Words: Simon Thompson Photographs: BTCC Media Office
Hampshire’s Thruxton circuit hosted the third meeting of this year’s Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) last Bank Holiday weekend – the track, which uses the former World War II airfield’s perimeter road, has a reputation for not only being one of the fastest circuits in the UK but also one of the most challenging. MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, Ian Harrison, commented: ‘Thruxton is one of those places that can catch out the unwary. That means it demands maximum concentration at all times so it is a real test for the drivers and also for the teams. It is the kind of track that really sorts out the professional drivers from the no-hopers.’
The team at MG KX Momentum Racing were clearly hoping to hold onto and build upon their current first place in the Teams’ Championship while Jason Plato was surely eager to hold off the competition and retain his lead in the current standings for the Drivers’ Championship.
The BTCC Meeting at Thruxton last year had been something of a washout but this year the spectators and teams alike benefited from blue skies and a decent amount of sunshine. However, having won Round 6 last time out at Donington Park, Jason Plato’s MG6 GT would be carrying the maximum success ballast of 45kg for Saturday’s Qualifying.
Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan waited until the final minute of Qualifying to claim the fourth pole position of his BTCC career and eclipse the Honda Yuasa Racing pair of Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal with a time of 1m 16.527. MG KX Momentum Racing’s drivers had to settle for fourth and fifth with Jason Plato and Sam Tordoff respectively, but Drivers’ Championship leader Plato was reasonably happy with his position, commenting: ‘We’re still not quite there with the car but to set that time with maximum weight on board was a decent effort.’
Tordoff had been unfortunate to pick up a puncture on the fourteenth lap of Qualifying and that had highlighted a potential issue for the races – the high kerbs – especially those at the Club Chicane and the three corner Campbell, Cobb and Seagrave Complex – are known for having an adverse impact on the life of the tyres and, as a result, drivers are traditionally advised to give the kerbs concerned a wide birth until a good amount of heat has built up in the tyres as that should avoid creating any failure points within the sidewall.
Round 7 kicked off with almost instant drama thanks to Jason Plato and Honda Yuasa Racing driver Gordon Shedden – Shedden had the lead out of Allard Corner and Plato the inside line on the approach to the Complex but Shedden came across and put Plato in a nowhere-to-go position. The Honda Civic and MG6 GT touched lightly and Shedden headed off into the barrier on the approach to Seagrave Corner at what was a surprising rate given the lightness of the contact. Shedden was able to restart his car and join the race again, some 20 seconds behind the last car – that left the two MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GTs in third and fourth behind race-leader Andrew Jordan and Shedden’s team-mate Matt Neal.
Tordoff had to work hard to defend his fourth position from Tom Onslow-Cole who was really putting the pressure on in his PCGB Kraftwerk Racing Volkswagen CC. The Volkswagen’s long wheelbase was well suited to the track and allowed Onslow-Cole to carry speed through the many corners – he overtook Tordoff at the Club Chicane on Lap 6 and was soon sitting nicely in the rear view mirror of Plato’s MG6 GT.
Prior to the race, Tordoff had commented: ‘It is an interesting place to race, there are restrictions (at Thruxton) which means that there is very little testing there.’ Tordoff was therefore not only having to concentrate on racing and holding onto his position, but also having to learn the track, how the car was behaving and what gave the best results.
Anyway, despite some pretty heavy pressure from the ballast-free Volkswagen CC of Onslow-Cole for more or less the entire second half of the race, the fully-ballasted Plato succeeded in holding onto third position. However, when Andrew Jordan’s Pirtek Racing Honda Civic suffered a puncture on the final lap, Honda Yuasa Racing’s Matt Neal claimed the fiftieth victory of his BTCC career while Plato and Onslow-Cole finished second and third. Tordoff took fourth ahead of Pirtek Racing’s Jeff Smith and the eBay Motors BMW 125i M Sport of Colin Turkington – Jordan was forced to limp home in eleventh position.
Pole-sitter Neal controlled Round 8 from the outset but had come under some early pressure from Plato, who had made a good start in the MG6 GT. However, in a repeat of the latter half of the first race, Tom Onslow-Cole was hot on Plato’s tail from the get-go – the intensity of the battle might, perhaps, have told on Plato as his car kicked up some dirt from the side of the track a couple of times, but Onslow-Cole was soon following suit.
