It’s not too common that a race driver will compete in one of the support races accompanying their regular championship, but during the most recent rounds of the UK based MINI Challenge, S-Class driver Gavin Bristow of the Oxford Associate Race Team did just that. As a leading Novice driver in this years MINI Challenge he decided to gain some additional circuit knowledge and provide the expectant Castle Combe crowd with yet more MINI race action by competing in the Dunlop Track and Race Saloon Car Championship support race.

Split into five classes, A-E, the 210bhp Works Cooper S of Bristow (#54) was entered into Class C: where engines can be up to 2000cc multi-valve and up to 1600cc forced induction. Alongside him in class was some impressive machinery including a Honda Integra Type R, Peugeot 205 GTi, VW Golf Mk2, Vauxhall Astra GSi and a Citroen BX 16v Sport. Amongst the other four classes where most notably an ex-WRC Ford Escort Rally Car, Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500, three classic Mini’s with heavy modifications and a host of other Ford’s and Mitsubishi Evo’s.

Qualifying took place on Saturday in the session before MINI Challenge qualifying, allowing only 10 mins between each. Bristow decided to use only 10 of the available 15 minutes to set a time, this would allow the team to make the relevant changes and still make the start of the MINI Challenge qualifying session. With the ex-WRC car driven by Rod Birley (#44) inevitably setting the pace at 1:13.325, Bristow posted a 1:21.861 to give 15th on the grid and 3rd in class behind the Peugeot 205 GTi of Ashley Hargreaves (#50) and Honda Integra Type R of Richard Gane (#73). A quick turn around by his team got the MINI ready for the next task with minutes to spare.

Race 1 took place later the same day and things couldn’t have gone much worse for Bristow. A solid start meant he held third position in class and overall 13th place, but on lap 3 Les Beer’s Ford Fiesta (#51) spun off and tried to recover back to the track but slammed into the passenger side of Bristow’s MINI. Beer retired immediately, the whole front end of his car damaged considerably, but Bristow and the strength of his car soldiered on to the end, taking third in class and 14th overall.

Back in the paddock, Bristow and his team, with additional help from Castle Combe regulars Interceptor Racing, surveyed the damage and had until midday Sunday to repair the car. A bent door and A-panel were just cosmetic and could be easily replaced but damage to the steering system was going to be more difficult. After changing the steering rack ends, power steering pump and replenishing the lost fluids, a slight PAS fluid leak was detected and dealt with swiftly. With no time to spare, Bristow and his crew made it to the start of Round 7 of the MINI Challenge in which he took a much welcomed 5th place.

Race 2 of the Dunlop Track and Race series was next up for Bristow, keen not to repeat the misfortune of Race 1. Again he made a steady start and passed some of the D and E class cars that had out-qualified him. It was great viewing to watch as he battled with Mike Edgell’s Rover Mini (#98) in the early stages and cornered quicker than most of the more powerful cars in front of him only to be outshone down the straights. The driver of the race was without doubt Russell Humphrey (#99) in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 5. After starting from the back of the grid, Russell fought his way to 4th within a few laps and passed Tony Ryan’s Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500 on lap 10 for a podium place but the overheating problems that Russell was forced to retire with recurred and he dropped to a spirited fourth at the flag.

Gavin’s Works Cooper S eventually took another third place in class and 15th overall, without compromising his MINI Challenge campaign where he is aiming to become the leading Novice driver in 2006. The additional circuit knowledge and experience went towards helping him take a fifth place in Round 8, after the disqualification of Arthur Forster. This was his best set of results of the season so far, even though it may have been one of the most difficult weekends. Well done.