Ash Hand displayed his warrior credentials with a determined performance to clinch his fourth podium finish of the fiercely-disputed 2014 Renault UK Clio Cup at Knockhill in Scotland – and having come within a hair’s breadth of his breakthrough victory in the championship, he is fired-up indeed for the remainder of the campaign.
After proving to be on the pace but out-of-luck at Snetterton three weeks earlier, Hand travelled north of the border to Knockhill for the first time eager to get to grips with the undulating and demanding Fife circuit, whose flowing layout is often likened to a high-speed rollercoaster ride.
The talented young Nuneaton star worked hard throughout practice alongside his SV Racing with KX crew, completing the opening day in fifth position amongst the 16 high-calibre contenders in the single-make, ITV4-televised British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) support series, less than three tenths-of-a-second adrift of the outright benchmark.
Despite the inclement weather doing its best to disrupt proceedings and rendering the track surface slippery in parts, Hand further improved in qualifying to place his Sigma and QTS-backed car an excellent third on the grid. Unfortunately, his chances in race one were then very much dictated by the start, when clutch woes precipitated a wheelspin-afflicted getaway and cost the KX Akademy protégé a spot to Jordan Stilp.
Thereafter, he would spend the duration gamely endeavouring to regain it, applying unrelenting pressure upon his rival, who steadfastly refused to yield. Trying every which way to force a gap, Hand went on to finish a frustrated fourth, with a new lap record underlining his potential and serving to show what might have been.
Fortified by an appearance at the popular ‘KX Question Time’ event on Saturday evening, the highly-rated Maple Park hotshot was at his spectacular best in Sunday’s encounter, once more losing out at the start but wasting no time at all in scything through to second. He proceeded to chase down and hassle the leader right the way to the chequered flag, reducing a 2.5-second deficit to barely a quarter-of-a-second.
Breaking his own lap record for good measure, the result represented Hand’s season and career-best and his fourth rostrum finish of the year – not to mention a timely fillip after Snetterton. Elevating him from tenth to ninth in the points standings, within a single marker of multiple Clio Cup Champion Paul Rivett, the 20-year-old Warwickshire ace’s next target is the top step, and his next outing Rockingham – scene of his maiden podium in 2013.
“The first time I saw Knockhill was on Friday morning,” he recounted. “It’s like a giant karting circuit, and you need to hook every single corner up perfectly and hit every last apex to really make the lap flow. It’s tight, twisty, technical and undulating and demands a careful balancing act between aggression and precision; that makes it very difficult to establish a rhythm – but it’s tremendous fun once you’ve got the hang of it.
“We made good progress throughout practice, which left me feeling confident for qualifying. Conditions changed overnight and the track was wet-but-drying when we went out, but I was happy to line up third – we were in the ballpark, and we’re traditionally even stronger in the races.
“Unfortunately, I just sat there wheel-spinning at the start of race one, and by its very nature, Knockhill is not an easy circuit around which to overtake – we had so much pace, but nowhere to use it! If there’s a gap, I will always go for it, and I tried everything I could but whilst I got a few good runs on Jordan coming out of the final chicane, he had a lot of straight-line speed and was able to edge away from me every time.
“I spent 20 laps practically glued to his rear bumper, changing my game plan over and over but nothing made any difference. No matter how fast I was, as long as he put his car in the right place, there was no way past.
“I learned a lot from that experience, and I knew that if I was going to make something happen in race two, I would need to get it done quickly before everything settled down. I swallowed some brave pills and overtook Mike Bushell around the outside of the first corner early on, and going into the final hairpin I braked really late and was able to roll up the inside of my team-mate Ant Whorton-Eales.
“I then set about hunting down Stilp again, but I lost some time when a backmarker cut across in front of me. Without that, given how close I got in the end and with the knowledge I had gained from race one, I’m fairly sure I could have taken the win.
“There were mixed emotions ultimately; I was pleased to be on the podium, but disappointed at being denied the opportunity to go for victory. That said, our racecraft and pace were extremely encouraging, and the new lap record was at least some sort of consolation prize. It was our strongest performance of the year so far, and now we need to carry this momentum through to the end of the season so I can finally break my Clio Cup duck!”