Jack O’Neill ‘Narrowly’. A Phrase that will be Repeated.
Thirty one drivers on the grid for round 5, a dry track, not bone dry, but so long as no one dragged water back from the boggy grass infield or hit the tyres too heavily then it was a dry track. All the leading players showed, championship leader Greg Barnard, Fraser Brunton, Buckmore Park winner, Chris Powell, Ryan Sandall, Stephen Westwood and, of course, the morning E60 winner Titan Motorsport’s Jack O’Neill. Jack lurking below the championship top 5 with already 2 dropped scores to count but racking up wins and podiums and ready to leap forward at the start November, if not before.
It was no surprise then to see Powell and O’Neill trading fastest laps times in practice, with Barnard just in behind around 43 flat, Brunton and Sandall a further 1/10th off, any one of them with a half decent tow could go top.
Qualifying started with Alexandre Alloro’s 45.066 on top, until Tim Ellis crossed the line behind right him. Iain McGregor’s 43.718 lasted a little longer, until O’Neill took pole to 43.341, Barnard was at the tail of lap and his 43.198 was close to his practice pace so set the target time. O’Neill, Zac Cuff, Brunton and McGregor making up the top 5. Lap 2 Graziano Malivindi went P3. Lap 3 Powell, Brunton and O’Neill all responded to Barnard, to put Greg back into P4, but were again just covered by just 0.15secs, and a tenth or so clear of Malivindi and Cuff making up row 3. Lap 4 saw David Hamer and Ryan Sandall move into row 4, before Ellis, John Regan, Kai Crawford moved them back out on the next lap. Barnard hit 42.886, a potentially pole clinching time, and it would be, Sandall moved up to P5 ahead Malivindi. O’Neill moved on to the front row just 2/1000ths off Barnard, and then the chequered flag came out. John Regan moved on to grid 6, at the expense of Malivindi. So it left Barnard and O’Neill on the front row for race 1, from Powell and Brunton, all covered by less than 1/10th of a second. Sandall, Regan, Malivindi, Cuff, and Stephen Westwood, the latter leaving it late to get back into the top 10, although it was Tim Ellis rounding out the top 10.
Barnard and O’Neill immediately pulled a useful margin, on a tricky opening lap it left Brunton 1.5sec behind, but he was clear of Powell by similar margin. Same gap to Regan where the field started. If the leading pair chose to sort it out later, or if none of the top 4 had ordinary machinery, the race might already have been settled. Ellis made a strong start up to P5, Westwood in tow, then Zac Cuff, Malivindi and Sandall going the other way, the latter running wide, when you needed to cover those apexes.
By lap 4, after seeing that Brunton was not being dropped, O’Neill dived through for the lead, it wasn’t entirely, and in getting it done it had brought Brunton straight back into the lead battle. If the trio messed about it would doubtless bring Powell back from 2secs off the lead. Chris was 4.5secs clear of the first chasing group, the Regan group, with Westwood moving through it, Ellis and Cuffe. Sandall had recovered and was trying to throw Malivindi off his bumper and clear of the 2nd group containing Daryl Snelling, Iain McGregor and Toby Case, 13th.
Upfront O’Neill drove clear from Barnard’s nose, with a string of 42.9secs laps it was only a couple of tenths on the rest of the of the top 4 but it was more than half a second on anyone in the rest of the field. After heavy contact Sandall headed to pit lane for a mechanical problem, Malivindi moved up to 9th place.
At the 10min mark, Barnard had managed to go sub 43secs, and he’d pegged O’Neill to just over a second, the leaders were already rolling through traffic, that maybe helped the chasers cause. With Rye House you can’t rely on that though. It seemed Brunton was initially content to be running on Barnard’s bumper, although as Barnard learnt the track, O’Neill had learnt all morning in Enduro 60, it looked more like he was hanging on to Greg’s slipstream, and with no one to work with it was taking Powell all his craft to keep Barnard and Brunton in view at 2secs down. The rest, and it felt like the rest, started with the Regan and Westwood 13secs off, they’d dropped Ellis and Cuffe, who in turn were clear of Malivindi in 9th was towing Snelling and Case.
Approaching halfway the traffic was getting thicker, thicker but also quicker, and first in meant they had no warning of the impending race leader, which allowed both Barnard and Brunton to edge in, with Pylon to Pit Bend being something of a bottle neck, one line complex, if you didn’t take risks. But no sooner than it works for you, it worked against you. O’Neill leapt back out to over a second clear, but it also Barnard shake Brunton off his tail. Maybe it favoured first one in to the next batch of back markers after all. It was hard to tell, one bad run across the Pylon-Pit Bend area, or blocked in the hairpins, and darn it, Barnard was back on O’Neill’s bumper. Westwood moved by Regan for 5th and pulled clear.
At 20minutes, the top 3 had lapped the field up and including Daniel Crawley in 14th, but they also about 8secs of clear track ahead, before they caught Euan Clements, if O’Neill had set the win up in the opening few laps, the race might be decided here before they reached more traffic possibly for last 5minutes, certainly for the purist, once they hit the Malivindi, McGregor, Case, Clements group that also had Nigel Foot and Martin Auger, already a lap down, in it, it would as much chance or skill who would come out on top. Brunton had lost the tow, and before being also baulked by traffic, it was O’Neill versus Barnard again. Barnard grabbed the lead coming out of Jack’s slipstream, Greg again, “I passed him into Stadium when we came up to a back marker. Jack went to the outside so I slung it up the inside instead.” It worked.
