With the dust barely having settled on an amazing debut season in GT Cup the previous weekend, Tom Rawlings swapped his McLaren 570S GT4 to jump back into a JCW MINI Challenge car for a one-off guest appearance at Donington Park. With this being the penultimate round and a championship battle going down to the wire among the series regulars, Tom was under no illusion that he would be given any special dispensation appearing as a guest for the weekend; and competition would be fierce for the returning driver.
In a further throwback to his previous time in the championship, Tom recruited the services of fellow 130R Performance-supported driver Bruno Costa as his race mechanic for the weekend, reigniting their successful working relationship and friendship; with the car this time being run by JCW series stalwarts Lawrence Davey Racing. Although the aim was to enjoy the one-off nature of the weekend, with the typical competitive attitude of a race driver Tom had one eye on the opportunity of taking home some silverware, returning to a series where he took multiple podiums and a win in a Covid-shortened 2020 season. With his two years of experience racing the JCW car, Tom was able to quickly adapt to the switch from his regular McLaren ride this season; with a lack of ABS brakes and tyre-warming technology in MINI Challenge (and the small matter of about 200 bhp) being the key differences between the two machines. Following a successful Thursday test getting the car dialled in at a sunny Donington Park, the team were looking forward to a good weekend.
Saturday morning wasn’t the start to the weekend the team were hoping for, with Tom qualifying down in P17 after struggling to get a clean lap together during the session. With less than a second covering those top 17 positions, this was a stark reminder about how competitive the JCW field has been again this season! Despite feeling like they hadn’t quite maximised qualifying, focus now turned to the first of the weekend’s three races and confidence was high that with a good race set-up Tom could make some moves and progress into the top ten. After getting a good start, he progressed through the field nicely, generally making up one position per lap and running with top three pace when in clean air. Unfortunately as he began to battle for position with the tenth placed driver ahead, the car suddenly lost power with an electrical issue; forcing him to pull off onto the pit straight and end the race with a frustrating DNF. With the grid for the following day’s race two being based on race one’s finishing positions, this meant the prospect of a back of the grid start tomorrow.
Sunday again brought optimism with Tom having reset his goals and now relishing the prospect of working his way through the pack from a back row starting position. After another good start in race two, he once again steadily worked his way through the field, ending the twenty minute race in P14 having made up an impressive fourteen positions. With the third race of the day being the de facto headline event televised live on ITV4, the plan was now to utilise the car and Tom’s strong race pace and progress as far into the top ten as time would allow. Unfortunately, after making another strong getaway and negotiating an early safety car period, Tom’s progression was halted as once again the JCW car was hit with a loss of power, causing another crawl onto the grass on the back straight and a second DNF of the weekend.
When you enter an event knowing you’re there on a one-off basis, any race retirement is particularly disappointing… but that’s motorsport! There was no pressure and no overriding goal for the weekend other than to have fun and enjoy being back in the cut and thrust atmosphere of the MINI Challenge grid. Tom would like to extend particular thanks to Bruno Costa, Lawrence Davey Racing and main sponsor Carwood Group for supporting the weekend and making the return to the series possible. The Rawlings’ attention now turns to the off-season, with work already having begun on securing a second season and building upon this year’s successful debut in endurance racing with the McLaren customer racing family.
All photos: Sprite Photography