Pat Cranham, BTCC corespondent
This weekend sees the BTCC cross the border for its annual visit to Knockhill Circuit in Scotland for rounds 19, 20 and 21 of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship. Last time out at Snetterton, Airwaves Racing Mat Jackson emerged as surprise championship leader but has the two works Honda Racing cars just behind him. Jason Plato is just a further 20 points away and traditionally his season kick starts in the second half of the year.
Jackson is the only privateer in with a chance of taking the title and says he won’t be bullied or distracted by the works team, “Don't let it be forgotten that we're a privateer team taking on the bigger budget factory teams like Honda and Chevrolet. We're the underdogs and maybe we're starting to get them a bit rattled, a few comments I’ve heard suggest the mind games have already begun but we'll not fall for it.”
Despite being a front runner since entering the series back in 2007 this is the first time that Jackson has actually led the series and finished off by saying, "I don't see that leading it bring any more pressure because it's just not worth thinking of titles at this stage. There are still four events – that's 12 races – to go. Look how much it has all changed around in Snetterton’s three races alone with Matt Neal losing his lead to Gordon Shedden before it swung towards me. And it’s Shedden’s home track next and our car will have to start that weekend with the maximum 45kgs of success ballast.”
Like Jackson stated, Shedden could well be the man to beat due to being on home soil as well as working at the Scottish circuit. Shedden who briefly took the lead of the series after race 2 also has a superb record at the track and will be hoping to recapture the lead and said, “Racing in the BTCC in front of my home crowd is always awesome but this year it’s going to be even more special. I’m in the strongest position I’ve ever been in and doing the business at Knockhill and leaving with the championship lead is of course the dream scenario.
“The gap to Jackson is only eight points – there are 15 for a win and three races on the day so there’s a lot to play for. This is also the most competitive season I can remember in the BTCC with so many different drivers and different types of cars capable of challenging for a place on the podium. I’ve driven thousands of laps around Knockhill but it counts for zero – the drivers at this level are into the groove with any track within five laps. I’ve got a great car in the Honda Civic and a great team in the Honda Racing Team but we will all have to be at the top of our game on Knockhill weekend to keep our championship challenge going.”
For the third consecutive year Shedden’s Honda Racing team mate Matt Neal led at the half way stage and once again suffered a miserable start to the second half of the season, losing the championship lead at Snetterton. Neal suffered a further mishap just after the Snetterton event, breaking his hand in a martial arts incident but admits he will be racing no matter what come Knockhill, “It’s self-inflicted, I was sparring and I felt something was wrong. I knew I’d done something. It’s just got worse from then; my hand ballooned up like a comedy hand so I got myself to the hospital this morning. It feels very tender and my hand’s in a splint. I’ve also had internal bleeding in my palm. I’ve got to go back to hospital the weekend before Knockhill to have it checked again. Of all the places it would have to be Knockhill next a lovely twisty circuit where we have to fling the cars around. Snetterton and now this! Luckily it’s not my gearshift hand but I am feeling a bit fed up. I’ll be racing at Knockhill, no question about it. I might have to go and visit Dr (Paul) Trafford (the BTCC’s chief doctor) for some of his magic medicine.”
If Neal’s season starts to fall apart in the second half this is the opposite for reigning Champion Plato. For the past two years his RML team always seem to find more speed out of the Chevrolet at the halfway mark and this seems the case after Plato took to the podium three times at Snetterton. Once again Plato hopes this year will be the same and knows exactly where it will be won or lost as he worked on it at a recent test at Donington Park, “It was a good test and the over-riding ethos for the day was to improve our pace over a single lap for qualifying. In the past we’ve always concentrated on our race pace and we’ve been strong over a race distance. Our game plan for the rest of the year is to focus on single lap performance, which is a departure for us.”
“We know we have to be on pole to win races unless the turbo runners make big mistakes and the leading contenders just don’t make mistakes,” added Plato.
Still just about hanging on to the championship fight is James Nash in the Triple 8 Vectra. Despite not winning a race yet Nash is just 23 points behind Jackson, having taken a number of podiums including another one last time out at Snetterton. Nash admits that the championship remains just about in touch for him and maybe he should learn from Jackson, having taken 4 race 3 victories so far this year, “I’m not out of it yet. I’m just about hanging on to Jason Plato’s shirt tails but it is starting to get very hard now.
“Maybe I need to do the old Mat Jackson trick finish a bit further down in race two, get rid of the lead and hope my number comes up for the race three grid.”
For the second consecutive year of musical chairs has started at Triple 8 following the recent announcement that Tony Gilham has left the team for financial reasons. Gilham started the season brilliantly, scoring in all three races at Brands Hatch but was rocked straight after the event when a major sponsor pulled out. He scored more points at both Donington and Thruxton but hasn’t scored since and has only just made it to the grid in every race since the opening meeting, often with finance securing his weekend’s drive coming in only on that Thursday.
