A fourth place finish for Hemel Hempstead racing driver Mike Epps in the first of the weekend’s two Renault UK Clio Cup races at Croft Circuit in North Yorkshire, meant his Matrix Motorsport team is moving closer to its target of scoring a podium position.
As well as hosting rounds nine and ten of the fiercely-fought one-make series for identical specification Renault Clios, Saturday and Sunday’s meeting also marked the middle of the season and the most northern venue in the 18-race calendar.
Amazingly for a British-based championship, it was the third event in succession that hot and sunny weather prevailed throughout, with the scorching conditions putting cars and drivers to the test.
In keeping with the format with most of this season’s meetings, the action got underway on Friday, when all four of the Matrix drivers, Epps, Jeff Alden, Andy Wilmot and Aaron Thompson, took to the track for two, 45-minute practice sessions.
It was again an opportunity for the team to dial its cars into the circuit conditions and, with 2018 the team’s inaugural season, it’s a task that they have to perform at every track.
Saturday’s qualifying was another closely-contested affair for Epps, who ended the session just 0.305 seconds from pole position for the first race and 0.287 for the second, times that would see him start seventh and sixth place on the grid respectively.
A similar scenario applied for Wilmot, Thompson and Alden who all set times closer to the front of the field and they would start in 15th, 17th and 18th for both races.
The day’s temperature appeared to be at its highest as Saturday afternoon’s 12 laps around the 2.1-mile track got underway.
Epps was blocked in during the first lap and dropped a couple of places.
Unhappy not to have capitalised on his starting position he fought back and, with others ahead tripping over themselves later in the race, he crossed the line fourth.
More significantly, he was just half-a-second from scoring the team’s first podium position of the season.
In contrast, Alden had a stunning start and made up four places, only to get boxed in and lose the advantage he initially gained.
He then settled into a battle with fellow competitor Luke Warr and, as the two of them gained on the cars in front, Alden went onto the grass coming out of the suitably named –considering the weather – right-hander of Sunny.
With debris on his tyres and trying to make amends, Alden out-braked himself and slid wide and into the side of Warr’s Clio, the outcome resulting in the Matrix team principal having to watch from the sidelines for the rest of the race.
Having been involved with someone else’s incident last time out at Oulton Park, Wilmot was keen to keep out of trouble and built up pace during the race to finish 15th.
Thompson was also hoping to find better fortune this time round, but his aspirations were dampened with a loss of power during the race and a somewhat frustrating run resulted in a 17th place finish.
Saturday evening was to see a few tweaks made to Epps’ and Wilmot’s cars and something a little more significant to Alden’s and Thompson’s.
Either way, all were ready for the off when the second of the weekend’s two races got the green light on Sunday – again, in sweltering conditions that were akin to the drivers competing in the French Grand Prix in the south of France that same afternoon.
Epps was probably the most frustrated of the Matrix quartet this time around.
Although his launch off the line was as good as ever, so was everyone else’s and he exited the first corner in sixth place behind a train of five other cars.
Whatever Epps did, he couldn’t get past and therefore, crossed the line having held the same position throughout the race.
Willmot’s goal to stay out of trouble was seriously put to the test in race two, when he found himself embroiled in a series of battles with a variety of other drivers.
After a frantic 12 laps, he finished 14th and afterwards admitted that he had thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
As for Thompson, after the frustrations of the past, it was clear all of that was behind him and following an impressive start, he spent the whole race challenging for a place in the top ten.
However, his eventual finishing position of 17th didn’t reflect his performance, as organisers had applied a ten-second penalty for an over-eager getaway.
Without it, the 19-year-old would have finished 11th, a result much more in keeping with his acknowledged abilities and potential.
Unfortunately for Alden, his second race lasted even less time than his first.
He was pushed out by others going into turn one, clipped a kerb and picked up a puncture that resulted in an inevitable pit-stop and consequently finishing a lap behind the rest of the field.
Although the team didn’t achieve the podium result it was looking for, everyone in the team was still upbeat about the outcome of the weekend.
The data collected and the improving pace of their cars in comparison with the rest of the field gave the team much to enjoy.
The weekend’s results now see Epps in fifth place in the drivers’ standings while the Matrix Motorsport team are in fourth spot in the teams’ points table.
Epps said afterwards: “The first race went well. The car felt good and I had the momentum to make up three places and grab fourth.
“We just made detail changes for race two hoping that by starting one place higher on the grid I could make up three places again and score the team’s first podium.
“But I just couldn’t get past the five cars ahead whatever I tried, so had to take what we could get.
“We’ll get there though. The lap times are so close, it’s only fraction of seconds that make the difference between being on the podium or not.”