British F1: Birchalls put the title out of reach at Donington Park
A distinctly winter feel greeted the crews at Donington with heavy rain and wind on Friday. Saturday was another tricky day with the organisers moving the schedule to fit the weather which was predicted to deteriorate as the day unfolded.
Free practice saw a good performance by John Holden, with the Birchall brothers distinctly faster in the dry. They expressed concern that Avon had not brought enough of the new wet radial rear tyre with them. So, they would be obliged to use the older cross-ply version which did not perform as well.
Ben and Tom Birchall did indeed claim pole, with Lewis Blackstock/Paddy Rosney getting to within half a second of them. John Holden/Jason Pitt got third, with Ben Holland/Tom Christie making fourth, only to crash out badly. Tom Christie suffered a broken arm, and the bike was badly bent. Holland’s weekend and season are therefore over. Newly crowned F2 Champions Lee Crawford/Scott Hardie on their new Kawasaki long LCR did amazingly well fifth fastest just ahead of Pete Founds/Jevan Walmsley on the short F2. Sixteen crews qualified, but due to Holland’s crash, fifteen would line up.
In adverse weather conditions, a reduced distance of eight laps was implemented by race control, with two warm-up laps to familiarise the crews with a very wet track. Drama unfolded on the opening of those two laps when Ben Birchall appeared to collide with the back of Lee Crawford’s outfit on the approach to the Foggy Esses. Birchall took to the grass with sidecar wheel arch damage and Crawford retired in pit lane with a rear wheel puncture. Neither crew started, leaving the field open for others to gain big points. Slippery conditions were certainly a factor in the incident.
Lewis Blackstock was not about to pass up that chance and led from start to finish. They were to open a sixteen second margin from the chasing pack, and that was where the interest lay. If John Holden/Jason Pitt thought they would have an easy ride, nothing could be further from the truth. Newcomer Craig Currie, with Justin Sharpe alongside, settled into second place and looked strong throughout. They had a battle from mid-race distance with John Holden who also had Andy Peach/Ken Edwards to contend with. The Lifesafety Yamaha was right up there with Peach obviously relishing the conditions. He had a moment in the closing stages which dropped him into the clutches of Phil Bell/Jimmy Connell but recovered towards the end of the race to get back on terms with Holden, Currie, and Pete Founds/Jevan Walmsley on their F2 short LCR.
There were good scraps all down the field with veteran Brian Gray/Sarah Stokoe in the thick of it early on. Phil Bell claimed sixth ahead of a great fight involving Craig Clarke, Simon Robinson and new kid on the block, Lewis Nicol.
The young Scot, with his passenger Rhys Gibbons survived a big practice crash and extensive repair work to bring it home tenth. They were to start race two nervously from pole position.
1/ Lewis Blackstock/Paddy Rosney (DHR/Express Tyres Services Yamaha)
2/ Craig Currie/Justin Sharpe (Birchall Racing Yamaha)
3/ John Holden/Jason Pitt (Barnes/Silicone Adolf RS)
4/ Pete Founds/Jevan Walmsley (Team Founds Yamaha)
5/ Andy Peach/Ken Edwards (Lifesafety Yamaha)
6/ Phil Bell/Jimmy Connell (Marin Motorsport Yamaha)
7/ Conrad Harrison/Mark Middleton (Bellas Honda)
8/ Craig Clarke/Pete Ensor (Centurion Packaging LCR Honda)
9/ Simon Robinson/Mick Fairhurst (24 Seven Courier Service Yamaha)
10/ Lewis Nicol/Rhys Gibbons (Lewis Nicol LCR Yamaha)
A huge crash on the warm-up lap involved Brian Ilaria/Matty Simms clipping the kerb at Starkeys and rolling the outfit in dramatic fashion. The fairing was destroyed and parted company with the bike as Ilaria struggled to get out of it. They both quickly jumped to their feet, but the race was over for them before they got to the line.
As normal, the reverse grid gave great action with Blackstock charging through the pack followed by Ben and Tom Birchall. This time the weather was kind, and the track was dry. Simon Robinson/Mick Fairhurst were very strong at the front, holding second place for the early laps. Phil Bell spun out and into the gravel on lap two, with John Holden/Jason Pitt having another good ride working through the pack.
Pete Founds/Jevan Walmsley made their way to fifth and were enjoying a great tussle with Holden, as Craig Currie/Justin Sharp followed up their earlier podium with a great ride to sixth place.
Meanwhile, the Birchalls had forced through to lead and opened up a huge gap back to Blackstock/Rosney, with Simon Robinson having the ride of his life on the new long bike. He was to keep John Holden at bay to claim the final podium spot.
Further down the order there was a race-long entertaining battle between evergreen Craig Clarke/Peter Ensor, TT winner Conrad Harrison/Mark Middleton and the new youngsters Lewis Nicol/Rhys Gibbons.
The twenty-year-old Scot with his nineteen-year-old passenger, nephew of Pete Founds, were mixing it in fast company and very much holding their own. But it could have been a very different story when Harrison got it sideways onto the grass, Clarke jabbed the brakes and skipped sideways himself causing Nicol to think quickly and positively. His reward was eighth place behind Andy Peach and Ken Edwards rounding out a good weekend for the Lifesafety squad. Other crews in trouble were Rupert Archer/Phil Hyde in the gravel on lap six, and Lee Crawford/Scott Hardie completing a miserable weekend with another DNF on the final lap.
Birchall’s victory gave them the Molson Group Championship title, a new lap record, and a bonus award of the Tom Wheatcroft Trophy presented by the Donington Supporters Club.
1/ Ben/Tom Birchall (Champions) Haith Honda
2/ Lewis Blackstock/Paddy Rosney
3/ Simon Robinson/Mick Fairhurst
4/ John Holden/Jason Pitt
5/ Pete Founds Jevan Walmsley
6/ Craig Currie/Justin Sharpe
7/ Andy Peach/Ken Edwards
8/ Lewis Nicol/Rhys Gibbons
9/ Craig Clarke/Peter Ensor
10/ Conrad Harrison/ Mark Middleton
11/ Brian Gray/Sarah Stokoe
J. Holden 167
G. Holden 87
The final round comes from Brands Hatch 15-17 October with double points on offer.
Photo credits: Jenny “Triker” Wells