Reigning British GT4 champion Stuart Middleton has become the youngest driver ever to win the Sunoco Whelen Challenge after his only remaining rival, Stuart Moseley, was unable to score enough points during the final round of his Radical European Masters campaign last weekend.
The 17-year-old is now guaranteed a fully funded prize drive at the world-famous Rolex 24 At Daytona. The package, worth an estimated $250,000, includes testing at the South Florida venue later this year before taking part in the official ‘Roar Before the Rolex 24’ in early January. That’s followed by the race itself on January 27/28.
Middleton joins the front-running Action Express Racing squad whose Whelen-sponsored Cadillac DPi VR is completely different to the Ginetta G55 GT4 he’s driven in British GT this year. The Cadillac – a sports-prototype built specifically for long-distance racing – features a 6.2-litre V8 engine and produces roughly 600bhp, twice the power of the Ginetta. The Cadillac will also approach speeds of 200mph on Daytona’s famous oval banking.
The incredible opportunity sees the teenager from Ashington, in Northumberland, paired with three superstar co-drivers who will share the #31 Cadillac during the twice-around-the-clock enduro. Ex-Formula 1 driver Felipe Nasr is also a former Sunoco Whelen Challenge champion, while Mike Conway raced in IndyCar before joining Toyota’s factory LMP1 programme. Team stalwart and 2016 IMSA champion Eric Curran completes the formidable line-up.
Indeed, the combination of Action Express Racing, Cadillac and talented driver crew offers Middleton a realistic chance of claiming a podium on debut. Last year’s Sunoco Whelen Challenge winner Seb Morris led the race aboard the same car before reliability issues stymied the team’s progress, while Nasr’s third place from 2012 remains the best result in the competition’s nine-year history.
Middleton’s success was built on a standout maiden British GT4 campaign alongside HHC Motorsport co-driver Will Tregurtha, who finished second in the final Sunoco Whelen Challenge standings by just 2.2 points. Together they became the youngest driver crew in terms of combined age to win a British GT title and were both also elevated to BRDC Rising Star status.
Moseley, meanwhile, required an exceptional final Radical European Masters outing at Barcelona to have any hope of surpassing Middleton’s 78.1-point average score. His chances were scuppered by the event’s low entry count, which restricted the number of Sunoco Whelen Challenge points available for pole positions, race results and fastest laps. He fought valiantly to record three poles, a fastest lap and two podiums, while a broken upright denied him a near certain victory in Race 2. Nevertheless, even with a minimum of 10 cars on the grid, his weekend results wouldn’t have been sufficient to overturn Middleton’s advantage. He therefore ends the season third overall, 9.7 points behind the winner.
Middleton continues British GT’s run of Sunoco Whelen Challenge success after Morris and Jonny Adam claimed the prize for their performances during 2016 and 2015, respectively. He also joins reigning British GT3 champion Rick Parfitt Jnr at Daytona after the amateur driver claimed this year’s Sunoco 240 Challenge title. As reward, the 43-year-old is contesting the 240-minute BMW Endurance Challenge support race, which is also the opening round of 2018’s IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, aboard a GT4 car.
Stuart Middleton, 2018 Sunoco Whelen Challenge champion: “I’m ecstatic, speechless to be honest. 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 Anglo-American Oil 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.
“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, although it’s not going to be easy.
“This is a huge step-up for me: not only will it be my first ever 24-hour race but it’s going to be in 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.”
Anders Hildebrand, Anglo American Oil Company Ltd Managing Director: “Giving young drivers like Stuart an incredible opportunity is exactly what the Sunoco Whelen Challenge is all about! 12 months ago, racing in Ginetta Juniors, the chance to compete in the Rolex 24 At Daytona would have been unthinkable. And even at the start of this year I’m sure it would have seemed a distant dream. But here he is, on the cusp of competing in one of the world’s most famous endurance events aboard a car and alongside drivers that have a genuine chance of success. It’s incredible.
“This was the first year that we extended the senior competition to professional GT4 drivers, and Stuart – as well as his British GT co-driver Will – has fully justified our decision. I also think having Felipe in the team will be a huge benefit to Stuart, who is by far our youngest winner since Felipe claimed the 2012 title. I can’t wait to see how he compares against a very quick and seasoned sportscar racing line-up.”
The Sunoco Whelen and 240 Challenges will return in 2018. In the meantime stay tuned for further updates concerning Middleton and Parfitt Jnr’s Daytona adventure.
What are the Sunoco Challenges?
The Sunoco Challenges provide an accurate assessment and comparison of performances across multiple championships during any given season. Points are awarded for qualifying and race results, including fastest lap, which are then converted into an individual average score for each competing driver over the course of a full campaign.
That means each race weekend offers drivers an equal chance to climb and drop down their respective Sunoco Challenge table. It also ensures that performances are taken into consideration across an entire season while placing less emphasis on one-off or unfair results.
As in previous years this season’s Sunoco Whelen Challenge champion will win a fully funded drive aboard a Whelen-sponsored Cadillac DPi sports-prototype in the 2018 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Meanwhile, Sunoco’s 240 Challenge champion will contest the 240-minute Daytona support race held over the same January weekend at the wheel of a Sunoco-liveried GT4 car.