The Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is ready to return this weekend at Snetterton in Norfolk as the second half of the season is about to get under way following the two-month summer break. Matt Neal heads to Snetterton as the surprise...
The Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is ready to return this weekend at Snetterton in Norfolk as the second half of the season is about to get under way following the two-month summer break. Matt Neal heads to Snetterton as the surprise championship leader, leading pre season favourite Jason Plato by just 8 points.
This season has seen an incredible turn around in fortune for Neal after two poor season's driving the works Vauxhall Vectra, where he only scored 2 race wins in the 2 season's he spent with the team. He clearly feels back at home with his family run team, Team Dynamics with whom he secured the 2005/06 BTCC championship with which is run by his Dad.
Neal has often been classed as the villain of the BTCC but apart from one incident in the opening meeting of the season at Thruxton, Neal has driven superbly all year and has taken 3 victories and numerous other podiums already this season.
The double champion however is clearly aware of how quickly things can change, particularly after the DNF's of both himself and Plato last time out at Croft, "When I saw Jason in trouble in race three at Croft I really thought I was going to be leaving with more than an eight-point lead. It just shows how quickly it can swing back!"
Neal has been greatly helped this year by the transformation of the Honda Civic. The team worked extensively over the winter and with help from Mira they have been able to completely transform the little Civic, which is in its fourth year within the championship to finally turn it into a championship-winning car. The Civic was introduced in 2007 and won first time out at Brands Hatch but although a regular visitor to the top of the podium over the years it has never been a championship contending car.
Neal's teammate Gordon Shedden has also performed well in the team this year. Gordon "Flash" Shedden made a surprise return to the team at the beginning of the season after being dumped last season after the first race for James Thompson.
Now, Flash and the team have put that all behind them and Shedden has been a major force this season, starting on the front row on 4 out of the five races so far this season.
Despite this Shedden had to wait until Croft for his first victory of the season where he scored a superb double victory to put him into third in the point's standings. Up till then Shedden hadn't quite had the luck to grab a victory often scoring a podium in the first race of the day but then suffering bad luck later in the day with mechanical trouble. He also suffered a spin behind the safety car at Brands Hatch in the wet and had a high speed off at Thruxton caused by a puncture both whilst in the lead.
Worryingly though both Neal and Shedden were forced to miss the recent test at Snetterton due to apparent financial restraints despite the return of Honda Racing this season, this could prove a big disadvantage as all their main competitors were.
At the start of the season Plato was clear championship favourite in the works Silverline Chevrolet Cruze run by RML, the men behind the WTCC campaign. This marked Chevrolet's first full works BTCC campaign and much was expected of both car and driver but not all has gone to plan so far this season.
Plato started the season cautiously at Thruxton but still ended up with two podiums but since then has had a real up and down year and has not been the driver to beat for sure.
The 2001 champion has enjoyed 2 victories at Rockingham and Oulton Park but has also been on the end of a couple of mechanical issues at Brands Hatch and did not score points in races at Oulton and Croft through contact and a puncture.
It has not always seemed though that Plato nor the team has completely got to grips with the new Cruze running in the UK for the first time on different tyres to which it has previously run in the WTCC.
Plato hopes however that the team will have benefited from recent testing and he admits that he will be on "maximum attack" until the end of the season, saying after the test, "We made a lot of progress during the day. So far this season we've had a problem that when you attack a lap, the car gets very nervous and there's a lot of oversteer. We've needed to understand why this happens and get the car working better on the Dunlop tyres. RML are pretty sure they've got to the bottom of it now, and the result was that the car felt better than it has at any time I've driven it before. I was attacking less and still getting the same times, so that will work the car less and give improved tyre life. We've a fair bit to be optimistic about for the rest of the year."
Plato has been joined at Chevrolet by last seasons Clio Cup UK runner up youngster Alex MacDowall.
MacDowall has shown incredible pace so far this season and actually is leading Plato 3-2 in terms of qualifying performance, but the youngster has often sadly struggled to get to grips with BTCC racing and has often ended up with a rather bruised and battered car.
