Words: Clive Goldthorp Photographs: BTCC Media Office
A 20-car Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) grid rolled into Northamptonshire’s Rockingham Motor Speedway last weekend for Rounds 22, 23 and 24 of the Championship with points leader, Matt Neal, suffering from a fractured metacarpal, dislocated thumb and forefinger injuries sustained in a recent motorcycle accident and MG KX Momentum Racing’s Jason Plato believing that the three Rockingham races would be crucial to his title prospects.
Plato, who left the previous BTCC Meeting at Knockhill in Scotland some 36 points behind Honda Yuasa Racing Team driver Neal, said: ‘I can’t wait to get back in the groove at Rockingham. We had awful luck in Scotland. Rockingham is such an important event for us. My Championship hopes hang on strong results here. The target is simple, we have to win, and win we will!’ However, in the event and despite a hard-fought hat-trick of podiums, Plato still lies 32 points behind new Championship leader, Gordon Shedden.
However, in last Saturday morning’s FP1, Plato demonstrated that his Triple Eight Race Engineering-run MG6 GT had race-winning pace around Rockingham’s 1.94 mile International Sportscar circuit – his best lap of 1m 23.524s was well inside the lap record. The Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic of Gordon Shedden was next up with a time of 1m 23.722s while team-mate Matt Neal, who had taken painkillers to numb the effects of his broken hand, still set the third fastest time of 1m 23.871s. Jason Plato’s team-mate, Andy Neate, showed much-improved form in sixth with a time of 1m 24.849s, albeit 1.325s down on Plato.
Jason Plato went even quicker in FP2 and again set the pace in his MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT – his lap time of 1m 22.806s was almost half a second under the lap record for a Qualifying session… Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan recorded the second fastest time of 1m 23.284s in his NGTC Honda Civic but was 0.498s adrift of the MG driver. The works, Team Dynamics-run Honda Civics of Shedden and Neal were next up on 1m 23.342s and 1m 23.550s respectively while the other MG6 GT of Andy Neate was sixth again – Neate’s time of 1m 23.619s was half a second closer to Plato’s and just three tenths off Jordan’s time.
The three Honda Civics of Jordan, Neal and Shedden were still unable to mount an effective challenge against Plato’s MG6 GT in Saturday afternoon’s Qualifying session. Plato duly claimed his fourth pole position of his 2012 BTCC campaign with a time of 1m 22.448s and, in doing so, set a new Qualifying lap record. Gordon Shedden’s Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic pipped the similar, Eurotech-run Pirtek Racing car of Andrew Jordan by just 0.014s to secure second on the grid for Sunday’s first race but they were both some sixth tenths adrift of Plato.
Andy Neate had his best Qualifying performance of the year to date in the second MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT – he set his time of 1m 23.300s on his first flying lap and that was good enough for a provisional third grid spot. However, a slight error on the following lap resulted in minor steering damage and precluded him from mounting an attack on the front row so he had to settle for fifth on the grid. The Honda Yuasa Racing Team’s Matt Neal, already handicapped by 45kgs of success ballast, overcame the pain form his hand injury and qualified sixth with a time of 1m 23.336s. Interestingly, to underline Plato’s dominance in Qualifying, sixth tenths of a second covered the gap between Shedden and Tom Onslow-Cole’s eBay Motors BMW 320si down in eleventh.
A buoyant Plato commented on MG KX Momentum Racing’s day: ‘It’s been a great day, not just for me but for Andy as well. At some race weekends you get in the car and after a few corners you know you have a great car under you. The car is still tricky to drive, that’s it’s Achilles’ heel, but we’re still improving it which makes it so rewarding when we get a performance out of it like today’s. We’re on course for three great results tomorrow which will get us right back in the hunt for the Championship!’
Andy Neate, though, was a tad disappointed with his Qualifying effort and reckoned that he should have ended the session in a higher position. The Aylesbury-based driver’s data showed that, had he strung his best three sector times together, he would have been on pole instead of team-mate Plato. Andy remarked: ‘I’m happy and sad! I should have been on the front row really. My first flying lap wasn’t bad but it wasn’t an all or nothing lap. The second lap was, and I was well up but out-braked myself and clipped a kerb damaging the steering which meant whatever I then did wouldn’t be quick enough. I am happy with fifth as I’m in a good place for tomorrow, the car is strong and we have three races ahead of us.’
However, Ian Harrison, MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, reckoned that Neate had ‘delivered what we always believed he could’ and added ‘Jason is on fire around here which bodes well for race day tomorrow. However, to win any kind of race, you have to finish. Our last outing at Knockhill is still fresh in my mind with both cars in the wall after 90 seconds, so I will be reminding the drivers about that in the morning!’
The weather had been sunny and dry for Saturday’s Free Practice and Qualifying sessions but, with a storm forecast for Rockingham some time on Sunday afternoon, Jason Plato was, no doubt, keen to capitalise on his pole position and the cloudy but dry conditions prevailing for Round 22. Plato fought off a brief challenge from the fast-starting Redstone Racing NGTC Ford Focus of Mat Jackson and took his MG6 GT into a two-second lead by the end of his first flying lap. The MG KX Momentum Racing driver extended that lead to over four seconds at one point but cruised home to take his fourth victory of the year by 3.323s from Andrew Jordan’s Pirtek Racing Honda Civic and Gordon Shedden’s similar Honda Yuasa Racing Team car. Plato set a new lap record of 1m 23.255s and became the first BTCC driver to take a maximum haul of 23 points from a single race in 2012. Moreover, with Championship leader Matt Neal finishing sixth in the other Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic, Plato moved to within 23 points of Neal.
