The latest three races of the 2013 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship will take place around the former ASCAR favourite, Rockingham Motor Speedway, the infield version of the ‘The Rock’ celebrating it’s 10-year anniversary since the BTCC cars graced it’s tarmac back in 2003 for the first time. With that in mind, we take a look back at some of the classic BTCC contests staged around this track…
Opened by the Queen in 2001, the BTCC made its first appearance at the Northamptonshire circuit two years later, the 1.94 mile circuit certainly not failing to disappoint fans that flocked to the Speedway’s towering grandstands.
Despite a brief sabbatical since the end of the successful maiden visit in 2003 that lasted until 2007, the venue has seen many memorable moments both on and off the Corby circuit – from an emotional round of noise for the late David Leslie, to one of the most impressive pieces of car control from another Scottish hero of the BTCC in its most recent visit.
2003 – Neal and Muller calmest before the storm
The BTCC’s maiden visit to the Rockingham Motor Speedway came 10 years ago back in 2003, one which provided some fantastic racing for the win in both of the Sunday encounters which finished just in time to escape from an electrical storm that followed…
Honda had a fantastic start to the weekend with Matt Neal and Alan Morrison dominating both qualifying and the first race. The pair staged their own fight around the technical track, which featured a flat-out chicane rather than the banking used today, Morrison giving the fight to Neal who by now had become the Japanese marque’s lead driver.
Morrison could not pass his team-mate on track despite one major effort exiting the chicane into Deene hairpin, but Neal came back at him into the following bend and the battle went to the pit stops, a mandatory occurance back then in BTCC.
Neal had already pitted, leaving Morrison left to do so. The #9 Honda was serviced quickly and sent on its way, exiting the pits almost right into the path of the #3 car of Neal which shot past into the lead and on the way to victory, leading a 1-2 finish for the squad.
Tom Chilton finished fourth in the third Honda Racing Civic, a result which – although great for Honda – deprived Neal of a new Honda NSX road car as a pre-planned ‘prize’ initiated by the team.
“We had a bit of an unsung agreement that I came up with which was what do we need to do to get an Honda NSX each”, recalled Neal. “And we were told that if we finished 1-2-3, then you can have an NSX. I was on the radio saying ‘where did Tom finish?’ Fourth. I said to him do you realise you cost us an NSX!”
Race two was a manic one, Neal retiring early in a return to bad luck this time for Honda and leaving a fantastic scrap between the WSR MG ZS and VX Racing Vauxhall Astra trios. Anthony Reid suddenly found himself in the lead of the race after a squabble through Deene hairpin during the moiment Neal’s Honda expired, before a safety car was deployed for a big accident for Michael Bentwood after the BMW Production class driver was turned into the wall by Tom Boardman‘s Peugeot.
Reid had victory in his grasp, but then threw it away on the restart by locking up and running wide at Deene, gifting Frenchman Yvan Muller the win after he passed James Thompson‘s similar Vauxhall and left Reid and Warren Hughes to fight with the reigning champion in a frantic finish.
The race ended under darkness almost as a thunderstorm descended on Rockingham, lightning provoking the early emptying of several grandstands for safety reasons.
2008, race three – Neal does rain dance for first Vauxhall win
The third year of BTCC at Rockingham was an entertaining one which started in the dry, but the real excitement was saved until the final race of the day as Matt Neal drove a masterful wet weather display to win his first race in a Vauxhall for his new VX Racing team.
The event started with an emotional tribute from fans as they took part in a minute’s grandstand-shaking noise in respect to the late David Leslie, the former BTCC race winner having died tragically in a helicopter accident.
A further tribute came from fellow Scot Gordon Shedden as he took pole and victory in race one of the weekend, while Mat Jackson raced to success in the second encounter with a lightning start from his BMW before taking advantage of a mistake from Fabrizio Giovanardi to grab the lead and the win.
The weather took a u-turn for race three as the heavens opened and left the tarmac awash, where Neal’s experience came to the fore as he fought his way through the pack towards the front, a place held by Colin Turkington in a BMW that began to struggle in the closing laps in the sodden conditions.
Neal eventually found his way to the rear of the BMW with some brave moves including through the banked first corner over the slippery white lines, before diving inside Turkington at the Tarzan hairpin to seal his first and only victory of the 2008 season.
Turkington slipped back in the last few laps to an eventual seventh place, Neal and Tom Chilton being joined on the race three rostrum by a new name in Adam Jones, who had impressed all weekend in the Air Cool SEAT Leon.
2010 – Experience pays off at Rockingham
The second meeting of the year, the 2010 visit was one that showcased the title fight that was to come over the remainder of this particular season, Matt Neal claiming two wins that sandwiched the first for the title-winning Chevrolet Cruze in the trusty hands of Jason Plato.