MacDowall has inherited one podium finish so far this season and without doubt has the talent to succeed in the series but just awaits that breakthrough victory.
Quickest car so far this season has been the LPG Turbo powered Team Aon Ford Focus driven by the two Tom's of Tom Chilton and Onslow-Cole. Between them they have scored 4 out of 5 poles with Chilton taking 3 of them. The team has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top following a character building first year with the car last season.
For the majority of the 2009 season the Fords were nowhere to be seen scrapping outside of the top 10. As the season drew on the Blue oval started to find themselves in the points until Rockingham where with the reverse grid they were able to get on the podium. Even though they scored a podium little was expected of them at Brands at the final race last season but yet Chilton managed to stick the car on pole and then score two podiums.
This year the Ford has been the car to beat not withstanding the numerous amount of whinging going on from other competitors about the cars performance and has since been hit with a restrictor, although this hasn't seemed to slow them down.
Surprisingly though the Fords are not at the top of the standings with triple pole winner Chilton languishing in 9th in the standings almost double the points behind series leader Neal.
Both drivers didn't start off the season well at Thruxton with both suffering punctures and various mechanical issues. At Rockingham starting on pole Chilton got caught out the grid with wrong tyres and didn't score well during both opening races before suffering contact in race 3 on the opening lap of the race.
At Brands he got the teams breakthrough victory but was then later denied a double when he was excluded from race 2 handing the victory to team-mate Onslow-Cole.
Onslow-Cole then followed that up with victory at Oulton but Chilton slid away from victory in race 3 of the day when he took the lead only to slide wide at the next corner dropping him down the field. One of the Fords biggest problems this year has been looking after its tyres and this was none more evident than last time out at Croft, when Chilton starting on pole couldn't live with the pace and had a frustrating weekend with a best finish of 4th.
Onslow-Cole did manage to salvage something from the weekend with a podium finish in race 3 and goes into this weekend 4th in the standings and leader of the points in the independent championship.
Onslow-Cole is only 22 points away from Neal and Neal believes that he is the danger man and said, "The one I'm worried about is Onslow-Cole, We've got Snetterton and Silverstone still to come in the second half of the season - very fast circuits which will suit the LPG turbo engine in those Fords, and Donington Park as well to a degree. That's three out of the five circuits left."
Expect the Fords to be once again the car to beat for pole this weekend especially after the recent official test at the circuit where Chilton dominated the times and it will be hard to see anything other than a Ford on top of the times.
One man who could provide a shock this weekend is James Nash for Triple 8 racing. Last season the Vectra took a double victory at Snetterton with Nash also winning on the road in a Chevrolet Lacetti only for it to be taken away after the race for a collision with Rob Collard.
Following the departure of Vauxhall this has been a weird season for Triple 8. The multiple BTCC champions secured a late deal with sponsorship from Uniq to race at Thruxton and brought back double BTCC champion Fabrizio Giovanardi and reigning Clio champion Phil Glew.
Giovanardi promptly proved why he is regarded as one of the best touring car drivers in the world winning the opening two races and taking the early lead in the championship with Glew also impressing.
However the next round at Rockingham changed all with Uniq deciding not to extend its one race deal after being taken back by the amount of attention they received, and not being able to meet the demands following their recent expansion into the UK.
So out went Giovanardi and Glew and in came Nash for Rockingham. Nash instantly got on the pace in the Vectra putting in great qualifying performances but was out of luck in both first races at Rockingham and Brands with opening lap collisions putting him on the back foot for the rest of the day. At Oulton he scored a superb 3rd in race 3 but could only manage a single 6th place finish at Croft.
He proved at the official test he has the pace to run at the front posting a time within the top 5 and will be boosted ahead of Snetterton with the news that he will be in the car until the end of the season. Team boss Ian Harrison said, "He's joined us with no pre-season testing and done a done a good job. He was very quick at the Snetterton test last week and I think he's got the wherewithal to take the next step and win a race before the end of the year."
