Record breaking qualifying pace, podium success and finishing on the fringe of the coveted top 10 in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship standings at the conclusion of his maiden season -- 2010 was certainly a memorable year for Carlisle racer Alex MacDowall.
Realising his long-held dream of competing in the BTCC, the UK'S biggest and most storied motor racing championship, the 19-year-old cemented his place as a genuine front-runner from the off in his debut season and is now fully focused on returning to the category in 2011 for a major title push.
Securing a plumb drive as team-mate to eventual champion Jason Plato in the Silverline Chevrolet squad, Alex thoroughly impressed and stunned the paddock with his lightning speed. Achieving his first BTCC podium in only the third race meeting of the campaign, he went on to achieve a best finish of second place during round 22 of 30 and came close to a maiden win on more than one occasion.
Qualifying, in particular, was where the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) Rising Star excelled throughout the year. During the second event of the season at Rockingham Alex raised eyebrows with the third fastest time and he went on to qualify sixth quickest at Brands Hatch GP Circuit, fourth at Oulton Park and then fourth again at Croft in North Yorkshire.
The true breakthrough came as the second half of the season got underway. Aged just 19 years and 197 days, Alex became the youngest driver in the history of the BTCC to secure pole position - qualifying on top for the sixth event of the year at Snetterton with a memorable performance.
Qualifying in the top three at Silverstone National Circuit, the Cumbrian then bagged his second pole position a fortnight later at Knockhill in Scotland. An engine-related problem meant he had to settle for a top 10 slot at Donington Park but for the finale at Brands Hatch Indy Circuit Alex was fourth.
"We really did show our true pace in qualifying this year, it was a fantastic season overall and while I would have liked to have taken more podiums -- and maybe a win or two -- I think I proved I've got what it takes to be a consistently competitive force in the BTCC", he commented, "Things didn't always work out for me in the races, and I made a few mistakes too, but our pace was always great."
Maiden BTCC win so near yet so far...
In race trim Alex was no less impressive but, as can often be the case in a championship as bruising as the BTCC, the results sometimes weren't as they deserved to be -- especially at Oulton Park when a broken driveshaft robbed him of a possible win while leading round 12 and at Snetterton when his pole position couldn't be capitalised on due to the gear lever snapping at the start of round 16.
After delivering a strong performance during the official pre-season test day in late March at the wheel of his RML engineered Chevrolet Cruze, Alex made a great start to his touring car career with a trio of top 10 finishes -- including a best result of sixth -- during the opening event at Thruxton.
Tricky, wet conditions at Rockingham meant the opening race at the Northamptonshire venue would be all about tyre choice. Going with slicks on the front and treaded rubber on the rear of his car, the track dried more than expected leading to the wet tyres overheating. Having to settle for 12th place, Alex was 12th again in the second race before being shunted out of the third encounter.
His season got back on track in great style during the first visit of the year to Brands Hatch. Taking seventh place in the opening race, Alex went on to produce a great drive from the fourth row of the grid in race two and climbed into the top four at the finish. Post-race though, he was credited with his debut podium after original winner Tom Chilton was excluded for technical infringements.
Fresh from taking his first BTCC podium, Alex was in confident mood for the visit to Oulton Park but the first two races were pretty robust. Taking seventh in the opener, he had to mount a determined fightback in the second race from 18th place into a highly creditable ninth at the finish due to early contact at the hairpin.
Although not the results he'd hoped for, the ninth place in race two gave Alex pole position on the 'reverse' grid for the final encounter of the weekend. Leading from the off and coping well with an early Safety Car period, his hopes of victory were shattered when the driveshaft failed on lap four.
Three contact-heavy rounds at Croft resulted in a best of two top 10 results but that disappointment was compounded at Snetterton after the summer break when what looked set to be a star weekend turned into a bittersweet outing. Making history with his supreme qualifying performance, the aforementioned broken gear lever led to an enforced retirement.
"Snetterton really was a weekend of highs and lows", explained Alex, "Making history as the youngest driver to qualify on pole in the BTCC was fantastic, it felt great, but to have nothing but bad luck after that was a bit much -- like the driveshaft problem at Oulton! We proved we deserve to be at the front though, we were there on merit from pretty much the start of the season."
Alex bounced back well for the trip to Silverstone and he took a fine fourth place in the first race, shadowing title challenging team-mate Plato over the line. Contact in race two, en-route to ninth, led to major damage to the rear of his Cruze and also resulted in a whiplash injury. The latter then wasn't helped with start-line contact in the third outing, although he fought back into the top 10.
The BTCC rookie's podium return came at Knockhill in early September, where he also secured pole position once again in qualifying and broke the circuit record in the process. The visit north of the border also marked a return for Alex to the ancestral home of his forebears -- the MacDowall family hailing originally from Ayrshire.
Donington Park and Brands Hatch were the venues for the last two events and at the former Alex came within just 0.3 seconds of the podium in the opening race. During the finale at Brands Hatch, another fourth place was secured in race one, which moved him into the championship top 10, but his hopes of holding on to the placing were dashed in race two when he was shunted off the track.
"It would have been great to end the year in the top 10 but it was still a superb season", commented Alex, "Driving for Silverline Chevrolet and working with such a professional and dedicated team of people at RML, in my first season in touring cars, was a real privilege and an honour. I want to thank all of them for their hard work and for helping me develop as a driver through the season."
Post-season, Alex was drafted in by the Chevrolet FIA World Touring Car Championship team to conduct some testing work in the 2011 specification Cruze. He then rounded off his year with a sparkling endurance racing debut -- partnering with his father Ray -- in the Britcar GT Championship finale. Winning their class, the MacDowalls also finished an incredible third overall in a Ginetta G50.