Harry Steward, a 17-year-old mechanic for Todd and Murray Jones, replaced his spanners for a steering wheel at Skegness on Sunday afternoon – and in his first competitive outing in a F1 stock car he had never sat in before, won the UK Open Championship.
It was a remarkable performance from the Essex youngster. Not only did he win the UK Open, he did it in style and, despite two yellow flag stoppages, the result never looked in doubt.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised Steward was able to hold his nerve and his form throughout the race. He is the son of National Hot Rod champion Tick Steward, and last year he competed in Classic Hot Rods, winning the Midlands Championship in his father’s classic Ford Anglia.
Prior to that he raced in Ministox, but apart from an outing in Todd Jones’ F1 at Birmingham’s Gala meeting last year, that is about it as far as his CV is concerned.
And while we know he’s quick, has a pedigree and started the UK Open meeting as a C-grader, that should in no way detract from what was undoubtedly the drive of the season so far.
Drivers raced twice in four heats during the afternoon, with 15 point-scoring positions in each, plus a last-chance consolation event for the final six starting places, to make up the grid for the big race of the day.
Heat one fielded 29 cars, which was led by Ales Wass pursued by Steve Webster. Murray Jones made short work of the lower graders in front of him in his former Ryan Harrison Tarmac car and tracked down the leaders, while Harrison himself made up ground in fourth.
This car is like night and day to my other car. All I’ve done to it since I got it is paint it and a bit of testing
Jones, clearly feeling at home in his new car, took the lead once Webster spun out the leader, and went on to win his first race of 2017, followed by Harrison, with Tom Harris third.
“This car is like night and day to my other car,” said Jones. “All I’ve done to it since I got it is paint it and a bit of testing.
“I like this track, I always seem to go well here so I’m looking forward to the rest of the afternoon.”
In the 26-car second heat, with Dan Johnson out in the Jordan Falding car, Sean Willis led early on before Luke Davidson took control by halfway. Lee Fairhurst closed down the gap on the leader but ran out of laps to put any pressure on Davidson, who took the flag, with Mat Newson third.
The 24-car third heat was led by Steward, who failed to finish in the previous race, when the race was stopped on lap four after Johnson had a massive rollover going into turn three.
The European champion ran out of Tarmac trying to pass Paul Carter and clipped a marker tyre, tipping the car over. It was nasty looking roll, but the car landed back on its wheels and Johnson, who had had a UK Open meeting to forget, was able to climb out of the car unscathed.
After the restart, which also began without world champion Frankie Wainman Jnr, who had to pull off with broken diff, Steward went on to win his first race in an F1 stock car with a confident victory ahead of Newson, Nigel Green and Jones.
Jones, however, was to become the third contender over the weekend to suffer engine damage prior to the big race. “The car started to breathe really heavily at the end of the race, so we think it has done a piston,” he said.
The 26-car heat four was won in a canter by Davidson ahead of Chris Fort, Harris, Fairhurst and reigning UK Open champion Neil Scriven, and in the last chance heat, Will Hunter closed down leader Ken Hassell to take the chequered, with Stuart Shevill Jnr third.
After a parade of the drivers competing in the UK Open, and with Jones a non-starter, 33 cars lined up in graded order, with the six qualifiers from the last chance event at the back of the grid.
Steward immediately led after the green flag and took control of the race, and by halfway had begun to build a healthy lead, ahead of Webster and Fort. Davidson was closing fast in fourth place, while further back Harris made a great start and had forged his way through the pack to go fifth, ahead of Fairhurst and Harrison, with Green next.
The yellows came out on lap 12, after Newson hit the Armco on the back straight, which brought Steward’s sizeable lead back down to nothing. Webster pulled off with a flat tyre, which left a backmarker, Joff Gibson, in between the leader and Fort, with Davidson next.
Harris, Fairhurst, Harrison and Green, who had all been involved in their own battle as the race entered its second half, now looked favourites to fight for the trophy, but as the race went green again Steward, with a clear track ahead of him, pulled away from the pack.
By now oil had been dumped on the track into turn one, which caused cars to drift off the racing line. It was apparent that as the leader continued on his way, Harris, Fairhurst, Harrison and Green were holding each other up as they tried to outwit each other.
With five laps to go the yellows came out again, with Davidson looking like the main contender to pounce on the C-grader for the lead. Harris was now third, with Fairhurst, Green and Harrison next.
On the restart Steward took full advantage of his position as the lead car and took off out of turn three before the green flag dropped. Davidson was slow to get away, while behind him Harris, who was struggling with a misfire, was moved aside by Fairhurst into turn one, but regained the position into the next bend.
Meanwhile, Steward was able to maintain the gap ahead of Davidson, who was also now suffering a misfire. On the next lap, Green dived down the inside into turn three to get in front of both Harris and Fairhurst but overcooked the corner, allowing both Fairhurst and Harris through as they entered the straight three-abreast.
Green tried again into the next corner but went in too deep once more and collected Fairhurst and both headed for the fence. Fairhurst was out on the spot and Green’s championship hopes were over.
There were no such worries up front for Steward, who kept his composure for the remaining couple of laps to flash across the line to become the youngest-ever BriSCA F1 champion. Davidson took a well-earned second place, with Harris taking the last podium place in third. Harrison finished fourth ahead of Wainman Jnr and Fort.
It was an amazing result, and one that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for circumstance.
Todd Jones, who had raced the car the night before, was at Aldershot on Sunday where his son was racing. It meant the keys to the car were going spare.
“Todd’s dad, Terry, rang me on Wednesday and asked if I wanted to race the car on Sunday, so I said yes,” said Steward. “Since then everyone has been winding me up saying I would regret it!
“I struggled in the first race, as I haven’t ever sat in that car before today. I had to try and get used to the car and the track. For the next race, we just changed a few tyres and I went a lot better.”
Steward was helped by his girlfriend Jessica’s father throughout the day – who happened to be five-time BriSCA F1 world champion Andy Smith. “He has been a great help with advice on tyres and anything I needed,” said Steward.
I struggled in the first race, as I haven’t ever sat in that car before today. I had to try and get used to the car and the track
“The race came to me. I just waited and waited and it came to me. When the oil went down I struggled a bit after the second restart, but I sort of adapted to it.
“Last night I was on the spanners and today I was racing and winning the UK Open! Whenever Todd’s not racing I’ll have another go.”
Davidson was full of praise for the teenager. “Harry did all the right things on the restart,” he said. “I can’t fault him for that. He kept his head.
“The car was better earlier on. There was a lot of oil on the track and the car seem to go off, it was getting warm and began missing on one of the restarts. Second will do, I won a couple of heats. The boy did good.”
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley and Neil Randon