HEATWAVE WEATHER HOTS UP THE PACE AT THRUXTON FOR FIONA LEGGATES'S EEMS-SUPPORTED GREEN FUEL ASTRA
The British Touring Car Championship's fourth race meeting of year at Thruxton in Hampshire brought glorious sunshine and soaring temperatures to Saturday's qualifying day. And the pace certainly hotted up for Fiona Leggate during the afternoon's one qualifying session, and again on Sunday with three fine race finishes, two with championship points, and overtaking action on the difficult track as she gained confidence in the car on this circuit.
Fiona's Thurlby Motors Boston Bowl Tech-Speed Astra is supported by EEMS, the DTI's Energy Efficient Motor Sport initiative, as it runs on E85 fuel (85% bio-ethanol to 15% petrol), demonstrating that there is no loss of power from running a largely renewable fuel. This fuel is appearing at pumps in the UK ready for the flexi fuel vehicles.
Fiona had spent time at the track the week before to learn more about the circuit as she had only raced there twice before in MG saloons and never in British Touring Cars. She arrived for the weekend ready for action, but a failed fuel injector meant she had to sit out the first free practice session and lost valuable lap time, as the car would only run on three cylinders. 'I can't believe it,' said Fiona, 'we tested the car at Turweston 3 days ago with Vauxhall and it ran without any problem.' The front of the car was dismantled in very cramped garage conditions to install the new injector, a two and a quarter hour job with this car.
The second free practice session showed Fiona gaining confidence as she found her lines, at one point second fastest through the sector one speed trap at 128.8 miles per hour. 'I had an off near the end of the session and brought some grass back with me! I am getting through the Complex well but I just carried in too much speed to Church this time. I really flat spotted the right front tyre. The car felt good, I've got more confidence with it now. The circuit is so unforgiving -- there's no margin for error. One little thing and you're OFF the track! I was flying over the grass.'
The qualifying session in the afternoon was to prove that Fiona's work on improving her confidence is paying off. The welcome sun was proving to be a little too hot -- tyres were 119 degrees C just after removal from the car during a pit stop.
Fiona's times improved steadily and she ended her session 1.3 seconds faster than her one practice session, a huge leap forward and greeted with smiles all round by the team. Shortly afterwards she had a spin at Goodwood ending up on the grass, although she did keep the car going to get back on the track and return to the pits. The front splitter was damaged and would need replacement. Fiona was jubilant, and the team crowded around to congratulate her on the time. 'I can't stop smiling,' she enthused, 'it felt really good in the car. I was so determined. I can't believe I'm racing with these drivers, these top touring car drivers. I'm really chuffed with my time.' Qualifying position was 13th of 17 runners.
So was team manager Marvin: 'Great, a good effort, she was really trying.'
MORE ABOUT THRUXTON CIRCUIT
'It's a very fast circuit and the car is well suited to it.' said Tech-Speed Team Manager Marvin Humphries. 'Only the complex is slow. Dunlop has supplied a different tyre compound here, made with nylon instead of kevlar for stronger sidewalls, the kerbs and the very abrasive surface really punish the tyres.' Paul O'Neill, the data engineer and himself a racing driver, added his remarks:
'As a driver you either love it or hate it. You're on a knife edge because you do a lot of damage if you go off, it's really daunting. It replies on a good set up of the car. Too stiff -- it wobbles and bounces off the track, which is very bumpy. In the corners it can throw you off without warning. Too soft a set up and the car is just really slow, lazy and won't turn. Anywhere else you can run a baseline set up, but not here. We use a bit more pressure in the tyres when the car is just out of the pits, too."
RACE ONE -- SUNDAY
In the first of three races today, Fiona got away well from the grid but spun in the opening laps. 'My error,' said Fiona, 'I got onto the kerb and it pushed me into a spin at Goodwood, a fast righthander. It flat spotted the tyres, I could feel it had affected the handling and I could not commit as much. But I set about getting past Jones and Bell, I was taking several seconds lap and I caught and passed Jones at Goodwood on the last lap. I'm pleased with tenth place and one championship point, and we've still got two races to go.' Gordon Shedden won the 16 lap race in the RAC Honda Integra from Matt Neal, with SEAT stand-in Darren Turner taking third.
Starting in 10th place on the grid from her finishing position on race one, Fiona raced steadily to 13th position in an incident-packed race with the car feeling good again, and after the end of the safety car period to clear debris on the track a few laps before the end of the race, she had a go to pass Jason Hughes' MG out the back of the circuit.
'I took a lunge at him, perhaps I was too far back but I flat-spotted my tyres braking as I could not get past. The only option otherwise was to hold position and that's not motor racing! The car felt good, I was setting times competitive with the middle of the pack. I had to come in for tyres after that, one of them was right through to the metal, and I went out again to finish the race. We've got more tyres, and I'm here again for the third race.
It's physically demanding, too, it's SO hot -- they closed the windows so I had no airflow through the car.'
Fiona finished in 13th position from 14 finishers, but with the 11th fastest time. Matt Neal won the 18 lap race in his Team RAC Honda Integra, ahead of team mate Gordon Shedden, with Rob Collard third in the MG ZS just ahead of a flying David Pinckney's Honda Integra which nearly took third place on the startline.
The third BTCC race, and the last of the race meeting, had rain forecast for mid-race. Certainly the skies to the north looked dark and the air was heavy as the race started. Rain could be seen on the windscreens from in-car shots during the race. Fiona started in 13th position on the grid and by the second lap was 12th when the safety car came out while debris was cleared after Darren Turner's off. Staying in touch with the pack, Fiona overtook Giovanardi's works Vauxhall Astra Sports Hatch and then worked on the gap to Jason Hughes MG ZS, overtaking him to run in ninth position on lap 17, but she had contact with Mark Smith's Alpha 156 which allowed Jason Hughes back through on the last half of the last lap, and she therefore finished tenth.
The team were pleased, Fiona had run faster than the midfield times for the last quarter of the race, a huge improvement. 'I drove hard,' she beamed, 'I battled with cars -- I was not just waiting at the back for cars to fall off. It's got rid of my demons about Thruxton -- now I love the place! I overtook Hughes going into Allard, a scary moment for me. And I overtook Giovanardi!' Mark Smith then walked over in parc ferme, where cars are held for technical checks after the race, to apologise for not seeing her on the track and banging into her.
Colin Turkington won the 18 lap race in his Halfords MG ZS, ahead of Matt Neal with Jason Plato third in the SEAT Leon. For more race details, see www.btcc.net