By: Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
This weekend’s Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship rounds from Croft could prove to be a decisive meeting in where the 2011 crown could end up. We take a look back at the winners and losers as well as the star performers from the weekend.
Undoubtedly the driver happiest from the weekend will be Matt Neal who took two victories and has seen a number of championship rivals fade away. Neal took both wins with full ballast, although might be slightly disappointed to see his lead in race 3 go from a 21-point advantage down to 9. Last year Neal suffered a puncture, which lost him vital points in the championship, and he went into the event this season believing it could be another bogey weekend. However after the two wins Neal said, “If you had offered me two podium finishes coming into this weekend, I would have taken them. To get two wins and then more points in race three was better than we could have imagined. The Honda Racing Team Civic has been fantastic this weekend. We have worked hard on getting the most out of the handling of the chassis, which really is a benefit in the wet weather – the entire crew has been at the top of its game this weekend and that is what has helped us to get the results.”
- Matt Neal takes two wins and leads the title heading into the summaer break
- Mat Jackson with a podium and the race 3 win
- Plato drops to 6th in points after a disappointing weekend.
Neal’s Honda Racing team mate Gordon Shedden went into the weekend as the man in form, sitting just two points behind Neal. Despite 3 strong top 6 finishes things didn’t quite go as planned for the Scot who now trails Neal by 20 points. “I was never really in the sweet spot with the handling of the car but we still walked away with three top six finishes. I am frustrated that I couldn’t reach the podium like Matt but I know the potential is there in the car and we just have to work on finding it. We have got a seven-week break in the championship now before the next rounds at Snetterton, so we have plenty of time to go back through the data that we get from this meeting and work out the areas that will push me even further forwards. This wasn’t a perfect weekend for me, but it wasn’t a disaster either. In this series, it is all about consistently scoring points.”
Neal’s closest championship competitor is Mat Jackson in the Airwaves Racing Ford Focus. Jackson was one of the stars of the weekend taking a second in race 1 before winning race 3 to finish 9 points behind Neal and became the Independents’ point leader. Jackson’s drive in race 1 was nothing short of amazing after gambling with slick fronts on a still very wet circuit. Early on Jackson dropped from his starting position of 9th but with the help of a safety car took cars at ease as the circuit dried, including 3 in half a lap before just missing out on the win by 0.055s. Another point’s finish in race 2 was followed up by his 3rd win of the season after holding off the BMWs in race 3.
Jackson now believes his Motorbase team are capable of fighting with Honda racing for the overall crown and was delighted with his day’s work and said, “We can definitely win it. I think we have the credentials, both team and driver, to take the fight to Neal and Team Dynamics who run the Hondas. Yes we’re an independent team but we’ve kept them this honest up to now and we’ve still got lots more development to do on the car. My drive in race three was very pleasurable, as it required a lot of concentration, particularly in the last half dozen laps when the front tyres were rooted and I was really struggling for front-end grip and traction. It’s a fabulous way for everyone to go into the mid-season break. But I’d put my race one drive, even though I couldn’t quite get the win, as my best of the day and one of the best of my career. I really had to hang in there in the first half of the race but when the conditions came back to us it was maximum attack all the way and great fun passing people. It also set us up for the other two races.”
Jackson took over the Independent championship lead from James Nash who was also featuring highly in the main championship battle after leading the series in round 6 and again briefly after round 11. However, things didn’t quite go to plan for Nash at Croft, starting 6th he gambled on slick front tyres like Jackson. Nevertheless Nash would fall too far back during the opening wet laps, although did well to battle back up to 8th. Race 2 didn’t go well for the Triple 8 driver after he spun exiting the Chicane on a damp patch with cold rear tyres and could only fight his way back up to 11th.
In race 3 Nash did make up for early disappointing races to finish 5th, a result that defied logic with the changes made to his car as Nash explains, “That set-up was something you’d have for qualifying that would normally only be good for two or three laps. Ian told me that in theory I’d get ten laps at the most out of it but it just kept going. He and my engineer Kevin told me on the radio I was about to fall off the edge of a cliff and then by lap 14 they were back on saying they couldn’t believe what was happening – keep going! It should have torn the tyres to pieces but not only did it give me more performance at the start, it gave me more consistency which is a bit mad. Unfortunately it was too little, too late. But we’ve got the summer break now and I hope we can get a couple of tests in to try and really understand why that set-up worked for us like that.”
