2016 Mini Se7en Champion Ashley Davies and Novice Champion Leon Oli Window reflect on a superb season for their modest team from Abergavenny.
Welsh racers Ashley Davies and Leon Oli Window talk us through their highly successful 2016 Mini Se7en seasons.
When we think of Welsh sporting heroes we immediately picture burly Rugby Union lads, Premier League footballers and maybe a rally driver or two. The country isn’t well known for producing champion racing drivers, but that’s certainly not the case in Mini Se7en racing. For the Mini 7 Racing Club’s 50th anniversary season, team SMG from Gwent took two of the top honours, while Owens Fabrication from Carmarthenshire supported Josh Collins to a maiden S-Class title.
Clearly they’re doing something very right in Wales, so we popped over the border for a chat with recently-crowned Se7en Champion Ashley Davies and his team mate Leon Oli Window, 2016 Novice Champion. Both cars are prepared by Nigel Davies and former Mini Miglia racer Wayne Grayer at the family-run Skirrid Mountain Garage in Llanvihangel Crucorney (bonus points for the non-Welsh readers who can pronounce that correctly!). The team prides itself on doing as much work in-house as possible, from bodyshell fabrication to engine and cylinder head building. As modern one-make series increasingly rely a field of factory-built and largely identical cars, it’s very refreshing to see the level of variety in Mini Se7en and Miglia is still thriving. There’s a bespoke handfabricated feel to each racer and many have been constantly developed and improved over decades.
Se7ens rely on a race-tuned 998 engine with the single barrel of a Weber sidedraft carb, pushing out almost 100bhp with a regulation Piper camshaft and limited
modifications. Today the majority of engineering advancements focus on reliability, as these miniature racers don’t need big power outputs to light up the timing screens. In fact, Mini fans are often surprised to see how fast these cars can corner on traditional dry rubber suspension, crossply racing tyres and with regular 7.5-inch Cooper S front brakes. It’s an incredible spectacle.
When did you first start racing Minis?
Ashley: It was five or six years ago now, with the Mini 7 Racing Club right from the beginning. I’d been racing go karts since about age 11 before that, and I’d done loads of karting over the years but never raced a Mini. Dad used to build Minis for Wayne and Stuart Grayer back in the day and I’d always be there watching, so I thought I better get out there and do it myself at some point.
Did you ever consider yourself as a future Se7en champion?
No I couldn’t see it happening, as the competition is pretty tough out there. It was only the past couple of seasons that I started getting nearer the pace and having some good results. There were a couple of wins in 2014 and again in 2015. Around that time a few of the rules were tightened up to bring everyone back down on the level, and I think after that we had the pace.
How did your season pan out?
We started off really well at Brands Hatch, where I managed to win both races. That carried on to Cadwell Park – one of the best circuits in the country I’d say. We took both races there too, but I’m struggling to remember the whole season now, it already seems like such a long time ago!
Did you face any major issues?
When we went back to Castle Combe in May, unfortunately my crank snapped in qualifying and that put me right at the back for the races. Other than that we had quite a trouble-free season, which really worked to my advantage. We really needed it after some terrible luck in the past few years.
Who was your closest rival?
I would say Lewis Selby – he’s been the biggest threat. We had some real good races during the year. There were different people up the front at different times, as I guess drivers favour certain tracks over others or just have better weekends. I think Charlie Budd and Spencer Wanstall were up there too, and Max Hunter had some good finishes – it’s been a close season.
What gives you the edge?
I reckon part of it is keeping calm and keeping smooth. You see a lot of the drivers being a little erratic and going off under pressure. As soon as you loose concentration people will catch you up, no matter how far ahead you get. I’ve never had any tuition but the first ever kart race I did, I came third, if that means anything! I’ve been out testing and taken on advice from my dad Nigel, from where he used to run cars before, and we were reasonably competitive from the beginning.
Has it been expensive?
Racing’s always expensive but we had a good season of reliability, which helped. We don’t have a huge budget – just enough to keep it going in the Se7ens. In all forms of motorsport you’re up against people with more money than you; that’s the nature of it. We do everything in house at SMG, apart from things like re-boring blocks. I think we’re one of the only teams towards the front that does everything ourselves.
What’s your plans for 2017?
I was going to move up to Miglias, but raising funds to rebuild the car with various rule changes on the way means we’ve have to put that on hold for next year. Instead I’ll come back to try and defend the Mini Se7en
title. It’s been nice to have Leon out there as well, and he’s been pretty competitive for his first season. Let’s go out and see if we can do it all again.
Do you need to give anyone a shout out?
Yes, big thanks to Abergavenny Brake & Clutch, Nutts Rolling Road, JELF Group Insurance and also Select Security Specialists for their ongoing support. Most of all I should say a huge thank you to my dad Nigel Davies for making all this possible and Wayne Grayer for always helping with the massively lastminute deadlines. Oh and my grandad Colin Watkins for all the awesome photos.
Thanks Ashley, so over to Leon – how did you first get onto the grid in 2016?
Leon: I was looking to start racing in an affordable way. I first looked at the Porsche Club and 750 Motor Club, then got introduced to Team SMG in South Wales near my home town. I’ve always liked Minis and have owned them before, but never entertained the idea of racing one. SMG invited me to Silverstone to watch one of the last races of 2015 and suffice to say that made my mind up.
Had you competed before?
No, never, the season was my first time in a race car. And what a year it was! I was after a second-hand car, however a lack of cars for sale in late 2015 meant we had to look to build one from scratch. The stars aligned and a mint shell from Owens Fabrication came up for sale, ready painted with all the carbon panels. That was a great cost and time saving in the end.
It must have still been a quick build?
It was started in November 2015 and fully built for testing by March. They spent pretty much every spare day, evening and weekend on it and it’s turned out to be one of the best Se7en builds I’ve ever seen.
What are your plans for 2017?
I’ve had 2016 to find my feet and it’s safe to say I’m hooked. We have secured three new sponsors and will be pushing for a top five finish this year, improving on 11th place overall and top novice.
What does it feel like to drive a Se7en on the limit?
It’s very rewarding when you get it right, although it takes a while to get used to, especially as I’ve always had rear-wheel drive cars before. They can go a lot faster than you think for a 998, so you just have to grow some balls and put your foot down!
What were your biggest rookie errors?
Hitting Dom Burger’s car on the last-but-one race, as he span back across the track after an accident at Snetterton. Putting the car into reverse at Brands Hatch at approx 100mph wasn’t particularly great either…
What would you say to anyone who’s considering joining the grid?
Life’s short and you only live once, so don’t worry about the cost. If you really want to race, you will find a way to do it! You can hire a car and do one or two rounds or work really hard and get some sponsors on board to get a full season done. Either way it’s the most exciting sport you can do with a very friendly club who welcome newcomers with open arms. If anyone wants advice on how to get started, tweet me @leonoliwindow and I’ll be happy to help. Likewise, if anyone would like to help with the sponsorship side of things, please get in touch.
Aside from the graphics and rollcage, Mini Se7ens don’t look radically different from a road Mini.
Competition in the Se7ens was fierce for the 50th anniversary season.
Ashley plans to return and defend his title in 2017.
The 998 engines produce around 100bhp.
Ashley and team SMG pause for a pic with 2016 Miglia champion Shayne Deegan.
Ashley took nine wins in 2016.
SMG prepares almost everything in-house.
Leon’s Se7en racer is one of the best prepared on the grid. It’s immaculate.
Leon Oli Window speeds around Donington Park.
Leon finished the 2016 season as top novice.