Tuesday, 26 August 2014

BTCC 2014: Chaos reigns at Knockhill...

Knockhill was the host to the seventh weekend of the 2014 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship and it provided one of the most exciting weekends racing this year with plenty of topsy turvy action from the small Scottish venue.

Qualifying on the circuit with 31 powerful NGTC cars was always going to be a lottery but it was eBay Motors’ Colin Turkington who was the fastest driver in qualifying, however it will be MG’s Sam Tordoff who starts from pole position after the BMW driver’s grid penalty from Snetterton is applied.

Turkington rose to the top of the times after 16 minutes of the session – which took place on a drying track – and improved his time twice inside the final few minutes to ensure he took pole by 0.464 seconds from Tordoff. However Turkington will start Sunday’s first race from ninth following his eight place grid penalty from Snetterton for contact with Matt Neal.

Behind Tordoff was 2013 poleman Rob Austin, who posted his best lap inside the final few seconds of the half-hour session. Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan was the top Honda driver in fourth, beating the works’ Civic Tourers of Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal, who were fifth and sixth fastest respectively.

MG’s Jason Plato was seventh fastest, 0.636 seconds off the pace and unable to match his team-mate around the short Scottish circuit. Airwaves Racing’s Mat Jackson was eighth fastest ahead of eBay Motors duo Rob Collard and Nick Foster in ninth and tenth. However Collard, like Turkington, also has a grid penalty for race one which will see him demoted to the back of the grid for having passed under yellow flags at Snetterton – his third offence of the season.

There were season-best qualifying performances from the drivers just outside the top ten, with United Autosport’s local driver Glynn Geddie and Rob Austin Racing’s Hunter Abbott  in 11th and 12th respectively.

Following his engine change after free practice, Tom Ingram was 14th fastest in his Speedworks Toyota, ahead of Alain Menu in 15th who was the top Team BMR driver.

The session was briefly red-flagged after ten minutes when Chris Stockton went off at Leslies, whilst there was also an off for Abbott at Scotsman Corner. Handy Motorsport’s Simon Belcher suffered a snapped driveshaft in the session and qualified in 29th after only completing six laps.

Matt Neal claimed his first victory of the 2014 British Touring Car Championship season in a crazy opening race at Knockhill, with Rob Austin in second and Gordon Shedden in third.

The triumph marked Neal’s first visit to the top step of the podium in more than a year and it was also his first win in the Honda Civic Tourer, but there were greater repercussions further down the order as a retirement for championship leader Colin Turkington saw his advantage in the title race over Shedden reduced to nine points.

As the race got underway, Sam Tordoff converted his pole into a first lap lead ahead of Austin in his Audi A4, as the field safely negotiated the opening couple of tours with little change in position.

But the serenity of the start was not in tune with what was to come, as plenty of action and a spate incidents ensued in front of a bumper crowd at the Scottish circuit. Shedden set the tone of what was to come with a late, deep lunge on the inside of Andrew Jordan’s Honda for third at the end of lap four for third place, with Tordoff escaping at the front as Austin took time to heat his tyres.

The first incident of the day came in the middle of the pack as Robb Holland and Dan Welch were both forced to retire after contact. Chris Stockton had passed the Audi driver at the start of the lap and as those behind looked to pile the pressure on, Welch caught one of the curbs and was launched into the side of Holland’s car, breaking his front suspension and forcing the pair to crawl back to the pits.

The decision was taken not to deploy the safety car but the leading five cars were still able to bunch themselves up as Austin dragged Shedden, Jordan and Neal towards Tordoff at the front.

On lap 11 Austin took a look up the inside of the MG at the hairpin, but the move put him on the back foot as he was forced to defend from Shedden’s Honda, who soon moved into second after tapping the rear of the Audi, forcing Austin to lift off and drop to fifth.

Behind the leading group, Jason Plato headed an increasingly long gaggle of cars as he struggled for pace (apparently... Its amazing that he set fastest race at the end of the race...) and as those behind bunched up, Nick Foster spun the United Autosports Toyota Avensis of Glynn Geddie from ninth, the Scot having put in his most impressive showing in the series until that point.

