Rockingham 2003

Preview & News

Media release: 21 June 2003

Rockingham is the UK’s newest and, some might say, most exciting motor racing venue. Unlike other circuits in Britain, Rockingham has been purpose-built for the sport, through every stage of planning from the ground up. Located on what was termed a “brown-field site” near Corby in Northamptonshire, the Rockingham Motor Speedway has been designed to incorporate all the best features from race circuits all around the world, with heavy influence from America where motorsport regularly attracts crowds of over 100,000.

It’s an awesomely impressive place. Ringed by steeply-terraced spectator enclosures the principal track is a banked oval, reminiscent of the gladiatorial amphitheatres of ancient Rome – but on a massive scale. Intended for Cart and Nascar style racing, the Oval encompasses within its sleek and progressive turns a more conventional road-style track that has, since its introduction two years ago, met with universal approval from drivers and spectators alike. Incorporating lengths of the main Oval, the track is a cunning blend of foot-to-the-floor banking, challenging complexes and do-or-die hairpins. There are plenty of overtaking opportunities and, with every inch visible from the galleried grandstands, it offers unrivalled spectator entertainment. Understandably, Rockingham has already become the highlight of many a championship season.

* Testing Times *

So the Porsche Carrera Cup headed that way for Round 5 in June, the halfway point in the 2003 calendar. With the track still an unknown quantity to some drivers a test session was arranged for the week before the race (June 19th), and a majority of competitors turned up to view the track – some for the very first time. Once again it was championship leader Barry Horne who set the pace, emerging comfortably quicker than his main rivals. "We're just making sure we're happy with the car," said a relaxed Horne, who had raced and won at Rockingham previously. His best lap was considerably under what was widely expected to be the leading pace for the international circuit, reflecting his experience at the Corby track. "It feels good," he admitted after lapping in 1:41.197, over half a second clear of his closest rivals.

Jason Templeman, another Rockingham regular, led the chase to Horne, content to run through a programme of development work during the two-hour session. Richard Westbrook was third fastest on his first experience of the track. "It's an important two hours," he admitted, "and we've still got to find some more on the set-up of the car." Jonathon Cocker and Jeremy Smith were fourth and fifth quickest, with the teenager once again demonstrating his inherent skills by improving steadily lap by lap. "I was just getting quicker throughout the day," said Cocker, who later confirmed that he’d actually raced at Rockingham twice in April. Smith, who has competed at Rockingham in single-seaters, was equally pleased with a strong performance. David Cuff completed the top six, from Andy Britnell and Jonathan Rowland.

* Howell it go? *

Ninth quickest was Gareth Howell, making a guest appearance in the championship aboard the white and red Porsche Cars GB entry, managed by Parr Motorsport. It wasn’t a true reflection of Howell’s potential, since the Touring Car driver missed most of the two-hour session with an early clutch problem. The team worked frantically through the next hour to effect a repair and Howell was able to return to the track for the closing stages. He immediately started bringing his times down, but without more laps in the car he was never going to challenge the likes of Horne.

Twenty-two year-old Gareth started racing - in karts of course - when he was only eight, winning his first Cadet title the following year, 1990. Since then he has followed a slightly unconventional route into a motor racing career that, unusually, has not involved any single-seater formulas. He made his circuit debut in the Ford Fiesta SI National Championship at the age of sixteen, finishing fifth, before progressing into the Ford Credit Fiesta Zetec Championship for 1998. The next year, and by then a regular in the popular Fiestas, he became the youngest ever race winner and, come the end of the season, was nominated “Driver of the Year”. Such accolades carry greater weight than some give credit, and it was enough to give Gareth the push he needed. 2000 became a significant year for the up-and-coming tintop racer, when ten podiums not only gave him second in the championship and the Junior Cup but also earned him a test in the Ford Mondeo Supertouring car. To cap the year he then made his BTCC debut at Oulton Park, achieving a podium finish in the production class.

That sort of result opens doors, and in 2001 Gareth moved into the British Touring Car Championship full-time. He drove the GR Motorsport Ford Focus in the Production Class, took his first win at Snetterton, and ended the year fifth. Last season he satisfied another ambition by driving a Team Atomic Kitten MG ZS in the re-established Independents' Cup. He narrowly missed the title, finishing the year 12th overall. Although he has returned to the championship this year with Team Dynamics Gareth has also been showing signs of adopting a second string to his bow – as a television commentator with Motors TV!

* In the Blue corner *

This quasi-journalistic bent might suggest that he would have something else in common with his partner in crime for the Rockingham weekend, James Mills, other than an interest in cars. Mills, deputy editor of BBC's Top Gear Magazine, followed a succession of other journalist by accepting the chance to race in the Carrera Cup, courtesy of an invitation from Porsche cars GB.

Mills, 29, has previously contested two seasons of Caterham racing, most recently in the Roadsports Championship. However, that was several years ago and prior to his Rockingham outing admitted to being very rusty. "It is a little bit daunting," he said, “but I'm very, very excited about it. It is a great opportunity." Having never raced at Rockingham before, Mills went to the circuit's racing school in mid-June to get a feel for the track. "That was just to learn which way the circuit went. In testing, I'll have enough to worry about with the other cars and the power of the Porsche." His day ended in drama when the school car he was driving lost a rear wheel!

