterparts but was still damp in places. Pole position would go to Chris Skillicorn with the margin between himself and 2nd fastest man Tom Cockerill just under a tenth of a second, however the second row of Denizhan Erkan and Andy Lund at least a second slower than those ahead of them. Gwyndaf Jones and Colin Gould then came next, ahead of Micah Lazarus, Bruce Duckworth, Ian Hapgood and Peter Mott completing the top 10.

A stuttering start from both front row men allowed Lund to get a superb launch from the second row to lead the way heading into Old Hall for the first time, with Skillicorn slotting into 2nd place ahead of Cockerill. But just behind them, three cars ended up spinning at Cascades including Erkan, Jones and Lazarus as they all tried to find their limits and discovered them. Meanwhile, Skillicorn had retaken the lead from Lund and soon enough Cockerill retook 2nd to ensure both of the front row starters we back in the original positions they’d lined up. Lund’s fortunes then got worse when too much speed into Druids and spun out onto the grass, before yet again spinning on the exit of Lodge just one corner later. Not quite the smoothest start to Andy’s racing career!

The lead two were clearly in a class of their own and with Gould holding station in no man’s land in 3rd, the main fight was for 4th place in the early stages between James Griffiths and Bruce Duckworth. Incredibly after a couple of laps, a charging drive from a recovering Erkan allowed him to not only catch the pair but also pass them in quick succession, eventually making a daring pass up the inside of Griffiths for 4th place exiting Island Bend before they’d even touched the brakes for the Shell Oils hairpin. Not long after losing out, Griffiths was caught by the cars behind in a battle for 5th which he ejected himself from after tagging the wet grass through Hislops and spinning out of the group.

Back at the front and the leading pair of Skillicorn and Cockerill were nose-to-tail and heading to the closing stages of the race, Cockerill was sensing an opportunity of his own to snatch the lead. Incredibly, it came when the pair came up to lap a backmarker as Cockerill caught Skillicorn napping on the approach to Hislops and hoodwinked him as they moved through the chicane. Skillicorn made sure that he remained close and managed to repass for the lead through Lodge with the two cars together as the last lap began. Cockerill tried to look inside at Old Hall but ended up squeezed against the pit wall. Getting his revenge, Cockerill charged up the inside at Island Bend to fly back through into the lead and it looked as though the drama was over – but not quite!

Heading into Druids, incredibly both cars lost grip and ended up off the road in tandem, with Skillicorn half spinning while Cockerill tracked across the grass and carefully found the circuit again. Thankfully, the pair both managed to get to the flag unscathed and Cockerill took the flag to win the first Green Group race of the year. Skillicorn also survived to take 2nd, and then there was a period of waiting, given that 3rd place was so far back! Eventually coming through to take the final podium place was Erkan, who recovered from his first lap spin to finish brilliantly, only just ahead of Gould in 4th place with Toby Boyes completing the top five. Filling the rest of the top 10 would be James Hall, Jones, Duckworth, Lazarus and Rob Oldland.

The next instalment of the 2020 Academy season takes place at the same venue as the first 2019 circuit race, with the drivers visiting the awesome Cadwell Park circuit in Lincolnshire to tackle plenty more twists and turns on the “Mini-Nurburgring”!

Scott Woodwiss