Classic BTCC Races – Croft


classic croft btcc crowd shot

As the BTCC heads further North to Croft circuit for round five this weekend, we take a look back at some of the classic races from the North Yorkshire venue.

The 2.25 mile circuit is a favourite on the calendar with many drivers, and its challenging layout is one that not only tests the skill of those behind the wheel, but gifts many chances to overtake. Therefore, many races at Croft have been thrillers, and here are just a few of them…

1997 – Rain doesn’t dampen BTCC’s maiden visit

The BTCC’s first visit to Croft was one that was almost put on hold after a torrential downpour greeted drivers in qualifying, allowing track workers to show their spirit to drain away the standing water as the session had to be abandoned prematurely.

The racing was therefore saved, and the circuit did not disappoint in its promise to produce some entertainment for the fans, Alain Menu showing the dominance that took him to the overall title that year with his ninth and 10th victories of the season after being placed on pole position following qualifying’s cancellation.

Menu 1997 shot
1997 champion Alain Menu won the first BTCC Croft encounters (Photo Credit: btcc.net)

The racing was exciting behind the Swiss driver’s Renault Laguna, Jason Plato – still in his debut BTCC season – beating Rickard Rydell and Frank Biela to second place in race one, but only after Honda’s Gabriele Tarquini threw his Accord off the road while chasing Menu and found himself bogged in the still-soaking greenery.

While Menu cruised to another win in race two, the second encounter did not get better for Tarquini, or Honda for that matter; both the Italian and his team-mate James Thompson crashed heavily after losing control of their Accords at the same tricky turn three chicane, although Thompson was still classified second after the Briton’s crash brought the event to an early end.

2001 – Soper and Bennett’s stormy fall-out

Super Touring regulations gone, but same old touring car action as the North East’s sometimes Spa-Francorchamps-like weather unpredictability greeted the second race of 2001 with a deluge, the works Vauxhall Astras of Plato and Yvan Muller proving the main men to beat as they dominated the race.

Frenchman Muller took the flag two seconds ahead of his team-mate and fellow Astra driver Thompson making it a sweep of the podium for the British marque, but the biggest talking point soon turned towards a battle between the latter’s team-mate, Phil Bennett, and Peugeot’s Steve Soper, Bennett having dropped behind the BTCC veteran following a muddy trip through the grass.

Bennett 2001 croft
Phil Bennett’s ban lead to the debut of future WTCC star, Andy Priaulx (Photo: btccpages.com)

The battle then got heated once Bennett used his front bumper to the wrong effect by pushing Soper off the road at the penultimate bend. Soper, clearly fuming, then retaliated straight away at the next corner by shunting firmly into the back of the Vauxhall to retake the place at the hairpin, his Peugeot 406 Coupe left looking fairly second-hand after the center punch effort.

The verdict of this was that Bennett was banned for the next round at Oulton Park, and in his place a new star in touring cars was born – Andy Priaulx. Bennett returned at Donington later in 2001 after his ban with a vengence however, taking a dominant victory to silence the critics after a rough season for the man who spent two seasons with Proton following 2001.

2006 – Neal and Plato’s day-long duel

The 2006 meeting at Croft provided a perfect and somewhat classic British Touring Car weekend of racing. It featured two championship contenders glued together over the weekend and drivers finding their own unique ways to pass people throughout Sunday, igniting an already entertaining title fight.

This was a weekend where Neal showed his fighting side. After a championship-winning year in which he managed to keep himself out of trouble more than anybody in the field during 2005, he knew that as Jason Plato’s SEAT Leon was getting quicker and quicker, he needed to push harder during 2006 to take it to the 2001 champion.

In race one the racing behind the SEATs was fantastic, with Neal and MG’s Rob Collard going side-by-side through the daunting flat-out Jim Clark Esses not once but twice, somehow not ending in tears but resulting in the orange cars rubbing panels and saving huge near-accidents in the process.

Thompson meanwhile had gifted a race one win to team-mate Plato, before Plato spent the first 12 of the 15 laps of race two with the bright orange Halfords Honda Integra of Neal glued to his bumper. Plato was then completely caught napping on the next lap when Neal cheekily snuck up the inside at the final hairpin and into the lead, much to the shock of Plato and the capacity crowd to take the win.

neal and plato 2006 croft
Neal and Plato entertained (Photo: btcc.net)

The third and final encounter again saw the pair going at it in the reverse grid race. Thompson eventually forced his way past Vauxhall’s Gavin Smith for the lead and the win, while Smith then lost it trying to fend off the rest of the pack chasing him. Gordon Shedden then went off from second with a puncture, while team-mate Neal found himself being put under immense pressure from the charging Vauxhall Astra of Fabrizio Giovanardi who started at the back, and after contact with the Honda late in the race he then tried a wild pass around the outside of Neal into the tight first corner in which Neal somehow held on to fourth.

Neal then suddenly found a new lease of pace and caught Plato on the last lap before repeating his race two pass in messier fashion to snatch third on the line. Despite his last-ditch effort, the stewards had other ideas and dropped eventual champion Neal to fourth behind Plato, deeming him to have used more than enough run-off area to make the pass.

2008, race two – charging Jackson just misses out

Croft has gained a healthy habit of staging tense finishes and its fair share of races to the line. In 2010, Shedden was almost pipped to the flag by the WSR BMW of Collard – which had two wheels on the grass as it rubbed door handles with the Honda in their race to the line, while Neal just fended off the charging Motorbase Ford of Mat Jackson a year later.

The first of these nail-biting encounters however came in a very damp 2008 meeting, when Jackson – driving a Dealer Team UK BMW – put on a superb fight back from 18th on the grid in the second race of the day following an excursion while leading a sodden race one.

jackson turkington 2008 croft
Turkington narrowly pipped Jackson in ’08 (Photo: btcc.net)

The former SEAT Cupra champion showed some electric speed in the still-wet conditions, picking off car after car until he found himself in second place on the final lap after disposing of Collard’s Motorbase BMW and Neal’s Vauxhall Vectra by Tower, leaving him with only half a lap to trim an at-the-time safe advantage for Colin Turkington.

However, Jackson’s car was handling supremely compared to his Irish rival, and the BMWs suddenly entered the final hairpin locked together following a moment for Turkington heading into the Complex. The RAC driver defended his line, and as Jackson got the better drive off the hairpin the pair staged a drag race to the line, Turkington narrowly denying Jackson victory as he took his second win of that day.

2011, race one – charging Jackson just misses out (the sequel)

Jackson found himself in a similar position three years later – now driving a Motorbase Ford Focus – after fighting through the field from third place thanks to a tyre gamble in the drying conditions as everybody around him opted for rain tyres all round.

Jackson slipped to 12th early in the race as he fought for grip in the wetter conditions, but by the second half of the encounter the weather turned in his favour, slicing through the pack with some breath-taking overtaking moves.

Having once been 20s behind the leader Neal, he caught the Honda drive on the last lap. Once again, Jackson got a super exit from the final corner to challenge the eventual champion to the line, only just missing out by 0.055s.

Croft 2011 Neal and Jackson
Matt Neal narrowly held onto 2011 win ahead of the starring Jackson