Last time out at Croft Triple 8 handed a BTCC race debut to youngster Daniel Lloyd following an impressive test for the team earlier in the year. The ex Clio racer Lloyd, currently racing single seaters successfully in the US, put in another good performance to secure two points finished. Lloyd has strong backing from TNT and although no deal has been put together so far for Snetterton it will be a surprise not to see him out again this season.
2009 champions WSR have had a so far disappointing start to the season. Having lost RAC's title sponsorship and last seasons BTCC champion Colin Turkington to budget reasons the team have not had the success they wanted and have not yet secured a victory.
Rob Collard has rejoined the team from rival BMW team Motorbase and although he has shown great speed and has put in several great displays a win has not come his way. Collard's best chance of a victory came at Croft but he was beaten in a drag race to the line from Shedden and during the opening round at Thruxton he was leading until Neal put a stop to that with contact at the chicane ending both their races.
Andy Neate has joined collard at WSR this season. Even though Neate has struggled so far this season just being on the grid is a major story after he suffered an horrific crash in 2008 in a TVR at Silverstone which left the ex Fiesta champion fighting for his life. Neate has scored some points so far this season in the lower half of the top 10 but was involved in a controversial incident at Oulton with Andrew Jordan which ended in Neate being endorsed, excluded and fined from a points scoring position.
Things do look to be on the up however for WSR after Turkington re-joined the team in the WTCC taking two podium finishes at their home race at Brands Hatch and with now much larger sponsorship from ebay motors on the car the team's first win can't be far away.
WSR's pain has been made worse by the fact that Collard's old BMW team Motorbase have been a regular on the podium with the team taking two victories. Motorbase looked to be on the back foot with the apparent loss of sponsorship from Airwaves, but both Airwaves and Motorbase returned with a 2010 spec BMW with drivers Mat Jackson and Steven Kane.
Kane lead home an historic 1-2 in the third race of the day at Thruxton and has since scored a podium at every race weekend so far this season including an incredible drive last time out from the back of the grid to 3rd.
Jackson has also taken a victory at Brands this year but both drivers have also struggled at times particularly in qualifying, often both being found outside the top 10 making their lives much harder come race day. Kane remains 5th in the championship standings but he has recently lost the independent points lead with the team also being replaced at the top of the HiQ team championship by Honda.
Last time out at Croft, Andrew Jordan took an historic victory in his Pirtek racing Vectra. Not only was it Jordan's first BTCC victory but also it was the first victory for Toca's new development engine, which will come into play next season.
Jordan has proved that the new turbo powered NGTC engine has been quick all season nevertheless not always reliable but his win at Croft was great for all concerned.
Dave Pinkney drives another Vectra with the NGTC engine all be it in a different team and has also put in some good scoring finishes including 3 points finished during the opening meeting of the year at Thruxton.
The engine will play an important part in the new spec touring cars that will be fully introduced next season and it was announced at the Croft former double BTCC champion James Thompson will be the person in charge of developing the car. A further announcement has just been made that the prototype New Generation Touring Car will be a Toyota Avensis. The car hopes to be unveiled at the final meeting of the year with Thompson taking part in both Free Practice sessions. Depending on how that goes we might even see Thompson taking part in the final races of the year. The BTCC last saw Toyota compete in 1995 as an official works entry with Julian Bailey and Tim Sugden driving the Carina, although Lee Brookes took the independents title in 1996 driving the same car up to the end of the 1997 season.
Head of Toyota PR in the UK Scott Brownlee is clearly excited for Toyota to be resuscitated with the BTCC and said, "To be able to support the premier British motor sport series with the Avensis was a great opportunity for Toyota to help an 'old friend'. The BTCC is a series we greatly respect and have enjoyed a long and successful involvement with in the past. Whilst we've made no commitment to re-enter the championship with a works team at this time, we will be following the prototype build with great interest and look forward to seeing the car perform on its debut at Brands Hatch in October."
