Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
Series returns after 5 week layoff for Oulton Park action
After a hectic start to the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship both on track and for the teams, which saw three race meetings in five weeks, the series has now had a chance to regroup after a 5 week layoff and will return this weekend with the championship visiting the picturesque Oulton Park in Cheshire for rounds 10, 11 and 12.
During the gap many of the leading teams have taken advantage of the break to complete some much needed testing. This included the Honda Racing team who tested at Pembrey in Wales however it need not go to plan for man inform Gordon Shedden who has taken 4 wins in the last 6 with fuel surge problems restricting running as teammate and reigning BTCC champion Matt Neal explains, “Unfortunately Gordon didn’t get a lot of running done and we’re still scratching our heads a bit. We’ll need to try and run his car again next week to make sure we’re on top of it before go to Oulton Park. From that point of view it was frustrating just as it was when it started to drizzle later in the day, but in between we were able to get in some mileage with my car and it’s clear the team has been putting a lot of work in back at base since the last round at Thruxton. We focused on optimising the NGTC ‘package’ which is something most teams are still figuring out, plus squeezing a bit more speed from the car. I’d say we’ve still taken a good step forward”
Also on track were the two Pirtek Racing Honda Civic’s for Andrew Jordan and Jeff Smith. Jordan will be hoping to get his season back on track after a great pole position last time out at Thruxton brought home little joy after a first corner off meant it was an uphill battle after that. Jordan however believes it was a positive two day test and said, “It was a very productive test – we got through all sorts we’ve not been able to try so far. The car was already pretty good so it’s not like we were going to find huge chunks of time, more little bits in lots of areas. It was nice to drive the car away from the pressures of a free practice session which meant we could just stick rigidly to our planned programme without any distractions.”
Heading into Oulton Park as championship leader will be MG KX Momentum driver Jason Plato who holds a 4 point lead over Shedden. The 5 week layoff also saw the MG team able to complete a full test the first for the car after it only turned a wheel for the first real time at the first event of the year. While lead driver Plato leads the championship team mate Andy Neate hasn’t had the start of the season he was hoping. Now in his third season this year was meant to be the year Neate would finally make the BTCC podium; however so far things have not gone to plan for the man who almost lost his life back in a terrible crash during the Silverstone 24hr race back in 2008. Neate has been having had constant electrical issues.
Following his test at Rockingham and heading to a track where he qualified a superb 3rd last year Neate believes his season starts now and said, “It was a very good test, the most productive time I’ve had in the car since the start of the year – and I’ve come away from it feeling very upbeat about the future. We made some big steps forward with both the car and me. We tried some fairly radical stuff and Triple Eight have done a fabulous job behind the scenes. I tested some developments and Jason others – hopefully that gives us some common ground to bolt on for Oulton Park. The big thing for me was we ran all day long and were able to run consistently. Hopefully the problems we were having and which were getting very frustrating for everyone have been eradicated. Without giving any times away we seemed to be able lap pretty quickly. I’m feeling pretty optimistic for Oulton Park. “It’s important I start getting up there. I said at the start of this season I’m under no illusions – this is only my third season, I’ve got a team-mate who’s been in it since 1997 and who is a double champion and had more wins than anyone so don’t suddenly expect to start beating him. But I want to be up there with him and getting very close to his times and race pace. If I do that then, with the way the MG has been going, there should be two of us right near the front. Right now I’m just looking forward to Oulton. I’ve always gone well there. I don’t want to jinx myself but, all things being equal, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do well”
He effectively needs Oulton to be the start of his season and everyone in the team is trying hard to make that happen for him.
Plato also hopes and believes Neate can make his way to the Sharpe end of the grid and hope he can start to take points off the Honda’s and said, “Andy just needs one weekend when there are no electrical gremlins but instead just a nice flow from the moment he puts his bum in the car to when leaves on Sunday night. It will do him the world of good… He just needs that first free practice session to run smoothly and be somewhere in the mix and then just keep that progress going. It will happen and hopefully that at Oulton Park. His tail is in the air for Oulton – he did very well there last season. He effectively needs Oulton to be the start of his season and everyone in the team is trying hard to make that happen for him. I also want him up the sharp end with me because it’s hard enough taking on one Honda let alone two.”
