After two weekends of the 2012 British Touring Car Championship – the accident packed, barnstorming opener at Brands Hatch and the controversially climactic event atDonington Park the series visits Thruxton for the final leg of the quick-fire start to the year.
Thruxton, of course, rejoices in being the fastest track on the BTCC calendar, the Hampshire track featuring front tyre testing sweeping corners such as Church and Village before the lap ends in the drop down Woodham Hill and into the chicane – doubtless likely to host some more memorable moments to add to the season's highlight package.
Those highlights already feature first wins for NGTC machinery and for returning marque MG, a rejuvenated BMW with eBay Motors among five different winning drivers in six rounds – only Gordon Shedden scoring more than a single win, after Mat Jackson was stripped of what would have been his own second win in the Donington Park finale.
Despite a somewhat chequered time at Donington Park, a race two DNF necessitating another drive through the pack, Jason Plato held onto his lead in the championship through the Midlands weekend, and for those trying to beat him his preview thoughts about the weekend have an ominous ring.
“I just love Thruxton,” said the double champion. “Of all the UK circuits we visit on the calendar, this is the one that gets your heart racing the most. It is a huge challenge for the drivers and engineers. Interestingly the last time I had a perfect set-up for this circuit was in 2001, in a Triple Eight engineered car. It's time to win some races!”
Plato, and his MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 have been almost certainly the surprise package of the season. The two cars were only completed in the small hours before their track debut at Brands Hatch, and the team still a considerable measure down on developing the car, even compared to their Honda Yuasa Racing rivals, who also started 2012 with a new car. Yet Plato has already passed massive milestones for the Triple Eight run squad. A win and a pole position have been secured within two rounds, the latter coming despite maximum ballast at Donington Park, showcasing the inherent speed bred into the car.
However, with the Thruxton meeting the first round of performance balancing through the newly introduced Flow-Test Program is due, working on a car's fastest lap time to balance performance through the maximum turbo boost levels for each engine.
The MG's pace is clear from the first two rounds, Plato setting the fastest race lap at Brands Hatch and coming in just eight-thousandths shy of the ultimate race lap at Donington Park – set by Mat Jackson en route to his race one win. How, and whether the Flow-Test Program erodes some of that speed will only be known once cars hit the track.
The input of the Flow-Test Program is one potential leveler, then the current spate of drought-defying rain sweeping the UK is the other. The weekend is forecast to be wet, bringing a new set of variables into play, and presenting an opportunity for eBay Motors' rear-wheel drive BMWs.
BTCC season are packed with superb wet performances from BMW's – not least those by Rob Collard and Nick Foster at Croft last year. Their 2012 season started in the best possible way, Collard skipping past contact to win the season opener. Collard – who will come to Thruxton 'fresh' from completing the London Marathon – showed the turbocharged BMW's potential again with his lightning start to the first Donington Park race, jumping from fifth into the lead before tyre wear led to chronic understeer and a slide down the order.
The only non-BMW RWD drive runner will be hoping to make amends for a disastrous Donington weekend. Rob Austin Racing's early season has been beset with engine issues, the small team losing two engines at Donington Park – one in qualifying, the other just a handful laps into the racing.
Austin himself, filling the driving seat after the previously confirmed Mark Hazell withdrew, admits the team “need to win” with the pressures of running on a small budget showing through. Austin – and the Audi A4's performances show potential – be like the Toyota teams who formed the ranks of the Next Generation Touring Car early adopters he has struggled to recapture the form of late 2011 in early 2012.
Of the Toyota teams Speedworks Motorsport start the weekend at a disadvantage, neither of their drivers having raced a BTCC car at Thruxton before. For Frank Wrathall and Dynojet, however an improved performance at Donington Park gave new impetus to the season.
“Donington was just what we needed – three solid races and no damage,” said Wrathall. “Hopefully we can repeat that and perhaps even do a little better.”
The Checkered Flag will have coverage of all the BTCC sessions over the course of the weekend.