Gilham although disappointed, remains adamant that he will be back soon and said, “We had a big sponsor pull out at the start of the season and there have been a lot of broken promises. We’ve made it this far by the skin of our teeth, making compromises by not going testing and by restricting the number of tyres we use over a race weekend and you can’t compete at this level by cutting corners like that. “I’m absolutely gutted that I haven’t got the budget to carry on. But I will be back in the BTCC, hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s where I want to be and I definitely haven’t given up. I will keep working to see what I can pull together and I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
I'm over the moon to be making my BTCC debut with a team with such experience as 888.
Taking Gilham’s seat at Triple 8 for a one off race is front running Clio driver Aron Smith. Smith is currently second in the standings in the Clio Cup support series to the BTCC although the Clio Cup doesn’t travel to Knockhill. Smith’s brother Gavin drove for Triple 8 in 2005/06 under VX Racing and Aron is delighted to have this opportunity, "I'm over the moon to be making my BTCC debut with a team with such experience as 888. I'm certain that they have a very competitive package and I'm equally sure we will work very well together. To get to make my debut at Knockhill makes it even better. The track itself should suit my driving style and now I'm just dying to get out in the car. I know it'll be a steep learning curve but with the help I’ll be getting from the team I'm sure we can get some good results.”
Another driver hoping to make a good impression will be Special Tuning Racing’s Dave Newsham, who takes part at his home circuit for the first time in the BTCC. Last time out Newsham looked good for a podium in race 3 at Snetterton, before losing 3rd late on and then getting pushed from 4th-8th on the last corner. Despite this, Newsham admits podiums are possible and is looking forward to competitng in front of his home crowd and said, “It was only my third event with the team but Snetterton showed just how much the car and I have gelled. I’d say we are now genuinely showing mid-top ten pace and I think podiums will be on the cards from now on if we luck into pole in the reversed grid draw for race three. I moved up to Inverness to start the Norscott company in 1994. My first ever race on four wheels was at Golspie kart track about 60 miles north of Inverness. I won my second race there and was also the local club champion.
“There’s a lot of Scottish blood running through my family’s veins as well: my dad was half Scottish and my wife’s grandfather was from Orkney, plus both my kids who are now into their teens were born and raised here and I couldn’t have wished for a better upbringing for them. Inverness might be two and a half hours’ drive from Knockhill but people up here are used to driving long distances to get to events. And from what I’m hearing a lot of people from the area will be driving to Knockhill for BTCC weekend and that makes me feel great. It brings a bit more pressure but that only adds to the buzz.”
As well as the main protagonists there will be a host of other drivers to look out for this weekend including: Alex MacDowall in the second Silverline Chevrolet after he took pole last year at Knockhill and all but matched team-mate Plato at Snetterton. Andrew Jordan for Pirtek Racing who endured a miserable weekend last time out but has since enjoyed a successful test since. As well as the three Team Aon Ford Focus’, particularly of Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole after they have also been busy after staying on at Snetterton for additional testing. Paul O’Neill in his Go-Mobile with Tech-Speed Chevrolet Cruse after he got onto the podium last time out for the first time since the opening race meeting of the year. Martin Byford for AmD Miltek will take part in his second BTCC meeting and he hopes for a top 10 while Rob Collard for WSR will be hoping for rain after his disastrous weekend at Snetterton.
In addition, we have seen the rise of the New Generation Touring cars particularly that of Frank Wrathall in his DynoJet prepared Toyota Avensis after he took 4th and was on the podium at Snetterton, taking Independent victory in the process. Meanwhile Rob Austin also scored his first BTCC point in race 3 at Snetterton as well as outright fastest lap in race 2 in his Audi A4. Both drivers along with Speedworks driver Tony Hughes recently tested at a wet Rockingham and hope the wet running might prepare them for Knockhill which is often wet in the hillside at Fife.
It was also announced at this test that Clio Cup youngster Chris Swanick will race in a second Rob Austin Racing Audi A4 for the final two meetings of the year at Brands Hatch and Silverstone, having once again tested the car at Rockingham. Swanick at just 17 will be by far the youngest driver on the grid but said he was delighted to be joining the pinnacle of British Motorsport and said, “It’s still not quite sunk in knowing I’m going to be signing-on as a driver with the likes of Plato, Neal and Jackson but at the same time I think the BTCC needs a few more younger drivers. It’s the pinnacle and I hope I can become a bit of a role model and show it is possible to make the jump at a young age and be able to go wheel-to-wheel with some of the established stars.”
So that concludes the drivers to look out for at Knockhill. The racing is always unpredictable at the circuit, as well as the Scottish weather. So for race by race news from the weekend and all the news from Qualifying be sure to keep logged into Motorsport.com to see who emerges from Knockhill as championship leader.
Quotes provided by BTCC.net