HESLOP & ROBINSON SHARE OPENING ST-XR CHALLENGE WINS AT OULTON PARK
A new season for the Hyperdrive ST-XR Challenge began in earnest at one of the championship’s traditional regional venues, as Oulton Park welcomed one of the biggest entries seen in the last few years. As well as regular appearances from cars in Classes A and B for the older Fiesta XR2 and Escort XR3i models, a massive influx of drivers heading into the recently introduced Class D for the Fiesta ST150 have not only helped ensure the ST-XR Challenge’s survival, but also seen it thrive to new levels of popularity. Heading to the opening rounds, 25 cars were entered to compete with championship co-ordinator Dave Fairclough declaring that more drivers were also in the works to join the field, producing the exciting prospect of over 30 cars competing on track at any of the remaining four race weekends.
Ahead of racing and during the extended off-season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the ST-XR Challenge sadly lost a very dear friend and long-standing member of its paddock. Assistant championship co-ordinator and former competitor Ken Mellor sadly passed away in the Spring, a loss that was felt not just by those in the series but also those from the BRSCC North Western Centre who all loved and respected him dearly. As a tribute to Ken and the large contribution he made to the championship, not only did every car competing at Oulton Park bear a special “Ken” sticker, but the front row for Race 1 was left empty in his honour as a mark of respect.
On that grid for Race 1, it was a front row lockout for two of the Class D Fiesta ST150s, as Mark Robinson took pole position with defending 2019 overall and Class A champion William Heslop making the most of his new car straight away with 2nd fastest time. Steve Poole managed top time for Class A to place 3rd on the grid alongside newcomer Sam Beckett in one of the two ST150s prepared by new team Tensport Performance, with their second car driven by Chris Grimes set to start just behind Sam in 5th. Chris Rowlands came next from Justin Roberts, Greg Speight down in 8th, then Lee Bowron in his first Class D outing and returnee Chris Jones making his first start in the championship for a few years.
On an ever drying track, both front row men got away equally with Heslop looking around the outside into Old Hall Corner for the first time, with just about everyone getting through safely apart from Chris Poole who got sideways onto the grass and dropped several places down the order. Even in the opening couple of corners, both Heslop and Robinson were quickly escaping up the road with the pair almost 5 seconds in the lead ahead of a fast-starting Greg Speight in 3rd after making up five places from his starting place. A gaggle of Class D cars came next with Chris Jones getting stuck in, while just ahead of him Rowlands was coming under attack from all sides as he was passed by Grimes and then Beckett in quick succession before receiving pressure from Rowlands, Lee Bowron and Jones, with Rowlands making the same move as Beckett into Cascades to steal another place.
Out in front, Heslop was enjoying a lead of just over four seconds as the race reached half distance, but then exiting Cascades a mistake forced him onto the grass which not only lost him the lead to Robinson but also a further four seconds as he rejoined in second place. By this stage, the rain that had been troubling the venue almost all day had reappeared after the race had started dry. With pole man Robinson seemingly on a setup that was coping with the mixed conditions better, he was able to hold onto the for the remainder of the race unchallenged. Behind the top two, a somewhat static battle for 3rd took place between Class A leader Speight and the Tensport Performance pair of Grimes and Beckett. Speight and Grimes survived a tricky moment each at the Britten’s chicane with Beckett looking on, but none of the trio ended up changing positions as a result.
With the laps ticking over, Robinson drove through the ever increasingly wet conditions to take the chequered flag and win the first ST-XR Challenge race of the season ahead of Heslop by more than seven seconds in the end. Greg Speight completed the overall podium while taking Class A victory with the Tensport teammates Grimes and Beckett making up the rest of the top five, Grimes also claiming the final place in the Class D top three. The rest of the top ten featured Roberts, Rowlands, Jones, Mumford and Townley respectively.
Everyone was away cleanly for the second race with the grid formed from the results of the first, with Heslop again leading the pack from Robinson, Heslop and Grimes heading through Old Hall, Cascades and down the Lakeside straight. A trouble free opening lap for Heslop allowed him to pull out a lead of almost two seconds from Robinson, while just behind them Grimes was about to hit mechanical trouble as his ST150 began to slow down Lakeside. This left the other Tensport car of Sam Beckett to put pressure on ST-XR veteran Justin Roberts for fourth place, ahead of an ever developing scrap between Rowlands, Mumford and Lee Bowron, the latter two find a way past Mumford before Bowron would also continue his charge by passing Rowlands shortly after.
Out in front, the leading pair began trading fastest laps while the rest of the top ten were spread out a little as the race ticked on. One of the closest battles turned out to be a fascinating contest between Jason Hennefer and Alec Townley, the pair running close for the majority of the race. Back at the front, Heslop had been caught by Robinson with just three minutes to go, the two cars now running nose to tail as the last lap approached. With encouragement from the pitwall the two cars raced off onto the final tour of the Oulton Park International circuit, virtually inseparable with Robinson desperately looking for an opportunity to make a pass. As such, his attempts were in vain on the road, but in the result (albeit temporarily), not so much.
Crossing the line to take the chequered flag, Heslop was victor on the road, but a 10 second time penalty for an alleged out of position start was handed to the defending champion, giving Robinson his second win of the season as a result. However, after review from the stewards, the penalty was subsequently rescinded and the win was handed back to Heslop, putting Robinson down to 2nd place once more. Speight again filled out the overall podium in 3rd along with another Class A win, ahead of Beckett and Roberts, followed in the top 10 by Lee Bowron, Rowlands, Mumford, Townley and McHugh.
Moving onto the next rounds, the ST-XR Challenge will head onwards to the excellent Cadwell Park in Lincolnshire where they will be set to share a grid with their Ford hot-hatch brethren over in the BRSCC Fiesta Championship – an exciting prospect!