The 2013 British Touring Car Championship season sparks back into life this weekend at Snetterton with just 40 points separating five drivers at the halfway stage of the year, so how do those involved in the title fight feel about their prospects heading into the next 15 races?
With seven championship titles and nine Independent crowns between the five lead contenders, Matt Neal is the man that currently leads the way, and has earned a 19-point buffer over his nearest rival by way of a masterful display of consistency during the season thus far, only failing the finish out of the points on one occasion after dramas for his Honda Yuasa Racing squad squandered their opening race at Brands Hatch.
The three-time champion has also notched up four victories having kept his nose clean for the majority of the season, Neal keeping his mind set on the long game to pick up the points required to possibly secure a fourth BTCC crown. Upon leaving Croft as the series leader, Neal said: “We’re only halfway through the season – there’s a very long way to go – but it’s great to go into the summer break with the bragging rights as championship leader. I am going to make the most of that before we come back at Snetterton.”
His rival remains fellow Honda Civic driver Andrew Jordan, who has jumped from Independent champion and perennial giant-killer to the front-runners to becoming a serious title contender for the 2013 season. Jordan has often been the quickest outright driver on the grid during the early phase of the season, two poles and two wins cementing his position as second in the points chase to Neal.
Jordan has failed to finish outside the points once this year, and has also entered the season with his mind set on consistency and playing the long game, saying: “If you still get reasonable points on your not-so-good days, that’s okay. The BTCC can be won on your bad days! There is still such a long way to go. We’ve got another half to do and as long as we can keep being up there and scoring good points, we’re in the battle.”
36 points further back meanwhile lie two drivers of whom sparked off a new BTCC rivalry at Thruxton, Jason Plato and Gordon Shedden.
Plato could well have been leading the championship had it not been for a puncture at Thruxton that robbed him of race three honours and a fifth win of 2013, while a misjudged gamble on wet tyres in the drying second race at Croft backfired spectacularly when he and KX Momentum Racing team-mate Sam Tordoff were lapped by the chequered flag’s appearance.
However, both MG drivers showed formidable pace during the recent Dunlop test at Snetterton, Plato a man who has excelled around the Norfolk venue over the years gone by with 11 winner’s trophies amongst his collection, Plato also declaring the two-day test as one of the best he has partook in.
Talking to btcc.net, Plato said: “[Croft] gave me some huge satisfaction, because we had a tough time in the wet races last season so we have certainly got that monkey from our back. Now we are confident that we have a car that works in all conditions, as long as we can predict them correctly…!
“We’ve had a very good test – we’ve been doing a lot of race runs and we understand our car a little bit more. I think it’s a strong development path we’re going on – if you look at the times both Sam and I have been quick all day long, and not just over one lap. We’ve stuck to our plan – we’ve not being going out to show off, we had a strict programme of tests to go through and we’ve completed it which is important. It’s probably the best test we’ve ever done.”
Shedden meanwhile will hope to avoid drama that has seen him the victim of bad luck on several occasions this season, the reigning champion happy to have picked up more solid points in the previous round at Croft, telling btcc.net: “It was a good points haul for us in the end but it could have actually been even better. Race two was another great race with lots going on so I hope it was fantastic to watch for the spectators whereas you’re in the lap of the gods when it’s as wet as it was in race three, but overall it was a good weekend.”
40 points behind Neal, the fifth championship contender to keep a look over the shoulder for is the man who enters off the rear of an inspiring performance during the fifth round at Croft, Colin Turkington, the Irishman almost taking a clean sweep of the spoils at the North Yorkshire circuit to continue his so far successful comeback to BTCC.
The 2009 champion now feels that the eBay Motors/WSR team’s new NGTC-specification BMW 125i M-Sport machine is finally hitting the sweet spot, and many would be a fool to write of Turkington’s chances of mixing it up in the title fight, returning this weekend to the circuit at which he won at previously during his title-winning year.
Turkington told thecheckeredflag.co.uk: “The car is better but we’re not there yet. We’ve got the car easier to drive now. We moved a step forward at Oulton Park and had a good test day between Oulton and Croft so we’ve been slowly improving the performance of the car, and I think we’re almost there now. It’s a clear sign of progress to get these results; it’s no fluke, we have been working very hard, so it’s good.
“We’re well placed in the points but it’s still early days and it’s too early for me to be looking at the championship. We have to focus on improving the car even more and make sure we keep picking up the points.”