Rob Collard finished inside the top 10 of the British Touring Car Championship, after a drama-filled 2011 season that saw the UK’s premier saloon racing series go from strength-to-strength both on and off the track.
The HM Plant sponored driver claimed fifth place out of 30 in the independent drivers championship, while also placing eighth of the 34 drivers in the overall standings.
Collard claimed six podium places from the ten race weekends, and although a win eluded the Hampshireman in a season when the West Surrey Racing BMW 320si was out-gunned in terms of performance by cars conforming to the new NGTC regulations, he came within 0.197s of claiming victory at Knockhill in one of the most dramatic races of the championship.
The experienced racer showed consistently quick race pace and took the challenge to the front runners despite an obvious horsepower disadvantage, and impressed with his ability to push the ageing BMW to its limits and deliver consistently strong results.
Here he looks back at how the season unfolded from his point of view, and chooses his personal highlights from the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship 2011.
What was your objective before the start of the season?
“I felt confident and thought we were going to have a very strong package. The team at WSR is superbly professional and the BMW 320si is a tremendously well developed car that I knew inside out, so I was confident we could some really good results.”
From your point of view how did it go when the action kicked off?
“As we got into the season it quickly became apparent just how big the performance gap was between the new turbocharged cars and the rest. Unfortunately it meant that we couldn’t compete on an even footing in qualifying and that put us on the back foot going into the first race at most events.
“The first race at Brands Hatch was bizarre in that I was taken out before the race even started! As we formed up for the grid Liam Griffin actually hit me and put me out of the race, it was a crazy incident and I’ve never experienced anything like it before. That really set the tone for the weekend and it was hard to come back from, but we ran well and salvaged what we could with two top ten finishes in the other races.
“Donington started well with a top ten in qualifying and then a sixth and a fifth in the first two races, and it was a shame we had a DNF in race three as otherwise it was a very strong weekend.
“I was really fired up for Thruxton as it’s my home race. Unfortunately I never seem to have any luck there, and it was the same this year as it’s a high speed track and we were just blown away by the turbo cars and couldn’t break into the top ten all weekend.
“Oulton Park was good event for me. Fifth in the first race was a good start, followed by a podium & third place in the next one. I was very happy with the car and the team at WSR did a great job with set up there, but being spun out by another car early dropped me to the back in race three when I felt had very good chance of taking another podium.
“From there it was on to Croft, which turned out to be our strongest race weekend of the whole season. The mixed conditions helped us a little as it took a bit of the pace advantage away from the turbo cars and we made the most of it. Three podiums (one second place, two thirds) in one weekend is not something that people achieve very often in the BTCC, so that was a superb effort all round.
“Snetterton was the opposite, just a really hard weekend throughout. A lot of the NGTC teams had done a lot of testing over the summer break and came back with a massive leap forward in performance, but while the BMW is a great car there was just nothing more to be squeezed out of it short of fitting a turbo engine. We took a few knocks that weekend in Norfolk and didn’t come away with anything really positive to show for our efforts.
“After that it was up to Scotland for Knockhill. We bounced back well and the car was great all weekend. We were always in the mix there and collected two fifth places in the first two races. The reverse draw gave me a real shot at a win in race three, and I tried to hunt down Tom Boardman all the way through only to finish fractions of a second off winning it. The turbo power he had made the difference and it’s the most frustrating thing in the world to be quicker than someone through the corners with a car that has the best handling chassis, only to be overtaken again by their horsepower in a straight line.
“Rockingham was a great circuit for us. I was progressing well in race one before getting tagged by Tom Oslow-Cole, which was really frustrating. Having started at the back I managed to fight through to 10th in race two which was a decent effort. Race three was great, it was really hard to defend against the turbos at the start but I managed to claw it back as the race went on. Another lap and I think I would have managed to win, but as it was the two turbo cars in front of me had just enough left in their tyres and I had to settle for a well earned third place.
“Race one at Brands Hatch on the Grand Prix circuit was pretty good, we had decent pace and after a good battling performance managed to finish eighth from a massive field of 29 cars. Race two was not so good as contact from Andy Neate effectively put me out of the race, then he managed to do it again in the third race as well to make it a bit of a disaster all round.
“The final race at Silverstone didn’t go at all to plan. A top ten finish in P8 was good for race one after a tough qualifying session, but then I was sitting in sixth in race two when I picked up a puncture which ruined all that good work. I was going all out to try and come back in race three only to be involved in a very dangerous incident with Frank Wrathall, which he was later punished by the authorities for. It all happened at 130mph so it was pretty scary stuff.
"The last couple of rounds were disappointing as before that we were well in contention for sixth overall, unfortunately other people's actions took things out of our hands to a large extent. That's motorsport though, and to have finished as high in the table as we did considering we were at a significant disadvantage throughout the season was a decent effort."
What was the highlight of the 2011 BTCC season for you personally?
“Qualifying at Croft was probably the most satisfying highlight of the whole season for me. I felt so comfortable in the car and it was set up beautifully, I knew I could push it as hard as I wanted. I was sitting on pole throughout the session until the final couple of minutes, and to finish third and be the highest placed independent was really pleasing. Some of the best things in a race season are not always the final race results, but the situations where you get the feeling that you and the car are performing to the very maximum.
What did you think of the season as a whole for the championship? Was it a good one?
"The following the BTCC has had this year has been phenomenal. There's been a real buzz in the paddock at every event, and in the last few rounds we got absolutely mobbed at the autograph sessions etc. The profile of the championship has risen tremendously & that's very positive for everyone involved in the championship, from drivers to teams & sponsors."
What will you do now the season is over?
"I'll continue training hard to keep my fitness up. I've done a few 10k races recently and have a few more events lined up, and I'm really enjoying my running just now. I will also still be looking after my boys Ricky and Jordan at karting events, so there's not much quiet time for me."
What about 2012, have you started thinking about it yet?
"Yes I've already started talking to a few people about next year. There's a long way to go yet and I'm sure there will be a few twists and turns to come, so it will be interesting to see what happens over the close season."
You can also get more news, pictures and videos of Rob in action at The Official Rob Collard BTCC Fan Page on Facebook.