MINI Challenge at Pembrey

Pembrey Circuit in Wales will most likely be remembered by MINI Challenge teams as this season’s toughest weekend. A high proportion of the field of cars suffered a great deal of damage during the weekend, despite the races themselves being driven cleanly by the competitors.

It all started on Thursday during an open track day. Jonathan Shepherd’s Club Class vehicle rolled after spinning of the track and hitting a barrier but he escaped without serious injury and returned to the track the following day in a car provided by minis-on-track.com.

Friday’s organised track day started wet and the track conditions were difficult. The four sessions before lunch allowed drivers to learn the circuit and get to grips with a wet set-up that would be called upon later in the weekend. By lunchtime a dry line had formed and the three afternoon sessions took place on a rapidly drying track in bright and sunny conditions. This allowed drivers to try Dunlop’s new harder compound slick tyre, brought especially to cope with Pembrey’s abrasive surface; it will also be used at Thruxton, later in the season, which boasts the fastest average speed for a lap in the UK.

The next day started as the previous had, with heavy rain and cold conditions. Team BMR’s Alan Taylor (#32) caused his team some headaches when he lost control during Free Practice at the final turn, a fast right hander before the long pit straight. His MINI Cooper suffered a lot of damage and he would subsequently miss the afternoon qualifying session but all credit to Team BMR as he was able to start the race on Sunday, albeit from the back of the grid.

Round 3 winner, Allen Jackson (#77) maintained a run of good form by setting the pace in Free Practice and taking pole position for Round 5 later the same day with a gap of only 0.095secs to David Shepherd (#21). Gareth Nixon (#3) again led the Club Class drivers during qualifying, Arthur Forster (#1) set the best second fastest time of the session to claim pole for Round 6.

Round 5 was held in bright and sunny conditions, quite different to the beginning of the weekends events. Forster led by the first corner, passing both front row S-Class cars of Jackson and David Shepherd who also lost places to Martin Depper (#30) and Freddy (#44). Behind them, Mike Jones S-Class car was pushed into a spin by Nixon, leaving leading Club-Class novice, Edward Lovett (#40) with no-where to go. He ran into the back of Jones and was promptly hit himself by two other Club-Class cars. After a two lap safety car period Jackson briefly led from Forster but it didn’t last long. A mistake then led to him dropping to 4th behind Depper who was separated from the leader by less than a second throughout the 20-minute sprint race, and Nordström.

Forster held on to the lead to win his second race of the season ahead of Forster Motorsport team-mate Depper equalling his best finish of the year. Nordström in third showed flashes of brilliant pace, setting fastest lap but Forster’s consistent driving was too good on this occasion. Gary Kounnis (#47) made it a double win by Forster Motorsport, by taking the Club-Class honours from the hired vehicle of Jonathan Shepherd who drove well and Rob Austin (#24) completed the class podium. Wales was represented at the race by Rachel Owen (#50); a poor qualifying left her 12th in the Club-Class, a strong race saw her finish in 5th position.

Seven retirements from Round 5 led to a busy paddock before the afternoon feature race and a lot of teams scrambling to complete the necessary work. All but two cars made it to the grid for Round 6, Andrew Cox’s (#29) car was not repaired after he crashed on his way to the grid for Round 5 and the MINI Cooper of Mark Drury (#15) had a damaged engine after it lost fluids in the first round and suffered internal damage. Although he did appear as a guest in the second race driving his Forster Motorsport team’s spare MINI COOPER S Works race car.

Round 6 was dominated early on by earlier race winner Forster, his front row competition in the form of Jackson spun on the first lap after contact with Scotsman, Finlay Crocker (#8). Nordström quickly chased down Forster though and eventually passed him on lap 12 as the pair encountered the slower back-marking Club-Class cars. The young Swede then maintained the lead for the next 15 laps to take his first win of the season from Forster by just over 3secs. The battle for third was very close, Andrew Bailey (#5) and Depper who started 5th and 6th respectively drove nose-to-tail throughout but Bailey’s exceptional driving kept Depper from scoring his second podium of the day.

Gareth Nixon once again returned to the winning form he has shown this season by winning the Club-Class in comfortable fashion. At one stage he led the Class by over 10secs but a hard charging Eric Bailey (#36) starting from 9th closed the lead to 3secs by the finish line and took second place ahead of Graham Parsons (#20) who rounded out the podium positions. Jenny Ryan (#23) was unlucky not to have scored her first podium and finished in 4th setting the fastest lap along the way.

A dramatic moment took place in the pit lane during Round 6 when Gavin Bristow (#51) was forced to retire from the race with smoke coming from the engine bay of his S-Class car. As he climbed out of the car it was clear to see a fire had started in the engine bay and had to be extinguished by marshals.

The next event takes place at Castle Combe circuit on June 24-25th, there’ll be a busy time ahead for many teams but if the MINI Challenge can consistently deliver new race winners and as much action as we’ve seen in Pembrey then it will all be worth the effort come the next round.