Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
Fans favourite O’Neill to make series return
This weekend the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car will reach its mid-way stage at Croft in North Yorkshire for rounds 13, 14 and 15 of the championship. Honda Yuasa Racing’s Gordon Shedden heads into the weekend leading the championship but the big news is that fans favourite Paul O’Neill will make a welcome one off race return for Speedworks in place of Tony Hughes who is away on business commitments.
After failing to get the necessary budget to run this season so far O’Neill has been forced to pick up the microphone and has been part of the ITV4 commentary team. However with Hughes away with other commitments the former two time series winner has been given the opportunity to drive his New Generation Toyota Avensis the first time that O’Neill ill get to drive the new spec car.
There are more unknowns than known’s for me as I haven’t driven the Toyota.
Understandably O’Neill is delighted to be back behind the wheel even if it’s just a one off and said, “It’s a chance for me to return to the grid, but I don’t want to just jump in the car for a weekend of racing – I want to do a good job. Speedworks is a good team, sponsor Carlube is going to be playing a big part in the event and I’ll be keeping a video diary for ITV, so hopefully we can have a strong weekend.
“There are more unknowns than known’s for me as I haven’t driven the Toyota, I haven’t driven an NGTC car and there is the turbo engine so it will be difficult to start with but I’ll get quicker as the weekend goes on.
“I’ll be aiming to start steady and then maybe we could push to get into the top ten in the second race. My target is to run in the midfield but obviously the dream, as ever, is to finish on the podium. Although that is possible, I know it will be massive long shot. I’ve done a lot of things in this life that have been a long shot and sometimes they have come off, so I’ll go there to enjoy myself and see what we come away with, “added O’Neill
Shedden will head into the meeting in the lead of the championship for the first time meaning that his car ill carry maximum ballast during qualifying and the first race of the weekend. Despite having already won 5 races this year last year’s runner up admits he is lucky to be current leader of the series although comfortable with the situation and said, “You’ve got to bear in mind that the results at Oulton were down to Jason not starting the first race after he'd qualified on pole position. That skewed the weekend a bit because; if you look, we are way down in the speed traps… I’d say we are surviving at the moment.
Shedden continued, “Later in the year when we get to the likes of Silverstone and Brands Hatch Grand Prix I think we’ll struggle to be in the top ten. But everyone in our team is working flat out on squeezing every ounce of performance from the Civic so you never know… it might come together and work out. I’m comfortable with leading the championship. There’s no big pressure because we’re only four rounds into the season and there is so much more going to happen. If anything leading is almost a negative because I’ll have full success ballast on board and Croft is a circuit where ballast hurts. It’ll be a case of making the most of the situation in qualifying and the first race and hope to come back strongly in the later races on Sunday. At this stage it’s all about keeping on scoring.”
For the first time since the opening meeting of the year Jason Plato will head into an event without the championship lead. Despite a stunning recovery drive last time out at Oulton Park the MG KX Momentum driver will only head into the event third in the current standings following suspension failure before the start of race 1. However this may benefit the double champion as he will not be carrying so much ballast during qualifying and race 1 and he knows exactly what he wants from the weekend despite not winning at the circuit since 2006 and having had some recent bad luck at the circuit.
“I’ve not had a good run at Croft for a while but I’m out to change all that this weekend. I’m going for pole position and two wins. I’m really looking forward to Croft and think the MG will be very well suited to the track lay-out there. It’s a chassis circuit and the MG chassis is very good,” said Plato.
Despite now living in Oxford, Plato originally hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne so therefore Croft is Plato’s natural home circuit and looks forward to seeing some old chums and finished by saying, “I’ll also see a lot of old pals and meet them socially while I’m up there plus some old family. I’m a Northerner and love being round Northern people. I love their humour; there’s always a great, great reception. I don’t get much chance to get back to the North East so it’s a rare opportunity to hear and taste the sounds of the good old North.”
Also for the first time this season we will see two Audi’s belonging to Rob Austin Racing with Will Bratt continuing to drive the car following his successful debut at Oulton with Rob Austin himself in the second car after repairs to his Audi after Thruxton.
Austin is very much looking forward to at last showing the Audi’s true potential and looks forward to once again having Bratt onboard and said, “It was at Croft last year the Audi started to show what it might be capable of and, 12 months on, it’s a much faster car all together. I’m confident Will and I will be competitive this weekend. We’re both very capable drivers and we know the Audi is a very fast car which, due to some bad luck, just hasn’t been seen yet – but Croft is a rear-wheel-drive friendly circuit so hopefully this could be where it finally happens.
He added, “Honestly, I don’t care who comes out on top between Will and I because this is much more about properly establishing the team in the BTCC and ensuring it remains in the championship well into the future. On saying that it probably will be Will who’s ahead! He showed massive potential on his debut at Oulton and, had it not been for the setback in race two, he might well have ended his day with a podium result. He could have a very successful touring car career ahead of him and if that’s the case then I hope it’s with RAR”
One man to watch this weekend for sure will be the ultra fast starting Rob Collard for eBay Motors. Last year Collard took a podium in each of the races and after getting back on the podium last time out at Oulton since victory in round 1 of the series and is confident that the BMW is at last starting to get on top of its tyre issues and said, “We definitely made a step forward with the BMW in terms of tyre longevity at Oulton in that we got them to stay competitive for longer into the races.
“I still feel we can find a bit more in that respect but it was a very good piece of work by the team and we’ve already shown we’ve got improved performance this year over a single qualifying lap. Put those together on a circuit like Croft which I believe is our best circuit and we could be in very good shape this weekend. I think the crowds and TV viewers could see the three eBay BMWs hunting in a pack on Sunday”
When asked about the chances of another one of his lightning get a ways and the chances of another one this weekend Collard wasn’t so optimistic and finished off by saying, “The pits straight is narrow at Croft but no narrower than it was at Oulton – there’s still just about enough room to squeeze between cars and nose ahead into the first bend. People probably line up on the grid thinking I’m going to be the ‘king of starts’ but it’s difficult to emulate it every time. At the moment I just seem to have a knack of getting everything right”
Croft notoriously is hard on both car and tyres and often many a leading driver has been affected with a non finish as a result. Due to this Croft has often been a meeting where the championship has started to swing one particular way.