Cuff fell out of the top ten, McGregor picked and overtaking under yellow penalty. O’Neill stayed as close as you could fairly to Greg’s bumper when they cleared Malivindi, they were still nose to tail with a minute left. Greg again, “Jack made a last gasp attempt on the penultimate lap into hairpin 1 but ran wide and gifted it back to me”, covering the inside into Stadium on the last lap, hairpin 1, and getting into Pylon first made Race 1 his. Brunton finished 3rd 2secs off the lead, Chris Powell was 5secs off, missing the bus at the start. In 5th place Westwood was 27secs off the lead, 7secs ahead of Regan, and such was the pace up front, only Daryl Snelling on 7th remained on the lead lap. Malivindi, Case and Clements rounded out the top 10.
Having beaten him in race 1, Barnard you expect would be keen on a repeat, but in the intervening Heavyweight race 2 it had started to rain at the finish, and race 2 would start and it would be passed half way before the track started to dry, and would only approach dry again in the last 5mins. Poleman Greg Barnard, on race 2, “Jack O’Neill is ridiculously quick in the wet! I [only] started coming back when it dried at the end but [by then] the gap was too big.” And that might be a bigger problem than just race 2 at Rye House. With the season compressed and running as late as December this year, there is only likely to be more wet weather in the autumn. Barnard needs to make hay while sunshines (as the saying goes), or figure out how to go quicker in the rain. At least as quick as O’Neill.
Of course, O’Neill had at least had some damp running in the morning, although it’s questionable if that offered any advantage compared to the wet track the field were presented with but he did make the best start. Brunton getting through from grid 3 to be 2nd, Westwood’s effort to replace Powell in 4th failed and he received a contact warning for his trouble. And Greg was right, perhaps the clear visor helped but O’Neill was straight into a 2secs lead, with Brunton pulling clear showing similar speed, Barnard was demoted by Powell to 4th on lap 2, 6secs off the race leader, and was holding up Westwood, with main field starting with Regan in 6th a further 2secs behind, ending lap 2. Euan Clements fell out of 9th to go the back of the field, Westwood pushed through Barnard into 4th place.
At the 10min mark, O’Neill’s lead was over 3secs ahead of Brunton, who was over 7secs clear of Powell, Barnard had learnt enough, and enough from Westwood to go back passed him to 20secs off the race lead. John Regan was 30secs off the lead in 6th, ahead of Case, who had replaced Daryl Snelling in 7th after Daryl had fallen off a couple of minutes earlier, the top ten was also well spaced and rounded by Malivindi, Kai Crawford, and David Hamer, the latter, who was roughly heading the main body of the field, 45secs off the lead, just 10laps into the race. The good news was the rain had stopped. The bad news for now it made little difference to the track.
By 20mins, everyone had woken up to a drying track, not dry by any means, but drying. O’Neill had been first under 1min per lap, as he had been pretty much under 59, 58, 57, etc, etc all the way down to his 51.862, his first under 52. Brunton had matched him more or less and limited his loss to 5secs, Powell was out to 15secs, Barnard out at 30secs, Westwood a coupel of seconds behind him. There had been some changes Regan had had a spin, and fallen off the lead lap. John been replaced by Toby Case heading for a good result, Malivindi and Crawford. Regan off the lead lap in 9th and Ramunas Cerkauskas had replaced Hamer in 10th. Having a strong run after a disappointing race 1 Ryan Sandall had worked his way back to 12th. What was remarkable was how the front runners grabbed so much time exploring the grip, and also how much time they lost to their rivals when they caught the back of the field in the wrong place. It had been the same earlier on as O’Neill and co dipped another second, many of the back half of the field were circulating at 62secs pace. This more than anything was were the talent, doubtless the experience, played it’s part. Knowing how much to push on a wet track. And doing it without falling off.
With 5mins to go, Barnard was the first into the 44secs bracket, the gaps had all reduced with the speeding up of the track, and O’Neill had been circumspect through the last large group of traffic having lapped everyone up to Case in 6th place, his lead was 2.5secs on Brunton. Chris Powell was 12secs off the lead, Barnard back to 20secs, Westwood nearly 30secs. Then Regan, Malivindi, while Sandall had replaced Cerkauskas in the top 10. Indeed Sandall would work his way through this group up to 7th before the finish, but not without incident, Ryan described it as, “an unavoidable little bump”, the clerks described it as “advantage by contact, (yes) ‘bump’ and pass” as he passed Crawford for 8th. Ryan would be classified 11th. On the penultimate lap Chris Powell was spun by a back marker at Stadium. Greg Barnard liked that, Greg was 3rd.
No surprise then the round win went to Jack O’Neill, narrowly, of course from Barnard, Brunton, Powell, Westwood. I could imagine I would not get great odds on a wager that that order might be the championship top 5 at the end of the season, even as we reach the turn and halfway mark for the championship. Don’t worry there will be some surprises yet, I’m sure.
Barnard leads Brunton by 14points, Powell by a further 12, and Westwood by a further 50. However Jack O’Neill is the real leader by about 10points.
And I think that’s where I came in.
WORDS: Chris Simpson
PHOTOGRAPHY: John Patterson