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Photo: BTCC.net
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Rockingham BTCC Preview: Three To Go, Tough To Call

Despite a difficult time in Scotland Matt Neal left Knockhill with an increased lead at the top of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship table. Can the two-time champion repeat the feat at Rockingham, or will his title rivals Gordon Shedden and Jason Plato steal a march in the race for the 2012 crown?

It’s no secret that the Yuasa Hondas have been caught short in a straight-line this season as championship organisers try to equalise the performance of the NGTC and the S2000 cars, so perhaps a trip to one of the fastest tracks on the calendar is not exactly what Neal and Shedden want right now.

But the infield should give both drivers a chance to utilise the Civic’s biggest strength – superb handling. Shedden won the second race here last year, setting the fastest lap along the way, and Neal won twice in 2010. The package is very handy and will be looking to get back to winning ways – a Yuasa car has not taken the flag since before the summer break, with Andrew Jordan’s win at Snetterton Honda’s only win in the last seven races. And while Neal demonstrated in Scotland it is not essential to win, with Shedden just ten points behind and Plato and Jordan within 40 points of the leader, it would be surprising if a winless second half of 2012 would land him the title.

Plato has won at the track on four of the five occasions the series has visited since 2007, and needs to keep that impressive run going if he is to claw back points in the title fight. A nightmare Knockhill, which started so promisingly with pole position, means the ten point deficit is now 36. Plato has often found himself chasing in the second half of the season but by his own standards this is tough. It is not impossible, though, and if the car regains its Snetterton competitiveness he will undoubtedly be a factor – and he may well be able to count of other drivers to help out as well.

At 40 points back, Andrew Jordan is a longshot in the Pirtek Civic. A strong weekend in Norfolk fired up the youngster but an average time of it Scotland means he is very much an outsider – not that it will stop him from going for the win. His 2011 weekend at Rockingham was not one to remember; a retirement, 13th and an 8th little to write home about. But with the least to lose of the four realistic title challengers he could have a strong weekend, assuming some less-fancied runners do not spring a surpise.

Frank Wrathall, Rob Austin and Mat Jackson are three drivers who will head to Rockingham eyeing up landmark wins – the first two looking for their debut victories in the series, the latter aiming for the new Redstone Racing NGTC Ford Focus’ maiden triumph. They shouldn’t be discounted. Wrathall’s 2011 season burst into life following the summer break and after a disappointing Knockhill, the young Toyota Avensis pilot will be eager to return to the front end of the grid. He was a challenger for victories 12 months ago and took his first pole at Snetterton just a few short weeks ago – it is not farfetched to believe this weekend could belong to the DynoJet UK man.

What of the fan-favourite Austin? Missing Knockhill through budget restraints was a killer for the racer-turned-actor and through the power of social networks and the support of a large fanbase, Rockingham is happening for Rob Austin Racing – twice. Will Bratt returns alongside the “King of Cool”, eager to build on his earlier-season outings in the Audi. But the team boss is hopeful the weekend will mark more than just a return to the series – it’s a return to the track which, but for three-tenths of a second, nearly delivered a maiden win last season. Bullish talk from the camp suggests a confidence that they can indeed go one better this time – if lady luck smiles their way for a change.

Where does that leave Jackson? A stunning debut for the car at Snetterton raised hopes a win may come as soon as Knockhill but that was too soon, as the S2000 BMWs dominated. But Rockingham – does it offer a realistic shot at victory? The car is strong, battled for a podium in race one at Knockhill and has shown impressive reliability for one which was put together so hastily. It is still very much in the early stages of development but a win is something the romantics in the championship would love to see.

If not the battle for the win, the battle for podiums, race three success, top ten finishes and the lower reaches of the points will all be hectic as ever. The field has got closer as the organisers turn the screw on equalisation, and now it is realistic to expect the eBay Motors BMWs of Rob Collard, Nick Foster and Tom Onslow-Cole, Dave Newsham’s ES Racing Vauxhall Vectra, Lea Wood’s Vauxhall, Adam Morgan’s Toyota, Andy Neate in the second MG, Jeff Smith’s Pirtek Civic, Aron Smith in the S2000 Motorbase Ford, the AmD VW of Ollie Jackson and perhaps even the Team-HARD. stand-in of Howard Fuller to all be in close company on track.

Notable absentees from the meeting are Dan Welch in the Proton and Tony Gilham/Robb Holland. Welch Motorsport confirmed budget restraints and crash damage costs were becoming increasingly insurmountable obstacles for the team and with commitments in the Britcar 24 hour race as well, Rockingham had to take a backseat. Fuller takes over the Team-HARD. Civic as Holland reportedly has a World Touring Car clash in the States, while Gilham remains on the sideline overseeing his team’s 2013 plans.