From the memory banks: Oulton Park 2005

With the next round of the BTCC approaching at Oulton Park, it brings back the memories from one of the classic race weekends from the Cheshire circuit, not just for the hard-fought racing that was showcased on the track – but for the chaos off track as the weather couldn’t make up it’s mind…

(Video by – click on the video name link for the author details)

Arriving at the circuit on Sunday the weather was sensational, something that British people immediately lap up; you would have thought it was the Spanish Grand prix, but with more tents pitched around the track’s classic grass banks instead of expensive grandstands. It had been one of the most unexpectedly humid weekends of the British summer for some time, making a Saturday night’s sleep feel uncomfortable enough, so you feel for the drivers that we had came to watch as they prepared for combat in their baking tin-tops.

With the weather as it was by this stage, nobody could have expected what happened later in the day. The sun was shining on the upcoming race action, which turned out to be as entertaining as it could get.

By this point (rounds 10-11-12), the 2005 season’s order was already looking set as Team Halfords (Dynamics) had begun to dominate the early part of the year in the new bulletproof and tyre-friendly Honda Integra Type-R. Matt Neal had already picked up four wins in nine races, plus his team-mate Dan Eaves had pulled off the sensational treble at Thruxton – only replicated by Jason Plato in the 2009 finale – while Vauxhall, also with a new car in the Astra Sports Hatch, and SEAT with their same Toledo were competitive but had their struggles early in the year.

The latter’s luck began to change however at Oulton Park as their number one driver Plato put the silver and yellow Toledo on pole position, and when racing got underway in the baking heat on Sunday, SEAT and Plato finally broke their 2005 duck in what proved to be a tense opening race of the day. The 2001 champion got a perfect getaway from the start when the lights went out, while Neal lost out when he bogged down and dropped to third behind the second Halfords Honda of Eaves.

Neal wasted no time in re-passing his team-mate and began to hunt down the SEAT of Plato, who was to have a hard job of fending off the fully-ballasted championship leader in the closing stages of the race. Plato spent the last third of the race under intense pressure driving with his eyes glued to the mirrors and showed another one of his great defensive drives that he was becoming synonymous with since his return the year before, as he just held off Neal for the win to banish the demons from the first three rounds after blocking Neal’s penultimate lap lunge at Lodge well.

Race two was where it fell apart for Plato however, as Neal wanted victory much more this time with the SEAT now carrying the ballast. This time the Honda to have a sluggish start was Eaves, who after losing third to Yvan Muller began to hound the back of the Astra, the two rubbing panels as they got very close for comfort on too many occassions.

The glorious weather that had been providing a sunbathing opportunity for the fans trackside then mysteriously began to be replaced with darker, gloomy clouds covering the track, and the threat of rain then saw Neal launch his attack on Plato for the lead before pulling off what was thought to be the impossible of driving around the outside of the SEAT through the final corner at Lodge, staying side-by-side all the way around the outside and into Old Hall where he somehow edged into the lead despite being on the grass and on the wrong side of the road.

The battle meant that Muller and Eaves had latched onto the back of the battling cars and as Neal slotted into the lead the four cars all tried to fit into Cascades together, which didn’t work to the gasps of the crowd as Muller tapped Plato into a slide that sent the SEAT skittering into the gravel trap.

Plato somehow managed to get the Toledo out of the beach and make his way back up into the top 10 and therefore an acceptable reverse grid position for race three. Neal meanwhile went on to take his fifth win of the year ahead of the Frenchman and Honda team-mate Eaves, gifting the perfect father’s day present to Steve Neal and extending his championship lead to a dominant margain already.

The image that followed is one that, as a fan at the event that day will be remebered for a long time. 

As the support races began to continue rolling on through the day, top names such as Richard Westbrook, Tim Harvey and Damien Faulkner were about to head out for battle in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB, only for the dark clouds to (very) suddenly turn into a massive thunderstorm that transformed one of the brightest and humid days of the UK summer that year into a washout within minutes.

With people sunburnt and still half-dressed, the immortal words from people of “We might even get some rain here!” were mentioned. On cue, minutes later drops of rain came down, quickly turning to a complete deluge, thunder and lightning also included in the show. Everybody grabbed anything they had with them and fought across the bridge from Knickerbrook to find shelter, mostly to the car park where they were never seen again; it was almost as though we were at the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix. I never got to see what happened in the final race because – like many, many others – we decided enough rain was enough and, soaked, we headed back home to what was surprisingly pleasant sunset North East weather.

Meanwhile…after a lengthy delay that saw the Porsche race postponed, the BTCC boys returned to a trecherous and washed-up circuit for race three, after which Plato threw away the lead and a certain win at the Hairpin early on with a lock up, allowing Rob Collard to sensationally lead in the cash-strapped WSR-run MG.

He would not be the hero of the hour however as two lock ups cost him the lead to Tom Chilton’s Honda Civic, and then later to Neal as he dropped to fourth place behind a charging Plato, who muscled his way through the field to claim a podium on an eventful weekend. Chilton’s emotional victory was one that wasn’t expected among the fans, so it provided a good story to the end of a typically mad day of British Touring Car racing.

Whether the fourth round of this year’s championship will be as eventful remains to be seen, but Oulton Park has certainly been a track that has offered fans its fair share of drama, and its constant twist of Spa Francochamps-like weather unpredictability.

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