By: Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
New ‘300’ layout kicks off second half of season
This weekend sees the return of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship after its annual 6 week summer break as the cars visit Snetterton in Norfolk where the teams will face the brand new ‘300’ layout.
For the second year running Honda Racing’s Matt Neal heads into the second half of the season with the championship lead, Neal also led the series in 2009 for a large part up to the half way stage when at VX Racing before missing out on the championship on both occasions. This year however surely marks Neal’s best attempt at adding to his two BTCC tittles already however Neal disagrees and said, “The Honda is a wrung sponge, there’s no more to come out of it. I’m always realistic about what other people should be achieving with what they’ve got and, given what they have got on paper; they should have been doing better and giving us a much tougher time of it so far. There’ve been some major concerns inside the car. Brands, I’ve been hearing some strange noises from the tyres and at Thruxton was getting a massive vibration through the steering. But the beauty about the Civic is its consistency at every circuit we’ve been to.
The Honda is a wrung sponge, there’s no more to come out of it.
"All-round it’s a great car, so it’s going to be a case of keeping our heads down, finishing races and seeing where we are at the end. There is going to be an element of luck involved. But the Civics’ now in its fifth year of development, so there are very few stones left unturned. But it’s a never-ending process and I’m sure other people will have made progress over the summer break, so there’s no way we’re resting on our laurels," he added.
Just behind Neal in the championship is Mat Jackson for Airwaves Racing. The 2008 runner up is by far having his best ever BTCC season to date having already taken 3 wins and lies just 9 points behind the Honda man.
Despite Neal saying there is little more to come from the Civic, Jackson disagrees and admits he has to crank it up for the rest of the season and said: "The Honda boys have been saying there's nothing left to come from their Civic but I don't believe them for a minute. They will surely have found a bit more performance during the break and so will the others so it's important we don't stand still. Make no mistake, this is the time of the season when the top teams and drivers really crank it up and we need to make sure we've got the legs to go with them."
Once again this weekend TOCA have announced yet another small reduction boost however Jackson admits it is a difficult balancing act and finished off by saying, “TOCA have a difficult balance to strike to make sure the normally aspirated cars are competing on a level playing field with the turbo cars. I don't necessarily agree with the move this time, I think at Croft where we raced last the balance was just about right, but we'll just get our heads down and get on with the job without being sidetracked. Mountune have done a fabulous job getting the most out of the Ford engine and the Focus has an excellent chassis and a lot of that is down to the Motorbase team and its engineers. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into the new infield section at Snetterton and the really long, fast Coram bend.”
The man in form heading into this weekend is Rob Collard in the transformed WSR BMW having taken all 3 podiums last time out at Croft and 4 out of the last 6 in total and Collard admits come rain or shine he should be near the top at Snetterton and said, “Mixed weather would be perfect – that is what has brought us the success at the last two rounds. That is when we are at our strongest. If not then red hot would do us just fine as that will really hurt the tyres on the front wheel drive cars, particularly as it’s now a much twistier circuit. The traction of the BMW out of the hairpins will also help to a degree as well. The turbo cars always crank it up for qualifying but if we can qualify inside the top eight then we know we are in for a very good weekend. It’s also a long lap there now and these are going to be lengthy races which will play into our hands. Then again, we’ve done no running in the summer break which will compromise us – there’s been no development with the BMW plus it’ll be the first time I’ve been in the car for seven weeks. I’m just going for podiums every time out now. I had a lot of seconds last year and have had a lot more already this year – my last win was in 2009 and I really want to put that right having come so close on a couple of occasions since. I’ve nothing to lose from where I am. I’m not there to make friends.”
Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan also feels that Collard could well be the man to beat and said, “I’d be surprised if Collard doesn’t win a race or two this weekend. Over a race distance the tyre wear around there will kill us, I’m sure. Anyone in a front-wheel-drive car is going to have major concerns, particularly those of us with turbo engines – the new Coram corner which just goes on forever is going to kill the left-front which is always the first to go on a clockwise circuit. On one-off qualifying laps we might be OK but over a race distance, you watch, Collard will be right up there.”
Collard meanwhile thinks someone else might be the man to beat by saying, “Jason’s car will be running light at Snetterton with zero success ballast in qualifying and race one. Both our cars are normally aspirated but the Chevrolet has a bit more power. I read that Andrew Jordan was tipping me for wins but, if I was going to predict anyone, I’d predict Jason. I think he’s in the strongest position.”
Meanwhile speaking about himself Jordan outlined his goals for the rest of the season he finished off by saying, “Realistically, I’d love to finish the season in the top three and win the Independents Trophy. Jackson is therefore the driver we need to be taking points off. Out of the front-wheel-drive teams we seem to be better on our tyres than most so I’m feeling fairly confident for Snetterton, although it’ll be important to qualify on the first few rows as there are now some very tight and twisty hairpins which could cause a bit of mayhem mid-field – obviously I want to be clear of that when it kicks off.”
