Pat Cranham, BTCC correspondent
After two thrilling opening meetings and 5 different winners from 6 races, the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship will this weekend visit Thruxton in Hampshire, the fastest circuit on the BTCC calendar.
Leading the pack into the weekend will be MG KX Momentum driver Jason Plato. Despite having no pre-season testing Plato so far has taken 1 win, a pole and a further 2 podiums including a tremendous drive last time out in race 3 at Donington driving from 17th-2nd after a race 2 collision. Heading to Thruxton Plato admits he has his competitors quaking after his strong start to the season and expects wins around one of his favourite circuits where his team, Triple 8 Racing, have a fantastic record and said, “We’ve still go so much more time to find in me, in the car and in me getting the car to react how I want it to. There is an awful lot left to come yet. Clearly we’ve got pace and I’d imagine the others are quaking in their boots and if they are not they should be. I just love Thruxton, of all the UK circuits we visit on the calendar, this is the one that gets your heart racing the most. It is a huge challenge for the drivers and engineers and interestingly the last time I had a perfect set-up for this circuit was in 2001, in a Triple Eight engineered car. Team boss Ian [Harrison] and his team always produce an amazing chassis for Thruxton. It's time to win some races!”
It’s been a bit of a bogey circuit for me in the last few years.
One of the biggest factors this weekend between the all-new Next Generation Touring Cars and the S2000 cars will be tyres. The NGTC cars will benefit from running on 18inch wheels compared to the 17inch on the S2000 machines. Thruxton’s high speed nature and kerbs are always notorious on tyres, and as well as this, this weekend we are guaranteed some rain as has affected the UK for the past couple of weeks.
Trailing Plato by 4 points heading into the weekend will be reigning champion Matt Neal. Neal would have surely been leading the championship had it not been for a race 3 incident at Donington Park and will be one of the men hopeful to take advantage of the larger wheels in his NGTC Honda Yuasa Racing Civic and said, "The 18-inch NGTC tyre is meant to be more bulletproof than the old one, but no-one has run the new tyre at the speed and with the weight we'll have. On paper it should be better."
Heading into his home event fresh from running in last weekends London Marathon will be eBay Motors Rob Collard. In recent years Thruxton has been a bit of a bogey circuit for Collard, which has included being taken out of the lead in 2010 by Neal. So far this year Collard has won a single race his first since 2009 but often struggled with tyre issues after strong starts. This was none more evident last time out at Donington in race 1 where he got what surely will be one of the starts of the season in his rear wheel drive BMW, going from 5th to 1st by the first corner but yet only finished 10th. However Collard hopes for better luck on both counts and said, “It’s been a bit of a bogey circuit for me in the last few years – I’ve not been on the podium there since 2006 when I finished third in an MG, about a second behind Matt Neal who won. I spent a lot of time last Saturday with the team at its workshop going through the car to get a better understanding of why it has been hurting its tyres so much and we need to because the BMW’s reputation for looking after its tyres in the past has been tremendous. But after spending time with the team I’ve come away feeling really upbeat by what they have potentially come up with and I’m feeling good about Thruxton. We are still learning about turbo power and how to make it work best for us in various scenarios and conditions but hopefully we’ve made a step forward for this weekend.”
One of the stars of the season so far has been Dave Newsham for ES Racing who will make his BTCC debut this weekend after missing the event last year. Newsham has been in superb form so far this year taking a pole position and podium at Brands Hatch. Although he has also suffered a lot of bad luck being taking off in race 1 at Brands Hatch by Plato whilst in the lead and stopping in race 3 at Donington. This weekend Newsham hopes to continue his speed without the bad luck around a circuit in which he won in other categories whilst in a car that has won numerous times at Thruxton and said, “If I’d not been knocked off the track at Brands and I hadn’t stopped at Donington when I’d comfortably been ahead of Tony Gilham who got third, the championship might look very interesting. That’s potentially 25 points or more that have been lost. But the signs are we’ll be strong again at Thruxton – I love the circuit, I won there in 2010 in my title-winning Clio Cup season, and the Vectra has always been one of the cars to beat around there. OK, I’ve got to get the car dialled in pretty quickly in Saturday morning’s first free practice session as I’ve never driven a BTCC car around there and we don’t want to be playing catch-up. But we have a lot of data from Triple Eight to go on and I expect to be setting good times by the end of that session and go from there”.
Sadly though, we will be without one Vauxhall this weekend belonging to John Thorne in his Thorney Motorsport NGTC Insignia. Thorne has suffered for financial backing as well as a number of engine and handling issues, which made him crash heavily in the first Free Practice session at Brands Hatch wiping out his season’s budget on spares. Explaining why he has opted to miss Thruxton Thorne said, “It is with a heavy heart we have taken this decision but with limited budget we can't afford to both test and race and the car has some fundamental issues that we need to address before competing again. The BTCC for us is a long-term commitment so we are looking at this as a re-group and will come back out fighting. Some of the issues are just down to lack of development budget and some are just frustrating as they are outside of our control but no-one said racing was easy so we are a long way from giving up yet.”
So the scene is set for the third race meeting of the season. The 2012 season is already shaping up to be one of the closest in history and has already produced some stunning and incident packed races. Thruxton also promises to be another thrilling event so for all news from qualifying and race day, be sure to return to Motorsport.com for all reports over the weekend.