Biggest surprise this season has been from fans favourite Paul O'Neill in the evergreen techspeed Honda Integra. O'Neill has continued his fantastic return to the series from last year and scored podiums both at Thruxton with a third and a second at Rockingham even taking an early lead in the independents and 4th in the outright championship. He was going well at Brands until the third race of the day when he pulled off on the warm up lap and he also suffered a miserable home race at Oulton failing to start races 1,2.
He was back on form at Croft looking like a different driver to last year harassing some of the biggest names on the grid narrowly missing out on a podium. O'Neill still lies 7th in the standings and another great result this weekend is not out of the question. After finishing a brilliant third at the official testing O'Neill will return to the track where he scored his highly emotional podium finish last season, he has also managed a victory there back in 2003 in the works Vauxhall team and he could well spring another surprise this time.
Alongside O'Neill this year at sunshine.co.uk has been John George who has switched teams from TH Motorsport. Although familiar with the Honda Integra (as this is what he has been running now since 2007 with TH Motorsport) George has remained as spectacular as ever with just as many off track excursions as on track action.
George did however score a point during the opening meeting of the year and that has to be his aim for the rest of the season to get back into the points.
Another driver pushing above his weight this season has been Tom Boardman in his small family run Special tuning UK team. Racing the same petrol powered Seat Leon as he was racing last season in the WTCC he has put in some great drives so far this season. He finished 5th in the opening round at Thruxton which was followed up by 4th and independent victory at Rockingham. He led for a bit at Brands Hatch before slipping back on a dry track with his wet tyres going off, he also led for the majority of the race at Oulton Park in race 3 and was driving brilliantly until mechanical issues struck after having just lost the lead. Boardman once again found himself in a great position at Croft in third place, which he held onto until the final lap before slipping down the field.
He also returned to the WTCC at Brands Hatch and ran ahead of several big name drivers including Augusto Farfus in the works BMW and several other Diesel Powered Seat Leon's, until hitting a kerb hard which ended his race. Boardman deserves a change in fortune and if that happens a podium is well within his reach, which is no more than he or the team, deserve.
As normal in the BTCC there are battles right the way down the field with teams hoping to break into the top 10. Heading this list is Forster Motorsport in a pair of ex Mat Jackson BMW's. Forster Motorsport are multiple John Cooper Challenge champions but have found the transition to the BTCC hard. Their cause was not helped by the fact they were forced to miss the opening rounds at Thruxton after both cars suffered engine trouble during pre season testing.
Arthur Forster joined the grid at Rockingham with Martin Depper joining the series at Brands due to being stranded in America for the Rockingham round. Both drivers have found the step up to the BTCC difficult particularly getting used to their machinery from a front-wheel drive Mini Challenge car all the way up to the BTCC BMW.
Along the way they have suffered many a spin and trip into the gravel but Depper narrowly missed out on a point at Croft finishing an encouraging 12th and he says the team only have one goal, "It's a really nice feeling being on the coat tails of some of the more established names and more established teams. I'm certainly looking to be sticking with that lot come the future races and maybe even starting to pick up the odd point."
One driver to have already taken a giant killing couple of points is Martin Johnson in his almost historic Vauxhall Astra Coupe when he picked up a couple of points during the wet dry race at Rockingham.
The final couple of drivers on the grid are Lea Wood and Shaun Hollamby. Wood entered the BTCC at Brands Hatch in a Honda Integra prepared by Central Racing and instantly put in good performances and has been unlucky not to score points both at Brands and Oulton where he qualified a superb 13th.
Hollamby has entered in a VW Golf the first time that VW has been on the grid since 1989. His AmD Miltek racing team worked miracles to get it on the grid following working all winter on the car.
The team have started to mix it with the tail Enders but have had trouble with reliability although they did manage a hugely encouraging 70laps at the recent test at Snetterton and they hope to make continual improvement through out the season.
So that's how the first half of the season has gone. As the second half of the season is about to kick off this weekend at Snetterton, be sure not to miss out on any of the action from now on till the rest of the year on Motorsport.com to see who will be crowned BTCC champion 2010, the most coveted title in British Motorsport.