Regardless of his undoubted natural talent, raw speed and outstanding racecraft, it was hard to imagine at the beginning of the year how Stuart Middleton could try and match the sensational exploits of 2017 – let alone improve on them.
After winning the British GT4 Championship, plus the Silver Cup class crown, in his first year of endurance racing with HHC Motorsport, partnering fellow Ginetta Junior graduate Will Tregurtha, all eyes were on what the teenage duo would do next in 2018.
Remaining as team-mates, and sticking with their trusty HHC Ginetta G55 GT4, the Ginetta Driver Development Programme pairing headed onto the international stage to challenge the very best on the continent by moving into the uber-competitive GT4 European Series.
Producing an absolutely stunning season, Middleton and Tregurtha came within a whisker of winning their second championship in as many years and really did turn heads of team bosses up and down the pitlane as Vice-Champions on their bow at European level.
Truly a tremendous achievement, it could so easily have been more but a hugely dramatic final weekend at the Nurburgring in Germany proved costly – through no fault of their own. Damage sustained in race one meant Middleton and Tregurtha headed into the second encounter with it all to do, and midway through the race the title looked to be heading back to the UK with the HHC duo.
Crushingly, though, their hopes went up in flames – quite literally – when a car fire, resulting from damage to the Ginetta’s exhaust on the opening lap of the race, led to a bitterly disappointing and frustrating retirement. In the end, they missed out on the championship on countback only with the top three driver pairings all tied on points!
“As the final race panned out, it seemed like all we had to do was finish in the points to be crowned champions – but it wasn’t to be”, reflected Middleton, “When the fire started to engulf the car, we had no choice but to retire from the race. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on our side at the end of the season.
“The past two years of racing for me have been amazing, winning the British GT Championship in my first season of competing at GT4 level was awesome. Myself, and my teammate Will, became the youngest pairing ever to win the championship, so that naturally was a great feeling.
“Competing in the GT4 European Series this year was another step-up, racing on circuits we had never been to before. This was a really tough challenge, as we were racing against drivers and teams who had tested and raced on these circuits many times before, so to do as well as we did really showcased the quality of myself and the team.”
So strong was the 2017 season for Middleton, his remarkable performances in British GT4 earned him the coveted Sunoco Whelen Challenge prize, a fully-funded drive in the 2018 staging of the Rolex 24 race at Daytona International Speedway in America in January – a prize worth £200,000.
Truly a landmark event in Middleton’s burgeoning motorsport career, impressively he made the transition from GT4 to prototype ‘Le Mans’ style competition with apparent ease and adapted to the immense power, and physical demands, seamlessly.
Racing with the Action Express Team, sharing a Cadillac Dpi-VR with ex-Formula One driver Felipe Nasr, Toyota ‘works’ driver Mike Conway and American ace Eric Curran, the quartet went on to finish second overall in the huge twice-round-the-clock race. As a result, Middleton’s stock rocketed yet further having seriously impressed on one of the biggest stages in world motorsport.
“Daytona still has to be the highlight of my year, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I never thought I’d get, especially this early in my motorsport career”, he commented, “It was great to race against ex-Formula One drivers like Fernando Alonso and Juan Pablo Montoya, who I beat in the end! We were actually leading the race at points, but a few mechanical issues set us back. Second, though, was an incredible result.”
After the whirlwind experience of Daytona, all focus then turned back to GT4 for Middleton and his first year of racing at European level. Visiting a variety of new circuits, and competing against new opposition, it also marked the maiden season on the continent for HHC.
Starting out at Zolder, Belgium, in April, Middleton and Tregurtha couldn’t have set their stall out much better with a stunning weekend. Taking a double podium, the duo claimed their first GT4 European Series victory in race two and also concluded the opening event on top of the points.
Heading home to UK shores for the British round at Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit, the duo kept the incredible momentum going with another exemplary series of performances. While a luckless time penalty prevented a deserved winning double, victory in the second contest wrapped-up the race meeting very positively.
Misano in Italy was next in late June where Middleton and Tregurtha moved back to the top of the championship table with their fourth podium of the season and more great points in race two with a top five finish. Then came the visit to Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps, where podium number five plus another top four result enabled the British team-mates to increase their advantage to 18 points.
Following a break of around a month and a half, the championship resumed for the penultimate event of 2018 at the Hungaroring near Budapest. Proving to be the most challenging rounds of the season, the rain-hit weekend certainly had a big impact on the title bid.
With contact in race one leading to their first non-finish of the year, they went on to end the weekend two points shy of the top of the standings so a true grandstand finale was in prospect at the Nurburgring in Germany a fortnight later.
Ultimately, with the top three pairings all finishing the season on 143 points the title was decided in favour of Audi drivers Milan Dontje and Nicolaj Moller-Madsen who had three wins from the year compared to two for Middleton and Tregurtha. So incredibly near, yet so far too…
“I didn’t really know what to expect competing in the GT4 European Series at first, I just hoped we could be competitive enough to be racing with the front runners, which was the case straight from the off”, said Middleton, “We exceeded everybody’s expectations and led the championship from the start, we gave it our all and, in the end, we only missed out on countback.”
Now, as 2018 draws to a close, Northumberland sportsman Middleton is looking ahead to the next chapter of his career with relentless work behind the scenes ongoing to try and attract the required commercial backing and support.
His talent is more than proven, as are the results, and Middleton’s drive and determination are second to none. North East sport really does have a genuine global star in the making, he would be an asset for any team in any championship, but ability alone will not be enough to progress as the Ashington racer’s career deserves.
“Even though this season in Europe didn’t end quite how we wanted, I’m still very happy with what we have achieved this year and I think we made a substantial impact against some very well established, and well-funded, drivers and teams”, concluded Middleton, “I haven’t got anything finalised for next year yet, but my management team are working on a couple of things so
watch the space...”