Back at the front, Tordoff slowly began to edge away again as Shedden struggled slightly, and Jordan sensed a chance to pounce as he made a move for second at the start of lap 15. Shedden looked to immediately retake the position, but slight contact through Duffus sent the Honda backwards down the hill, as he crashed into the reigning champion at McIntyre, allowing Neal and Austin into second and third and forcing Jordan to retire.

After starting from ninth after a grid penalty, Turkington had latched onto the back of Plato’s MG in the battle for what was now fifth but was continually unable to pass the two-time champion down the main straight. That changed on lap 18 though as Jackson bumped the BMW coming out of the hairpin, pushing Turkington past Plato as they headed into turn one.

Any thoughts of a podium for the eBay Motors driver were soon quashed however, as he was eliminated from the race just a corner later. After running wide, Plato was forced to slow to avoid contact which allowed Jackson to pass up the inside into McIntyre, but making slight contact with the MG’s rear pushed Plato sideways, who in turn touched the rear-left of Turkington’s car and punted the championship leader into the gravel trap.

The incident was yellow flagged for a lap, and that was crucial as Neal had moved onto the back of Tordoff’s tail while the drama behind them had unraveled, and passed the MG for the lead on lap 19 – just before the safety car was eventually deployed to recover Turkington’s stricken car.

There was more drama to come as Tordoff slowed and pulled off the circuit on lap 22, just as the safety car was about to return to the pits. The 25-year-old was able to rejoin, but finished the race down in 24th.

Neal led away as the race restarted, with five laps left to run after the race distance was extended. Austin, who was now back in second, initially fell back once more but retained his composure to rapidly close in on the Honda driver.

Despite narrowing the gap in the last three laps, the Audi man was not close enough for a pass into the hairpin and Neal was left to seal victory by 0.230s from Austin, as Shedden fended off Jackson for the final podium slot.

Plato had a quiet but effective run to fifth, ahead of Morgan, Ingram, Smith, Newsham and Foster, who rounded out the top ten.

Mat Jackson went on to win his and his Airwaves Racing team’s first British Touring Car Championship race in nearly two years as he kept his cool to beat Jason Plato into second and Rob Austin into third in race two at Knockhill.

Jackson’s win – his 20th in the series – came as the championship battle took another intriguing twist, as Shedden dropped down the order after a collision with Austin at the start while Turkington drove a near-perfect race as he recovered to fourth.

Matt Neal led the field as the race got underway, but Austin drew ahead of the Honda as they plunged into turn one, attempting to go around the three-time champion through Duffus. While he briefly took the lead, the Audi driver was forced to run onto the infield and Neal regained top spot, but as Shedden looked to have taken second, Jackson also attempted to pass Austin and contact between the trio forced Shedden around, as he dropped to 28th.

The safety car was brought out immediately to cover the incident at McIntyre, where Warren Scott had also crashed, but with the BMR Restart driver and Shedden both able to get going again, the racing resumed on lap three with Neal leading from Jackson, Plato and Austin.

Neal looked as though he was moving slightly on the grid prior to the race start, and sure enough found himself with a drive-through penalty for a jump start, which he served at the end of the fourth lap which allowed Jackson into first, a position that he would not relinquish until the end of the race.

Indeed, the Airwaves Racing driver stretched his lead at the front as Plato kept a charging Austin at bay, the Audi driver once again coming on strong after he had the opportunity to get his tyres up to working temperature.

While the Hondas had gone backwards, Turkington was able to make sensational progress – he moved from his starting position of 27th to 20th on the first lap alone – and by lap nine he was into 11th place after two smart passes on Marc Hynes and Alain Menu.

Turkington’s teammate Rob Collard was also enjoying the second race, as he carved his way into the top ten after sliding through past Aron Smith and getting by Dave Newsham’s Ford Focus for sixth on lap 14, and the pair continued their progress until they reached Adam Morgan in fourth, when on lap 23 Collard allowed the championship leader past to ensure he took full advantage of Shedden’s misfortunes. The eBay Motors drivers both got past Morgan’s Mercedes on the straight the next time round, and held their respective fourth and fifth places to the line.

Ahead of them, the gaps between the front three remained the same until the line, with Jackson taking the chequered flag two seconds ahead of Plato who just held off Austin. With Turkington, Collard and Morgan next up, equaled his season’s best finish with seventh place, and Dave Newsham kept up his fine form at his ‘home’ race with eighth, ahead of Jackson’s teammate Fabrizio Giovanardi.