Also at the Rockingham test was Frank Wrathall in his Dynojet prepared NGTC Toyota Avensis. After a great second half of the season much was expected of Wrathall this year. Sadly for Wrathall his car didn’t turn a wheel prior to the first meeting at Brands Hatch and as a result the 2010 Ginetta champion has suffered a slow start to the season. However a podium in the last race at Thruxton and following that test and a further one at Anglesey in Wales, Wrathall now heads into Oulton Park full of confidence and said, “It went really well and I’m going to Oulton with a lot of confidence,” he told btcc.net. “The plan had originally been to put the car through a four-post rig test and then test at Rockingham a week before but we were unable to do that. We then did the rig test last week and Anglesey was available. We feel we’ve made progress, particularly with the all-round grip of the car. I’d say we are in better shape for doing the rig test and then following that up with a test on track. It’s another very positive step forward after Thruxton. The fact I held off Plato who is who he is and someone who’s always capable of creating a gap as well as being the fastest driver on the grid is a great feeling. It showed what everyone in our team is capable of producing. It just adds to all our confidence levels…”
Leading the cars built to the Super2000 format is Airwaves Racing Mat Jackson. After a disastrous first meeting of the year Jackson then went on to win at Donington and Thruxton as well as having another win taken off of him at Donington. Jackson now returns to a circuit where he took victory at last season and believes it will be tight between the two different specifications of cars and said, “I suspect it'll be quite close with the lighter S2000s perhaps a bit nimbler up the hills and the NGTCs with their bigger brakes and tyres being untouchable under braking. It could be the closest weekend of the season. We've done a lot of homework back at base during the break and it's essential this pays off as everyone else will have moved their cars on in terms of performance. Everyone at Redstone Racing wants more and we need to keep hanging in there towards the top of the table, but until we're on track at Oulton we won't know how it’ll pan out.
The other leading S2000 team eBay Motors also go into the weekend expecting big things. Following their switch to turbo power for 2012 West Surrey Racing the men behind the team took an emotional win in the first race of the year for Rob Collard their first since 2009. Since then the team have struggled to get their tyres to last a full race distance however a test at Silverstone where they ran 2009 champion Colin Turkington the team hope they have put these issues behind them at a place where they have also gone well with team boss Dick Bennett’s saying, “Donington and Thruxton which followed Brands Hatch have been the least two successful circuits for us with the BMW but are now out of the way. Since Thruxton we’ve been doing a lot of homework assessing situations and last week we had a very encouraging test at Silverstone with Colin in one of our cars. Now we’ve got what are traditionally two very strong circuits for the BMW coming up and if we can quickly find good race set-ups in the practice sessions then we should be good at Oulton and be very good at Croft.”
Bennett’s also has full faith in all 3 drivers following their tough run that form one of the most formidable on the grid and finished by saying, “Robert has been very good. We’ve worked on him to think a bit more about the last five laps, not necessarily the first five, and he’s been very impressive with nine finishes out of nine. Tom’s found it a bit harder coming back into a rear-wheel-drive car after five years in front-wheel-drive. It’s those last few tenths of a second that he’s had to work on, but I think we’re about to see things click for him and we’ve all seen in the past just how competitive he is. Nick was probably a bit rattled after he rolled it at Brands. But again we all saw last year at Oulton and Croft just how good he is. He’s a very intelligent driver and he’ll come right again.”
So that’s a rundown on how the teams have spent the time off between the last two meetings and who to look out for at Oulton Park. After a wet Thruxton the English weather has been as unpredictable as the action on track and may well cause further issues this weekend at Oulton. So to find out who will start on pole for the first of Sunday’s three races be sure to return to Motorsport.com Saturday night following qualifying whilst full reports and images will follow the weekend’s action.
Quotes courtesy of btcc.net