Weight, weather and qualifying will be the most crucial factors in this weekend’s visit to Oulton Park, as the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship competitors weigh up their chances in Cheshire.
The 2.66-mile circuit is a firm favourite with both drivers and fans alike, returning this season to the Island layout after a switch to the full International circuit was met with a mixed reception, largely following a lack of overtaking opportunities on the Sunday afternoon last year.
The track has not entirely gifted a full indication of what cars should come out of the blocks quickest at the weekend, although warmer conditions would suit rear-wheel drive machinery more so what with their success in most recent visits to the Cheshire strip of tarmac.
Gordon Shedden heads into rounds 10, 11 and 12 heading the championship narrowly over Colin Turkington and Honda stable mate, Matt Neal, the Japanese manufacturer reveling with their new Civic Type-R after four wins in nine races from 2015 thus far. Neal has won at Oulton Park six times in the past during his illustrious career, entering the 2015 visit considerably more appreciative of his chances.
Despite recently surrendering the points lead to his Honda Yuasa Racing team-mate, Shedden, Neal remains grateful that it will be the Scot, not himself, carrying the maximum 75kg of success ballast at a circuit he feels will hamper those hauling the increased weight.
“I’d have loved to have had the bragging rights again, but if you’re going to carry a bit less weight in the car then Oulton is the one to do it at”, Neal told TCF, the triple champion set to carry 57kg.
“[Oulton Park] is a tight circuit. I think qualifying is going to be really critical, plus weight I think is going to be a key factor for the guys that are at the head of the championship.”
Topping the table in terms of Oulton success is Jason Plato, who has racked up no fewer than nine visits to the top step of the podium at this circuit.
With that success comes confidence, something Plato says will help both his and BMR Racing‘s cause, saying: “I think we’ll definitely get a few [wins] at Oulton – my tail is in the air and there’s nobody faster around that place than me. We’ve got to do our job, stick the car on pole and win the first, and maybe the second race.”
His Volkswagen team-mate Turkington dominated here last year with pole position and two victories, albeit his challenge will be intensified this season by second-placed success ballast (66kg), plus a Volkswagen CC machine still providing him with uncertainties behind the wheel following his transition away from BMW.
Six times a winner here, Turkington is buoyant about his potential for success at Cheshire, both Oulton Park and the following visit to Croft being happy hunting grounds for the Northern Irishman.
“Hopefully [at Oulton Park] we will go there with a stronger package”, Turkington told TCF. “At Donington we were fast straight out of the blocks while here it didn’t quite happen. Last year I did probably my best qualifying lap there, so if I can come close to matching that with the weight we’ll have in the car then I’m definitely in with a shout.”
BMR themselves picked up their maiden BTCC win at the same Oulton Park venue just 12 months ago, that coming courtesy of Aron Smith, who held onto his pole position advantage despite tricky – and typically changing – conditions underfoot late that Sunday.
Smith was out of luck at Thruxton despite his maiden qualifying pole position in Hampshire, but remains confident that the cards will fall more kindly this weekend for Volkswagen, adding to TCF: “I’m not concerned at all because I know the pace is there, the car is good and I know we can do it again.”
The manufacturer most recently stealing the march on the opposition at Oulton Park has been BMW. In fact, the German Manufacturer have claimed eight wins from the last 24 races held at the circuit – a 1/3 win ratio since the marque’s 2007 return.
Although the West Surrey Racing trio of Sam Tordoff, Andy Priaulx and Brands Hatch winner Rob Collard have spoken out regarding a lack of straight-line performance, Tordoff in particular expects the problem to be less influential this weekend at the more technical circuit.
Tordoff told TCF: “The next few tracks we go to should be a lot more beneficial to the BMWs. The car has always been notoriously good at these circuits coming up. We don’t rely as much on the straight-line speed at these tracks.”
Andrew Jordan won one of the circuit’s most enthralling BTCC races back in 2013, that year’s eventual champion surviving several melees at a venue where race craft is key. Wrong judgement has often cost drivers and tempers can boil over – Yvan Muller and Plato’s 2005 collision at a tempestuous meeting a fine example.
Jordan himself says that Saturday’s free practice sessions are vital for teams to gain an understanding in time for qualifying, saying: “We’ve got some good data and a good set-up from there, but the thing to remember is that everything moves on.
“If we rolled out there with last year’s set-up then it won’t work anymore in this game.”