Nick Foster in the third BMW would start the final race of the day from pole, after he selected his tenth-place finish for pole in the reverse-grid draw. Foster had been on course to finish in 11th, but Aron Smith moved over on him on the exit of the hairpin on the last lap and catapulted himself into the infield tyre barrier, allowing Foster to claim the final spot in the top ten.

Rob Collard ended his two season-long wait for victory in the British Touring Car Championship as he won the final race of the day from Dave Newsham who scored a phenomenal maiden podium for his AmD Tuning team and championship leader Colin Turkington.

The eBay Motors team had extra reason to be cheerful with Foster following championship leader Turkington home to complete a 1-3-4 for the team, but while Collard’s victory was richly deserved, Newsham’s drive to second was the highlight as the 47-year-old fended off the BMWs with a determined drive made all the more poignant after the loss of his mother on Thursday night.

It was Foster who held onto his first place off the line when the race started, and with everyone seemingly on their best behaviour, Collard’s jump from sixth to third was the only noteworthy change in the order on the opening lap.

Fabrizio Giovanardi followed Foster closely in the opening two laps, but as he looked to get a good exit from the hairpin, Collard snuck up the inside of the Italian and began his pursuit of Foster’s lead.

A lap later and Newsham used his nous to pass Giovanardi at the same spot, learning from Collard’s example to perfect a forceful but fair move up the inside, which also allowed Ingram to grab fourth.

Over the next couple of laps the front four began to pull away as Giovanardi struggled, and Turkington – who had passed Morgan – found himself increasingly frustrated behind the Ford Focus, and the championship leader was eventually forced into a risky move at Clark which resulted in both drivers running into the gravel on the outside of the corner. Turkington did make his way past Giovanardi, but as he regained speed on the run down to the hairpin, Morgan pounced and got back in front of the BMW driver.

Collard had closed right onto the back of his teammate by this point and on lap eight made his move into Duffus at the end of the straight to take the lead, with Newsham and Ingram taking a lap more to get past the BMW driver and move into the podium positions.

Giovanardi lost further places to Austin, Plato and Jackson in the incident with Turkington, and found himself on the end of a punt from Neal on lap nine when the Honda driver hit his rear into Clark, pitching the Italian into the air and forcing him further down the order. There was more contact at the hairpin a lap later when Plato whacked Austin’s rear, sending the Audi into a spin and retirement...

Something that seems to happen a lot to Rob Austin, whether its a works MG or a works Honda strangely...

Further ahead, Turkington again found himself frustrated as stout defending from Ingram meant that the Northern Irishman was forced to bide his time, before forcing a move at the hairpin on lap 13 with Foster following him through.

And the top four remained in that order until the end of the race, with Newsham defending for six laps from the BMW duo to clinch his first podium since Silverstone in 2012, while Turkington was made to work for his third place in the closing laps as teammate Foster kept him honest.

Andrew Jordan came home in fifth, finishing ahead of Gordon Shedden as the pair enjoyed a feisty battle for much of the race, including a slight coming together at the hairpin on lap 17. Morgan came home in seventh, ahead of Menu, Ingram and Plato, who rounded out the top ten.

The championship situation now means that Turkington leads Shedden by 23 points with Plato staying in contention a further 20 points behind Shedden. Jordan is fourth in the title race having conceded his title hopes after the Knockhill encounter with Collard in fifth.

I would like to give a shout to Chris Stockton and the whole BTC Racing team. After a torrid season so far with various engine issues, a switch to the TOCA engine for the NGTC Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback meant a much more reliable performance with Stockton stearing the car to three reliable finishes!!

That made my day and I look forward to more good performances from the team.

Next up is a track that is local to the Tintop Guru, with the series moving to the UK's oval Circuit at Rockingham in Corby.  A track that produces great racing come rain or shine and also offers great viewing of the whole infield from either the Grandstand or on top of the Pit Garages.

Its also the track where in 2011, my son Aaron met Lewis Hamilton and took a photo with him (The only one Lewis allowed that day as he was supporting Nic in the Clio's) and on the same raceday wondered who the Johnny Depp lookalike was walking up and down the pitlane.

He seemed unfazed when I explained it was James Thompson at the time... He now knows more about Thommo and realises who he is... Now that he drives a Lada in WTCC.

On that note, all the best!


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