Ash Hand left Croft with two podium finishes to add to his burgeoning career CV in the fiercely-contested 2014 Renault UK Clio Cup – but if one of them was achieved with relative ease, then the other was the reward for a spellbinding fightback.
Hand’s sophomore campaign in the single-make, ITV4-televised British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) support series got off to a shaky start over the first four outings, and his woes continued throughout practice at Croft, with a combination of factors conspiring to rob the talented young Nuneaton star of vital set-up time.
That meant he went into qualifying virtually blind and indisputably on the back foot, but displaying his characteristically indefatigable spirit – to say nothing of a sizeable dollop of scintillating raw speed – Hand placed his SV Racing with KX-run, Sigma and QTS-backed car third on the grid for race one and fourth for race two, a mere quarter-of-a-second shy of the outright benchmark and his best since Donington Park in April.
The KX Akademy protégé was very much back in the game, and even more so after a blistering getaway propelled
him immediately into second position in the opening encounter. Staying in touch with the leader whilst pulling well clear of the chasing pack behind, Hand maintained the pressure throughout and had closed to barely a second adrift by the chequered flag as the runner-up spoils put a resounding end to his recent troubles.
If that was a somewhat lonely affair, then race two was anything but, as an early delay dropped the highly-rated Maple Park hotshot to practically the bottom of the order. With plenty of ground to make up, he switched his headlights on and set about aggressively and assertively scything his way through.
By dint of some incisive and supremely opportunistic overtaking manoeuvres, he was back into the top six by the end of lap four before a gutsy late-braking move on multiple Clio Cup Champion Paul Rivett into the final hairpin earned him third – a position he would hold right the way to the end. Another rostrum appearance was fitting recompense for a superb charge as Hand left nobody in any doubt about his racecraft and pace, and his best weekend of the season to-date elevated him to ninth in the drivers’ standings as the championship enters its summer break.
“It’s been a tough year so far, with a variety of issues hampering our efforts to make progress,” acknowledged the 20-year-old Warwickshire ace and former karting champion. “Things seemed to be improving with a podium at Donington and some strong form at Thruxton, but then Oulton Park was almost like going straight back to square one, because we got next-to-no running all weekend for one reason or another.
“That said, I still felt confident going to Croft that we could pull something out of the bag. We had been very quick there during pre-season testing, and it’s a circuit I really enjoy. It’s fast-and-flowing and tight-and-technical in equal measure – and it can catch you out with just a split-second lapse.
“Practice was a bit of a nightmare with bad weather in the morning and fuel problems in the afternoon which meant we weren’t able to learn very much, but the SV Racing boys worked really hard and I went for a track walk the following day and looked over my data from the test. I quickly got into the groove in qualifying and was happy with third and fourth on the grid – had we not missed Friday’s practice, we would likely have been on the front row. Still, we knew we had the opportunity to fight for the podium from there and score some big points.
“I got a great start in race one and initially focussed on biding my time and looking after my tyres. I was able to pull out a gap over the drivers behind, and then with a handful of laps to go, I really got the hammer down and closed nearly onto the back of the leader. In hindsight, I probably left it just a little bit too late to begin the pursuit, but I was still very happy with second place after the last few races and it gave us useful information for the next one.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been in much worse a position at the start of race two. I got away from the line well, but then my team-mate was tipped into a spin at the first corner and I had nowhere to go. That dropped me right the way down to 11th, after which I was on a real mission, overtaking non-stop. I had to make sure I executed every single manoeuvre perfectly, because I didn’t have time for any mistakes and the others certainly weren’t going to give up their positions easily. It was a really enjoyable fightback – and hopefully I made it exciting for the crowd, too!
“Overall, it was a very positive way to conclude the first half of the season. We’ve got a long summer break now and a lot of work planned, and the goal for the remaining rounds is plenty more podium finishes – only next time, I want to be on the top step!”