During the mid-season breaks several teams took the opportunity to test with these including Team Aon and Pembrey in Wales and Brands Hatch, Special Tuning Racing at Oulton and Rob Austin Racing also at Pembrey. So far to date this season has been slightly disappointing for Team Aon as they continue to develop their new ‘global’ Ford Focus with Tom Chilton only taking one podium so far this season at the opening meeting where as Airwaves Racing in their last years cars are flying. Chilton however feels that big steps were made at Pembrey with fellow teammate Tom Onslow-Cole and enthusiastically said, “It was a brilliant day. Our engineers took a very clever approach with us – they didn’t tell us what changes they were making to the set-up so neither Tom nor I could have any preconceived ideas about how the changes might affect the car. All we were allowed to comment on was the general feel of the car – whether it understeered, oversteered and so on. We would do a three-lap run and then return to the truck to debrief with our engineers before doing another three-lap run. And that’s how the whole day went. As a result, we learnt a lot and all my feedback tallied up with everything the engineers did so I’m still on form! I think the car was more consistent and better on its tyres which is one area we had to work on. It does everything you want it to do, whereas before you had to compromise through certain corners. We didn’t work on fast lap times because Pembrey is a very abrasive circuit and the track temperature was boiling, but in terms of driver feel and developments we should have improved.”
Special Tuning Racing were also hugely encouraged with their Oulton Park test with lead driver Tom Boardman saying, “We had a great day at Oulton. We worked hard on some new developments during the break to get the maximum from the engine and we’re pleased with what’s been achieved. Not enough pre-season testing meant we’ve been playing catch-up, but we hope we’ve closed the gap on some of the bigger teams. At Oulton the car felt consistently good and so hopefully we’ll see the benefits of that at Snetterton.”
Throughout the year Rob Austin’s Audi A4 has been getting progressively quicker qualifying narrowly outside the top 10 at Croft running as high as 7th. Following his test at Pembrey Austin now feels that he has a seriously quick car underneath him and said, “Our test was very productive. We shook down the second A4 on the Tuesday and then had a full day of testing on Wednesday. There were a couple of teething problems but the day generally ran smoothly and the car’s ready to go. We learnt a lot and we feel very positive going into the second half of the year. I feel confident and, while I left Croft saying that we’d arrive at Snetterton with two very quick Audis, we’ll turn up with one, but it will still be very fast!. We’re excited about our potential results and, if we stay out of trouble, I think we’ll finish well within the top ten at Snetterton. Everybody has had their cars for years and they’re now near their limits. We have so much more to come.”
Austin also took the opportunity to test young Clio Cup driver Chris Swanick. Austin was very impressed by the youngster and hopes to get him in the car before the end of the season and finished off by saying, “We had Chris in the car for one of the two days at Pembrey and he genuinely did well. Our engineers who have worked with him in the past were taken aback by just how mature he was. He’ll help us out at Snetterton, getting his hands dirty and learning what it’s all about. But we’ll then put him through a testing programme and hopefully have him in the Audi towards the end of the year with a view to running him for a complete season in 2012.”
Also this weekend keep an eye out for Martin Byford who makes his debut in the series for AmD Miltek in their VW Golf while we also hope to see the debut of Welch Motorsport in their Proton Gen-2 NGTC car. It is unclear whether the team will have quite finished putting the finishing touches in time for the weekend where they hope to run Dan Welch who was previously a front runner in the Seat Cup.
Although not in time for this year it was announced that yet another new marque will take to the grid in Skoda with Matt Hamilton returning with TH Motorsport. Hamilton had previously run with the team in the later part of 2009 and started 2010 before having to pull out after Oulton due to budget reasons.
Now both return with a Skoda Octavia which will be the first time a Skoda has been seen on the grid for over 20 years with Hamilton saying, ‘This is incredibly exciting. Being part of such a project is going to be very challenging, but I have great confidence in Trevor Humphrey and all the guys at TH Motorsport to build a very competitive car. We want to have the Skoda running on track before the end of the year so that when we start the 2012 season we can really hit the ground running and show the true potential of the NGTC regulations.”
Team boss Trevor Humphrey is also just as excited by the prospect of returning to the series and said, “The whole team are thrilled at the prospect of being back in the BTCC; it’s where we want to be. We were very disappointed to have to leave the BTCC in 2010 and it was always my intention to return as soon as possible. For a smaller team like us, it was a ‘no brainer’ to be patient and go the NGTC route. In the long run the NGTC car will be much more cost-effective to run and, with a structured development programme, I know that we can be competitive. I am looking forward to working with Matt again. I was very impressed with the way that he adapted to touring cars and know that he has huge potential. Our participation in the BTCC with a ‘Next Gen’ car is a long-term commitment and we are also considering building a second car if a driver with competitive credentials was to show an interest.”
So that concludes all the news heading to Snetterton. This weekend is certain to bring up a few surprises as the teams tackle the new 300 layout for the first time. For all news and reports from the weekend be sure to return to Motorsport.com.