The top three drivers were not separated by much of a gap early on but, when Dan Welch in the Welch Motorsport with Sopp + Sopp Proton Gen-2 had a brake-failure-induced crash on Lap 5, the Safety Car was deployed for the first time on the day and any gaps were closed. The Safety Car pitted after three laps and the race resumed but Tom Onslow-Cole’s PPCGB Kraftwerk Racing Volkswagen CC took Plato for third on Lap 12. The MG6 GT driver then soon lost out to the hard-charging Honda Civics of Gordon Shedden and Andrew Jordan but held onto fifth ahead of Jordan’s Pirtek Racing team-mate, Jeff Smith. Plato’s MG KX Momentum Racing team-mate, Sam Tordoff, was unable to withstand the Honda challenge and finished in a lonely seventh position.
However, as usual, the grid for the final race of the day was reversed with the result that Tordoff would start from third with Plato directly behind him in fifth. The Pirtek Racing Honda Civics of Jeff Smith and Andrew Jordan lined up in third and fifth positions while the Honda Yuasa Racing Civics were in seventh and ninth. Round 9 turned out to be the most entertaining race of the day – true to the best BTCC tradition, cars were sliding in all directions during the first few laps. Many of the teams had set up their cars for initial oversteer so that, when the front tyres wore down, the handling would then be more balanced and the tyres would last the race without too much deterioration in handling.
The front row challenge of Jack Goff in the Team Hard-run RCIB Insurance Racing Vauxhall Insignia and Adam Morgan’s Ciceley Racing Toyota Avensis did not last long and Jeff Smith was soon leading from the MG KX Momentum Racing pair of Jason Plato and Sam Tordoff and Gordon Shedden’s Honda Civic – Tordoff was more than holding his own, keeping Shedden in his rear view mirror and preventing him from making a move on several occasions. However, Plato overtook Smith for the lead at the Complex on Lap 7 and had established a 3.5 second lead by the time that Shedden found his way past Tordoff and Smith with four laps to go. Sheddon rapidly reduced Plato’s margin by over a second but then, with just over two laps left, Plato’s MG6 GT picked up a left-front puncture – that forced him out of race contention and down the Drivers’ Championship order to third. Shedden inherited the victory and, with Neal and Jordan in second and third, Honda Civics locked out the podium. A tyre-troubled Tordoff finished eighth, some 13.600 seconds down on the race winner.
MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, Ian Harrison summarised the misfortunes of the final race: ‘In a way, it is better to have a puncture when you are leading than if you had been in ninth place or something like that. We worked well across the races and by the time of the third race, we were in the ballpark. I don’t think we got the results we deserved this weekend but this championship is full of highs and lows. We will be determined to get back to the front at Oulton Park.’
The subject which generated the most debate throughout the BTCC Paddock at Thruxton had to be tyres or, more specifically, tyre wear – the violent kerbs seemed to cause more punctures than usual and, when combined with the high speed nature of the track, that ensured that all the teams were busy between races adjusting camber and altering pressures etc. so as to give the tyres the best chance of holding out for the duration of the races.
Such tyre issues would normally be ironed out during testing and even in Qualifying but, as mentioned before, the planning restrictions at Thruxton meant that the BTCC teams received just a mere 30 minutes of track time – nowhere near enough to address potential problems which could surface during a full race. The one ‘saving grace’ of this was that all the teams were in the same situation. However, that was probably of small comfort to Jason Plato – tyre issues had not only cost him a win and podium finish, but also his lead in the Drivers’ Championship…
Matt Neal’s two wins at Thruxton give him the lead of the Drivers’ Championship with 137 points while Andrew Jordan retains second position on 124 points. Jason Plato now lies in third with 121 points, some 12 points ahead of reigning Champion Shedden. Plato’s MG KX Momentum Racing team-mate, Sam Tordoff, has slipped from fourth to fifth with 103 points. Honda Yuasa Racing now leads the Teams’ Championship with 237 points from MG KX Momentum Racing on 219 points while Pirtek Racing lies in third with 200 points.
The next BTCC Meeting takes place at Oulton Park on the 8th and 9th June, 2013 – MG KX Momentum Racing will doubtless be keen to put their tyre troubles at Thruxton behind them and take the battle to the Hondas at the picturesque Cheshire track.