Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
The 2011 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship visits Rockingham Speedway in Corby where the Honda duo of Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden go into the weekend with just one point between the pair.
Following Knockhill two weeks ago, where their nearest rivals had a torrid time, it now looks certain that it will be a straight fight between the pair starting at Rockingham tomorrow. However the pair already has something to cheer about after it was today confirmed that both drivers will return to the series next season with the all new generation touring Honda Civic after they were present as the car was unveiled this week at the Frankfurt Motorshow.
It’s Scotsman Shedden who heads into a weekend for the first time in his BTCC career with the championship lead, however, despite this he admits he will not be playing it safe, “It’s way too early for any of that. The gap is only a point and we’ve still got Brands Hatch and Silverstone after Rockingham. Settling for three safe results would be suicidal because the others would eat me up in no time. Our priority is to get Honda across the line first – it always has been. If I can beat Matt and get the Drivers' Championship then that would be the icing on the cake. Of course we look out for each other but I want to prevail. It's going to be a really tough fight.”
It's going to be a really tough fight.
Despite the Honda duo’s main competitor's nightmare weekend at Knockhill, Shedden has ruled out it being a straight fight between the pair and finished off by saying, “We’ve seen how quickly it can turn around – just look at the number of times the championship lead has changed hands and the highs and lows certain drivers have gone through in the last few rounds alone. Realistically I think it’s between the four of us now. Mat and the Airwaves team have been playing a clever game to be right in there and Jason, no matter what he says, is no way out of it. Don’t be surprised to see him right in there this weekend – RML and Jason are not stupid.”
Double champion Neal also agrees with Shedden and hopes for some damp conditions which are expected to repeat last year’s success at the Corby circuit and said, “Gordon and I will obviously be looking after each other and we are both determined to win the title, but we still need to be looking over our shoulders. There are so many people still in with a shout of winning this championship that we can’t take our eye off the ball. This weekend will be a crucial one. It looks like it is going to rain at some point this weekend which would make things very interesting. I have won in the wet at Rockingham before, but it makes things difficult in terms of shaking up the order. It’s impossible to predict how the others will get on in the rain, but we know that the Honda Civic should be strong. We had a great 1-2 on a damp but drying track here last year, but a lot of that can be down to a gamble on tyre choice – slicks all-round, a mixture of slicks and treaded wets or full wets. It can easily go the other way if the weather suddenly changes again."
Following Knockhill all Turbo runners have had another boost reduction and weight increase. This should help reigning Champion Jason Plato who will hope to get over his torrid time in Scotland, although he believes his championship fight has long run and admits he will be routing for Shedden by saying, “We all have our favourites. I’d like to see Gordon win, I suppose just as Matt wanted Fabrizio Giovanardi to win over me in 2007. From my end it’s very frustrating not to be involved. Our car will be very good in the medium-speed corners on the infield at Rockingham, but I don’t think it'll be by enough to overcome the turbo cars on overall lap times – out of the two hairpins and the slow chicane onto the start-finish straight they will eat us alive. We’ll just do the very best job we can as a team with the car and hopefully still put on a good show for the public.”
Another key battle this weekend will be for Independent honours with Airwaves Racing Mat Jackson just 5 points ahead of James Nash for Triple 8. Jackson headed into Knockhill with overall championship lead before scoring just 1 point for fastest lap all weekend. Despite this Jackson is confident of hanging onto the Honda’s and will go for it by saying, “Sure, Knockhill with three retirements was a low point for all of us – after all we'd had only one non-finish in the 18 races before that. Shedden and Neal in the factory Hondas and Jason Plato in the factory Chevrolet who is right behind us are where everyone expects them to be – fighting for the title – so to be among them at this stage of the season is only spurring on everyone even more in our privately run team to take it to them. We were certainly equal to them in the races at Knockhill before bad luck intervened. The gap to Shedden is 23 points but there are more than 150 still available. It's a fair chunk to make up in nine races but certainly not impossible and we're really going for it.”
Nash for Triple 8 also refuses to rule himself out of the championship battle having been the early Championship leader but admits the Independent title looks more likely and said, “Rockingham is where the Championship really comes alive with only nine races left. I’m just a few points behind last years’ overall Champion Jason Plato and while I think catching either of the two works Hondas is unlikely now, it is still not impossible. My best chance of silverware though has got to be in the Independent Award where it looks like it is going to be a three-way fight for the driver’s title between Mat Jackson, me and Andrew Jordan. Mat had a bad meeting last time out but we’ve all had those this season. I’ve worked very hard to get here and most certainly I’m not going to let it slip now.”
Both Jackson and Nash’s teams are also embroiled in a real fight in the Independent teams' trophy with Airwaves Racing just 1 point ahead of Triple 8 Racing, although the Motorbase team will have some advantage over Triple 8 with Airwaves Racing running 3 cars including the BTCC debut of Michael Caine to just the one from Triple 8.
Following Knockhill where he took his first victory of the season Tom Chilton will be a man to look out for this weekend; a place where he scored his maiden podium for Team Aon and where he took pole last season. The ‘Global’ Ford Focus which debuted this year has taken time to develop although the car is now to Chilton’s liking and he’s admitted that he is really pumped up for this weekend following his victory, “I’m really excited because Knockhill was an extremely good weekend for us and Rockingham is a pretty similar track. Like Knockhill it’s very tight and twisty so we should have another good weekend. We were strong in the wet at Knockhill, too, so whatever the weather this weekend we know we have a car that will be quick. I’m feeling very positive heading into this weekend.”
As well as the on track action it’s also worth keeping an eye out for off track action as the fall out continues from that last race at Knockhill. Special Tuning Racing driver Tom Boardman took the flag to take his first victory in the series, although he was involved in a couple of incidents. Most notably where he made contact with Plato sending the Chevrolet into the barriers. Understandably this has been the main talking point in the last couple of weeks on various BTCC forums with much debating going on about whether this result should stand. This lead to Boardman’s race engineer responding to the criticism to share some information on the clash and commented on the official BTCC.net forum, “I was in radio contact with Tom throughout the race and involved with the stewards investigation after the race. Tom actually lifted out of the throttle and the data shows he was on the brake just before the touch, trying to avoid the contact. This in itself is very difficult as especially on a front wheel drive car it is very tricky to start lifting and braking mid corner when the car is fully loaded. Tom was on the radio immediately after the incident asking if Plato was ok and explaining to me that he did everything to avoid the incident.”
So that concludes all the news on and off track heading to Rockingham. With so much happening be sure to return to Motorsport.com for all qualifying news tomorrow as well as returning after the weekend for full images and reports to find out which Honda driver will lead the championship heading into the penultimate event of the year.