By Pat Cranham, BTCC corespondent
After a month off this weekend will see the return of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, as Britain’s most popular 4 wheeled series heads to Oulton Park in Cheshire for Rounds 10,11, 12.
This season already has produced plenty of drama and action as it continues to expand with the stats to prove it. Official figures from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board states that viewing figures are on average an incredible 34.6% up from last year as the entire day continues to be shown on ITV4.
Series director Alan Gow is particularly proud of this and said, “In the world of television I'm told that these are extraordinary increases, particularly as they are 'like for like'. These figures make for more fantastic news for all our teams, drivers, circuits and sponsors. They also yet again further underline the superior levels of TV coverage enjoyed by the BTCC over any other form of motor sport in the UK, as well as the great entertainment the championship provides for households up and down the land.”
On track Matt Neal heads into this weekend with a 12 point lead but remains weary of the threat of Jason Plato, particularly after it was announced that the turbo’s would receive another small reduction on boost power and that the normally aspirated S2000 cars, which the Chevrolet is, will also have a weight reduction.
Neal was one of a number of drivers to test at Donington last week with the teams allowed 4 testing days during the season, although they are not permitted to take part at a circuit in which the series has yet to visit. Speaking about the weekend Neal commented, “I’m aiming to pick up whatever points I can. However, the Chevys are very strong in race trim, so if Jason qualifies at the front then he could win all three. The Honda is a brilliant car so we’ll see how we go, but we won’t know until we get there. The car is hard on brakes and the track has a lot of stopping and starting.”
Following the technical changes Plato also believes that Oulton Park is the perfect circuit to get his title challenge back on track and said, “The Silverline Chevrolet Cruze has the perfect chassis for the demanding, undulating circuit. Key to success this weekend is qualifying. I should be able to challenge for pole position as I’m not carrying success ballast and TOCA has given us a 25kg weight break. My Cruze will be 70kgs lighter than Matt Neal’s car in qualifying so it will be interesting to see how things pan out on the weekend.”
Plato’s young team mate Alex MacDowall is also confident of challenging at the sharp end of the grid and said, “I enjoy the challenges this circuit has to offer. It’s very technical with some unforgiving blind corners mixed in with fast straights so set-up is crucial and a strong grid position is key. I won there in the Clio Cup in 2009 from pole and of course had the second place finish last year in the BTCC. Last year I also qualified well in fourth and took two points-scoring finishes so I am certainly aiming to build on this and challenge for the podium.”
Another Chevrolet hopping to make a good impression this weekend will be local favourite Paul O’Neill in the Go Mobile with Tech-Speed Chevrolet Cruze. Much was expected of O’Neill at the start of the season, having secured Plato’s Championship winning Cruze from last year. However, things haven’t gone to plan for O’Neill so far this season with just one podium finish as the naturally-aspirated engines have not been able to compete with the turbo powered car. O’Neill even failed to make the top 10 at all last time out at Thruxton, nevertheless like the works Chevrolet team, O’Neill will hope to get among the front runners again this weekend. “I go there knowing the track and in high spirits,” said O’Neill. “We know what our problem was at Thruxton and the team has been working really hard to get the car set-up for the very special parts of Oulton where there’s most time to be made. I’m going there in fighting form. “Oulton will suit the Cruze, but it will also suit the turbo cars with their extra torque up the hills. I’ll just be giving it ten out of ten and if it rains and lady luck is shining on us who knows...”
Tom Onslow-Cole last year was the highest points scorer at Oulton Park for Team Aon but this year he will be driving the AmD Miltek.com racing Golf following his shock winter move. Onslow-Cole took over driving duties from Shaun Hollamby who became the team manager. During the Golf’s development season the team failed to make the top 10 but last time out at Thruxton the Golf enjoyed its best weekend to date, qualifying in 6th and finishing the first race in 7th. Mechanical issues prevented Onslow-Cole starting race 2 before driving from the back of the grid to take 10th in race 3.
Onslow-Cole now firmly believes that the Golf is now ready to challenge the top 6 and podiums on a regular basis and said, “I don’t know if the Golf is quite ready for its first win, but I’m going to Oulton looking for a podium. We had a great weekend at Thruxton, but I still think we could have come away with a few more points than we did. I think the car is very definitely capable of running in the top six now on a regular basis. Thruxton was no fluke – bear in mind it’s not really a circuit that necessarily suits our car as we don’t have the power of some of the others. Oulton will be better for us as it comes a bit more down to the chassis – it’s still a power circuit with straights and hills, but hopefully the chassis side will take over.”
Another team to take advantage of the recent Donington test were the Pirtek Racing duo of Andrew Jordan and Jeff Smith. Jordan has been on fantastic form so far this season taking 5 podiums out of the last 6 races and believes the team found vital suspension tweeks at the test and said, “I am sure it’s going to enable us to cover a race distance significantly quicker and may even allow us to be a bit more aggressive with set-up which will mean we are stronger in the early laps. If we can start the races that bit quicker and have less drop-off with the tyres as the race progresses then it’s a huge gain. Chevrolet, Honda and Motorbase all use the same system and we actually tried it pre-season in testing at Thruxton but had a small setback so this was our first opportunity since to give it another go. It would have been silly to rush it into action in the first three rounds with no proper evaluation of it.”
