VW CUP SPA REVIEW
Michael Neuhoff en route to victory at Spa. Photo: Image Vaults
Michael Neuhoff en route to victory at Spa. Photo: Image Vaults
The maiden visit of the APR Volkswagen Racing Cup to an overseas Grand Prix circuit paid dividends last weekend with two superb races at the Belgian circuit of Spa-Francorchamps. There were wins for KPM’s Mike Neuhoff and Tony Gilham, returning to the championship with his own team’s Golf GTI, plus strong results for championship leader James Walker.
In addition to the racing the 21-strong field enjoyed plenty of what Europe’s motorsporting mecca is famous for, including a closed-road run into the nearby town of Stavelot for a town square display of their machinery.
Walker bagged his second pole position of the season, the KPM Scirocco driver eight-tenths faster around the Belgian Grand Prix circuit than his closest rival. Walker was the only man to break the 2m 51s barrier on the 7km circuit; his team-mate Neuhoff was second fastest in his Mk VI Golf GTI, with returning champion Tony Gilham third in his Mk V Golf.
Mason lined up fourth on the grid for the opening race, ahead of Stewart Lines and Tom Wilson, who bounced back after an early-session off at the Bus Stop chicane to post sixth quickest time. Tony Harberman was 10th fastest – a career best – in his Beetle.
The best circuit yet visited by the APR Volkswagen Racing Cup – said the drivers unanimously – provided the best racing of the season so far, with a four-way battle for victory, three different race leaders and a popular first win of 2012 for KPM’s Mike Neuhoff which went undecided until the final corner.
Pole man Walker led off the line in the Cooke and Mason Scirocco but he relinquished control to Neuhoff even before the first corner, La Source – “I snatched second gear too quickly,” conceded James. Walker slipped to third behind Aaron Mason, but seized second back from the AWM Golf driver on the run down to Double Gauche.
Neuhoff crossed the line at the end of the opening lap with half a second in hand over Walker, with Mason third from Lines, Gilham, Tom Wilson and Joe Fulbrook. Half a second’s advantage was not enough, as Mike discovered on the Kemmel straight on lap two as Walker slipstreamed past for the lead.
Lap three saw Neuhoff wrest the lead back from Walker, and then on lap four Mason began his charge, unseating Walker from second before taking the lead, and pushing Neuhoff back to third, next time around. Alas Aaron’s time on top was shortlived; engine problems brought his retirement on the sixth and penultimate lap. “It was a great shame,” said Mason. “The others’ tyres were gone and I was just ready to wind it up.”
Joker-playing Neuhoff, like most of the field a racing newcomer to Spa, held his nerve to regain second from Walker just after Mason’s Golf cried enough, and he crossed the line into the final lap with a second in hand over the Scirocco man. Gilham, having got the better of his fight with Lines and Wilson, was by now right with the leaders and gunning for glory; the BTCC man managed to unseat Walker from second but Neuhoff remained ahead at the chequered flag.
“I was getting rather miffed at having gone from first to third in quick time,” said Neuhoff, “and then I saw a spot of oil on my windscreen and it transpired that Aaron had a problem. He disappeared and that left me tailing James again. We had plenty of overtaking between the three of us all race, all good, clean fun – just fantastic. It’s very special to win at Spa. Having never raced here before I’m very happy; it’s such a wonderful circuit.”
Gilham was delighted with his second place, not least because he had missed much of qualifying after a mix-up over his race licence. “I was still signing on when the rest of them were out on the track. We did it the hard way; I lost the clutch and most of the brakes by mid-distance. I should have settled really, but I’m a racing driver and I wanted to push on and I nicked second. I’m in the Scholarship car, and it proves that we can build a good, competitive car.”
“It was a good race, wasn’t it?” said Walker. “My car was getting a bit tired towards the end, and I was pushing really hard because I didn’t want to be third – I’ve not finished lower than second before this year – and maybe I was over-driving it a bit.”
There were battles right through the field and a number of personal-best performances in addition. Tom Wilson placed fourth – equalling his best finish – in his battered Golf, after losing time to the leaders while embroiled with Gilham and Lines; the Wiltshire youngster finished 10s clear of Lines, whose fifth spot was a best-of-season finish, with Peter Wyhinny’s SEAT Leon sixth.
Harberman followed up his excellent qualifying with a record-equalling seventh in the TGR Beetle after passing championship returnee Mark Howard’s Golf early on. “I had no brakes on the final lap,” said Tony, “which was a little too exciting.” Howard was eighth and the first SlideSports driver to finish, ahead of his team-mates Richard Morgan and Rob Daniels, subbing for the injured Kieran Griffin in the Addison Lee Scirocco.