Neal and Honda team-mate Gordon Shedden put on an exhibition in a first race that started under mixed track conditions from a shower, a wrong call on tyres from the competitive AON Ford team seeing Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole fall back in their constantly-sideways Focuses.
Neal and Shedden made their way quickly to the front where they stayed all race, Neal finishing almost 10s clear of his team-mate for his first win of the year, one that he waited over a year for after just two wins from his pair of seasons at Vauxhall.
Plato had entered 2010 in a very different mood, seeming more focused on the long game of consistency rather than going for any opportunity he saw to win. This was down largely to his commitment to succeeding with Chevrolet after his SEAT days were ended when the Spanish squad pulled out in 2009, and Plato’s patience with the new machine paid off as he claimed victory in only the Cruze’s fifth race of the year.
The eventual champion of 2010 blasted into the lead when the lights went out and would remain in the lead for the remainder of the race, despite coming under pressure in the closing stages from the WSR BMW of Rob Collard.
Collard had started the race down in 10th place but rapidly fougth through the order, ending lap one in fifth place. The WSR man then fought past Neal and took advantage of a mistake at Deene from fellow BMW driver Steven Kane to leap into second, where he began chasing Plato’s Silverline Chevy for the lead with a BMW working its tyres much kinder.
Collard got right up to the rear bumper of Plato on the final lap, pushing him through the final chicane, but Plato held on to take his and the team’s first win of the year, the first of seven for the Cruze that year.
Neal then doubled up in race two after slipping back in that second race, the Honda man passing Onslow-Cole to go on and take a comfortable second win of the day ahead of the excelling Paul O’Neill in a Tech Speed Honda Integra Type R.
2011 – Neal and Plato almost come to blows
Unlike the reasoning behind many of these classic choices, the real memorable action from this weekend came during Saturday’s qualifying session rather than a door-banging thriller on race day…sparking the nearest to fisticuffs between Matt Neal and Jason Plato from their storyline rivalry.
Proving to be one of the most competitive qualifying contests of the year, the 30-minute timed session boiled down to one final run between the front-runners, Paul O’Neill lying on a sensational pole this time in an Independent Tech Speed Chevorolet Cruze before Neal and Plato both took to the track to modify the scenario.
The scene therefore was set; Plato quickly secured pole position, and in the last minute flurry by everyone for an improvement, the then reigning champion squeezed his way in between the two Hondas of Neal and Gordon Shedden, brushing Neal aside.
Feeling impeded, Plato then appeared to slow heading through the Deene hairpin and his Honda rival had nowhere to go but in the back of him, effectively squandering Neal’s chance for pole.
In the pits afterwards, Plato celebrated with his team, then turned to Neal and sent him a hand gesture. Neal came over and the duo exchanged words, and when Plato dropped another expletive into the conversation, Matt lurched at Jason with his fist clenched before their mechanics butted into the situation.
The situation soon blew over, and the following day Plato went on to claim victory in race one, before Frank Wrathall and Rob Austin almost stole the show by challenging for victories with their new NGTC Toyota and Audi machines, James Nash hanging on in race three to win for Vauxhall on his way achieving the 2011 Independent’s championship.
2012 – Shedden’s save of the century
The rain came with a force in 2012, and with it, the championship turned in the direction of Gordon Shedden, who was sensational on the weekend at Rockingham that effectively sealed his march towards a maiden BTCC title.
Jason Plato was on the finest form early in the weekend, the MG driver showing rapid pace in qualifying to snatch pole by 0.636s and comfortably claim race one spoils at a track that suited the MG6 very well in the dry conditions.
From then on however, Honda were handed their trump card – rain. And lots of it.
Championship leader Shedden took full advantage as he and team-mate Matt Neal found another gear on the rest in the slippery conditions, Shedden leading the first of two Honda 1-2 finishes while Neal battled to the podium despite a hand injury.
Shedden’s race three charge was sublime, but even more remarkable would be that the #52 Honda Civic did not end that final encounter firmly in the turn one concrete wall, largely thanks to an eye-watering piece of car control from the Scot.
Running fifth, Shedden’s Civic slid sideways through the daunting turn one banking where, as the car headed backwards towards the concrete wall, Shedden floored the throttle and straightened the car out, narrowly missing the wall and somehow avoiding being collected by the oncoming Andrew Jordan.
As the Scot – and the onlooking fans in the freezing Rockingham weather – gathered their breath, Shedden put on a masterful recovery drive through the field from seventh, passing Plato, Neal and the resurgent Aron Smith to win the race and cement himself as championship favourite, Smith also a star of the moment for his fifth place while still in his rookie season.
From then, as they say, the rest is history, and Shedden’s Honda now carries the number one this season.