All words and images by Craig Venn
I’ll say this in a hushed tone as it’s something I’m not proud of: I’ve never been to Donington before. It’s a shameful confession for a self titled super-fan, as Donington Park is a staple of the British motor sport scene, but I travelled to ‘Donny’ with slight trepidation; my concern was, compared to the intimacy of Brands Hatch, Donington has always looked to me to keep the crowd too distanced from the track. However, what the vast gravel-traps and high catch fencing take away, the fully accessible paddock provides.
From the moment the gates are opened and I – along with many eager fans – rushed through them, the paddock area containing equipment belonging to all the BTCC teams was open for discovery. You can wander freely among the team trucks and mechanics and, of course, where there’s team trucks and mechanics, there are drivers…
Don’t wait until the pitlane walkabout session to meet drivers; the chances of meeting your favourite drivers are slim and even if you manage to clamber your way to the front of tightly packed autograph hunters, you’ll only have a handful of seconds to blurt out your good luck wishes before someone shoves you sideways to get their programme signed. An open paddock area early in the morning is the place to catch a willing-to-talk driver, like Mat Jackson for example; the Airwaves Racing driver struggled in the opening races at Brands Hatch so I interrupted him and an engineer to ask if any problems had been resolved for Donington, he said “I hope so, Brands Hatch was a bit of a nightmare, we had no pace, the car didn’t feel great but we’ve done some work on the car since then and we’ll see how we go here”.
It gets better too, not only can you roam the paddock like you belong there, you can share a very special experience with the drivers, because the podium (alright, it’s a flat-bed lorry with a rostrum on the back) is in the publicly accessible area between the main paddock and that belonging to the support race vehicles. You can – and it’s strongly recommended that you do – stand within feet of the top 3 drivers from each race, but like a log flume at a theme park, the first 3 rows may get wet. Champagne smells and it has a tendency to soak into your hair but the fact that Colin Turkington, having taken his first win since coming back to the sport, spayed me with his champagne made the whole experience very special because you feel as if you are a part of the victory – an excellent addition to the race-day experience and a remarkable idea from the organisers.
Having completed my now traditional morning expedition around the circuit with one of the biggest bacon sandwiches I‘ve ever been served in hand, it became clear that Donington has some rough edges and a lick of paint wouldn’t go amiss. It has a certain charm however, and the history that belongs there is rich and remarkable; much has been said recently of Ayrton Senna’s memorable victory at Donington 20 years ago but don’t forget, Donington played host to motor racing well before Formula One was conceived. Consider the famous victory by Tazio Nuvolari way back in 1938 and you’ll soon appreciate how important Donington Park is to motor sport.
While thousands of miles away the Formula One fraternity was setting up in the desert heat of Bahrain, it appeared for an hour or so that it would be a similar story in the north of England with the sun rising in a cloudless sky. It wasn’t until the action kicked off with the Formula Fords that a fresh, cold wind relentlessly swept across the track, playing havoc with car handling and the extremities of onlookers. Clouds would roll in and stay for the duration, spitting with rain just the once and only very lightly.
When the touring cars lined up on the starting grid for race number four of the season, I was faced with a choice; where do I watch from? While Brands Hatch allowed you to get so close to the cars you feel you could almost touch them (not recommended) it didn’t offer as many vantage points as the longer Donington Park – a circuit where you get a real sense of just how fast these cars can go.
For the first BTCC race of the day, it was the inside of ‘Redgate‘, turn 1, where I witnessed Gordon Shedden take his first win of the year. The Scot led from the very start as everybody behind was surprisingly restrained and well-behaved, perhaps saving the cars for an onslaught later in the day. Despite his best efforts, local hero and Mr. Consistent Andrew Jordan came home second, ahead of Matt Neal, who was on the verge of achieving something quite extraordinary, but first, the lunchtime pit walkabout…
With the pitlane open to the public for half-an-hour during the lunch break there’s ample opportunity to mingle with the crowd as you take in the sights and smells of the pit garages; drivers, VIPs, the grid girls – of which there are many – and the TV personnel. ITV4’s Steve Rider was doing a piece to camera and an opportunity to talk to two-time race winner Paul O’Neill was blighted by a sudden call for the now reporter to interview Rob Collard. Nonetheless, the BTCC’s level of accessibility was still remarkably evident and the friendly atmosphere allows fans to feel part of the sport and get up close and personal to the very heart of the series.
