British motor racing sensation Stuart Middleton, who last month won the British GT4 Championship title in his first season in the discipline, has today been confirmed as the 2017 winner of the prestigious Sunoco Whelen Challenge – earning him a prize drive in January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Putting the icing on the cake of a truly remarkable rookie season in endurance racing, the talented 17-year-old from Ashington in Northumberland will line-up on the grid at world-renowned Daytona International Speedway in Florida over the weekend 27th/28th January 2018.
Not only that, he will become part of a truly formidable quartet at the Whelen-supported Action Express team where the teenager will share the No.31 Cadillac Dpi-VR with ex-Formula One racer Felipe Nasr, ex-Indycar racer and Toyota LMP1 factory driver Mike Conway and 2016 American IMSA Champion Eric Curran.
Middleton starred throughout the 2017 British GT4 season with HHC Motorsport team-mate Will Tregurtha, the pair chalking-up two outright race wins and a total of seven podium finishes. Four victories in the Silver class also enabled the duo to win the Silver Championship title and they then entered the record books as the youngest ever combination to win the overall GT4 crown.
Following in the wheeltracks of reigning British GT3 Champion Seb Morris, who won the Sunoco Whelen Challenge 12 months ago, Middleton will be proudly flying the flag for British GT and also UK motorsport as a whole when he lines-up on the Daytona grid in the USA three months from now.
“I’m ecstatic, speechless to be honest”, said the BRDC [British Racing Drivers’ Club] Rising Star, “This is such a huge prize and an incredible opportunity for me so early in my career, I can’t thank Anders Hildebrand and everyone at the Anglo American Oil Company enough. Being part of the Action Express team with Felipe, Mike and Eric is just amazing…it hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
“My first season in GT4 with my fantastic team-mate Will Tregurtha was just amazing, we couldn’t believe how competitive we were right from the first round and that was without hardly any testing before the season started. The year just got better and better for us and as well as the GT4 title, the Sunoco prize started to become a possibility too.”
He added: “To win the championship in our rookie year was more than we could have hoped for, and for me to now win the Sunoco Whelen Challenge is the icing on the cake. I really want to grab this chance with both hands and do the very best I can.
“I’ll be starting a rigorous training programme immediately with lots of virtual practice on the sim too, ensuring I’ll be in the best physical and mental shape possible and as ready for the 24 hour race as I possibly can be.
“This is a huge step-up for me, not only will it be my first ever 24 hour race it’s one of the biggest and most demanding races in the world with some of the very best drivers and teams on the planet. It’s going to be amazing driving at Daytona too, something I never realistically thought might happen in my career – this is such a special moment for me and I’m absolutely delighted.”
Sunoco Whelen Challenge is a contest which runs season-long across several qualifying categories, including British GT, in which drivers accrue points on the basis of results, qualifying performances and also fastest laps. Grids of the various championships also have to meet a certain size in order to determine if maximum points are allocated – smaller grids mean incrementally less points scored.
After winning the British GT4 title at Donington Park in late September, Middleton had done all he could to put himself into a position to claim the Sunoco Whelen Challenge prize but had to wait until this past weekend’s final round of the Radical Euro Masters season to find out whether rival Stuart Moseley could usurp him in the Sunoco points table.
Regarded globally as one of the world’s greatest and most challenging races, the Rolex 24 at Daytona has been won in the past by some of the sport’s greatest names including British sportscar legend Derek Bell and ex-Formula One driver and Grand Prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya.
Anders Hildebrand, Managing Director of the Anglo American Oil Company, commented: “This year the Sunoco Whelen Challenge has been extremely close with racers from British GT, the UK LMP3 Cup and the Radical EuroMasters in close battle throughout. Like every other year, the Challenge has gone down to the wire and not only did Stuart have to fight off his [British GT4] team mate Will Tregurtha and LMP3 star Colin Noble Jr, he also had to wait until sportscar star Stuart Moseley in the Radical EuroMasters had his last race over the weekend at Barcelona.
“Stuart won the Sunoco Whelen Challenge through consistency, speed and determination and although he is our youngest winner so far, he has shown he has what it takes to join the Hall of Fame of prior Sunoco Whelen Challenge winners. The 2018 driver line up in the No.31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi VR is awesome and has what it takes to be a challenger for the overall win.”
Hildebrand added: “What’s really cool is that Stuart will be in the same car as our 2011 season Sunoco Challenge winner Felipe Nasr, who finished on the podium in third place at the 2012 Rolex 24 At Daytona – fingers crossed we can beat that next year!”
Source. Marc Orme/Photo. Sunday Group