Round four of the 2013 British Touring Car Championship sees the championship begin its trip North, with a new championship leader heading one of the most competitive BTCC battles yet into Cheshire’s action-inducing Oulton Park circuit…
The season has so far emphatically lived up to its pre-season hype, with the season already too close to call after a torturous round three at Thruxton that tested tyres, tested characters and also tested tempers at the high-speed Hampshire venue.
Jordan and Honda looking strong
With five winners from nine races, Matt Neal is now the man holding the most triumphs to his name this season with three, his oh-so-near-treble at Thruxton seeing the three-time BTCC champion move up into a 13-point championship lead ahead of the man who could well have been holding that position himself, Andrew Jordan.
The reigning Independent champion’s claim to challenge for the overall title this season has now proved a very possible proposition after the first three events of the year, the Eurotech Honda man looking the quickest outright driver on the grid after claiming his second pole of the season in emphatic fashion at Thruxton, before being cruelly denied victory in race one of the weekend a day later by one of the Sunday’s many punctures, Jason Plato another to be denied success later in the day due to the same fate.
Neal and Jordan were half of a Honda quartet that were supremely competitive at Thruxton, the improved Civic still appearing the quickest outright package of the series amongst the still growing field of NGTC machinery on the grid, while MG found themselves having to fight at a circuit that did not quite suit them as well, Plato unlucky not to have opened out a healthy points lead.
Newest rivals Shedden and Plato to shine at Outlon?
The more technical Oulton Park circuit should be a much kinder venue to Triple Eight’s MG6, Plato having taken pole position here last year, so do not be surprised to see not only Plato intercepting and even leading the Honda drivers at the front of the grid, but also his team-mate Sam Tordoff doing likewise this weekend – the impressing rookie having claimed a breakthrough Porsche Carrera Cup GB pole and victory here last season.
Neal and Honda were very strong on race day at Oulton last year, Neal claiming two victories, although Plato remains only second to Alain Menu for race victories around the Cheshire circuit with seven, so will enter the favourite to recover the lost ground from Thruxton having dropped from series leader the third in the points after his race three heartbreak.
However, another major talking point from the three hectic recent races was the bitter spat between Plato and reigning champion Gordon Shedden which escalated from their collision in Thruxton’s first race; Shedden was left less than impressed, their quite public new rivalry now possibly proving an unhealthy distraction, similar to what Plato and Neal have famously had clouded above them over the years gone by.
Shedden recovered his weekend superbly after his prang into the barriers to claim two podiums later that day, including his second win of the season in race three, and wisely vowed to put the spat with Plato behind him as he returns to the circuit at which he took his maiden BTCC victory at with the Dynamics Honda squad back in 2006.
The chasers looking to spoil the party
A team that need to start progressing is Motorbase, the Ford Focus squad somewhat languishing off the pace early in the lower fringes of the top 10 thus far in 2013 as they strive to improve their still-developing NGTC machine. Aron Smith broke into the top five at Thruxton after a strong recovery from a race two trip to the scenery, and both he and Mat Jackson were encouraged by a recent test at Snetterton that left the Kent-based team confident they can now spoil the party for Honda and MG.
BMW and eBay Motors were brought slightly back down to earth last time out after Colin Turkington’s superb Donington success, although the team’s developing 125i M-Sport machine will feel more at home around Oulton Park’s more technical sections, Turkington and Rob Collard having both excelled at this venue in the past – the former being a four-time winner here.
One of the early season sensations has been Ciceley Racing’s Adam Morgan, who still lies joint-sixth in the championship with the equally impressive Jeff Smith (Eurotech) – who lead for much of Thruxton’s third race – and although Morgan’s new-found consistency to match his raw outright speed finally slipped from him at the previous round, the Toyota driver will surely feel he can challenge for podiums now, as will fellow Avensis driver Frank Wrathall, who has thus far struggled to find some good luck to reward his already proven race-winning pace.
Neate returns, Mason makes BTCC debut
The series will also feature the name of Andy Neate once again at Oulton this weekend, the former BMW, Ford and MG driver returning with his own IP Tech Race team in an NGTC-engined Chevrolet Cruze. 2013 will be very much a progressing season for Neate with his Independent effort, but his determination and pluckiness will spur him on on this occasion and could finally bring out the best in him.
In the Jack Sears Trophy once again it will be a wide open affair, and again it was James Kaye that at times headed the way at Thruxton, but problems for both the AmDTuning.com Volkswagen driver and Motorbase Ford’s Liam Griffin while leading during the weekend cost them further silverware last time out, while their other main rival Lea Wood (Central Racing Vauxhall Vectra) has always been strong around Oulton Park.
However, Kaye will not be present this weekend due to business commitments, and in his place for this event will come Volkswagen Racing Cup star Aaron Mason, the Doncaster driver and VW Cup points leader being thrown into the deep end as he makes his BTCC debut this weekend with Shaun Hollamby‘s AmD team.