Matt Neal lined up third on the grid for the second race and for the 500th time in his career. 500! Quite incredible, I can’t think of anything out of the ordinary that I’ve done 500 times. It was understandably a big moment for the man who took his first ever win at ‘Donny’ in 1999 and to mark the occasion he ran with the number 500 on the car while Jason Plato, similarly, ran the number 400 as, coincidentally, he was starting his 400th race in the BTCC.
A historic race for both men, and it was from a steep, grassy embankment near the two right-handers of ‘McLeans’ and ‘Coppice’ that I watched neither of them win. There was an early safety car after a start-line incident between David Nye and James Kaye saw both men pile into the pit wall and retire from the race but it was that man Andrew Jordan who scampered away to take his first win of the year by lunging down the inside of Shedden at the start of lap 7. Jason Plato eventually took Shedden’s second place away and demoted race 1 winner to third while Matt Neal in number 500 came home fourth.
The star of race two for me however, was fifth place finisher Adam Morgan, and a well-timed trip to the paddock placed me in the path of the Toyota Avensis driver on his way to the garage. I was curious as to what has made the difference after he seemed to struggle in his rookie season last year; “I’m definitely more comfortable now, I learned a lot last year but being with the Ciceley team [his family-run team] feels a lot more comfortable and we’ve got the car working well at the moment”. I also asked if he had learnt anything by following three champions so closely in the race and he replied with “oh yeah, they were really going for it, I had a few looks at taking Matt but I couldn’t quite pull it off, I’m happy with 5th though”.
If you go to Donington then it would be a crime not to watch part of the action from the outside of ‘the old Hairpin’, the quick and difficult right hander where I situated myself for the third race. From there you can see the cars cascade at terrifying speed down the mighty Craner Curves – contact here and you’re in for trouble, just ask Dave Newsham who would lose it there big-time in the final race of the day. Race three commenced beneath darkening skies and as the wind-burn on my nose made my eyes water, Colin Turkington shot into the lead from second on the grid where he would remain, unchallenged, to the end. And it was Colin’s victory over the two Honda drivers of Neal and Shedden that I shared at the podium ceremony before leaving Donington – an experience I wont forget, certainly not until I can rid my hair of the stench of champagne.
It’s worth noting that I found it difficult to leave Donington – not because I couldn’t tear myself away from the enjoyment of the whole experience, rather due to the less-than-ideal traffic management system. A rather overwhelmed gentleman equipped with nothing more than a hi-vis coat and clear sense of disdain for any vehicle, was handed the role of “easing congestion”. Given that the car park was a large field – as is common in the UK – with just the one paved road leaving via the main exit point, it was no wonder that many drivers chose to form their own lane across the vast greenery and descend upon the poor hi-vis clad man at the gate from all directions. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, the young man gave panicked signals to several lanes to halt, one lane to go. It was working well and I began to believe this man was more than just a walking hi-vis, “he’s done this before” i thought to myself, untill…
The cream has risen to the top in the British Touring Car Championship with Shedden, Neal, Plato, Jordan and Turkington performing well, while the young chargers of Adam Morgan, Sam Tordoff and Frank Wrathall are showing true potential. Many drivers seem to be struggling at the moment however; the likes of Mat Jackson and Rob Collard having sub-standard races so far. 2013 still looks good where racing is concerned though, and the next round comes from my home track and Britain’s fastest; Thruxton on the 5th of May.