Many had said that the Covid fuelled off season had seemed longer than ever. The new race season couldn’t come soon enough. The workshops around the country had been busy over the winter with regulation changes for fire extinguishers and fuel sampling, along with a raft of new sponsors stickers to be applied on top of the regular winter refresh work.
So it was with much excitement that over 60 drivers descended on Donington Park for the season opener. The weather was dry and bright, but coats and hats were order of the day as the temperature was in the low single digits for the whole day.
Qualifying for the 420R’s showed that the winter cobwebs had been well and truly blown away with the top 22 drivers all being within one second of pole! Qualifying for the 1600’s didn’t disappoint either, with a phenomenally close grid of Sigma engine cars.
Race one for the 420’s showed that the cold track surface could be a problem, with the 5th placed car of Paul Thacker spinning behind the safety car on the green flag lap. They did all get away at the first time of asking and it was about eight abreast into Redgate. Amazingly they all got through without incident with Russ Olivant heading the field. The next twenty five minutes saw the lead change countless times, an early three way battle for the lead, developed into a six way and then an eight way battle, with Jenkins, Thacker, Stansfield, Barnes, Olivant and Cheetham fighting it out at the front of the lead group. Cheetham’s march up from 14th, was halted when he spun coming out of McLeans having made it all the way to 4th. Gary Tootell was another driver on a mission making it all the way to 4th from his starting position of 19th.
A spin and coming together involving Matt Reeve left his car in a somewhat precarious position on the outside of Coppice, so an early chequered flag was bought out. The top 4 going into the last corner was Thacker, Jenkins, Stansfield and Barnes, but as they exited to take the chequered flag, Anthony Barnes was noticeably absent after late spin, so the order across the line was Phil Jenkins 1st, Mark Stansfield 2nd and Anthony Barnes 3rd.
Race one for the 1600’s started in a far from ideal fashion with Ian Fortescue and Ryan Grant spinning as the pack were rolling across the start line to get underway. Grant’s car finished up hitting the pit wall quite heavily which bought out the red flag with the leaders only just rounding Redgate. The restart was much less dramatic with the pack getting away cleanly. The order was Smith, followed by Henshall and Bell as they exited Redgate. An early lead pack of seven cars quickly grew to ten with the front three of Bell, Smith and Henshall trading places on an almost corner by corner basis. Bren Maude got himself into the leading trio before a coming together at the Craner Curves between Cooper and Rosewell bought out the safety car.
The restart was incident free with Gary Smith leading the pack around Redgate for what was an eleven minute sprint to the flag. Smith very quickly managed to break the tow and gap the chasing pack. That pack was led by Henshall, Maude and Bell. Michael O’Reilly quickly joined the front of the chasing group and their positions rotated for the next half a dozen laps. Eventually O’Reilly managed to break away, but by this stage it was too late. Gary smith took the chequered flag with a seven second gap back to 2nd place Michael O’Reilly and 3rd place Bren Maude a further second adrift.
Race 2 for the 420’s saw a front row of Thacker and Perry with the top 10 reversed from Race 1. Thacker led them around Redgate. The next ten minutes saw Barnes, Stansfield and Jenkins make their way to the front of the chasing pack to give us a familiar front four once again. With Thacker defending the inside line into Redgate from Barnes, Jenkins got a great run through the corner and was past both Barnes and Thacker by the time he hit the brakes for the old hairpin. The lead pack was now twelve cars with Jenkins, Stansfield, Thacker and Barnes leading the way. Stansfield exited the battle into the gravel at McLeans, and the lead group was now down to three. Danny Killeen took that group back to four cars before Matt Reeve bought out the safety car following a spin on the start finish straight.
The order behind the safety car was Jenkins, Thacker, Barnes and Killeen until Phil Jenkins exited stage left onto the grass while trying to keep some heat in his now ageing Toyo’s. The race restarted for a one lap sprint to the line. Barnes and Thacker rounded Redgate side by side and spent most of the lap two abreast. It was Paul Thacker who kept his nose in front through the final chicane and took the win by a mere fifty five thousandths of a second from Anthony Barnes in 2nd. The final podium position went to Danny Killeen after a slight coming together at the chicane with Andy Perry.
Race 2 for the 1600’s saw the pack get away cleanly at the first time of asking. The reversed top ten was led around Redgate by pole man Rob Warner with Caroline Everett in a close 2nd. Everett led at the end of lap one, although Don Henshall quickly relieved Caroline of the lead and proceeded to pull away at the head of the pack. Maude and Everett traded places at the head of the chasing pack, until Gary Smith managed to take both of them and set off in pursuit of lead man Henshall. A few laps later and Stuart Bell also took advantage of the squabbling head of the chasing pack and set off after Smith and Henshall.
With ten minutes to go the lead pack of Henshall, Smith and Bell were locked together and some nine seconds ahead of the chasing pack. What followed was a fantastic three way battle for the lead. That lead changed at least once on every lap, with all three drivers leading the way at one time or another. The final lap was as fraught as the proceeding half dozen, but some great defensive driving from Henshall, saw him nose out of the chicane in the lead. Bell locked up into the chicane which gave Smith a run on him onto the start finish straight. So it was Don Henshall that took the chequered flag, Gary Smith just made it to 2nd with Stuart Bell two tenths behind in 3rd. All three cars crossed the line within a second of each other.
Both drivers and spectators alike agreed that as opening weekends of a race season go, 2022 was right up there with the best of them. The Toyo Tires 7 Race Series has a short four week break now before heading to Brands Hatch, to take on arguably the best circuit layout in the UK on the GP loop in support of GT World Challenge which will see Valentino Rossi trade two wheels for four on the 30th April and the 1st May. We look forward to seeing you there.