Words - Tim Langham
Photographs - Dirk Wharton
The penultimate event of the 2019 A.C.U. / F.S.R.A. British F2 Sidecar Championship was a weekend of high drama and excitement. None more so than for Lee Crawford / Scott Hardie (LCR Suzuki), who took a dominant win in race one in sunny and relatively warm conditions. Sunday's weather could not have been further removed the previous day, nor could the result for Team A.R.C., as they aquaplaned off the circuit in race two in spectacular fashion. A re-start saw a popular win for John Lowther / Tom Christie (LCR Honda) – their first victory at this level following numerous podiums over the last few seasons. The F2 Cup title will not be decided until next weekend's season finale, with contenders Simon Robinson / Mick Fairhurst (LCR Suzuki) and Rob Atkinson / Mark Middleton (Bellas Suzuki) sharing the points equally with a win and second place each.
While Pete Founds / Jevan Walmsley (LCR Suzuki) had already secured the title at Castle Combe (on that occasion with Jake Lowther deputising), the race for the second and third on the overall leaderboard were still wide open prior to this event. Unfortunately, Walmsley is sidelined until the end of the season, with his heel injury sustained at Croft more serious than originally believed. Founds, still keen to support the F.S.R.A. series recruited the services of Mark Stone to assist him on Saturday, and teamed up with Sarah Stokoe on Sunday.
Saturday's qualifying got underway in the late morning under sunny skies. The early pace was set by Lowther / Christie, although Crawford / Hardie put in a blistering lap of 55.269, to unofficially go under the lap record – which has stood for twelve years – by a tenth of a second. The Team A.R.C. pairing were returned to the paddock by their pit crew midway through the session, confident in making it two consecutive pole position starts. Christie / Lowther continued to put in consistent lap times, their fastest being 56.090 – their best to date at Mallory Park, and this was enough to see them land a front row place. Founds / Stone were an impressive third on 56.765 – particularly considering this being Stone's debut at British Championship level. Conrad Harrison / Andy Winkle (Bellas Honda) lined up fourth, 0.1 seconds in arrears, and a further tenth ahead of the leading F2 Cup pairing of Robinson / Fairhurst. The 2018 F2 Cup champions Daryl Gibson / Ashley Moore (Shelbourne Suzuki) rounded out the top six, making their first appearance in the series since the Cadwell Park Sidecar Revival back in June. Sean Hegarty / James Neave (Baker Honda); Atkinson / Middleton; Howard Baker / Mike Killingsworth (Shelbourne Honda) and Brian Ilaria / Olly Lace (DDM Suzuki) completed the top ten.
Race one was held in the early afternoon, being a quick turnaround over the lunch break preparing the machines, and eighteen teams lined up for a twenty lap race around the Leicestershire circuit. There was immediate disappointment for John Shipley jnr / Milo Ward (LCR Suzuki) as their outfit cut out on the warm up lap (later traced to an electrical fault within the wiring loom), forcing them out of proceedings.
Lowther / Christie got the initial hole-shot from the line, however, Crawford / Hardie had the inside line into Gerards and took charge at the front. Founds / Stone had dropped a couple of places, while Harrison / Winkle; Gibson / Moore and Hegarty / Neave had gained places on the opening lap. Already Crawford / Hardie were opening a modest gap over the chasing pack. Sadly, Chris Schofield / Arlo Brown – this weekend aboard Allan Schofield's DDM Suzuki – were out of contention and retired after a single lap.
Crawford / Hardie had opened a gap of around three seconds by lap four – indeed they set the fastest lap of the race at this point in a time of 55.465 – just 0.1s shy of taking the existing record. Founds / Stone had got into a rhythm and put pressure on Lowther / Christie to move into second place. Lap five saw a concentrated effort from many of the front running teams to keep the leaders in sight, and many not only set their fastest lap of the race, but also their personal best lap times to date around Mallory Park! This included Harrison / Winkle, who were circulating third. Founds / Stone took a couple of tenths out of the race leaders, although their pace began to drop in the following laps as they fell back into the clutches of Lowther / Christie.
In the F2 Cup, Robinson / Fairhurst were running strongly, and in the lower reaches of the top six overall, although they had no time to rest on their laurels, with championship rivals Atkinson / Middleton in close company.
Unfortunately, race one became something of a battle of attrition. Hegarty / Neave retired on lap nine, and were joined by Richard Hackney / Dave Ryder (CES Suzuki) shortly after. The aforementioned slowing of pace from Founds / Stone also saw them return to the paddock at the close of lap eleven. Lap thirteen saw Harrison / Winkle come to an abrupt halt with a radiator problem, which sadly put them out of a podium place, while David Schofield / Guy Pawsey (Windle Suzuki) also saw their race come to a premature end on the same lap.
