Ash Hand fought hard in the latest outing of the fiercely-contested 2014 Renault UK Clio Cup at Rockingham, as a determined effort secured the talented young Nuneaton ace the fifth podium finish of his sophomore campaign in the championship.
Having been one of the undisputed stars of the show north of the border at Knockhill two weeks earlier – with his spellbinding charge to the runner-up spoils earning him a second KX Yellow Jersey of the season at the popular ‘KX Question Time’ event – Hand returned to Rockingham in optimistic mood and with fond memories, given that it was the scene of his breakthrough car racing podium last year.
The KX Akademy protégé duly lapped a promising third-fastest in both free practice sessions, but was unfortunately unable to convert that pace into a similar grid slot in qualifying, lining up a frustrated sixth for race one and seventh for race two in the single-make, ITV4-televised British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) support series.
In the opening encounter, Hand immediately indicated that he was eager to make up ground, aggressively and assertively threading his way through the traditional first corner confusion to emerge in third position in his SV Racing with KX-run, Sigma and QTS-backed car. He proceeded to gradually edge away from a frenetic scrap behind, and over the second half admirably fended off the threat posed by multiple Clio Cup Champion Paul Rivett, who had broken free from the pursuing pack and narrowed the deficit to barely a second.
Displaying an impressively consistent turn-of-speed – with his final three laps all to within two hundredths-of-a-second of each other – the highly-rated Maple Park hotshot’s careful management of the race actually saw him home in on his second-placed adversary in the latter stages as his rivals began to suffer from performance degradation.
His rostrum finish was just reward for a gritty drive, and hopes were high for a similar outcome the following day but they would be dashed no sooner had the race got underway. One of a number of competitors adjudged to have over-anticipated the starting lights, a drive-through penalty dropped Hand down the order to plum last, almost half-a-minute adrift of the lead.
Thereafter, he evinced plenty of pace and showcased his renowned overtaking prowess as he scythed his way through to ninth at the chequered flag, consolidating the same spot in the championship standings – within striking distance of the top six with one meeting remaining.
“I was really looking forward to going back to Rockingham, especially after last year,” confessed the 20-year-old Warwickshire star. “I did a lot of preparation in the build-up by way of simulator work and watching on-board videos, so I felt ready for the weekend and was confident of being able to battle for the podium again.
“Rockingham presents a unique test. It’s a fun circuit to drive, mentally tough and pretty demanding on the car, with its tight, twisty and technical infield section offset by the flat-out banking. That makes set-up a real compromise, and if you don’t get the balance right, you’re going to be in for a long weekend.
“That was an area in which we struggled on Saturday, grappling with understeer throughout qualifying. We worked hard before race one, though, which gave me a better understanding of how to get the most out of the car. The key was to maintain consistent pace all the way through, and if you look at the lap times, I think we achieved that.
“I got a good start off the line and then put myself in the right position on the track going into Turn One. We didn’t have the ultimate pace to challenge the two leaders, so I concentrated on looking after my tyres and brakes and not making any mistakes. I knew Rivett was catching me, but I was never overly concerned and I was always able to respond if he looked like getting too close. Our approach meant we still had good speed towards the end, and it was great to take another podium finish.
“The starting lights stayed on much longer than usual at the beginning of race two, and I could feel the car creeping forward slightly as we waited, but I didn’t get off the line any quicker than anybody else so I certainly didn’t gain an advantage from it. Our pace was strong after we pitted to serve the penalty, but by then, we were too far back to really be able to do very much with it. It was obviously a disappointing way to conclude the weekend, as we could definitely have fought for another rostrum.
“That means Brands Hatch is now my last chance to take a win in the Clio Cup this year. There’s not a great deal to be gained championship-wise anymore, so the top step of the podium has to be my target – and that’s what I will be focussing my efforts on.”