The waiting is nearly over.
After its seven-week summer break, the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship roars back into life this weekend at Snetterton.
One year ago Jason Plato christened the new 300 layout with pole position and a race one win – fast forward 12 months and how he would love to repeat the feat as he bids to close the gap to the Honda Yuasa Racing pair out in front.
Championship leader Matt Neal heads teammate Gordon Shedden by a solitary point; the two Civics taking the chequered flag in ten of the 15 races so far. All eyes will be on whether the chasing pack can overhaul the duo in Norfolk.
The new track, which hoped to dispel any suggestions that Snetterton was a boring circuit, certainly threw up drama last year – Plato and Neal coming together within seconds of the start of the race, contact sending Neal's Honda spinning across the track at more than 100mph. Riches always poses problems at the start but where was Sears, the second corner, which used to lead on to the long Revett straight, is now Montreal hairpin – the entry point to the new, twisty infield section, and a bit of a fate-tempter for the opening lap.
The new layout has split opinions – revitalised the track for some, a bit mickey-mouse for others. The reality is it certainly allows for the unexpected – something the chasing pack would appreciate nothing more as we enter the second half of the season -and Neal believes coupled with the new regulations, the win is up for grabs.
“It has long straights, which the boost handicap we are made to run with mean we'll get eaten down the straights,” he explained. “But on the flip side the new 300 circuit is quite technical, which plays to the great chassis of the Honda. So hopefully we should be somewhere in the hunt!”
Plato, in his MG KX Momentum Racing MG6, will hope improvements to the set-up made at a test at Brands Hatch last month will aid him in toppling to Hondas, the new-for-2012 MG undergoing more development than most as they seek to fine tune the handling – one of the most difficult aspects of the NGTC cars to get a grip on.
Plenty of drivers will be looking to build on results at Croft. Frank Wrathall qualified an impressive fourth in his Toyota, Rob Collard split the Hondas in race one and Rob Austin gained his first podium of the season in race two. Then Jason Plato, Tom Onslow-Cole and Andrew Jordan made up the race three rostrum. Jordan has been particularly consistent this season, hence his joint fourth-place with Collard in the driver's championship, but is yet to win. He had a tough time of it last year in the Vauxhall but armed with a new NGTC Civic, there's no reason he shouldn't be fighting the Dynamics duo for the win this weekend.
One of the most impressive performers so far has been Collard, the S2000 eBay Motors BMWs certainly hanging on in there as teams begin to perfect their NGTC developments. Though he's yet to win since taking the flag at the curtain-raiser at Brands, he has been there-or-thereabouts, and while the car is not at its strongest at Snetterton, he'll be a top ten contender – and with the reverse grid format, that makes him a potential race three winner.
Another S2000 runner hoping Snetterton will put their seasons back on track is Dave Newsham. The ES Racing man put his Vectra on pole at Brands but has faded from the front since – though he’s aiming to put that right at a track he enjoys. He said: “I love the new 300 layout – it’s much more interesting and technical than the old track, and it seems to suit my style.
“In order for us to beat the top teams with their large budgets and technical know-how, we need to be at our very best. We haven’t done any testing or development of the car this year, we just turn up and wring the neck of the car, and hope it’s enough.”
The smaller teams which opted to make an early switch to the new specification last season – the likes of Wrathall, Austin and Welch – are also beginning to make good use of their understanding of the cars after tough starts to the season. The aforementioned Austin was racing at the track last weekend in the VW Racing Cup but only managed a handful of laps after the team suffered technical problems. He believes the mechanical gremlins which plagued his outfit in the first half of the season are finally dealt with, but financial problems are restricting him from getting the most of the Audi A4's potential.
“The potential is huge!” he says. “If we can achieve the budget I will be very surprised if we don't win races this season. The car is capable anyway and if we find enough budget to develop the car further we will be even quicker.”
Dan Welch, whose Proton has gained much support from the fans since its introduction last year, is another to have suffered a disproportionate amount of bad luck in 2012, and is hoping financial problems do not overshadow a car with potential to run at the front.
He said: “We should go there and have a strong car, qualify somewhere reasonable and have three good races – it's just the getting there at the minute.”
Snetterton will also see the series debut of our first American driver for 37 years when Robb Holland takes to the track in Tony Gilham's Team-HARD. prepared Honda Civic. Holland enjoyed a successful test at the track last month and Gilham thinks he'll impress: “I think three top tens are realistic – and hopefully with the reverse grid there could be even more to come. He'll enjoy it, but Snetterton is going to be good for him – it's a good, open track.”