Team A.R.C. retained the "Mac Hobson Trophy" for the third consecutive year, at the N.E.M.C.R.C. meeting at Croft on the opening weekend of April, with three F2 wins in a weather-disrupted event.
Teaming up with Lee Crawford was Tony Belsey - having also deputised for Patrick Farrance the fortnight previous, at the Auto 66 Club's season opening event at Cadwell Park. They had taken two class wins and a second place finish, despite enduring a number of mechanical issues - therefore, top of the agenda at Croft was ensuring that these problems had been eradicated.
An unofficial test day was run on Friday afternoon, with four sessions for sidecars. Due to work commitments for Tony, Ben Chandler joined Lee, and did an excellent job. It was a productive afternoon, putting in plenty of laps and generating useful feedback prior to the meeting in the pleasant Spring sunshine. With only four other machines on circuit, there was plenty of clear air for teams to "do their own thing". However, with such lowly numbers of sidecars taking part in these events, and a decent solo uptake, it could only be a matter of time before running sidecars at test events becomes financially unviable.
Wet weather had been promised for much of the day on Saturday, although the morning remained as pleasant as the aforementioned Friday afternoon. The practice session for sidecars was held mid-morning, with a respectable fourteen teams of varying classes in the combined "open sidecars" category vying for grid positions. A dry circuit looked favourable for the top F1 team of Gary Horspole / James Connell, and they certainly looked in good form early on. However, a reported throttle issue forced them back to the paddock on completion of their fourth lap, seeing them end practice in third position. Team A.R.C. had a trouble-free run, qualifying fastest, two and a quarter seconds clear of father and daughter veterans Tony Baker / Fiona Baker-Holden. Completing the second row were Greg Lambert / Julie Canipa - another pairing who had to stop before the fifteen minute session came to a close, with a mechanical problem sidelining them on lap five.
Sixteen races were on the billing for Saturday, and with the weather holding out the first few solo events went off without too many problems. Following the lunch break, there were a number of delays with stoppages. As the afternoon went on, it was obvious that time would likely be against the club in getting through the programme. Two sharp showers further added to the frustration, as races were red flagged on safety grounds, returning competitors to the paddock to change wheels etc. It was around 4pm when the sidecars were lined up for their race - the majority being on slick tyres, as the track had by this time established a dry line all round. However, dark clouds were once again ominously thickening, and the first drops of rain were felt as the outfits proceeded on their warm-up lap.
The rain gathered force, and a rather loud clap of thunder and flash of lightening saw wry smiles and rolling eyeballs, along with cliched jokes about sidecars and rainfall on pitwall! The race duly got underway, with Lee and Tony seizing the initiative, pulling a gap from the Bakers, Lambert / Canipa and Dave Lillie / Carl Bell. The F1 of Horspole / Connell was proving to be a bit of a handful in the wet and was circulating behind the lead group of F2 outfits.
By lap three, the heavens had well and truly opened, with Team A.R.C. pulling a gap of over eight seconds. It was Lambert / Canipa who were mounting the challenge however, and it later emerged that they were running full wet tyres. The rest of the pack had fallen back, and many had begun to retire to the pitlane, finding the conditions dangerous with horrendous visibility and the threat of aquaplaning off the circuit too likely to proceed. Shortly after, the very sensible decision to put out the red flag was made. Little more than two minutes later, the "clouds burst", with twenty minutes of torrential rain. Pit Lane soon became flooded, with drains struggling to cope, and with significant standing water in many places around the circuit, it was evident that there would be a lengthy delay.
While some assumed racing would be postponed for the day, the sun did eventually return, and while there was no chance of the circuit drying out, the marshals worked hard, and at 5.15pm a full re-run (plus three sighting laps) took place for the sidecar teams. This being the last event of the day (half of the programme was unfortunately lost, but it did mean that all competitors had the opportunity for a single ride, so did not favour any classes over others).
Lee and Tony took the initiative from the start, and pulled out an enviable gap over the chasing pack, which by lap six had extended to fifteen seconds, although they eased the pace towards the end, giving the backmarkers plenty of space, owing to visibility and track conditions still being far from perfect. Team A.R.C. took a victory of 9.5 seconds over the Bakers, with Lambert / Canipa third. Horspole / Connell retired in the early stages, but surprisingly were the only non-finishers.
As always, due to the noise restrictions at Croft, racing did not get underway until noon on Sunday. The sidecars were once again at the end of the programme - but thankfully it was an altogether more pleasant day weather-wise. Fewer delays and issues actually saw the event run slightly ahead of time, which was a welcome change from the events the day before.
Team A.R.C. were under no illusions that with the ideal track conditions, they would come under pressure and no doubt succumb to the F1 outfit of Horspole / Connell who were starting immediately behind them on the grid. Making an excellent getaway, Lee and Tony stretched a lead over the Bakers and Lambert / Canipa, with Horspole / Connell moving up the order on the run to Tower on the opening lap. Holding a lead of around a second over the F1 at the end of the first lap, Team A.R.C. held off their attentions until the end of lap three, when Horspole / Connell had closed the gap, and exited the hairpin on the back of Lee and Tony, using their superior power to draw alongside as both outfits crossed the line. However, their lead was short-lived, as Horspole / Connell found themselves in the gravel trap at Clervaux, with Team A.R.C. taking back a lead which was now over fourteen seconds over the chasing pack of the Bakers; Lambert / Canipa; father and son John / James Saunders and Nick Dukes / William Moralee.
Unfortunately, the race had to be red flagged, with the F1 outfit well and truly "beached" in the gravel, being in what was considered to be a precarious position. As less than 50% of the race distance had been completed, a restart over four laps was held, being slightly less eventful. Lee and Tony took another victory of just over six seconds over the Bakers, with an impressive ride from Dukes / Moralee holding off the attentions of Lambert / Canipa for the final podium place.
The final race of the weekend once again was cut short due to an incident which brought out the red flag. Team A.R.C.resumed their battle with Horspole / Connell, who passed Lee and Tony on lap three, but despite the superior power of the 1000 F1 Suzuki, they were hounded by the 600 F2 of Team A.R.C. Giving chase to Horspole / Connell saw Lee and Tony establish their fastest lap of the weekend - 1.30.575 - comparable to the top times established in the British F2 Championship round last August.
A spin at the hairpin for Lambert / Canipa (both o.k.) left their machine in a difficult position to recover. With the race passing the half distance point when red flagged, competitors were asked whether they wanted a re-start - but following a long weekend, the majority of crews were happy to declare the result, which saw Team A.R.C. crowned the "Mac Hobson Trophy" winners - an award which Lee has won with three different passengers: in 2014 with Luke Capewell; 2015 with Patrick Farrance; and this year with Tony Belsey - all of whom have done a first class job.
The help and support of the whole team was paramount to the successful weekend, and the team would like, as always, to show their appreciation for their sponsors and suppliers, in no particular order: P.G. Legal; KC Computer Repairs; Walker Tyres; Motul; Pagid Rennsport; Dean Banks Engine Management; Happy Dog Image Solutions; PMH Promotions; Tony Baker; Dynobike (Malton); Dirk Wharton Photography; Elite Meat and A.R.C. Newton Aycliffe / Binchester.
With only a few days to strip and rebuild the machine, the A.C.U. / F.S.R.A. British F2 Championship begins on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th April at Oulton Park, where Patrick Farrance will once again be teaming up with Lee with the intention of improving on their championship runners-up position last season.