BTCC – FIRST OF TEN Race Reports
Three down, twenty-seven to go; the 2014 British Touring Car Championship took off in style in Kent on the last weekend in March and Iain P W Robertson highlights the action.
The new racing season got off to a cracking start at Brands Hatch circuit. At no less than 30 entries, boasting the most cars on track that the BTCC has accommodated in years, with no fewer than seven former champions competing, fireworks were expected…and they were delivered.
Pursuing the usual Saturday qualifying, followed by three well-spaced races that would allow inevitable damage limitation to be carried out, a capacity crowd was thoroughly entertained on the ITV4-televised Sunday programme. While the TV coverage is great, you have to be there for the drama (and the smell of the crowd!). If you have a premature ‘bucket-list’, get BTCC on it now.
In much-needed, warm, spring sunshine, the 2013 defending champion, Andrew Jordan (Honda Civic), kicked off his account with phenomenal race victories, not just in the season-opener but also in the second of the triple-header meeting. He said: “It’s what we do it for. I knew I had the pace to stay in front, as long as I didn’t make any silly mistakes.”
Yet, the young superstar was hounded by Jason Plato (MG6), the twice former champion, who gives no quarter to his rivals. Mechanical issues would sideline Plato in the second race, despite another determined charge, although he would make amends in the finale.
West Midlands driver and three-times former champion, Matt Neal (Honda Civic Tourer), still trying to overcome handling issues with his entirely new car, put up a great offensive by claiming the third spot in the opening round. However, Neal and his teammate Gordon Shedden (Honda Civic Tourer, also a former champion) always tend to swap places, when ‘success ballast’ is added to their vehicles. As a result, Shedden was satisfied with fourth overall in the opening gambit but much happier with second spot, Neal having to accept fourth place, in the second race of the three.
All of the drivers were commenting on the incredible closeness of lap times, which underscores that any of them could be a potential winner this year. However, when less than 0.8 of a second separated the top twenty competitors in qualifying, it suggests that the feel-good factor is going to have no trouble with generating enthusiasm both on and off-track this season.
Notable for its three-car presence, the multi-coloured BMW 1-Series team, consisting of former champion, Colin Turkington, and both Rob Collard and Nick Foster, sometimes looked as though any of them might punt off the other, so close was the race action. While Collard would percolate to sixth in the first race, the wily Turkington would manage third in the second race of the day, finally claiming victory in the finale.
The rules for the finale, the third race of the BTCC programme, are simple. The top ten finishing order of the second race is reversed, with the winner starting in tenth spot on the finale grid, the runner-up in ninth and so on. However, the pole position for the finale is decided by a draw. This time, a Teutonic steamroller controlled the first three grid positions and, while pole-sitter Collard set the early pace, Turkington sneaked past both Foster and then Collard to grab the lead and hold it to the end of a thrilling race.
Neal enjoyed a typically gritty performance ahead of arch-rival Plato in second and third spots respectively, with Collard settling for fourth overall. Back after more than a decade, Swiss former twice BTCC champion, Alain Menu (VW Passat CC), threw a cat among the pigeons with a phenomenal drive from 16th place on the grid to a well-received fifth overall, while Shedden settled for sixth in the finale.
The only other champion, Italian Fabrizio Giovanardi (Ford Focus), settled for ninth overall in the finale but BTCC fans know that he will find his feet eventually and that he is sure to be fighting for championship points somewhere near to the front of the field in the near future. So far, with the first weekend event finished, Andrew Jordan holds the aces, two championship points ahead of the consistent Neal, with Turkington just one point in arrears. Fourth in the table is Shedden, with Plato sitting fifth overall on the leader-board.
Donington Park, near to Derby and Nottingham, just off the M1 motorway, will resound to another packed grid of touring cars over the weekend of 19th and 20th of April for the second round of three races. Check out www.btcc.net for other details, including special ticket deals. We shall be there.