Words: Clive Goldthorp Photographs: BTCC Media Office
MG KX Momentum Racing and the other Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) teams took to the track at a sunny Snetterton again last weekend after an Olympics-extended, seven week summer break. However, after a weekend during which the BTCC standings at times resembled a game of Snakes and Ladders, lead MG6 GT driver, Jason Plato, held onto third spot in the Championship table behind the two Honda Yuasa Racing Team drivers.
Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan took his NGTC Honda Civic around the three-mile Snetterton 300 circuit in a time of 1m 58.431s to top the time sheets at the end of FP1 on Saturday. Gordon Shedden was next up in his factory Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic but that caught fire in the Pit Lane at the end of the session while Jason Plato was the only other driver to break into the 1m.58 seconds bracket with a third fastest time of 1m 58.994s in the MG6 GT. Plato’s team-mate, Andy Neate, was only eighteenth fastest with a time of 2m 02.684s – that prompted a re-think on his car’s set-up before the start of FP2.
Jason Plato headed the time sheets throughout FP2 and finished the session with a time of 1m 57.569s – a massive 1.5 seconds faster than his FP1 time. Dave Newsham’s Team ES Racing, ex-Triple Eight Race Engineering Vauxhall Vectra was second with a time of 1m 58.036s while Andrew Jordan’s Civic was third on 1m 58.244s. Andy Neate, who has made some significant changes to the set-up of his MG6 GT, recorder a best lap of 2m. 00.195s and improved to fourteenth but reckoned that there was more pace to be found in the Qualifying session.
The Qualifying session took place in warm and sunny conditions and MG KX Momentum Racing’s Plato set the early pace from Championship leader Matt Neal’s works Honda Civic. Team-mate Gordon Shedden’s Civic had been repaired after the fire-damaging incident in FP1 but ground to a standstill almost immediately and brought the red flags out. Plato thereafter traded times with the Dynojet Toyota Avensis of 25-year-old, Preston-based Frank Wrathall, who claimed his first ever BTCC pole position with a time of 1m 57.595s and pipped Oxford’s Plato by just 0.015s. Wrathall’s pole was the first for Toyota in the BTCC since Julian Bailey’s at Knockhill back in 1993.
Andy Neate in the sister MG6 GT improved on his times from the earlier Free Practice sessions and his best time of 1m 59.961s was good enough for thirteenth on the grid for Round 16. However, Plato’s two title rivals, Honda Yuasa Racing team-mates Neal and Shedden were both on the back foot – Neal was, by his standards, a lowly seventh while Shedden was twenty-second and last as his Civic’s post-fire problems precluded him from setting a time.
Plato admitted to some mistakes on both of his two quickest laps and said: ‘A great qualifying session with a great scrap with Frank (Wrathall) who shocked us a bit! I made small mistakes on both quick laps which meant I lost time on the straights a bit, so if I had pieced a lap together, it could be pole; but it wasn’t to be. We are at the sharp end though, our immediate competition is behind us so it’s a good opportunity tomorrow to score some big points and close the gap!’
However, Andy Neate felt that Saturday had been ‘a slightly frustrating day for me really’ before adding ‘I would have liked to have been higher than P13, but we lost some time by changing the direction of the set-up between FP1 and FP2. There is clearly pace in the car – as proven by Jason – so, over the three races tomorrow, we should be in contention for another good haul of points.’
MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, Ian Harrison, was, though, in an optimistic mood and concluded: ‘All in all a solid day, with both cars showing good progress. Jason’s all out attack on pole almost came off, but we have to be happy enough with front row. Andy drove well in all three sessions and made lots of changes to the car, allowing us to find a direction for his set-up. Whilst he is thirteenth on the grid and obviously would like to be higher, the inherent speed of the car and a set-up he likes should see him progress through the field tomorrow.’
Harrison’s optimism proved to be justified when Plato won the first of last Sunday’s three BTCC races. Jason’s works MG6 GT jumped pole-sitter Frank Wrathall’s Dynojet Toyota Avensis at the start of Round 16 and was soon followed through by the ES Racing Vauxhall Vectra of Dave Newsham who kept Plato under pressure before and after a four-lap Safety Car period. The Safety Car pitted just prior to Lap 9 of what became a fifteen lap race and Newsham challenged Plato for the lead on the approach to Riches on that lap. However, Plato defended the inside, Newsham ran wide and Wrathall took second. Newsham’s tyres faded and so Andrew Jordan’s Eurotech-run, Pirtek Racing Honda Civic took third from him at Nelson on the last lap. Plato’s win was his third of the season to date.
