New Snetterton 300 the next challenge as BTCC’s second half begins

Matt Neal leads the BTCC boys into the 2nd half of the 2011 season - and a new Snetterton layout

The long summer break will come to an end this weekend for the British Touring Car Championship as the boys head to the newly-revamped Snetterton circuit and into the second half of the 2011 season.

Snetterton is a place that often seems to produce a crowd-pleasing weekend of bumper-to-bumper, panel-beating entertainment when the Touring Cars come to town, and this year the drivers will arrive at a new challenge for them. The track has undergone a significant makeover that now improves the considerably shorter 1.95 mile layout of previous years to a more beefy 2.99 miles.

The 300 track now features 12 bends, including a twisty infield ‘stadium section’ starting from turn two, Montreal, which leads the cars through a technical sequence of five corners of varying speeds before they head back up the Bentley straight.

The old track remains very much still intact, with Riches and the old esses still intact, the latter having seen many dramas over the years (often between championship contenders), as well as the daunting Bombhole. The other change is that Coram is now a longer, seemingly never-ending right leading into a flick left at Murrays, replacing the Russell chicane .

The first half of the year has only been the start of what is turning out to be another classic BTCC season, and the series will head into races 16,17 and 18 with Matt Neal the man looking favourite.

Two wins at Croft really gave the impression that it could be his to lose, and the Honda is definately the quickest car out there. Both Neal and team-mate Gordon Shedden have had their moments of bad luck they tend to suffer, mostly in the form of incidents like at Brands Hatch, or embarassing moments like at Oulton Park.

Neal’s season started with a bang he did not want, when Alex Macdowall picked up the first of his nine penalty points by tipping the double champion into the gravel on lap one at Brands Hatch, but since then he has returned to his top form particularly in qualifying, with two poles to his name and five fantastic victories to put him at the top the standings.

His team-mate Shedden has again comfortably matched Neal for pace with two poles himself, but has only managed to find two wins when it has come to the races, and that is what left him 20 points behind Neal going into this weekend. Still, 20 points is nothing at this stage, and you can bet that the ultra-quick Civics will again be up at the front this weekend.

Their main rival has appeared in the form of Motorbase Ford’s Mat Jackson, consistently scoring points in the first few rounds to be only nine points behind Neal, and picking up the pieces in the reverse-grid races in three of the five rounds – similar to Plato’s success in reverse grid races back in 2004. The turbo engine in the Airwaves Ford is very strong and should be quick through the faster corners at Snetterton, and the old chassis with Jackson behind the wheel has continued to outshine Arena’s struggling new Focus model, Tom Chilton yet to pick up a single win, or even really threaten for one so far.

BMW are definately competitive again, and to those questioning whether their recent pace and results were helped by the unforgiving weather that hit the last two rounds, Collard’s performances on Saturday and Sunday – where he picked up three podiums – were quite briliant, and to add to that, what about rookie Nick Foster’s drive to second in the last race when he and his team-mate pressured Jackson all the way?

It’s also the start of the second half of the maiden year for the brand-new Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) regulations, a subject that has provided the more tedious but yet still highly amusing side to the year – arguments.

With series boss Alan Gow offering a loophole in the regulations that allowed teams to enter cars running under the traditional Super-2000 specification, several teams have not had the benefit of the much-improved NGTC turbo engine. The extra weight of the engine makes trying to find a parity to make this season ‘fair’ has caused similar frustrations to last year’s “Fordsaretooquickonthestraights-gate” arguments last year.

It has still given us plenty of entertainment as Jason Plato has valiantly acted as the leader to introduce restrictions for the time being to allow the S2000 cars to have more, after seeing a Honda Civic drive past him on the straights on too many occassions this season, he finally lost it after crashing in Thruxton from “being forced to push over the limit of the car”, and then had that meltdown on ITV4 after winning the second race at Oulton when Honda did their Red Bull impression.

In fairness to Jason, his season has been littered with more bad luck than good luck to this point. He did everything right at the twisty Brands Hatch to win two of the first three races of the season, but then suffered punctures in Donington and Thruxton that have put him on the back foot, including the scary end-over-end roll he had also in Donington after contact in the pack. These punctures understandably frustrated Plato massively, and being nudged into a slide from pole by Rob Collard was also completely out of his hands.

The argument boiled over again after yet another boost reduction before Croft slowed the turbo cars even more, and Plato then broke the Honda dominance by grabbing pole by a worryingly large gap. The shoe for complaining was then on the over foot, as when I managed to have a talk with Eurotech drivers on Saturday they cheekily took a dig at Plato and the whole debacle, but the whole sense was that they may be about to be the ones affected more – and there’s yet another 0.05 boost coming off them for this weekend…

Whether a repeat of 2006 when Neal and Plato’s rivalry went overboard at Snetterton will happen again remains to be seen –

But Plato has always been mega at Snetterton. His first of a record 64 wins came in the Williams-run Renault Laguna in 1997 when he beat his champion team-mate Alain Menu, and he has won here nine times. Last year was where he really took hold of the 2010 championship as the Chevrolet Cruze handled like a dream around the circuit, and this year’s tighter and slower layout may still suit the chassis well as it turns better than anything out there.

Vauxhall have often been hit and miss with the Vectra at Snetterton, but their 2011 car has been blindingly quick and Andrew Jordan has picked up some solid podiums and even a win at Donington, lying fourth in the championship and only 29 points behind Neal, something he and the team are lapping up, and well deserved as they have worked hard and Jordan is a quick driver. Jordan’s main aim is to win the independent’s championship, and could easily do so as he lies second in that table, only 15 behind Jackson.

Off topic, another question surrounding Andy will be how his times on Australian TV have played out as he has spent the summer break auditioning for a Bathurst drive with Kelly Racing on Shannon’s Supercar Showdown, a reality show that, unlike America’s next top model which makes you wish for an apocalypse, this show gives decent racers a shot to race at this year’s Bathurst, a mini-dream for Andrew.

James Nash was handed the nametag of ‘Mr consistency’ after leading the championship leaving Donington and picking up solid points, but a tough last race at Oulton Park and a struggle at Croft have put him fifth in the standings, still solidly within striking distance of the leaders at 36 points behind, but he and Triple Eight need to recover their qualifying.

Martin Byford will also make his debut in AMD Milltek’s Golf as the third different driver to race that car in 2011, while Rob Austin could grab some attention after the Audi showed it’s best performance yet at Croft last time out, qualifying strongly and (very) briefly running in the top 10 in race one before mechanical gremlins struck. Austin however showed how much optimism he has by boldly claiming after Croft to commentator Ben Edwards that he is hopeful of pole or the front row at least for this weekend.

Maybe he knows something we don’t… this space. The final piece of big news is that Welch Motorsport will finally race their Proton Gen-2 for the first time this season, with Dan Welch behind the wheel.

Current championship standings (after 15 rounds):

1 Matt Neal 140pts
2 Mat Jackson 131pts
3 Gordon Shedden 120pts
4 Andrew Jordan 111pts
5 James Nash 104pts
6 Jason Plato 100pts
7 Rob Collard 66pts
8 Tom Chilton 64pts
9 Alex MacDowell 47pts
10 Paul O’Neill 32pts

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