Next stop – Croft: Touring car tensions head up North

Round five of the British Touring Car Championship this weekend sees the series head to North Yorkshire and to Croft circuit, a place providing thrilling racing and drama in the BTCC since 1997….so it’s the perfect setting to continue all of the drama that unfolded last time out at Oulton park.

Croft is a very technical track that provides a mix of quick corners to test the bravery of those behind the wheel and tight, precise bends for overtaking including the tightest hairpin in the country to end the lap which has been the scene of many pile-ups, overtakes and even in the case of Phil Bennet and Steve Soper in 2001, spectacular fall-outs.

Its reputation of producing fiesty racing and hot-headed driving is therefore perfect considering the situations that took place at Oulton Park which mean a lot of drivers will arrive at Croft with emotions running high, and with points to prove or damages to undo.

Although not as bad as the monsoon-like Sunday greeted to Croft in 2008, one thing that drivers will be most concerned – or excited – about this weekend is the possibilty of another wet weekend. Weather forecasters, as optimistic and questionable their opinions may be, suggest it is more likely to be a rain-hit weekend rather than a bright and sunny affair.

Just as was the case with Oulton Park and with last weekend’s sensational Canadian Grand Prix, rain can spice up any kind of racing, and the Northern circuit is no stranger to producing a downpour when the BTCC arrives each year. The first time the series came to Croft in 1997 qualifying was even called off due to the track being flooded, before a sterling job from track workers to pump the water away allowed for two dramatic races to unfold the next day, both being won by Alain Menu with the latter race ending due to two identical big shunts at the circuit’s tricky flat-out chicane for Honda drivers James Thompson and Gabrielle Tarquini.

Speaking of crashing Hondas, Oulton Park two weekends ago was one that Matt Neal will still have flashbacks to after he and team-mate Gordon Shedden collided at the final corner while heading for a another one-two finish that would have extended his championship lead, but instead ended in the two cars in the gravel and everyone watching putting their head in their hands wondering what had just happened.

True, it was just a mistake – the onboard replay showed that Neal just locked up and slid into the other Honda, but just like Red Bull last year in Formula 1 this could well be caused by the fact that it is two equal drivers that want to win the championship and equally have a huge chance to do so this year with the pace that their turbocharged Civic has at the moment, so don’t expect this to be a one-off incident too soon, particularly with Shedden having not won the championship yet adding to his own determination.

The man who picked up the pieces to snatch a lucky fourth win of the season was Neal’s great rival Jason Plato, but as everybody who watched ITV4’s coverage of the round that Sunday will know, he was not a happy man.

The reigning champion finally, and quite dramatically, reached breaking point in his winner’s interview and spoke his opinions on the performance parity between the turbocharged next generation-specification touring cars (NGTC) and normally-aspirated Super 2000 cars such as his own Chevrolet Cruze, having been passed with ease down the track’s back straight on sheer power and torque by Neal’s Honda.

The way to view this heated debate in a realistic way is to accept that this season is the first in a new era for the BTCC, and that teams such as Plato’s RML squad and West Surrey Racing likewise with their BMWs will and should suffer for not adapting their car to the new regulations for this year like Honda decided to do, and RML is a big enough group to develop their car. Next year at least is a year which people will expect to see all cars finally adapting to the NGTC engine rules, after which the chassis, setup and driver will again be the deciders.

Also, an obvious argument against the complaints about a lack of parity is that Plato simply has to look at the fact that, as I mentioned, he has already picked up four wins this season – one more than Neal who is driving the car he feels he cannot beat, but for the fans at least the season has been fantastic so far. As ex-BTCC champion and current series commentator Tim Harvey said on air in an interview, Plato cannot expect Alan Gow to slow the turbo cars down until his own car becomes quickest, otherwise the sport becomes totally unfair.

The other Turbo cars also had mixed weekends at Oulton Park. Vauxhall’s Andrew Jordan recovered after two offs in race one to remain well in the title hunt, and remember Croft is where he won his first BTCC race in the third race last year, so he will be hunting podiums at the very least.

Mr consistency James Nash meanwhile finally finished a race out of the points last time out, and has said that the team are planning to go back to basics rather than focus on improving setup of the Vectra to help it gain greater grip through the corners, instead aiming to focus on the advantages of their engine.

Umbrellas at the ready

BMW have always been strong at this track, with Colin Turkington having picked up five wins for the manufacturer since 2007. However the car has often been at its best in warmer conditions, and current forecasts don’t point to this happening, although the wet conditions will be a great leveller for the WSR drivers if the rain is light enough, and Rob Collard and Nick Foster’s performances at Oulton Park proved that. Whether they can repeat Mat Jackson’s 2008 charge in the wet at Croft remains to be seen though.

One of the biggest changes that occurred between Oulton Park and Croft is that Ford have their other Tom back. Both Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole will be desperate to get the elusive first win for the new Focus along with their improved team-mate Andy Neate, while Shaun Hollamby will now jump back into the driving seat of his AMD Miltek team’s Volkswagen Golf.

In the support championships, the big news will again surround double Porsche Carrera Cup GB champion Tim Harvey, who having stepped down from the championship after Thruxton will now double his commentary duties with a wildcard drive in the Ginetta Supercup in a G55 for this weekend only.

Qualifying for the British Touring Car Championship will get underway tomorrow at 15.05, with the first of three races beginning just after 12.00 on Sunday.



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