Matt Mason (Nottingham) and Seb Morris (Marford, Wrexham) shared the victories during the opening event of the 2012 Protyre Formula Renault BARC Winter Series with Michelin at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit over the weekend, 20th/21st October, with Mason taking a slim two point championship lead into the series finale three weeks from now.

2012 Protyre Formula Renault BARC Winter Series

It could have been two wins for MGR Motorsport’s Mason, and a substantially bigger points cushion, on his first weekend back in the category for over a year, but a mistake while leading the first race on Saturday left the way clear for Morris to open his account on the top step of the podium.

In atrocious, murky conditions on Sunday afternoon Mason made amends with the round two win after an early dice with Morris. The Fortec Motorsports driver unfortunately fell foul of the slightest error at Surtees on lap two, after which Mason never looked back.

“I’m really happy with how the weekend has gone”, said Mason, “It’s my first weekend back in these cars in over a year, to jump back in and be really quick – and winning a race – is fantastic. We should have dominated the first race in all honesty, I had a very comfortable lead but at Dingle Dell I just made a slight mistake. I’m so annoyed about that but overall it’s been a great weekend for us.”

Mason and Morris

Qualifying on Saturday took place on a wet and drying track and category returnee Mason mastered the conditions to seal the round one pole position by a massive 0.6 seconds from impressive rookie team-mate Gustav Malja.

Morris was third fastest ahead of Chris Middlehurst (St. Helens) in fourth and a career-best fifth was Lebanese driver Joe Ghanem – the latter poignantly running with a black band on the nose of his MTECH Lite car out of respect for the victims of last week’s terrorist attack in Beirut.

Mason did also claim pole for round two in the almost fully-dry second session, but officials ruled his best lap was achieved under yellow flags. He therefore missed out on the top spot on the grid by just 0.022 seconds to impressive Protyre Formula Renault BARC newcomer Jack Aitken (Kensington).

Morris begins title bid in winning ways
At the start of race one, Mason surged away into the lead but Swedish star Malja stalled and lost a lot of ground as Morris, Ghanem, Middlehurst and several others streamed past before the Swede was able to get going.

Mason and Morris, split by just 0.7 seconds at the end of the opening tour, began to open a gap over the rest of the field which was headed by Ghanem. At Surtees though on lap two, Middlehurst took third around the outside with a great move and Aitken – up from sixth on the grid – profited as well to take fourth.

Into lap four, Mason held a 1.4 second advantage over Morris after posting the fastest lap on the third tour but the Fortec driver hit back the next time around to reduce the gap back down to one second. Middlehurst, meanwhile, came under increasing pressure for third and at Paddock Hill Bend on lap six the attention told as Aitken sliced past – having teed-up the move out of Clark Curve.

Continuing to keep Morris at bay, Mason set what would turn out to be the fastest lap of the race, a time of 1m26.129 seconds (101.70mph), on lap seven but soon after the complexion of round one changed completely when a mistake for the race leader at Dingle Dell dropped him back to sixth.

Morris gladly inherited the lead, a country mile ahead of the rest, and went on to win by almost eight seconds while Aitken ran home a comfortable second to claim a memorable podium finish on his category debut for Fortec.  Middlehurst claimed the final step on the rostrum, his third podium of 2012, fending off Core Motorsport’s Michael Epps (Hemel Hempstead) by just 0.5 seconds.

Cliff Dempsey Racing’s Matthew Brabham was an excellent fifth, the Team USA Scholarship winner’s first visit to Brands Hatch, as Mason finished sixth. With Brabham ineligible to score though, Mason picked up the same points tally as Epps thanks to the addition of his fastest lap bonus.

“He [Mason] was on the edge from the start, we were both pushing so hard and that meant the tyre life was very short”, explained round one winner Morris, “When we got past lap five or six, the tyres completely went off so I adjusted my driving and I think that paid off. The main thing with the Winter Series is to finish all four races, there are no drop rounds so you can’t afford a bad result.”

Conditions for round two were dire, persistent rain making visibility very difficult and resulting in a number of spins and excursions for a variety of competitors – the most high profile being Morris who ran wide at Surtees on lap two shortly after moving to the front.

Pole-sitter Aitken made a good start but Mason’s was better and he swept around the outside into Paddock Hill Bend to grab the lead with Morris taking second from Aitken at Druids. With nothing between the top two, Morris made his move on the inside out of Clearways at the end of lap one and held on into Paddock but Mason hit back into Druids.

Morris re-took the lead at Graham Hill Bend but then slid off the road into Surtees gifting Mason first again, ahead of Ghanem and Middlehurst. Ghanem set the early pace as he and Middlehurst closed in on the leader but Ghanem was the next to come to grief, running straight on at Graham Hill Bend.

Middlehurst, therefore, inherited second and Aitken moved up into third where they remained to the finish. Morris, meanwhile, endured possibly his most dramatic race of the season with a couple of additional moments requiring recoveries on each occasion.

He was able to fight back into fourth place, albeit with some help along the way – a luckless Luke Williams (Sowerby, Thirsk) was forced to pit with a dislodged engine cover while Epps was forced out on the last lap with a broken driveshaft. Brabham battled back superbly from an early spin to take a tremendous fifth ahead of SWB rookie Cameron Twynham (Great Bowden, Market Harborough).

“Consistent results are what we’re looking for”, said Middlehurst, “I was pressuring Matt mid-race to try and force him into a mistake but towards the end I just started to cruise. There was a moment where I thought I might push but then I decided to settle for second. It’s a great result for the team.”

Aitken added: “I was happy in the dry on Saturday, I was able to work my way through the field and we were pretty quick but race two was very tricky – the track had absolutely no grip. I had to scrub my wets in on the first lap, which lost me quite a lot of time, but when I got up to speed I wasn’t too far off the pace of the leaders. We’ve had a good weekend, we’ll see how it goes at Rockingham.”

Rounds three and four, the finale of the Protyre Formula Renault BARC Winter Series with Michelin, will take place on Saturday, 10th November, at Rockingham in Northamptonshire.

Along with headline sponsor Protyre, Formula Renault BARC is additionally supported by Michelin, The Lubricant Consultancy, Petronas Syntium and NGK Spark Plugs.

Provisional 2012 Protyre Formula Renault BARC Winter Series with Michelin Standings (Rds1&2):
1st Matt Mason, 56pts; 2nd Seb Morris, 54pts; =3rd Jack Aitken & Chris Middlehurst, 53pts; 5th George Gamble, 34pts; 6th Hong Wei Cao, 32pts