Birmingham Wheels annual Gala Night drew a record entry and a substantial crowd. For many, it was an emotional evening with the staging of the Under 25s Championship and Dave Leonard Memorial Trophy, giving fans and drivers the opportunity to mark the passing of a fan and sponsor who did more than go the extra mile to support the sport he loved.
After a rather damp, rainy afternoon, the clouds departed and the U25 Championship drew a quality entry to a track that was dry on the inner racing line but still quite soggy for any car pushed onto a wider line. Prior to racing, fans and drivers took part in a minute’s applause for Dave; whose name will always be synonymous with this race and its philosophy of encouragement for those younger drivers who are the future of our sport.
One of the attractions of the Gala Night is that it reaches out beyond the regular driver base with many guest drivers from both other short oval formulae and even some who have deserted the ovals for the more pristine environs of European long circuits.
The U25 Championship opened proceedings for the F1 cars and a high quality entry featured the likes of 217 Lee Fairhurst, European Champion Dan Johnson (4) and 212 Danny Wainman. Unfortunately for these drivers, the front of the grid featured a whole bevy of racing talent with European F3 driver Ben Barnicoat and UK Renault Clio Championship winner Ant Whorton-Eales starting with the C grade in quality cars, provided by Falding Motorsport and Team MHR.
Whorton-Eales and Barnicoat were quick from lap 1 but both had to give best for a few laps to another guest driver, Harry Steward (126), who used experience gained in rod racing and a high spec car ex-Paul Poulter car borrowed from the Jones Bros to produce some controlled laps on the difficult surface. Steward led the first four laps before Whorton-Eales took over at the front, leading all the way to the chequered flag securing a substantial slice of a huge prize fund. Barnicoat also showed his talent coming home fifth, while Steward was desperately unlucky to be spun out from second place on the very last bend by formula two refugee Ashley England.
Dan Johnson had a quiet race but did eventually make it to the final podium place, while defending champion Danny Wainman spent too much time scrapping with Bradley Harrison in the 25 car and thus could only make it to fourth. Lee Fairhurst usually gets involved at the sharp end when big prizes are on offer but suffered delays fighting off the attentions of Jacklyn Ellis in the 219 car.
Some fans may have felt some disappointment seeing their favourites well and truly spanked by guest drivers but, for those looking for a brighter future, sixth place featured 211 Phoebe Wainman, whose performance seemed to underline that a permanent move to the big league is well overdue. Just one place behind Phoebe was former Ministox multi-champion Courtney Witts (180). Courtney got involved in plenty of action, taking and giving a few hits and one can only hope this is the first of many appearances in an F1 car.
Two heats, consolation and final for the Dave Leonard Memorial Trophy filled the rest of the evening on a track which did get a little drier as the evening went on, but would be helped greatly by not having poor drainage leaving pools of standing water around the infield.
Heat one had plenty of spins and action with notable victim being Kieran Leach in the 71 car, who got a good portion of damage from a five-car pileup on turn four. Guest drivers dominated early on with Steward (126) leading Whorton-Eales but, following yellow flags for the 71 car, both had to give way to World and British Champion Frankie Wainman Jnr, who found his shale car worked quite well on damp tarmac and had an easy run to the flag.
Heat two and Ben Barnicoat showed his U25 performance was no fluke; leading from flag to flag. Superstars Johnson and Fairhurst decided to fight, which led to a tangle in turn two and both cars failed to finish. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, a very rapid 445 car of late entry Nigel Green made it from the back into second place.
Still dry on track, although now very cold on the terraces, as 27 hopefuls lined up for the Consolation. If this race was a TV programme it would be the “Courtney Witts Show” with the 180 car leading from the off until yellow flags brought a halt just after halfway. With starmen Fairhurst and Bradley Harrison in second and third, it should have been all over for Witts but Courtney fought them all the way to the flag. Harrison got the better of Fairhurst to take victory, as just reward for a season of continuous improvement.
Plenty of cars on track for the final and, with lots of drivers lacking experience, there was no shortage of spins and crashes. Mick Sworder (150) gave Frankie Jnr a season’s farewell hit but only managed to spin himself, while up front Ashley England took a healthy lead.
Yellow flags were needed for Barnicoat and O’Connor, who were overly engaged in turn two destroyed all the good work done by England but on the restart he pulled away again. Ominously for England, the 445 car of Nigel Green lined up sixth on the restart and looked significantly faster than the rest of the superstars. More yellow flags made things even tougher for England. Five laps to go on the restart and Green now third soon shot forward and annexed the lead taking home the Dave Leonard memorial trophy and a substantial cash prize provided by Dave’s close friends and family. Having spoken to Nigel earlier in the evening he told me his late decision to attend was a mark of respect for all that Dave had done for the sport and he was clearly delighted with his win celebrating with doughnuts on the start finish line.
After the flag Sworder and Frankie jnr entertained the turn four patrons with some good natured tyre burning pushing and shoving, which despite the damp and cold left the departing fans looking forward to the 2017 season which gets underway with a farewell to the iconic Wimbledon Stadium on March 5th.
Words: Damian Noblett
Photos: Colin Casserley and Steve Botham