Ashington’s Stuart Middleton and teammate Will Tregurtha brilliantly staked their claim for the coveted British GT4 title in only their first season of endurance racing.
The pair secured a hard-earned top three podium finish during the penultimate race of the season at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit.
Fighting through from seventh on the GT4 grid, a lower than anticipated starting slot from a rain affected qualifying session, the HHC Motorsport team-mates starred with some terrific battles and tremendous racecraft during round nine to take a superb podium result.
Additionally, Tregurtha posted the fastest GT4 lap with a time of 1m32.998 (94.19mph average) to scoop the Sunoco ‘Fastest Driver of the Weekend’ award.
Markedly increasing their championship lead from 2.5 points at the beginning of the weekend to 25 points at the conclusion of the two-hour encounter, the 17-year-old pairing continue to belie their complete lack of experience in GT competition as the 2017 season edges towards its conclusion.
Both free practice sessions on the Saturday went as well as hoped with Northumberland racer Middleton lapping second fastest in GT4 in the first 60 minute run – quickest of the Silver class entries – while Milton Keynes driver Tregurtha topped the GT4 times outright in session two.
Prior to qualifying, though, rain clouds arrived overhead and the ensuing downpour meant very tricky conditions for the all-important session. Middleton took to the wheel of the No.55 Ginetta G55 for the opening run and posted the third fastest lap on treaded Pirelli rubber.
For session two a drying line began to appear but the HHC car remained on wets and, initially, it looked to be the correct choice with Tregurtha moving onto provisional pole position.
The track dried more quickly than expected, though, and he eventually slipped down to 13th as those to gamble on slicks profited. On combined times, the duo secured seventh on the GT4 grid.
Middleton took the opening stint of Sunday’s two-hour race and he made a terrific start, gaining two places on lap one.
Soon becoming involved in an incredibly tight multi-car battle over the podium, the HHC driver grabbed fourth on lap three at Surtees with a great move on title rival David Pittard.
With the battle intensifying with every lap, on the eighth tour Middleton managed to nose ahead of Niall Murray over the line to seize third but an Invitation class Toyota was also in the mix along with Pittard.
With absolutely nothing between them, Murray went wide at Paddock Hill and Middleton sliced up the inside…but Pittard managed to sneak past both and so the HHC car was fourth again.
Edged back to fifth a few laps later by the Aston Martin of William Phillips, the North East Caravans backed racer swiftly hit back to regain fourth and when Will Moore’s Aston hit problems on lap 16 Middleton assumed third place.
Into the second half hour, the non-scoring Toyota again became a thorn in Middleton’s side preventing him from being able to focus on title rival Pittard.
Trading positions with the invitational car and also Phillips’ Aston, Middleton emerged back in third when Pittard dramatically slid off the road at Graham Hill Bend with 55 minutes elapsed.
Now holding second place, the team decided to keep Middleton on track when the pit-stop window opened to try and maximise their track position and he actually went on to complete 70 minutes, all the while conserving tyres as much as possible, before handing over to Tregurtha from the lead.
Joining the race in fifth, despite a long stop due to success penalties from the previous round, the Milton Keynes driver reeled in the McLaren ahead but was edged back to sixth on lap 49.
Moving into fifth once more when Adam Mackay’s McLaren slipped back, with 25 minutes left on the clock a stop-go penalty for a rival entry elevated the Enlighten and iPro Sport backed racer into the top four.
As the race wore on and tyre wear became a factor for the McLarens, Tregurtha was still able to extract good grip from the No.55 Ginetta having patiently looked after his Pirellis and he piled the pressure on to third placed Osborne who then moved ahead of the No.100 car of Ciaran Haggerty.
Into the last quarter of an hour, Tregurtha was glued to the rear of Haggerty but he just couldn’t prise open an opportunity.
So much quicker through the turns, every time he looked set to get a run off a corner the McLaren stretched its legs on the straights with Tregurtha powerless to do anything.
Trying to force a mistake lap after lap, on the penultimate tour at Clearways he managed to make the breakthrough he’d worked so hard for and nosed past to take third and seal a richly deserved sixth podium of the season and, with it, the boosted points lead ahead of next month’s finale plus the lead in the Silver class title battle.
Middleton said: “It was touch and go all the time in my stint, I had no time to relax and catch my breath I just had to put in the laps every lap.
“The car felt amazing throughout, I had really good confidence in it and all I had to do was stay consistent and keep my cool – that paid off in the end.
“It was a bit frustrating when the Toyota was in the way, as it’s not racing for the championship, but we had a good battle.
“Considering we started seventh, we had a fair bit of work to do and I’m really happy with what we achieved.
“Team HHC did a fantastic job and Will drove the wheels off the thing in his stint. It’s all going down to the last round, we’ve just got to play it cool as we always do and see what happens.”
Tregurtha added: “It’s been so much fun this weekend and we definitely delivered with the podium and the increased championship lead.
“All I had to really do was sit there near the end of the race and wait, the McLaren’s tyre wear was more than ours and eventually I was able to capitalise on that.
“We always look after our tyres but I was surprised how well they lasted in this race as we had a lot of extra weight [success ballast] this weekend – the team gave us a great car.
“Stuart did a fantastic job in his stint, the plan was to maximise that and keep him out longer than the others and it worked well.
“Now we’re looking forward to Donington, anything can happen but we’re in a good position.”
All attention now turns to the finale of the British GT Championship season, round 10, which will be contested at Donington Park Grand Prix Circuit on Sunday, September 24.