All words and images by Craig Venn
There’s something eerie about a race track in the early hours of the morning, when the gates are freshly opened and the few eager spectators are bleary-eyed and yawning. The natural bowl of Brands Hatch is a place that usually resembles a cauldron full of thunder and hosts flashes of colour, noise, passion and drama, but upon my arrival, the track was at peace and ghostly quiet.
I went for a slow walk around the perimeter of Brands’ short track, shivering in the minus 5 temperature, to seek out vantage points and soak in the already increasing atmosphere – full of anticipation and first-day-of-term nervousness. I completed my lap in a time of just under fifteen minutes, including a mandatory pit-stop for a bacon roll (greasy, fattening, perfect) and a hot beverage, in an attempt to regain feeling to my fingertips. Then came the morning cockerel call; the first engine fired-up in a distant garage.
It’s then that I was treated to one of the remarkable aspects of the British Touring Car Championship: a meander through the support-race paddock took me around makeshift garages and motorhomes, past a handful of Renault Clios being prepared for the first race of the morning and towards a small car park. It was here that a brand new Aston Martin Vanquish arrived and immediately drew in a crowd. The driver was more my concern however, and this is where the BTCC’s level of accessibility becomes evident. Liam Griffin, one of the drivers competing for the new Jack Sears Trophy, stepped from the Aston and directly into my path, cue a short impromptu interview:
I asked Liam what he thought of the new Jack Sears Trophy and what was needed from him to win it, he replied by saying “it’s great to have some silverware to fight for, we know this year it’s going to be more difficult for the older S2000 cars to compete at the front but with the Jack Sears Trophy it means we still have an incentive. As for winning it, we know the car should be competitive but I need to make less mistakes than last year”. With that, Liam slipped off towards the pit lane, a place I had no authority to enter…until ten past nine when the organisers open the pit lane to the public for 40 minutes and a mad rush of amateur photographers and autograph hunters descend on the waiting drivers.
If you want to obtain the autographs of either Honda driver, Matt Neal or Gordon Shedden, then you’ll have to have sharp elbows – crowds flock to the two champions immediately and it’s the same story next door at MG with Jason Plato – you have to be patient or aggressive in the huddle. Remarkably however, it seemed for a few brief minutes the world had forgotten, or simply failed to recognise the importance of 2009 champion Colin Turkington’s return to the series. He was dealing with a lone photographer and just a handful of fans, so I dived in for a chat and Colin, an Irish gentleman, obliged. Asked why he’s returned to the series he hinted that the reason he left in the first place was down to sponsorship, but said he still believed “the BTCC is the best touring car championship in the world”. Colin said he’s settled back into the team (West Surrey Racing) with ease, as he knows everyone from his championship winning year with them in ‘09 but says “the new car will take some getting used to and there will probably be teething problems but I’m looking forward to it [the season]”.
With the throng of fans still occupied with Neal, Shedden, Plato and increasingly, Colin Turkington, I moved along the pit lane to discover two rookies; Jack Goff and James Cole. When asked how they were feeling before their impending debuts, both used the same word; “excited”. Understandably, James told me he was slightly nervous as he’s “been dreaming about this since I was a little boy”. Jack Goff on the other hand was quick to thank his team after a hefty crash in Qualifying the day before: “today’s going to be fun but yeah, yesterday didn’t go to plan with the crash. The team though, have been fantastic in getting the car put back together, so I’m extremely grateful”.
With the pit lane closing and the crowd ushered out, it was time for the on-track action to start and it all kicked off with the Clios…
To stand and witness close to thirty Renault Clios race is – I can only assume – much like being pounced upon by several ninjas; they’ll arrive at your vantage point with a sudden gush of colour and noise and are relentless in their attack against your eyes and ears. Their fizzy little engines popping and banging while brakes and tyres squeal under pressure. Before you can count the broken and dented body panels they’re gone again, on to assault the next corner – quite alarming for a car you would normally associate with taking Granny or Auntie Doris to the shops.
Formula Ford was next on the bill – the series of single-seaters making its return as a British Touring Car support act. The recipe hasn’t really changed, just a few of the ingredients have been improved; the cars come equipped with front and rear wings, giving the young drivers experience of handling a nippy open-wheeled car with downforce. The field of cars was relatively small but, just like the Clios, the racing was close and dramatic. Just a warm-up however…
By the time race 1 of the British Touring Car Championship 2013 came into view at Paddock Hill bend – the fast, left hand corner that drops dramatically downhill – Rob Austin in his rear-wheel-drive Audi A4 had rocketed from 7th on the grid to second place, behind pole-sitter Andrew Jordan in his Pirtek Racing Honda Civic. The crowd, huddled together for warmth and viewing purposes, gasped as reigning champion Gordon Shedden cascaded down Paddock Hill sideways in front of the marauding pack. The Scot fantastically gathered up the car and drove on, although by now he had dropped down the order. The gaggle of cars concertinaed through Druids Hairpin with apprehensive caution before setting off after race-leader Andrew Jordan, followed by Austin’s Audi and Jason Plato’s MG.
