Same winners, but very different stories in the concurrent 50-minute Sprint and two-hour Endurances races at Rockingham’s season opener. Definitely a race of two halves, where the Endurance runners waited for the Sprint thriller to clear before putting on a show for their feature.

Sprint Category
Pole-sitter Richard Neary was off like a robber’s dog from the rolling start, streaking ahead round the banked first turn, with Ross Wylie’s Ferrari 458 trailing. Wylie caught up though, and on lap four made a classic move for the lead at Deene Hairpin, just at the point when the men in serious trousers deemed that the Mercedes GT4 had jumped the start, and awarded a stop/go penalty. With the penalty taken, Neary was now over 40 seconds adrift of the leading Ferrari, and having to cut through the leading Endurance runners to get back in contention.

Early stops by the Astons of Barry McMahon and Chris Murphy echoed their strategy for the first race, though a second stop by McMahon almost immediately after blew his chances of another class win, this being claimed by Whitebridge team mate Murphy this time.

Wylie pitted at the latest opportunity to hand the Ferrari over to David Mason, while lone driver Neary, not constrained by the "pit window", left it a little later, though once again, he attracted the attention of the officials, who issued another penalty, this time for a pit stop one second shorter than his regulation 105 seconds, and he was called back in to serve that one second under a stop/go. He rejoined 13 seconds behind Mason, with just six minutes of the Sprint race left, and with John Seale’s Ferrari 488 also in the mix. The green Mercedes took the red Ferrari at the Tarzan hairpin with just four minutes to go, with Seale taking FF Corse stablemate Mason at Deene hairpin on the very last lap, and finishing less than three seconds shy of Neary when the flag fell after 34 laps.

So, Neary did it again, but against some self-made concerns, and John Seale, having made last-gasp moves in both races, was second this time, and his performances earned him the Sunoco Driver of the Day award. Third placed David Mason was well ahead of the next car up, Class 2 victors Mike Moss and Tom Howard in the BMW 1M; Moss had dropped back at the start, but clawed back during his opening stint before handing over to Howard, who did his usual job of mixing with the Endurance Ginettas. Moss Motorsport bagged the competitive Class 4 honours too, with lone driver Jon Watt in the team’s BMW M3 finishing a lap ahead of Alex and Robert Day’s BTCC Audi A4, and the SEAT Cupra of Chris Bentley and John Clonis, a successful day for the returnees after several year’s lay-off.

Class 5 went to Tim Docker in his VW Scirocco, and Christie Doran made the second step of the class podium after a solid maiden Britcar outing in the Slidesports-run VW Golf. Class 2 runners Darelle Wilson/Ian Heward endured a stop/go penalty but bagged second in class in the Porsche 911 RSR, and sadly the woes of the first race returned for Peter Challis’s Porsche 997, which retired after four laps.

Richard Neary claimed a second Sprint win in Race 2

Endurance Category
The two Black Mamba Ginetta G55s held station behind the leading Class 1 Sprint contenders in the opening 50 minutes of the Endurance race, with Luke Williams leading Jayde Kruger, and the three Team Hard G55s behind, with Simon Rudd leading that group.

Sarah Moore had made an early in/out pit stop in the Tockwith Ginetta G50, but Ben Wallace, in the #88 Team Hard Ginetta was the first of the Endurance contingent to make the mandatory pit stop, just as the Sprint race was coming to an end, and team mate Adam Hatfield in the #285 Ginetta next, the two cars "stacking" by the pit wall and using the same fuel rig. Both were over-long stops. With Simon Rudd next in, that was the Team Hard stops dealt with, and the second drivers – Graham Roberts, Darron Lewis and Tom Barley, were free to race to the end.

Mike McCollum had started the KTM X-Bow Coupe from stone last on the grid after not finishing the earlier race, but had worked his way up, and was in third place once the Team Hard cars had pitted, but he, too, now pitted, for Sean Cooper to take it to the flag. The Black Mamba pair were the last to take their stops, right on the cusp of the eligible stint lengths, timing it perfectly just 16 seconds inside the window for Kruger. They retained their leading positions, Andy Demetriou ahead of Chris Papageorgiou, though behind them Cooper was taking no prisoners in the X-Bow, handling the considerable resistance from the Team Hard Ginettas to come up to third place, though a lap down on the leading Black Mamba machines.

Disaster then struck for Black Mamba – Papageorgiou’s #6 came to a halt on the grass coming out of Chapman Curve with a blown engine, and the Safety Car was deployed; it picked up second-place Cooper’s KTM, leaving leader Demetriou at the back of the train, and in all honestly that is where he probably preferred to stay, as this would have kept a buffer between him and the marauding Cooper, but, once the stranded #6 car was removed, the field was waved-by the Safety Car , and once the caution was lifted, after seven laps, Cooper unlapped himself from the leader at Tarzan.

Demetriou was clearly now struggling on tyres that were way past their best, and Cooper was now the fastest out there, with the gap between first and second coming down around six seconds a lap. Added to that, a queue was building up behind the struggling Demetriou, and one by one the field unlapped itself, though Ashley Woodman’s SEAT, pursuing his arch rival Stewart Lines’ similar machine for the Class 4 lead, made an ambitious lunge down the inside into Tarzan; there was slight contact, and the Ginetta was spun onto the grass, losing precious time to the pursuing KTM as it recovered. Cooper himself though was tailing off now – the gap, previously coming down by six seconds a lap, was now around four seconds a lap, and time was running out – the commentary box calculators estimated a three-second gap at the flag, and it was in fact three and a half seconds separating a relieved Andy Demetriou from Sean Cooper as they crossed the line after 79 laps.

Third overall, and in Class 3 too, was the Simon Rudd/Tom Barley G55, the first of the Team Hard trio, though they were split by the Mark Murfitt/Michael Broadhurst Mercedes GT4, which had performed well on Dunlop rubber in deference to the usual Pirellis, with Darron Lewis trying hard to recover from the long pitstop in the #285 Ginetta, finishing just over four seconds ahead of team mate Graham Roberts, with the EDF Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage fifth in class, Ben Seyfried getting the best out of the car before handing over to relative novice Mal Sandford for another solid stint.

The Class 4 battle intensified – an early unscheduled pit stop stymied Sarah Moore and Matty Greenwood’s Ginetta G50, though they still came home third, but ahead it was the two SEAT Cupras, with Martin Byford and Adam Morgan well-matched in the opening stint, with Morgan’s Maximum Motorsport car ahead at the pit stops, though Lines was suffering steering and fuel pressure issues as the race drew to a close; Ashley Woodman pulled the BPM Motorsport version a lap ahead to win the class, a strong fourth overall, and such were Lines’ woes that he cruised around the final lap and edged almost to a stop before the line, unwilling to do another lap and waiting for the winner to pass.

Black Mamba showed their class at this opening meeting, but also that they are as liable as anybody else to random car issues; the KTM X-Bow proved it’s worth after a development season in 2017; Team Hard had an atypical pair of races compared to their 2017 form, and it seems the battle of the production-based Class 4 machines will be close. All to play for at Silverstone on May 12th.

Text: Steve Wood; photos: Paul Cherry