Double Podium for Middlehurst and Claessens Takes Maiden Top Ten Finish
MGR returned to form as a leading contender as the BRDC Formula 4 series reached its hallway point at Oulton Park (18-19 July).
After experiencing a frustrating time at the series’ visit to Snetterton in June, the team fought back in terrific style at the Cheshire track. Middlehurst was among the pace-setters in free practice, announcing his bullish intentions in the first session with the 2nd-quickest lap.
Using his ‘home advantage’ the Ormskirk-based teenager delivered his best qualifying performance to date, setting the 4th-fastest time with a late push in the dying moments of the session. His team-mate, Michael Claessens took P18, believing there was more to come with his car in race trim.
And so it proved to be the case - for both MGR drivers. Middlehurst made up a place after battling with Raoul Hyman and Will Palmer. After filling Palmer’s mirrors, Chris was able to force a mistake and, as the HHC driver ran wide, he pounced. Winding the wick up, Middlehurst harried the rear of Hyman’s car, forcing the South African to defend. This allowed Struan Moore to close and make it a three-way scrap for 2nd.
Meanwhile Claessens had enjoyed a strong start and picked his way up to 16th, battling with Jordan Albert for 15th.
Despite throwing everything at Hyman and having to defend from Moore’s advances, the stalemate was finally settled by the chequered flag with Chris delighted to take his second trophy of the season. Michael’s sterling efforts yielded the hard-fought 14th and the praise of MGR Team Manager, Steve Lynch: “It was the best race yet for Michael. He got a great start and made up two places almost straight away. He came under a lot of pressure from Albert but soaked it all up and kept the more experienced driver behind him, proving his racecraft has really improved. When another driver was given a ten- penalty post-race, Michael was classified 14th.”
Reflecting on Middlehurst’s success, Steve said: “Naturally Chris was very happy and his podium lifted all the team. It put us back where we expect to be and where a driver of his calibre deserves to be.”
Friday’s perfect conditions gave way to heavy rain on Saturday, ramping up the already jangling nerves and challenge for the young grid.
In race two, having started 6th Chris gained a position to claim 5th in conditions that saw the field start behind the safety car. The rain certainly sorted the men from the boys but, with another race to follow, bravery had to be tempered with caution. Middlehurst sensibly brought his car home safely, whilst Michael recovered from an early spin to fight back finish 15th.
A chaotic third encounter saw Middlehurst keep a cool head to cross the finishing line in 2nd place, with Claessens also recording his personal best of the campaign with a superb 9th.
On the second lap, championship protagonists George Russell and Hyman touched through the fast Cascades section and were forced into retirement. Holding a watching brief moments before the incident, Middlehurst seized his opportunity, taking 2nd and the fight to race leader Moore. Chris and the chasing Will Palmer exchanged lap times, but it was the MGR man’s superior pace that ultimately netted him the fastest of the race. With the gap to the leader reducing during the closing laps, a challenge for the lead looked possible but Chris simply ran out of time to launch a genuine passing manoeuvre. In a remarkable -and quite unprecedented - turn of events on the last lap, Tom Bale and
Alfredo Zabalza darted into the pits rather than take the chequered flag. Zabalza had been running in 9th but his unforced error simply handed the position to an incredulous but hugely grateful Michael.
“Chris and Michael’s results capped a really strong weekend for us,” observed Lynch. “They proved we’ve moved on from Snetterton and back where we want to be. Chris is gunning for his first F4 win now and having broken into the top ten, Michael wants more. Everyone in the team has raised their personal bar and together we’re excited about the second half of the season.”