Robert Bell (Newcastle) is the 2001 Formula Renault Winter Champion after completing a clean sweep of race wins at Donington Park yesterday - in addition to smashing Kimi Raikkonen's lap record around the Leicestershire circuit.
The 22-year-old took victories in both the final two rounds to add to his pair of wins at Rockingham Motor Speedway, Northants, the previous weekend. But just as at Rockingham, he twice had to make up ground after losing his pole position advantage at the start.
Once into his stride, however, he was able to regain first position and lead the massive 28-car field to the chequered flag. His success means the Motaworld Racing team has defended the winter crown it won in 2000. The Maidstone squad ends the year on a high having also lifted the overall 2001 championship title. "It's just the perfect set of results - four wins, four pole positions, four fastest laps. I couldn't have asked for more," said the elated Bell.
Donington also saw several more new drivers make a huge impression on Formula Renault. Karting graduates Colin Brown (Kingston-upon-Thames), Lewis Hamilton (Tewin) and Jamie Green (Broughton Astley) all challenged for race victory, while a blend of speed and consistency enabled Alex Lloyd (Port Soderick) to snatch third overall in the final points standings. After starting 19th on the grid, Katherine Legge (Haslemere) might also have stolen a well-deserved top 10 finish late on in the final round had a puncture not sent her car spinning off the track at over 120mph.
The first race, on Saturday, saw Aztec International's Brown lead thanks to a terrific start from third position on the grid. Even with the fast-closing Bell, recovering after dropping to fourth and having just knocked a massive second off the lap record, looming large in his mirrors, he still looked able to defend his position. But any dreams he had of securing both his and the Aztec team's first Formula Renault race victory were shattered when his car started to slow with a minor mechanical fault. Bell instantly swept by and was followed several laps later by chief title rival, Team Chistel Sport's Julien Piguet.
Brown trailed home third, while, after a race-long scrap, Saxon International's Alex Kapadia (Aylesbury) fended off Fortec Motorsport's Green for fourth. Green could count himself lucky to have kept going after his crash helmet was struck at over 100mph by pieces of debris from Hamilton's disintegrating Manor Motorsport car when part of its floor was torn off as he ran over a kerb. Hamilton, having been on course for a classic confrontation with former world karting rival Brown, had to retire in the pitlane.
Sunday's fourth and final round was even more action-packed. Bell was to eventually run out the winner to take the title in style, but only after early leader Green had slipped up at the sweeping, right-hand Coppice Corner. "I just went in a bit too quick and lost momentum getting the car back into line. That allowed Robert a run on me heading onto the straight," explained 19-year-old Green.
In truth, all eyes were focused on the battle for third. Motaworld's Andrew Thompson (Glasgow) grabbed the final place on the podium but only after a robust defence of the position against Hamilton, Kapadia, Piguet, Falcon Motorsport's Lloyd and Paston Racing's South African driver Martin Steyn.
In a dramatic last ditch effort to pass Thompson in which their cars briefly touched, Hamilton locked his front wheels and slid wide, allowing Kapadia to nip past. At the final corner, the right-left chicane, he tried to regain the position but Kapadia spun his car entering the start-finish straight. Delayed, Hamilton was powerless to prevent Piguet zipping past on the sprint to the line and instead had to settle for fifth ahead of Lloyd and Steyn, the three of them covered by just 1/10th of a second!
Aztec's Chaz Small (Silverstone) took a best-ever eighth, but the team could so easily have had two of its cars in the top 10 had Brown, starting second on the grid, not stalled his engine at the green light. Legge, starting towards the back of the grid following problems in qualifying, had also been on course to end her season on a high until misfortune intervened.
Having made four places by the first corner, she picked off more rivals until, heading down the flat-out Craner Curves, the 21-year-old was caught out by a puncture on her Falcon car - caused by earlier contact with a rival competitor. "I turned left but instead the car spun off to the right, down the grass infield for about 200 yards and then back across the track at the bottom of the hill. I only just missed the next lot of cars. It was quite a moment really!"