After a season-opening visit that kept everybody guessing, Matt Neal heads a tightly-contested Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship field into the second meeting of the 2016 season at Donington Park this weekend.
An explosive start to the season saw three different winners at Brands Hatch, including a popular new victor in Tom Ingram, who showed himself as one of the many giant-killing thorns in the side of the top guns for 2016.
The next field of combat for the 31-car field will be Leicester and, more precisely, the 1.98-mile Donington Park strip of tarmac which produced spectacular entertainment this time last season.
That weekend saw a hat-trick of different winners, at a circuit that has seen seven drivers from the current grid taste success in their BTCC careers.
The same feat could well occur this weekend, with the championship squabble already looking mightily unpredictable with 27 races still left to marvel over.
Honda On Top, But Down To Two
Out of the blocks most consistently of all at Brands Hatch two weekends’ ago were the reigning champions, as the Halfords Yuasa Racing team ended the Kent meeting at the head of the points thanks to four visits to the podium between their drivers.
Reigning champion Gordon Shedden enjoyed the team’s first victory of the season in race two, but his weekend-ending race three puncture meant he enters Donington’s gates five points behind his consistent team-mate, Neal.
You don’t have to win every race to become a champion in a 30-race season. It helps, but Neal will not concern himself over a lack of wins to his name from Brands Hatch, instead looking back to his old form in a familiar livery.
The Honda squad will be down to two Civic Type-Rs however, Andy Neate no longer participating after recording zero points to his name at Brands to reduce the grid to 31 this weekend.
Learning Continues For Subaru
Jason Plato and Team BMR boss Warren Scott cut proud figures after a learning weekend with the new Subaru Levorg last time out, despite their four cars picking up seven points throughout Sunday’s action.
Having turned a wheel on the Friday evening for the first time, clocking 584 laps between the quartet was an impressive reliability statistic. 12th place was the best result thanks to Colin Turkington, while the third-quickest lap of race two went to Plato to give the double champion heart.
Plato and Turkington did both admit that development will be ongoing throughout Donington, as set-up remains a key area of improvement for a car with a promising and innovative technical package.
“We’ve got rid of the Worcester Sauce”, Plato joked to TCF when discussing set-up issues with the Levorg initially. “In race two we added a bit too much chicken, but slowly but surely we can taste more of the car.”
The Future Stars Come Forward
The Halfords boys where pushed hard all weekend however, with no conclusive main rival emerging in a tightly-packed season opener.
Championship leader Neal summed up the fresh blood of BTCC perfectly to TCF after Brands Hatch with the line: “They’re all quite fast, aren’t they? I had to use a bit of age and cunning.”
That was when questioned of the performances of drivers such as the initial star of the season opener, Ingram, who clinched a stylish and very confident pole position before breaking his victory duck a day later.
A stubborn battle with Rob Collard cost both in race two, but the Speedworks Motorsport driver and race three winner Adam Morgan both put themselves forward as major threats for the season ahead.
Triple Eight also look rejuvenated meanwhile. Not just by winter development either, it seems, but also by their rapid young driver line-up of Josh Cook and rookie Ashley Sutton.
The latter even found himself inside the top four in both qualifying and Sunday’s opening race in a consistent front-running debut BTCC weekend, calmly making a star of himself as the Renault UK Clio Cup champion ended the weekend seventh overall in the standings.
Cook’s weekend was damaged by an unfortunate slip on fluids dropped in race two, but he will want to bag MG’s first win since Snetterton last year at a circuit he lead at with Chevrolet 12 months prior.
West Surrey Racing‘s Sam Tordoff and Jack Goff also ended strongly on a mixed weekend for BMW, while Motorbase came out of a battling weekend in good shape thanks to Andrew Jordan‘s race three heroics.
Another welcome visitor to the podium was former triple BTCC race winner, Aron Smith. Racing a Volkswagen CC upholding the flag for GPRM, it took just two outings for Team BKR to reach the podium as Smith emerged fourth in the championship.
Weather And Timetable
The weather forecast for Saturday at the Leicester circuit hints at spots of rain during the day, although a drier Sunday afternoon brings better news for fans making their way to the circuit.
It is also expected that Donington’s infield viewing areas will also be open for fans, following many tireless hours of work from those at the circuit in recent years.
Brands Hatch also saw its Indy lap record broken by pole-sitter, Ingram, something we could see again at Donington as drivers bid to topple Plato’s 2014 record of 1m09.460s.
Race day coverage will see in excess of seven hours of live action, screened by ITV4 and including build-up to the opening BTCC encounter of the weekend from 10:30am.
Free Practice 1: 10:00
Free Practice 2: 12:59
Race 1 – 11:32
Race 2 – 14:27
Race 3 – 17:17
TCF will be reporting live from Donington this weekend, so keep up with the action here and via @TheCheckerFlag throughout the two days.