Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
After a thrilling opening round of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship just two weeks ago, this weekend sees the series move to Donington Park for rounds 4, 5 and 6. The season opener provided thrills a plenty and with the series now returning to the place which provided just as many incidents last year and perhaps gave the most memorable moment of the 2011 season when Jason Plato then driving for Chevrolet spectacularly rolled his Cruze in race 2.
This year Plato returns to Donington but now driving in the all new MG KX Momentum Racing team prepared by Triple 8, and he will obviously be hoping for a lot better this time round. Plato headed into Brands Hatch two weeks ago with an all new race car and with no testing under his belt. Against all odds, Plato left Brands Hatch in the lead of the championship by taking two podiums including the race 3 victory and two fastest lap times.
This time out, unlike Brands Hatch, Plato will be expected to fight at the front with the double champion admitting his mindset if very different for this event with him heading into the weekend expecting “victories”.
Jason’s doing the job and we are chuffed to bits.
Full credit must go to the team behind the project in Triple 8 race engineering who once again have proved why they are regarded as the best in the business. 2012 marks the first season since they were set up in 1997 that they have not run Vauxhalls in the BTCC. Despite the instant success at Brands Hatch team boss Ian Harrison, who remains the only one of three who set up the team back in ’97, admits there is still plenty more to come and said, “… its way off where it needs to be and where we think it should be. We’ve got a job list that gets bigger every time we go out, but Jason’s doing the job and we are chuffed to bits”
Like Plato, reigning BTCC champion Matt Neal competed for the first time in a New Generation Touring spec car for Honda Yuasa Racing at Brands Hatch. Unlike Plato however Neal had managed to complete plenty of pre-season testing although things didn’t go to plan during this time with the team struggling to get to grips with their new car.
Despite the grip issue, Neal managed to take victory in race 2 becoming the first driver to win in an NGTC car. Although he heads into his home event unhappy with the current boost restrictions to his team, which was conducted pre-season at Lotus, and subsequently set by BTCC organizes. Neal told Autosport magazine, “We haven’t got any straightline speed.” According to speed traps at Brands Hatch, was 6mph down on his speed from last year when in S2000 machinery. “They say we have to run less boost because we have the best engine, but it shouldn’t put the five Honda’s in the bottom seven. We have no chance of passing because we have no straight-line speed”
Andrew Jordan is also this year competing in an identical Honda Civic to Neal as he and Pirtek Racing head into their home event full of confidence. Following Brands Hatch Jordan and his team led 3 of the 4 championships in which they are competing in and he said, "To be leading three of the five championships and also be just a few points off the lead of the drivers’ championship is a great start. In a way we've probably come of age a bit over the winter and I think that was reflected in how the way the whole team operated at Brands Hatch. Donington is my home track and I had a very good weekend there last year. It's a very strong track for us and I'm going there with the aim of getting a win. We had a great weekend at Brands and I want to build on that at Donington. We've still got a little bit to go to get the set-up perfect, but the Honda should suit Donington's fast, flowing corners. I really enjoyed Brands and now I'm looking forward to Donington."
Benefitting from already running a year with his NGTC Audi A4 is Rob Austin for his own team Rob Austin Racing. Despite making the mistake of not running full boost in qualifying at Brands Hatch, he still qualified 7th and took a pair of 5ths to leave the opening race in the same position. Now Austin firmly believes he can challenge for victory and said, “Brands Hatch was just extremely frustrating all weekend and I don’t feel we achieved anything like what was possible. After qualifying I wanted to kick something very hard – I know it’s busy out there with a lot of traffic on a tight circuit but some of the drivers. Then in race one the front anti-roll bar broke which meant the car handled like a bucket and I also seemed to spend all three races stuck behind Mat Jackson’s Ford Focus which nobody could get close to in a straight line.
“For all that and also the fact that the Brands Hatch Indy circuit is, on paper, a weak track for the Audi we still did pretty well. I think Donington will be better – the Audi’s chassis should suit the faster corners – and Thruxton at the end of the month should be really strong for us. Like I say it’s all theory ‘on paper’ until we get on track, but if we have got our sums right then it’s important we make the most of these next two events.” Austin will continue to race in the sole Audi A4 after scheduled second driver Mark Hazell has withdrawn his plans to compete in this year’s championship.
As expected the S2000 cars still proved to be more than a match for the New Generation cars with West Surrey Racing leading that charge having been given a new breath of life with their all new Neil Brown fitted engine under the bonnet of their tried and trusted eBay Motors BMW. Rob Collard took victory in the opening race of the year; the first for the team since 2009. Collard now believes that he is now able to challenge for regular victories and said, “I’m feeling very upbeat going to Donington. I always go well there, it’s one of my favourite circuits because of the undulations and we’ll have a relatively low amount of success ballast in the car for qualifying and race one. We’re in a car and team capable of winning the championship. They’ve done it before and that’s where I want to be”
The surprise of Brands Hatch, without doubt, was Dave Newsham for ES Racing in a Vauxhall Vectra. Newsham shone in pre-season topping the official test at Silverstone and continued to do so at Brands Hatch by taking pole position. He bounced back from being taken out of race 1 whilst in the lead by Plato to take 9th in race 2; despite being forced to pit to repair damage before scoring his maiden podium in race 3. Newsham now heads into Donington full of confidence and hasn’t ruled out more of the same but admits he has to make the most while the NGTC cars get up to speed.
“We need to make hay while the sun shines. We have seen how quick the MG’s are already and our car is fully developed and isn’t going to go any quicker and at some point the NGTC cars are going to come good. I feel ready to take on anyone at the moment and I think we have another great chance of a pole and maybe even a win at Donington Park where the Vectras were very strong last year,” Newsham said.
So once again we head into the weekend without any clear idea who will be the team to beat. All that is clear is that if the first event is anything to go by then we are certainly in for another thriller. So for all BTCC news and reports throughout the weekend be sure to return to Motorsport.com.