Mills had driven a 911GT3 Cup car before, however, so wouldn’t be heading for the Parr awning totally ignorant of his fate. He spent some time testing his own limits – if not that of the car - during a media day at Hockenheim for the Porsche Supercup. "It gave me an idea what I was letting myself in for!" he suggested.

Horne banks on success

Media release: 22 June 2003

Horne started the weekend as he meant to go on, by claiming yet another pole position for the Saturday Sprint. The Scot set a blistering pace to end the session more than half a second faster than his major rivals Richard Westbrook and Jason Templeman. Howell would start sixth, two seconds off the pace, with Mills eleventh out of twelve, just edging out the struggling Gary Britnell.

Pole gave Horne the perfect springboard for the race itself, although the start didn’t go exactly according to plan. Horne has a habit of getting bogged down when the lights change, and once again it was Westbrook who edged clear on the charge into Deane for the first time. Out-gunned into Turn One the pole position driver had to be content with second as Templeman slotted in behind the dicing pair just ahead of Cocker.

Further back there was a lot of jostling for position, and one such incident caught a backmarker in what is fast becoming recognised as the car’s Achilles heel. With a pierced radiator spilling coolant across the track the surface became exceedingly treacherous, especially through Brook Corner. Both Westbrook and Horne had big moments, but Templeman suffered the most. He spun off wildly on the second lap and slid into the gravel.

With his car effectively smothered the unfortunate Templeman found himself unable to move. That prompted a safety car period and from the re-start Westbrook hit trouble. With echoes of Silverstone, Richard missed a gear and blew his clutch. "At the start, it was fine," said Westbrook. "I think I could have won without the clutch," he added, obviously recalling the way he’d struggled through to victory in the previous round . This time, however, Horne was closer to his tail and Westbrook found his car’s handling worsening as the race progressed.

Howell, meanwhile, had made a good start, easing ahead of David Cuff from the grid and running fourth behind Cocker following Templeman’s demise. It was not to last, however, and when the racing resumed on lap six Howell hit difficulties. He was forced into retirement on the following lap with mechanical problems.

Out at the front it was a tooth and nail battle for the lead, with Horne snapping away at Westbrook’s heels while the leader held on by his fingertips. When Westbrook slid wide at Tarzan on the penultimate lap, Horne grabbed the chance to draw alongside and edged ahead on the sprint to Brook Corner. Westbrook could not respond and had Cocker on his tail through the final lap as Horne moved clear. "Once I saw Jason go off I wasn’t going to do anything stupid," reckoned Horne. "Then I had the opportunity!" The troubled Westbrook accepted his fate. “It was a just matter of time before Barry went through," he said, although he still managed to fend off Cocker to the flag. "I’m getting better every time I get in the car," said the delighted teenager. Almost in touch with the battle for second was fourth-placed David Cuff while Andy Britnell and David Pinkney completed the top six.

Strike two for Horne

Media release: 22 June 2003

Barry Horne clearly prefers a rolling start, and with the line advantage he was able to pull ahead of Westbrook – now without a clutch problem – and claim the first corner unopposed. It was good clean stuff and set the tone for the race.

With Cuff and Cocker chasing, the leading quartet was able to stretch away as Horne eased clear of his pursuers. From the very back of the grid, Gareth Howell was making up for his Sprint race misfortune. A dive along the inside had seen him make a clean pass on James Mills and Jonathon Rowland on the approach to turn one, and a move on Andy Britnell at Gracelands took him up another position. By the end of the opening lap he’d moved into sixth, within a second of David Pinkney. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, he clipped a bollard at the chicane at the start of the third lap. Incredibly, the windscreen of the 911 chipped, sending a splinter of glass into Howell’s face, catching his eye. Partially unsighted but undeterred, he battled on, although his pace wasn’t quite what it should have been. Now a second or more off his normal lap times he was struggling to hold off the challenge posed by some of the Cup regulars, and places started to slip through his fingers.

Horne had no such handicap. “I knew I had to concentrate all the time and put in consistent times," said Barry after taking a resounding victory. "The championship is looking good," he added after an important weekend in terms of the season-long contest. Maximum points on this occasion were added to those achieved by finishing on the podium in each of the ten previous races, winning four times. However, with all scores to count for the final positions and another ten races still to run it would only take one bad weekend for him – and a good one for a close rival – and the race could be opened wide once more. "Barry had the legs on me all weekend," acknowledged Westbrook, after finishing a secure but lonely second. "But that will change!" he promised.

Cocker, meanwhile repeated his sprint race third place finish after another faultless drive, having battled ahead of Cuff into Gracelands on the third lap. "That felt like a very long race," said the sixteen year-old, having raced hard to claim his third podium of the season. In the closing laps, fourth-placed Cuff was coming under pressure from Templeman, who turned in the drive of the day to battle through from the back of the grid. Jeremy Smith, meanwhile, raced strongly to work ahead of Pinkney to complete the top six with Howell eighth. James Mills finished the day a perfectly respectable tenth, ahead of Gary Britnell and Jonathan Rowlands, both experienced racers and Cup regulars.