In fourth, the Honda of Matt Neal was clearly struggling; with smoke bellowing from the rear wheel it became apparent that he had suffered bodywork damage that could cause severe issues. Meanwhile, on the softer Dunlop tyres, Austin moved passed Jordan to lead over the line with Plato coming through to second. Austin’s lead however, would only last until his tyres began to give in to the increasing wear and both Plato and Jordan would slip through. The only reprieve for Austin was that lap 2 saw the appearance of the safety car, thanks to James Cole spinning into the gravel trap at Paddock Hill bend.
Many eyes were on returning champ Colin Turkington; starting at the back due to a crash in qualifying he was rapidly making his way towards the front. From trackside, Turkington’s BMW looked impressive – throughout the day he would have incidents and race-hindering hiccups, but when the Beemer was facing the right way and staying away from the gravel-traps, it looked as quick as anyone. Accelerating out of Druids hairpin, Turkington’s BMW was like a rat up a drainpipe and I feel this year will only get better for him.
Race one’s highlight occurred at the very last corner, where ambition outweighed talent for a few insane seconds, as Jordan fired his Civic through a quarter-civic sized hole and speared race-leader Plato into the gravel. Remarkably, both drivers limped their cars across the line in the deserved order – Plato first, Jordan second, with Rob Austin clinging on to third. Glum faces behind them at the Honda Yuasa team however; both Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden were forced to make pit-stops, languishing a lap behind at the finish and well out of the points.
At each meeting, the Touring Car races are interspersed with their support acts. After race 1, came the Porsche Carrera Cup of Great Britain – a chance to see twitchy and frighteningly fast sports car do battle. The highlight was simply watching the drivers attempt to keep the cars in line on an ice-cold track, the lowlight, for Porsche at least, was the disruption caused by one of the championship’s lorries breaking down on a major roundabout close to the entrance of the M25 later that day – the driver did not look happy.
Race 2 of the main draw and Jason Plato lead from pole to a dominant victory, while Andrew Jordan again came home second. But behind them, Frank Wrathall in the Dynojet Toyota Avensis had a publicly scrappy race; Wrathall turned Turkington around and spat him off into the gravel where Colin was lucky to escape and later, Wrathall sent Rob Austin for a pirouette exiting Druids Hairpin.
With Wrathall seemingly set on wiping out the majority of the field, Gordon Shedden made it through the pack to be third at the finish line in a car that, as discovered after the race, was riding illegally low. Shedden was disqualified – a disastrous start to the season for the number 1 – promoting an impressive Jeff Smith to the podium.
Following appearances from the Ginetta Junior and Supercup Championships as well as the Renault Clios once more, there were two main stories to emerge from the final BTCC race of the day; one of redemption and relief, another of spectacular drama and concern.
Both Honda Yuasa drivers made up for earlier issues and misdemeanours by claiming a one-two finish, with Matt Neal winning and Gordon Shedden driving magnificently to second from the back of the grid. The two crossed the line ahead of rookie driver and Plato’s MG team-mate, Sam Tordoff, who completed a mightily impressive weekend. But the big story was the crash…
Dave Newsham, having a poor weekend, lost control of his Speedworks Toyota Avensis and careened through the gravel trap before coming back onto the track at a frightening angle. Evasive action was required from those behind but Rob Austin was the unlucky one. The driver who brings speed, style and sideburns to the BTCC decimated the left-hand-side of his Audi on the front of Newsham’s Toyota and collided, rear first, with the tyre barrier, completely destroying the A4. Both drivers were physically unhurt but owner/driver Rob Austin’s bank balance will take a battering.
There was joy from Plato and MG come sundown – both he and his team lead their respective championships and new MG recruit Tordoff is clearly one to watch. It’s a long season but Honda Yuasa will be concerned at how far behind MG they already are while the Ebay Motors BMW’s of Turkington, Rob Collard and Nick Foster showed flashes of speed but terrible luck and unreliability. Airwaves Racing disappointed too; Mat Jackson – my tip for the title – was fairly anonymous, but the season is young; 3 races done, 27 to go.
It was only when it came time to leave Brands Hatch that I discovered a unique problem with touring car racing – it offers false hope; a touring car has a boot. My car has a boot! A touring car has windscreen wipers. My car has windscreen wipers! A touring car has wing mirrors, headlights and indicators. My car has those things! I could be the next Plato, surely! I got home in record time and I await the fines…
Next round of the BTCC 2013 is at Donington Park on the 21st April.