Plato, speaking to the BTCC’s website after his win, said: ‘One down, two to go. It was important I made a good start and got away from the battle behind – it’s a great start to the day but I need that again in the second race. This is a strong circuit for the Hondas and taking points out of them here is a real bonus.’
Andy Neate dropped from fifth to seventh at the start but then took his MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT past a hard-charging Rob Collard’s eBay Motors BMW 320si and Neal’s Honda Civic to regain his original postion only for his car to slow briefly and drop him back down to seventh at the finish.
The anticipated storm arrived before the start of Round 23 and the race was run in a relentless downpour. Plato, on pole again by virtue of his Round 22 win, finished on the podium in third behind the two Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civics of Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal. However, Shedden’s seventh victory of the year did not take him to the top of the Championship standings because he sportingly backed off to allow Neal to lead over the line on one lap and collect a bonus point. Neal therefore still had a one point lead goung into Round 24 while Plato’s deficit to Neal was increased to 26 points.
Plato reckoned that ‘the pace wasn’t quite there to live with the Hondas in those conditions and with the maximum ballast in my car’ but added ‘third place is still a very good result, though. It’ll be important to keep as close to them as possible in the third race so we still leave today having taken points off them overall.’ However, during his post-race interview with ITV4’s Simon Hill, he admitted that the Triple Eight Race Engineering crew had sent his MG6 GT out with a dry set-up which had been ‘as stiff as a skateboard’ and had not worked in the wet.
Andy Neate’s race was short-lived – his MG6 GT tangled with the ES Racing Vauxhall Vectra of Dave Newsham and the Pirtek Racing Honda Civic of Jeff Smith at Deene hairpin and then went spinning into the gravel at Yentwood before completing a lap.
The reverse grid draw for Round 24 saw Adam Morgan’s Speedworks Motorsport-run Toyota Avensis on pole and the three leading Championship contenders, Plato, Neal and Shedden, in seventh, eighth and ninth on the grid. All three were climbing up through the field when Jeff Smith crashed his Eurotech-run, Pirtek Racing Honda Civic heavily into the wall on the banking and brought out the Safety Car. Aron Smith, whose S2000-spec Redline Racing Ford Focus had been leading at that point, came under increasing pressure from Neal, Plato and Shedden when the race resumed. Neal passed Smith into the Tarzan hairpin on Lap 11 but Shedden and Plato followed almost immediately.
Gordon Shedden, who seemed to have a faster car than the injured Neal, closed his team-mate down. The two Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civics ran side-by-side through the banked Turn 1 before Shedden took the lead and edged away to claim his eighth victory of 2012. A late charge from Jason Plato saw his MG6 GT running side-by-side with Matt Neal’s Honda Civic through the high-speed Turn 1 with a few laps to go but he was unable to make the move stick and so came home in third for a podium hatrick. Andy Neate, who started his MG6 GT from the back of the grid, adopted a consistent approach which enabled him to move up to fourteenth at the finish.
Interestingly, both Neal and Plato were fairly complimentary about each other when talking to the BTCC’s website after the race. Neal: ‘Jason was up alongside me with a few laps to go into Turn 1. Holding on around the outside in those conditions was pretty hairy but he was very fair. We’ve had some good battles today.’ Plato: ‘The Hondas just have that something extra in the wet so I was really encouraged we could take it to them a bit more in that third race. I had one chance at passing Matt but he’s a brave lad and covered it well.’
However, although Jason Plato’s pace in the two Free Practice sessions, Qualifying and Round 22 suggested that the adverse weather conditions for Rounds 23 and 24 had probably deprived him of a victory hat-trick, he was still ‘thrilled with three podiums and encouraged by what we have learnt about the car over the course of the day.’ Plato added: ‘We leave this weekend almost where we started it – in touching distance of the Championship lead and, moving onwards to Silverstone and then Brands Hatch, I’m confident we are in a strong position to challenge for the crown.’
Andy Neate summarised his Rockingham weekend as follows: ‘We came to this weekend hopeful for three solid results, Qualifying and Race One lived up to the promise but then Race Two was a short-lived affair which really damaged my chances of getting much from Race Three. I can take the positives of Saturday away from this weekend and am glad I could show my pace and, from the team’s perspective, [it was] a good weekend for Jason’s Championship challenge.’
MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, Ian Harrison, added: ‘A bit of a frustrating day really – if the weather had stayed dry, we would certainly have been much stronger as our wet set-up wasn’t quite there in comparison with the Hondas. We leave not having made enough inroads – the Championship is still mathematically possible but it’s going to be a tough challenge.’
The Honda Yuasa Racing Team’s two impressive 1-2 finishes mean that Gordon Shedden now tops the BTCC standings with 336 points while Neal has 333 points. However, despite his podium hatrick, Plato, who left Rockingham on 304 points, remains 32 points behind Shedden – in the event, he only reduced the gap to the new Championship leader by four points but there are still a maximum of 134 points to be had…
The last two BTCC Meetings of the season are scheduled for the Silverstone National circuit on the 6th and 7th October, 2012 and the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit on the 20th and 21st October, 2012 but MG KX Momentum Racing has lost no time in addressing the problems with the MG6 GT’s wet weather set-up – Jason Plato, Andy Neate and the Triple Eight Race Engineering crew made the most of the ongoing storms and had a productive Test Session at Brands Hatch yesterday.
Plato and Neate were both upbeat about the outcome with the former telling the BTCC’s website that ‘today’s test was all about continuing [the] development path and learning some more about the car’s behaviour in those [wet] conditions which we have done. We’ve definitely made progress with our wet set-ups and it’s been a good test.’ Plato’s belief that he and MG KX Momentum Racing are still in a strong position to challenge for the BTCC crown would, on that basis, appear to be justified.
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