Andy Neate spent the race attempting to recover from his poor Qualifying session but became embroiled in a number of midfield battles and, in the end, finished fifteenth and some 53.087s behind his team-mate. Reigning BTCC Champion, Matt Neal, finished fifth while his Honda Yuasa Racing team-mate, Gordon Shedden, finished eighth having moved through from twenty-second on the grid. Unfortunately, Dave Newsham was the first driver to suffer from the Snetterton BTCC weekend’s game of Snakes and Ladders when his ES Racing Vauxhall Vectra was found to be 3.4kg underweight in Post-Race Srutineering and he was excluded from the results…
Jason Plato told the BTCC’s website: ‘That’s a good win for many reasons – it shows we’ve moved the car on in the break, it’s moved me closer to the Championship lead and it was hard work. I knew Dave would have a crack so it was important to rebuff him and in the end it cost him dear.’
Round 17 witnessed some classically chaotic BTCC action. Plato, on pole and and running the maximum success ballast of 45kg on his MG6 GT thanks to his Round 16 victory, led for most of the race but came under increasing pressure during the closing laps from both of the works Honda Civics of Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden as well as the similar Pirtek Racing car of Andrew Jordan. Neal’s Civic touched Plato’s MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT and sent the car into a wild slide at Coram on the penultimate lap but then both the Honda and the MG ran off the track at the next corner, Murray’s, after more contact and that let Jordan and Shedden in the other two Honda Civics through into first and second. Plato and Neal recovered to take third and fourth respectively. Andy Neate brought the second MG6 GT home in twelfth place.
Plato remarked: ‘I was struggling with the extra success ballast in the car and, although I had my mirrors full with three Hondas near the end, felt I could have held on for the win – obviously the contact with Matt took all that away. Still, third is OK – it takes me that little bit closer to the top.’
The reverse grid draw for Round 18 saw the top nine finishers from the previous race switched so Jason Plato started from seventh position. Plato drove a measured race and came through the field to finish fourth. However, third-placed Gordon Shedden became the second victim of the weekend’s game of Snakes and Ladders when his Civic was excluded from the results becuase the engine was found to have overboosted during the race – that meant Shedden lost his BTCC points lead to Matt Neal and also promoted Plato to the bottom step of the podium. Ironically, in a well-deserved reversal of fortune, the victor in Round 18 was the day’s first victim of the ‘Snetterton snake’, ES Racing’s Dave Newsham, who scored his and the team’s first ever BTCC win in their elderly Vauxhall Vectra.
The remarks made by MG KX Momentum Racing’s two drivers at the end of the weekend mirrored their respective results. Jason Plato observed: ‘A pretty good day for us… I’m slightly frustrated as I feel Race Two should have been my second win of the day, but me racing against Matt often ends in tears, where perhaps it doesn’t with me and some other BTCC drivers. But looking at the bigger picture we’ve closed the gap in the championship to both Hondas, so overall it’s been a great weekend!’
However, Andy Neate, who finished sixteenth in Round 18, reflected: ‘Today was a tough day for me – I didn’t ever quite get the car where I wanted it. After yesterday’s quali we were always facing an uphill battle today and so it proved. Knockhill is only two weeks away though so I will go there looking for a stronger weekend.’
MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, Ian Harrison, concluded: ‘It’s been a solid weekend, not spectacular. Three podiums for Jason; you can’t really complain about that. It could have been even better with another win, but not too bad. On Andy’s car; he struggled a bit this weekend. The progress he did make was nullified when he got in a few scrapes. But we go to Knockhill now with plenty to play for.’
A quick look at the final, post-exclusion, BTCC standings after Snetterton confirms Harrison’s assessment – Matt Neal now tops the table on 255 points with Shedden eight points behind in second on 247 points and Plato just two points back on 245 points. The BTCC battle resumes for Rounds 19, 20 and 21 at Knockhill in Scotland on the 25th and 26th August, 2012. Interestingly, Gordon Shedden has a unique home advantage – he works at Knockhill as the circuit’s Business Development Manager…
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