WALKER DETERMINED TO DEFEND R300 TITLE
Reigning Caterham R300 champion Jonathan Walker showed that he won’t be giving up his crown without a fight this year at the season opener at Silverstone over Easter weekend.
April showers brought out the weather forecaster within every R300 competitor and on Saturday morning the cars had an extended wait in the collecting area for qualifying due to a delay in the previous session; long enough for a big black cloud to live up to its promise. Whilst some frantically pulled off anti-roll bars to offer a little more compliance in the wet, others consulted seaweed and the fabled ‘licked finger held in the air’ which suggested the track would dry during qualifying. Seaweed and moist digits were right!
As the track dried, the pit-wall timing screens went berserk. Provisional pole went to just about everyone who crossed the line, making it hard to keep track of who was where. Pit-boards were several positions behind reality by the time the drivers saw them. Eventually, towards the end of the session, four names started to repeat themselves at the top, Fowell, Brannan, McMillan and Taylor, but it was newcomer McMillan that took the first pole of the year, with both Brannan and Fowell less than a tenth behind and in the dying seconds, Jamie Ellwood jumped from twelfth to fourth. Four new drivers made up the top four places!
A first attempt to run a race was made in deteriorating conditions on Saturday afternoon, but within two laps, championship hopeful Paul Wilson was already in the wall on the hangar straight. Seconds later, a melee ensued at Becketts. Andrew Harrison-Sleap had spun backwards across the grass, depositing him back on the track facing the wrong way, right in the firing line for a desperately unfortunate Dean Wilkin. As Harrison-Sleap’s car became mobile again, though not under its own steam, it was tagged by the left rear of Gordon Sawyer. When the three cars came to rest the drivers emerged unscathed, but with time fast running out and conditions no better, stewards declared the race abandoned.
Blue skies greeted the drivers back to the revised Silverstone Bridge GP circuit on Easter Sunday. The circuit already had a disarming new look thanks to a wilderness of gravel at Woodcote where there used to be a grandstand. With work still on-going around the circuit, grass run-offs had been replaced by peat bogs and with the aid of some wayward GT and Superleague cars, the track was now a fully-fledged rallycross circuit.
Andy McMillan, head of the well-established but new to R300s McMillan Motorsport team, was unfazed by the conditions and set about building a small margin from pole, but was quickly caught by reigning champ Jon Walker who carved through the squabbling front runners to find him. Firmly believing that the race isn’t won on the first corner, but quite possibly on every corner after that, Walker launched a smoking torpedo down the inside of McMillan at Vale without the success. Moments later, the pair arrived at bridge and the DPR Motorsport driver thought he saw his opportunity. Unfortunately, his Avon tyres thought otherwise and elected to down-tools at the prospect of being told to cling on through bridge at an impossible speed. Walker collected McMillan and the pair speared through the gravel trap of the complex, emerging seventh and ninth respectively.
This left former Roadsport sparring partners Paul Brannan and Trevor Fowell to take up the lead, with their Fauldsport team-mate James Sharrock third in his familiar dayglo orange car. But whilst the duo argued over first spot, McMillan and Walker were far from done.
Walker, who had been least disadvantaged by the gravel safari, reached the lead fight within two laps, dispensed with the upstarts quickly and set about building a cushion helped by those behind refusing to give up places to anyone else. Whilst Walker cruised ahead, McMillan found the leaders shortly after and also squeezed past while they were pre-occupied, though they were alerted to the threat this time and it took him a little longer.
Further down the field, Jamie Ellwood was being hampered by his lack of time in the car. With virtually no practice, the six-times champion was having a Schumacher-esque comeback, having dropped from fourth to ninth; handling woes afflicting his performance. Despite also having just stepped into the car, former Roadsport ace, David Pearce was having no such bother and had battered his way to fourth. However, inexperience of the R300’s brake pedal emerged at Vale and despite Paul Brannan’s assistance in slowing down, Pearce’s trophy hopes ended in the gravel trap. A furious Brannan was spun down to seventh, sustaining a large gouge out of the left rear tyre and some minor bent suspension parts. Amazingly, he kept going at a front-runner pace and was ultimately rewarded with sixth for his determination.
SPY Motorsport team-leader Peter Young gave a strong performance throughout the race to take fifth place (promoted through the Pearce/Brannan clash), a little behind Ambitions Racing’s Ollie Taylor. Taylor had a brief glimpse of the podium, but fractionally ahead of him was the fastest man on the track, Trevor Fowell. Fowell pushed Andy McMillan to the very end, but the pair had no chance of catching Walker who by now was ten seconds, an eternity in Caterham racing, up the road and driving to victory.
Although the 2009 champion has made his mark on the 2010 campaign, the newcomers didn’t make it easy for him and things are set to get even closer as the series moves to Oulton Park. Walker benefits from the most experience behind the wheel of an R300, yet his Silverstone lap record was taken from him by one of 2010 inductees and if it hadn’t been for their coming together at Bridge, McMillan would surely have been a contender for the win. Ellwood’s eighth place finish belies the fact that it was only the third time he’d driven the car, so he will only be getting faster. Good performances from Mark Shaw, David Walley and Mark Blackburn suggest that as experience grows the title fight will be on. The next rounds are at Oulton Park on 15th May.