Simon Andrews and Philip Morris duelled throughout the race, with Andrews’ Golf just ahead at the line, and their battle was joined on occasion by the Scirocco of Jonathan Wilson, 13th at the line to equal his top score.
Simon Tomlinson, Andy Wilmot, Richard Kingsnorth and Nikhil Chopra finished in line astern (Chopra’s 17th place a personal best for the 17-year-old rookie), with Fulbrook – his Warranty Direct Bora beset again by engine overheating problems – the final classified finisher. David Fairbrother’s Golf and Andrew Smith’s Beetle joined Mason in retirement.
Tony Gilham, the 2007 Volkswagen Racing Cup Champion, proved that he’s lost none of his old race-winning skills by claiming victory in the second race, pipping points leader James Walker to the win by less than a second after seven hard-fought laps around Spa.
Just as close and tense as Friday’s race, the Spa finale saw three different men out in front and multiple changes of the lead.
Stewart Lines led the way initially in his KPM-prepared Golf, the Sutton Coldfield man out-dragging pole-sitter Peter Wyhinny’s SEAT Leon off the line to lead into La Source. Wyhinny clung to Lines’s tailgate on the opening lap but was demoted to fourth on lap two by both Walker and Gilham, who started P4 and P5 respectively.
Walker and Gilham saw to Lines on lap three to establish a 1-2, with BTCC man Tony making full use of the awesome Eau Rouge to pass his rival for the lead next time around. James battled back to the front only to be passed once more by Gilham, again through Eau Rouge. Tony, who was playing his points-doubling Joker card, was 0.878s clear of his rival at the flag.
“A fabulous race,” said Walker. “Great first couple of laps with everyone really battling hard. Then I managed to get away, got Stewart, who drove awesomely, and then Tony ended up coming through – I knew he would do. He’s got great pace, and I didn’t want to race him too hard because I’m thinking of the championship. He got me at Eau Rouge twice, which was a bit exciting. All in all, it’s been a great weekend.”
Added Gilham: “I felt I could possibly have got the win in race one but for being held up a bit, so I wanted to finish the second race on a high. It’s good to get the win and good to be back in the championship. It was a tough race. There’s room for two through Eau Rouge, so long as you are both committed and both sensible. We got through there twice side-by-side, and that’s quite an achievement in itself.”
Lines was in close attendance to collect his maiden Volkswagen Racing Cup podium finish. “I’m delighted,” said Stewart. “I’ve had such a bad year up to now. I let James and Tony through but hung on to them and, to be fair, I learned a lot from watching them.”
Stewart was joined in the closing laps by race one winner Mike Neuhoff, who started from P6. “I got caught up behind the battle for fourth between Peter Wyhinny and Tom Wilson for too long,” said Golf man Mike. “By the time I had made it past them the top three were too far up the road. Another couple of laps and it might have been a different story.”
Wilson’s Golf GTI battled past Wyhinny’s SEAT Leon for fifth on the third of the seven laps, the Wiltshireman collecting his sixth top-five result of the eight-race season, with Wyhinny in close attendance for another top-six finish.
Seventh looked to be going in the direction of Golf GTI man Simon Andrews after the Hampshire-based disabled driver got the better of a long fight with the similar car of Richard Morgan. Alas, fuel starvation struck Simon on the final lap: “It was fine going down the hills, but going up them it started to splutter.” His seventh became ninth as Morgan and Rob Daniels in the Addison Lee Scirocco took advantage.
Golf drivers Mark Howard and Philip Morris were next up, the latter savouring every moment of his maiden Spa races and profiting too, doubling his points by playing his Joker card.
Jonathan Wilson scored his best result of the year with 12th in the Complete Racing Scirocco, ahead of Simon Tomlinson’s Golf. David Fairbrother was 14th after a pit stop, ahead of a limping Joe Fulbrook, whose Bora’s mechanical woes reappeared after race one; former champion Joe had been on for a good finish, too, having charged from the back to seventh on the opening lap.
Race two capped a weekend to forget for Aaron Mason, the Yorkshireman succumbing to engine failure on the opening lap. He was joined in retirement by several, notably Gilham Racing men Andy Wilmot (power steering failure), Nikhil Chopra (driveshaft) and Richard Kingsnorth (lap one spin). Wilmot had been on for a top 10 finish and Chopra was 13th going into the final lap. Tony Harberman’s strong Spa run was ended after three laps with gearbox problems.
After a brief summer break the championship resumes at Snetterton in Norfolk on 5th August.