Ben Palmer scored a brace of victories in the Michelin Clio Cup Series this weekend at Croft [28-29 April] to give himself a four-point advantage at the top of Race Series standings over rival Anton Spires, with Nic Harrison similarly taking the honours in the Road Series.
After a frenetic season opener that saw no fewer than eight different drivers grace the podium at Silverstone in March, both Palmer and Spires arrived at the challenging 2.1 mile Yorkshire venue tied on points in the standings with a win apiece.
It was Palmer who secured the upper hand during the thirty minute qualifying session on Saturday morning, posting a blistering 1:33.386 to set pole position. Spires, who unlike Palmer had to navigate traffic for some of the session, fell just short by 0.039 seconds, though the positions would be reversed with the grid for the second race of the weekend decided by each driver's second-best lap time.
Ben Colburn took an impressive third for both Race Series contests ahead of championship debutante Simon Freeman, a late entry under the Pitbull Racing banner.
As at Silverstone, Nic Harrison would emerge on top from the fight for pole position in the Road Series ahead of Westbourne Motorsport boss Richard Colburn, the margin between the two just six tenths of a second. Shanel Drewe took third ahead of the ever-improving James Joannou.
The session was somewhat overshadowed by an unfortunate crash for Nick White, as the Melksham-based racer dipped a wheel onto the grass on the exit of Tower and, whilst correcting the error, the car pitched sideways into a spin and made contact with the barrier, causing extensive damage. White's weekend would be curtailed early as a result of the impact.
It would be Palmer that claimed victory in the opening race of the weekend, fending off early pressure from Spires to create a gap of around a second to the chequered flag. Spires set the fastest lap of the race in an attempt to get on terms with the MRM racer, but as the Race Series challengers lapped their Road Series counterparts on the final tour of the circuit, Palmer edged out their fight.
Tyler Lidsey completed the podium after securing third with a bold move to the outside of Freeman heading into Tower. Freeman, recovering from a sideways moment at Hawthorns after exiting the chicane, held the inside line in an attempt to defend his position, but ultimately conceded. Colburn finished fifth having lost out to both at the start.
Shanel Drewe had been on course for her maiden Road Series victory in this, her first season in the championship, but out-braked herself heading into Sunny In on the final lap, handing Nic Harrison a last-gap victory with Colburn further back in third.
It looked as though Spires was set to strike back during the final race in glorious sunshine on Sunday, however a near-identical mistake at Sunny In handed Palmer an advantage totally nearly five seconds. Spires, who again set the fastest lap in an attempt to bridge the gap, ultimately fell short by a little under two seconds.
Colburn would make amends for the first race by edging out a close-fought battle with Freeman. The latter had initially lost out to Lidsey in a near-identical move at Tower, but after Lidsey suffered a bent-steering arm after striking a kerb whilst rejoining the circuit at Clervaux, he was forced to retire, handing Freeman a brace of fourth-placed finishes on a highly-impressive series debut.
The Road Series contest was decided in slightly less dramatic circumstances, with Nic Harrison maintaining a consistent gap to Drewe and Colburn behind.
John Billingsley and Sarah Franklin continued their own push for honours with a brace of solid points finishes, with Franklin's made even more impressive after electrical gremlines plagued her struggle to seventh position in race two. Billingsley now sits third overall, best-placed to capitalise on any issues for Palmer and Spires in the coming rounds.
The Michelin Clio Cup Series heads next to the ultra-fast Rockingham Motor Speedway in Corby over the weekend of 1-2 July for Rounds 5 and 6.
Ben Palmer said, “It's been a fantastic weekend for us. To have taken two race victories and pole position during qualifying yesterday was a great effort and I have to thank MRM for giving me a brilliant car to work with this weekend.
“I've had a great battle all weekend with Anton so credit to him. We'll take the championship lead now heading to Rockingham and hopefully we can have another strong weekend there and keep pushing this advantage until the end of the season.”
Anton Spires said, “You've got to look at the positives, I've had two second places which is actually my worst-ever finish in the championship, so we'll take that away from the weekend. It's only my second time here at Croft, which made me even more pleased to take pole position today.
“I couldn't quite convert it, I made a mistake into Sunny In, I just locked the fronts and the car spun around on me, which is annoying because we had the pace today. The Westbourne Motorsport team have put together a great car, all weekend I felt very comfortable. I'm a little bit gutted, but I'm looking forward to Rockingham and putting it right there!”
Nic Harrison said, “It was pole position and two wins, so you can't really ask for better than that! To be honest, it wasn't a good weekend for me other than the results, I'm still having a few problems with the car so we're not pushing as hard as we're capable of because of some problems with the gears. A victory is a victory though, and you'll take it whatever way you can. I guess you only have to win by the smallest margin, I can go faster than I have been which is good.
“Rockingham should be good – I had two wins there last year as well, but every track is different. As long as the car sticks together and we don't have any problems then we should be looking strong.”