Crawford / Hardie were now in a commanding lead from Lowther / Christie, with Gibson / Moore comfortably in third position as the race came towards a close. Sadly, the latter crew suffered an engine failure on the final lap, having slowed on the previous lap to concede two places. At the chequered flag, Crawford / Hardie took the win by just over nine seconds from Lowther / Christie, with Robinson / Fairhurst taking third overall and first in the F2 Cup. Atkinson / Middleton took fourth; Ilaria / Lace fifth and Baker / Killingsworth taking sixth in their first British Championship appearance of the year. Giles and Jen Stainton (LCR Suzuki); Charlie Morphet / Paul Halliburton (LCR Suzuki); John Shipley snr / Andy Haynes (LCR Honda) and wild-cards Maria Costello / Sarah Stokoe (LCR Kawasaki) completed the finishing order.
Heavy rain just before Sunday's programme got underway gave way to relatively dry conditions as the morning went on, and had rendered the track dry enough for slick tyres to be the only option for race two. However, as the machines left the pitlane to form on the grid, the rain started once again, quickly gathering force, bouncing off the road as the teams circulated on the warm up lap. Returning to the grid, competitors loudly voiced their concerns that conditions were simply too dangerous to race without the correct tyres. A hastily arranged ten minute window was negotiated, seeing crews quickly fit their wets and return for a shortened ten lap race.
As always in race two, the top six finishers formed the grid in reverse order. Baker / Killingsworth made a clean getaway from pole, but it was Lowther / Christie who came through from fifth to edge out fellow third row starters, Crawford / Hardie as the outfits peeled into Gerards. With huge amounts of spray and little room for maneouvre, several outfits unintentionally touched, with the outfit of Ilaria / Lace flipping half way round the fast right hander – thankfully without any damage to riders or machine.
Lowther / Christie and Crawford / Hardie were having a furious battle as they accelerated up through Lake Esses and towards the Hairpin. Both teams were caught out by standing water in the braking zone – Lowther / Christie managed to slow up enough and spin their outfit back round on the grass to maintain the lead, whilst Crawford / Hardie were less fortunate. On a wider line and carrying more speed, they had to take evasive action, Hardie parting company and sliding under the recticel fencing, while Crawford minimised the impact, putting the wheelarch into the air fence. Fortunately, both competitors were relatively unscathed, and the outfit appears to have only suffered cosmetic damage.
Obviously this incident brought out the red flags, and the race was re-started, again over ten laps. Lowther / Christie took the initiative early on, and began to open up a buffer over the pack, knowing that many of the regular front-runners had been forced to start at the back of the grid following their non-finishes the day before. In the early stages, Robinson / Fairhurst, Baker / Killingsworth and Atkinson / Middleton were all in contention for the podium places. However, Founds / Stokoe had powered through the field, and got themselves well inside the top three, until their progress was hindered by a spin at the Hairpin, dropping them back down the order, and giving them more work to do in the closing stages!
Hegarty / Neave set the fastest lap of the race as they moved through to second, and began to close on the leaders – however, a well managed race saw a maiden win for Lowther / Christie. Gibson / Moore avenged their disappointment of Saturday with an excellent third place, with Founds / Stokoe recovering from their spin to place fourth, three seconds clear of Baker / Killingsworth. Sixth overall, and taking their seventh F2 Cup win of the year were Atkinson / Middleton. Completing the F2 Cup podium and seventh on the road were Robinson / Fairhurst and Hackney / Ryder who finished in a lonely ninth overall – twenty seconds down on eighth placed Harrison / Winkle and sixteen ahead of Schofield / Brown who made up the top ten. An improved finishing record saw fifteen teams make it to the chequered flag, with only two retirements in some very challenging and unpleasant conditions.
The F.S.R.A. would like to thank all at East Midlands Racing Association for organising the event, and playing host to one of the biggest sidecar entries of 2019 across the three classes held over the weekend. As always, we also express our thanks for the ongoing support of the A.C.U. and the series sponsors: A.R.C. Binchester; A.V. Craine & Son; Hegarty Plant; Lockside Engineering; Pagid Racing; Rowtec Ltd; Whitby Cottages and Yorkshire Engine Supplies. The final round of the series is less than a week away, at Oulton Park. Practice and testing will take place on Friday 27th September, with timed qualifying and two races on Saturday. While Team Founds have already taken the Super F2 title, all eyes will be on Robinson / Fairhurst and Atkinson / Middleton to see who takes the F2 Cup crown following a season-long battle between these pairings.