Colin Turkington leads the British Touring Car Championship into its fifth round of 2014, which takes place in the North East at the challenging driver favourite that is Croft Circuit.
The 2.1-mile circuit first played host to the BTCC back in 1997, when Alain Menu won both races at an entertaining maiden visit on his was to claiming his first title. 17 years later, the Swiss driver will grace Croft again in anger, along with 30 rivals looking to head into the summer break on a high note.
Turkington and BMW on song
Turkington heads to the North Yorkshire circuit heading the BTCC standings for the first time since his 2009 title-winning campaign after a stellar performance at Oulton Park, which included pole and two victories for the WSR driver.
BMW confirmed Turkington’s words that the 125i M-Sport has come on leaps and bounds since its development year, and his four wins mean he leads Honda’s Gordon Shedden by nine points heading to a track he has been sublime at during his BTCC career.
Turkington in fact holds the most Croft wins from the current grid with eight, seven of those coming with Dick Bennetts’ WSR team in BMW machinery. In fact, Turkington’s last three BTCC seasons have seen him take a brace of wins on the Sunday, including last year when he came narrowly short of the coveted hat-trick.
The 45kg ballast may hinder the points leader, although Turkington shunned any concerns that the recently shortened first gear applied to rear-wheel drive cars will seriously affect them.
He told The Checkered Flag: “It’s not a significant issue. It’s a change but it’s not a massive one really and I don’t think it will affect us that much to be honest.”
Rob Collard showed that he is also back to his best, and says he feels hungrier than ever to return to the top step of the podium after a brace of podiums at Oulton Park moved him up to fifth in the points.
Honda meanwhile hold the most victories of any manufacturer in the last 10 years with nine, and the Civic has always gone well at Croft. Reigning champion Andrew Jordan enters on the back of a rare off-colour weekend he has avoided in a long time after qualifying interruptions effectively stymied his weekend, but the 2012 Croft pole-sitter enjoys the North East venue he took his first BTCC win at in 2010.
The Pirtek Racing driver dropped to third in the points after from his midfield action at Oulton and 27 adrift of Turkington, but will be extremely fired up and tough to beat this weekend.
The Yuasa Racing Civic Tourer has not let itself down thus far in 2014 meanwhile, Shedden lying second in the points after two victories.
The Scot and his team-mate Matt Neal always go well at Croft, Neal having won six times for the Dynamics squad since 2003. His win here last year was in fact the last time he won a race, and a forgettable Oulton park visit that ended in a non-finish leaves him 67 points adrift and in danger of dropping out of title contention already.
The Cheshire visit last time out was a memorable one for Aron Smith and BMR Restart however. The Irishman picked up a second BTCC win from the front to claim the first win for the team and the Volkswagen Passat.
Smith and team-mate Menu will be strong this weekend bearing in mind the testing miles they racked up at Croft in pre-season, Jack Goff and Warren Scott also having joined them in their Vauxhall Insignias.
MG were left questioning the advantage of BMW after the last meeting, Jason Plato salvaging three top-four finishes to limit the damage on a weekend where Mother Nature threw up one surprise after another. Croft is prone to mixed conditions, and the weekend’s forecast currently points towards wet tyres on standby.
David Bartrum’s Motorbase Performance team passed 250 BTCC races at Oulton Park and, although Mat Jackson‘s race three mistake cost him the chance to potentially win the 251st, the Ford driver and his team-mate Fabrizio Giovanardi now appear to have a competitive car underneath them heading a a circuit both have won at.
Rob Austin has fond memories of Croft also, the crowd favourite having battled to a maiden podium in the 2012 visit. The Audi racer enters on a personal high after mixing it with the front-runners once again at Oulton Park, a race two rostrum proving very well deserved.
Croft: A driver’s circuit
Tom Ingram‘s seventh place at Oulton Park was a personal best for the impressive BTCC rookie – who won three from three Ginetta GT Supercup races at Croft last year – and the 20-year-old is one of many that enjoy the venue.
The Speedworks driver said: “Croft is one of my favourite circuits; always one of the events you look forward to because it’s a fantastic atmosphere – it’s extremely busy and everyone is just so friendly, which sums up the personality of the place.”
Adam Morgan echoed the opinion shared by many drivers, the WIX Racing Mercedes A-Class man saying: “It’s really fast and on-the-edge – you have to be so precise and any slight mistake will be punished.
“The fans turn out in their droves and it’s great because they can get into the paddock, meet all the drivers and get up close to the action. Whenever we come here there are thousands of fans, and that’s great for everyone.”
The circuit’s late-braking bends such as Tower offer plenty of overtaking opportunities, Croft also owning the tightest hairpin on the calendar to conclude the lap.
The flowing corners like Sunny and Hawthorn keep the drivers looking for more time to gain on their rivals, while the flat-out chicanes including the Jim Clark Esses keep all involved on the edge of their seat.
The annual visit to Croft has often thrown up a classic race almost every season it seems, and we look back at just a few of those HERE.
Qualifying on Saturday takes place at 15:45, while Sunday’s trio of BTCC races begin with race one at 12:02, race two at 14:39 and race three finally at 17:06, and you can follow all the action with thecheckeredflag.co.uk.