Tom Oliphant enjoyed a positive end to his maiden Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship campaign with a first ever fastest lap in the series and a hard-fought points finish during the season finale around the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit this past weekend (29/30 September).
Despite not being the biggest fan of the Grand Prix layout, the Cheshire born racer holds a strong track record around the circuit with a podium finish there twelve months ago in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB, and two more in 2015 as he was crowned the Ginetta GT4 Supercup champion.
Tackling the track’s high-speed sweeping turns and undulations for the first time in front-wheel drive machinery, Saturday’s two free practice sessions were crucial for Oliphant as he got up to speed in his Ciceley Motorsport prepared Mercedes A-Class.
After building up his confidence and pace in those two sessions, the Philips automotive lighting and Reep Group supported driver was left slightly frustrated as traffic hampered his efforts in qualifying that afternoon and he could only post the twentieth fastest time.
Oliphant bounced back in style at the start of Sunday’s opening race, with a sensational first lap seeing him gain no less than six positions to settle into fourteenth place, before moving up one more position next time around to get himself on the cusp of the top ten battle.
The Leamington Spa based driver went on to enjoy a starring role on the live ITV4 television coverage as he battled with title contenders Tom Chilton, Colin Turkington and Tom Ingram through the race, emerging in thirteenth place at the chequered flag.
Unfortunately for Oliphant, that proved to be his twelfth and final points scoring finish of the 2018 season, despite a hugely positive start to race two seeing him move up to eleventh position early on before getting into the thick of the action in a frenetic race.
Holding onto a points paying position throughout the race, his challenge sadly came to an abrupt end only four laps from the finish when a puncture cruelly caused him to slide off track and into the gravel trap at Druids corner.
Despite that disappointment, the Horizon Specialities and eJIGSAW backed racer came away with a milestone moment in his burgeoning BTCC career as he posted the outright fastest lap of a race for the first time in the championship.
The race two retirement left Oliphant out of position for the start of the final race of the season, however a strong start saw him gain a place on each of the opening four laps to move up to 22nd, before he joined in the battle for the top twenty.
The 28 year old, who races with the tutelage of the three-time World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx, showed quicker pace than a number of drivers ahead of him, but some typically robust defensive driving would restrict him to twentieth at the finish.
Tom Oliphant: “We tried something different with the set-up in free practice and it didn’t really work, so we reverted back to what we know for qualifying and the car felt much stronger, but the session didn’t come to me as hoped and I finished lower than I should have done.
“That put us right into the midfield battles for the races and with other cars having more grunt than us down the straights, it was difficult to go on the attack too much but I was able to pull off some good manoeuvres and the close racing was really enjoyable.
“Sadly the puncture in race two cost us what I thought could have been a hat-trick of points finishes across the day, but I gave it everything I had in all three races and I’m pleased that we proved our pace with our first ever fastest lap in the series.
“Overall, I’m very pleased with our first season in the BTCC. It’s been very tough, with plenty of highs and lows along the way, but it’s been the most enjoyable season of racing I’ve had for a long time and I feel I’ve developed well as a touring car driver.
“The close, competitive nature of the championship seems to suit me and with a bit more luck, having found myself on the receiving end of contact or suffered an issue with the car in most the meetings, I feel we had the pace and potential for a standout result.
“I head into the winter in positive spirits and I’m definitely looking to return to the BTCC next season, as I’m confident that with everything I’ve learnt this year and with the right package underneath me, I could go out there and challenge for the top ten in the championship.”
Image from Jakob Ebrey Photography.