The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) will reach its halfway stage this weekend at the Croft Circuit in North Yorkshire where Matt Neal will take an 8-point championship lead over Jason Plato. The two will again battle for points to see who...
The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) will reach its halfway stage this weekend at the Croft Circuit in North Yorkshire where Matt Neal will take an 8-point championship lead over Jason Plato. The two will again battle for points to see who comes out on top after the trio of racing action has ended.
The Team Dynamics Honda Civic has come alive this year after three topsy-turvy years. After two largely unsuccessful years in the works Vauxhall team, Neal is revelling being back in his family run team where he scored his two championship titles in 2005 and '06.
Neal has already taken three victories this season, one more than he did in those two years at Vauxhall, but he did also go into this race last season in the lead of the championship at the same stage before enduring a nightmare end to the year.
Neal didn't have the best of qualifying sessions at the last couple of meetings but has come alive during the races particularly the latter two of the day and hopes for more of the same this weekend. He said, "It'd be lovely to leave Croft and go into the mid-season break still in the lead but eight points is not a lot and there are a few other very determined drivers not far behind Jason either.
"I think the Civic will be good around Croft but qualifying and race one could be a case of damage limitation. My target is to be right on the back end of the top six, get the weight off and make races two and three work for me. But it's going to be tough work to come out still on top," added Neal.
Plato came into the season as clear championship favourite but so far as had a very up and down season. This was non-more evident than last time out at Oulton where, despite scoring victory in the second race of the day, he didn't score well in either of the two other races.
Although Neal feels that Plato is still the benchmark and said, "We had identical weight at Oulton Park and Jason qualified third where as I was back in seventh. His speed has concerned me from the word go and I still think he's the benchmark. I think Jason has got more speed than we have and it's just the luck that hasn't gone his way so far. He's had a few rough runs."
Neal's Honda Racing team mate Gordon Shedden has also been a familiar sight at the sharp end of the grid and so far and has taken four 2nd place finishes. He hopes that his luck will change, at last, to help him get to that top step. "I have had some bad luck which has kept me off the top step. But the thing that keeps me going is that I know the car is fast and that I am fast," said Shedden. "I have been on the front row of the starting grid more times than not this year and I have set a number of fastest laps. That shows it is all there."
Another driver hoping for a change of luck is Andrew Jordan.
Jordan has proved he has had the pace but has been let down on numerous times this season by his NGTC Turbo charged engine which is in its early stages of development.
Jordan had a weekend to forget last time out at Oulton but hopes for better this time out and says, "Sometimes you have tough weekends in racing but that then makes the success even sweeter when you achieve it. The team has been working hard and we have ensured that we've focused any frustrations we had on making sure we can achieve a strong result next time out."
This weekend will also see a debutant take to the grid for the first time in yet another Triple 8 Racing Vectra in the hands of 18 year old Daniel Lloyd, who ran in last year's Clio Cup and was also last season's winter champion.
Lloyd is currently running successfully in America in the Skip Barber National Series but stunned everyone with his pace in the Vectra earlier this year in an official test day at Rockingham.
Lloyd, who will be backed by TNT Post as he was during his earlier test, said, "It's absolutely amazing to be making my BTCC debut, a real dream come true. At the start of the year I never thought I'd have the opportunity to test a touring car, let alone to make my race debut in one - and especially with Triple Eight, as far as I'm concerned it's the best team on the grid. This has all come together so quickly, I'm over the moon and I intend to make the most of it. It's going to be very tough, we're under no illusions as to how competitive the BTCC is, but I'm confident we can give a good account of ourselves at Croft.
"I like the track and it's worked out really well that we have this opportunity at one of my local circuits. Hopefully we'll have plenty of support. We've been working really hard to sort this deal out. I want to say a big thank you to Ian Harrison at Triple Eight, my manager Tim Sugden and Andy Goddard from TNT Post - without them it just wouldn't have been possible. The deal is only for Croft but we hope to secure more financial support for the subsequent rounds in August," continued Lloyd.
Triple 8 boss Ian Harrison was understandably impressed with Lloyd after the test and is clearly excited to have him in the car. "At Rockingham Daniel did a very good job in the test and we're all very excited about getting such a quick young guy in the car at Croft," he said. "We're always looking for fresh, new talent and he proved on his test debut he can adapt to a car he hasn't driven before. His pace at Rockingham was completely genuine, which was impressive, so he needs to get as much mileage under his belt as possible in the two practice sessions at Croft and then build on that through qualifying and the races. It's going to be tough but hopefully it'll be a good weekend for all of us."
James Nash will remain with Triple 8 for the 4th round running and will partner Lloyd and will hope to build upon his excellent podium last time out at Oulton.
This weekend will be a special one for a team towards the back end of the field in Forster Motorsport since they are based locally to the circuit. So far Forster Motorsport have had a tough baptism of fire in their pair of ex-Mat Jackson BMWs with drivers Martin Depper and team boss Arthur Forster.
The pair are starting to show a better pace while they get to grips in the BTCC but have often spent as much time off as they have on the track. Oulton Park was another damaging event and Forster has admitted that it was an effort to get both cars ready in time and said, "These past two weeks the cars have been in the workshop in Newcastle with a lot of the team working flat out on them every day from 8.00am until nearly midnight. There was quite a lot of damage after Oulton so we've had to strip both cars down and rebuild them from the bottom up. But we're there now..."
Both drivers and team are all winners in the John Cooper challenge but Forster admits that the change in level as been tough as he explained: "For us as a team in the BTCC the competition is the toughest you'll find in the UK. The BMWs are capable of fighting right near the front. It's a driver thing - we're coming from club level into one of the most professional race series in the world and up against some really world-class drivers in the likes of Matt Neal and Jason Plato. We're also going from right-hand, front-wheel-drive Minis to left-hand, rear-wheel-drive BMWs. The technique to wring the most from these cars is totally different - it's been like starting from scratch all over again."
But he is clearly excited about taking part at his home circuit and will enjoy extra support. "They're all big ones in the BTCC but this really is the big one for us. I've got a lot of customers and friends coming along to add support. I don't feel as though there'll be any added pressure but I do want to put on a good show," said Forster.
The team to beat this weekend though could be Team Aon with their pair of Ford Focuses driven by Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole.
For the past three meetings the Ford has been on pole with Onslow-Cole now up to 4th in the standings after being highest points scorer at the Oulton event.
Despite the team being enforced to put a restrictor on for the last round by series boss Alan Gow, after other series drivers and teams continue to complain at the Focus' top end speed. There could be a third Focus on the grid by Snetterton after the team announced that they should have a third car out after the mid-season break in August, although no drivers have yet been mentioned.
One driver who will definitely not be on the grid for the time being is reigning BTCC champion Colin Turkington, after it was announced that he will race in the World Touring Car Championship for WSR for the next three rounds; although there is a possibility of him being on the grid towards the end of the season.
Another driver set to miss out is Matt Hamilton for TH Motorsport. Hamilton scored his first points at Brands Hatch earlier this year but started the season with a restricted budget hoping to find sponsorship as the season grew on. Despite coming close to securing funding, nothing has materialised and Hamilton remains on the sidelines until he finds more backing.
So that's how the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship stands going into its halfway stage. So stay tuned to motorsport.com to see if Neal can retain his lead into the summer break or will Plato be able to comeback? Be sure to return during the weekend for all news and reviews.