After a trio of action-packed Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship meetings so far in 2016, just 21 points separate the top eight drivers heading into the fourth visit of the season at Oulton Park.
Perhaps nostalgic from a return to Halfords colours, experience heads the table with Matt Neal holding a joint lead with West Surrey Racing‘s Rob Collard, despite the pair only leading a combined 12 laps compared to the 44 of Adam Morgan in third, three points back.
Action shifts from the punctures of Thruxton to the technical 2.26-mile Oulton Park Island Circuit this weekend, one that tests machinery with a mix of heavy braking zones and high-speed off-camber sections.
Brake pads will endure a punishing weekend at a circuit notorious for a surprise result, as well as a do-or-die lunge as has often been the case down the years in BTCC weekends here.
Wins At Oulton Park:
Honda Cling Onto Lead
Top of the table stays triple champion Neal who, other than a puncture-induced slip-up last time out, has looked very much rejuvenated in 2016 with Halfords Yuasa Racing.
The Cheshire circuit also brings back a very distinct memory for Team Dynamics that the Halfords-backed duo would rather forget from 2011, when a lead battle between Neal and Gordon Shedden heading into the final corner in race two ended with both taking a trip through the gravel trap.
Both endured a rocky visit to Thruxton most recently, Neal still holding onto the championship lead thanks to a visit to the podium in race three, despite a race one puncture creating a concertina effect that claimed himself and several rivals, Shedden included.
The reigning champion himself was out of luck in race three, his charge ended by terminal contact with the WSR BMW of Jack Goff at the chicane to leave Shedden 15 points adrift of his team-mate heading to Oulton Park.
A combined 11 wins come from the Honda pairing at Oulton Park however, 11 also the number of wins for the driver with the most success at the track from the 2016 grid, Jason Plato.
Subaru To Make Strides On Return?
The double BTCC champion was absent from Thruxton’s action on Sunday, as were his three Subaru team-mates after Team BMR withdrew from the meeting on safety grounds. The decision was taken regarding continuing fuel system issues, potentially related to what caused the fiery Donington exit for James Cole.
The quartet of Levorg GT machines will compete in Cheshire however with the addition of extensively-tested new components, plus engine developments that leave the team hopeful of finally giving the top 10 a scare.
“All of our cars have engine upgrades for this weekend that will give us a bit more performance, and I think our chassis will go very well round there,” said Plato.
“It’s an amazing circuit, a beautiful fast, flowing track with funny cambers – a real drivers track, my kind of circuit, and if we manage to get the car working well we can do great things.”
13 points remain the combined Drivers’ Championship tally of the BMR squad, six-time Oulton winner Colin Turkington reaching the top 10 at Donington having looked the man most likely to threaten with the Levorg.
BMW Developments Showing
At this early stage 12 months ago, WSR felt that they were lacking in grunt compared to their rivals. Fast forward nine races into the 2016 season and Collard holds a joint championship lead, having won one race and suffered just a single visit outside the top six all season.
No victories sit next to the 2003 Independent champion’s name at this circuit however, but engine developments outlined by team boss, Dick Bennetts, indicate a boost in performance that will be promising heading to their stronger circuits.
Sam Tordoff was a winner here last year, the Leeds racer seventh and just a point behind new team-mate Goff, all three hoping to strike at a circuit that has brought three wins in the last six at Oulton.
All To Play For At Oulton
The only predictable factor to take from the opening three meetings is that this season will be very much unpredictable.
Two pole positions and a victory have thrust Tom Ingram to stardom already in 2016, but the Speedworks Motorsport man must convert that into consistency to challenge for regular silverware.
Similarly, the Triple Eight MG6 GT duo of Josh Cook and Ashley Sutton have been unfortunate in racing incidents on Sundays, the two former Renault UK Clio Cup stars impressing with rapid pace otherwise.
Motorbase Performance appear to have finally found their groove in 2016, Mat Jackson leaping to fourth in the championship after a second victory of the season at Thruxton, despite a race one puncture of his own. The Ford Focus ST man has only won twice at Oulton, (one being his debut BTCC win) but he will threaten, as will team-mate Andrew Jordan who ended a win drought last time out that had stretched to June 2014.
Mr Consistency so far has been Morgan. The Mercedes man was first to become a multiple race winner in 2016 with Ciceley Motorsport, sitting three points from the top of the table thanks to a hat-trick of podium visits on a weekend in Hampshire that started in the tyre barriers on Saturday.
Several men further down the grid earned plaudits at Thruxton meanwhile, Dan Welch in particular. The Proton man started from pole position in race three after breaking into the top 10, but his front-running pace was stymied by a mechanical issue spitting him off the road in that same encounter.
Mike Epps also showed promise in his third BTCC weekend. The Team HARD rookie made it four consecutive points finishes, including Jack Sears success along the way and a visit to the top 10 in race three at Thruxton.
A strong BTCC return for Daniel Lloyd was also a point of discussion, the Eurotech Racing man grabbing a brace of top-10 finishes for Eurotech Racing heading to a circuit that may well suit his lighter Honda Civic chassis.
Timetable And Weather Report
While it may feel like summer has not quite peaked yet in 2016, weather forecasts predict a similar weekend of glorious weather to what graced Thruxton last time out, reaching up to 22°C on Sunday.
Free Practice 1 – 10:00
Free Practice 2 – 12:45
Qualifying – 15:15
Race one – 12:17
Race two – 14:32
Race three – 16:57
TCF will be reporting live from Oulton Park this weekend, so keep up with the BTCC and support race action here and via @TheCheckerFlag throughout the two days.