Another driver to lose out big time this weekend was defending champion Jason Plato. Things started well for Plato taking his first pole position of the season leading into the first corner in race 1; where he received a slight nudge from the BMW behind of Rob Collard, which sent the Chevrolet across the grass and dropped him to 3rd. Plato would then further lose a place to Jackson on his slick front tyres to finish 4th, which wasn’t too bad but made worse by the fact the race winner was Neal. Race 2 was where it all went wrong for Plato when he had to retire mid-race with a drive shaft problem, meaning he would have to start at the back for race 3. Unfortunately for Plato he couldn’t make his way into the points after another first lap tap which sent him across the gravel and being held up behind the Triple 8 Vectra of Tony Gilham.
Plato now trails Neal by a massive 40 points but still has not given up on his championship hopes, “I’m disappointed with the outcome at Croft, but there are 15 races left and we’ve got a great car which, along with the team, has a lot of potential, especially given the proposed review in the summer break.”
Two major stars from the weekend were team mates Collard and Nick Foster in their WSR BMW’s which have returned to form following the Turbo reductions and the removal of their limited first gear, helping the rear wheel drive cars get off the line. Collard took 3 podium finishes with a best of 2nd meaning it’s 4 podiums in 6 races for the Hampshire ace. Collard was clearly delighted to be back at the sharp end of the field and with his day’s work and said, “It’s been a great day for me, on the podium in all three races in wet and dry conditions. We knew the BMW would be strong here and have made the most of it.”
Foster surprised everyone this weekend with a fine second place finish in race 3 and an incredible Jenson Button type drive in race 2, after he had a puncture and battled his way back up from 23rd to 7th. The BMW team mates worked brilliantly together in race 3 with Foster letting Collard through so he could fight Jackson for the lead. However, as Collard could not to take the lead, places were reversed over the finish line which Foster thought was very “sporting” of Collard and admitted he’s loving his time in the BTCC during his debut season, “I’m having a great time. Three points results at Oulton Park two weeks ago and a seventh and second today. I never thought I’d be on the podium this quickly in my BTCC career but the BMW is terrific around here. I heard on the team radio Rob might hand me the place back – it was very sporting of him.”
Making his return to the series this weekend was Shaun Hollamby in the AmD Miltek Racing VW Golf. Although not able to score a point Hollamby was pleased with his return to the series and finally be able to do some proper racing after his troubled season last year and said, “Race three was the first proper race I feel I’ve had in the BTCC as I was able to fight with people on track and I wasn’t just running around towards the back. Nash fired me off in the first race and then, in race two, I went off in sympathy when Frank Wrathall had a problem and suddenly slowed in front of me. I think some of the boys tried to push me around on track today but I wasn’t having any of it and, even though I didn’t manage to get into the points like I hoped to, I feel I can go away from Croft with my head held high.”
Even though I didn’t manage to get into the points like I hoped to, I feel I can go away from Croft with my head held high.
Despite being able to leave the weekend with his head held high Hollamby then finished off by admitting that this will be his last drive in the series, “However, now the weekend is at an end that is my time behind the wheel done. I’m happy with how the weekend has gone and I feel I’ve done myself justice, but now it’s time for us to look at the options and choose a younger driver to put in the car for the remainder of the season.”
Hollamby will now have a chance to test a number of candidates for the drive over the summer break and admitted that one of the interested parties is a multiple BTCC winner. So watch this space.
Although not able to score a BTCC point this weekend the three races were by far the most encouraging performance to date for Frank Wrathall in the Dynojet prepared NGTC Toyota Avensis. The car ran trouble free all weekend and was able to mix it with some more fancied runners and scored his best finish to date of 12th. Wrathall was delighted with how the weekend went although slightly frustrated by a mistake in race 3 and admits he now has plenty to look forward to for the rest of the season, “Race one was easily the best we’ve had so far. The car ran faultlessly and performed well in the changeable conditions. The car felt excellent in the final race but I just made a slight error, kissed a tyre stack at the edge of the circuit and that was it, game over. Two DNFs is frustrating, but the car has been fantastic this weekend and has run trouble-free which is really good for the team. I now feel we have genuine top ten pace and we also have the reliability to go with it. Croft has been a real turning point for our season as we have a good package to work with and we now have to work on coming back at Snetterton with even more pace than we’ve shown here.”
So that’s a full round up of the winners and losers from Croft. The series now enjoys its summer break and returns to Snetterton where we hopefully see the debut of Dan Welch in his Proton New Generation Touring Car. So for all the build up to Snetterton as well as all BTCC news over the summer keep logging back to Motorsport.com.