Jordan then finished of by saying he still feels that the Honda’s will be still the car to beat and that he wouldn’t mind for a little rain this weekend, “I think the Hondas are still a little bit ahead. They just seem to have a tiny bit more grunt from their engine and are just a little bit quicker than us in a straight line as are the Fords. The pace of the Hondas at Thruxton was phenomenal and it almost felt like they were toying with us a bit during some parts of the race. But with this latest development we’re giving ourselves a good chance of having a go back at them. We had wet and dry conditions in our test at Donington. What I’ve said before was based on what we think the outcome will be in the dry. What I forgot to mention was just how much more grip and traction the car had in the wet with the Ohlins. I was amazed - it was phenomenal. If I open my curtains on Sunday morning at Oulton and it’s raining I’ll be a happy boy.”
After switching teams following Donington, Oulton will see Dave Newsham taking part for Special Tuning Racing in a Seat Leon following his move from Geoff Steel Racing. Last time out regular driver Tom Boardman took the team’s first BTCC podium at Thruxton. Newsham got his first taste of the car at a wet Donington alongside series leader Neal. Newsham believes more podiums are possible particularly after encouraging signs from the test and said, “Matt Neal was out in the Honda and we seemed to be lapping faster than him which is obviously a very good sign. If it rains at Oulton we at least seem to have a good wet set-up! There’s a night and day difference in how the front-wheel-drive turbocharged SEAT feels to the rear-wheel-drive normally aspirated BMW I drove in the opening rounds. There’s considerably more oomph from the turbo engine. It’s also a really well sorted car and ran completely reliably and even after just one day in difficult weather conditions I’ve come away with total confidence in the team and cannot wait for Oulton. If I’m somewhere near Tom on my first weekend with the car I’d be really chuffed. Scoring points in all three races is my number one priority and, going by the test at Donington, to be well into the points. Podiums before the end of the season are very definitely achievable.”
Boardman also believes that having a team mate for the first time will help him as he hopes to add to his podium from Thruxton around his local circuit. Boardman also feels the circuit owes him, following last year in race 3 where he led for the majority of the race before losing out and eventually retiring from second with only a few laps remaining. The Preston racer said, “Last year was very disappointing and yes you could say that Oulton Park does ‘owe me one’. I’m not expecting too much – I just want to score good points and if I can get onto the podium or in the top five places in all three races, I’ll be happy. We’ll have two cars on the grid at Oulton. Dave should be strong out of the blocks and I want him to be quick so we can swap times and share data,” explained Boardman. “My opinion has always been that getting input from another driver will definitely help me as well as the team take strides forward with the car.”
Oulton Park will also see the return of Lea Wood in the Central Racing Group Honda Integra. Wood will carry an additional 50kg weight in the BTCC-spec Honda, the final car that took part in the era between 2001-2006. Wood also tested at Donington but unfortunately only completed a few laps due to a blown engine. Despite the set back Wood can’t wait to return in the newly re-liveried blue and red Integra and said, “I’ve no pressure. OK, it’s an older car with the added weight and I’m not expecting miracles, but if we can stick with the pack and be competitive in our own way then I’ll be very satisfied. I just want us to come away knowing we got the best results possible from the car. We’re not underestimating how much the pace has hotted up this year but for us, as a very small team, this was the only feasible way to still be on the grid in 2011. We just want to turn out a good car and look the part – just so the fans know the car will have gold wheels all round! – push on, get a bit of a following going and try to build our sponsor base with the hope of moving into more modern machinery so we can stay in the BTCC. That was the old engine and due to be replaced with a newer Neil Brown-tuned unit before Oulton anyway. It’s just a shame we didn’t get more running. But even in the wet and with the extra 50kgs the car immediately still felt its good old self.”
I just want us to come away knowing we got the best results possible from the car.
The car was the same car which took Neal to his two championships for Team Dynamics back in 2005/06 and Wood also admitted Neal was able to provide some valuable information and finished by saying, “Matt Neal was also about and gave me a few tips and hints – stuff a small single-car team wouldn’t necessarily know which is very helpful. If it’s wet at Oulton then anything could happen.”
On top of the featured drivers there will be of course the usual suspects hoping to take good points for this weekend. These include current Independent leader and second placed driver Mat Jackson for Airwaves Racing and James Nash for Triple 8. Nash will be hoping to repeat his early season form where he took the early season championship lead as he returns to the circuit where he secured his only podium finish last season. Jordan has been on fantastic form so far this season taking 5 podiums out of the last 6 races with Jordan and his team mate Jeff Smith being the final drivers to take part in the recent Donington general test.
Also keep an eye out for some fast starting BMW’s particularly belonging to Rob Collard. As part of the recent technical changes made by TOCA this included the removal of the restricted first gear that the BMW’s have had to run with.
This completes all the changes heading to Oulton Park. Motorsport.com will of course be on hand to bring you all the news from qualifying on Saturday with race reports and images following. So be sure to return for all news during and after the weekend’s events.