All words and images by Craig Venn
Not a drop of blood nor a shed tear have been put into this piece of fan’s-eye-view writing, but sweat? At Thruxton on May 5th, yes, plenty of it. It’s with a severely sunburnt face and, oddly, right arm that I type.
The sweltering heat made for an uplifting change from the bitter cold of Brands Hatch and biting wind of Donington Park, but I shall start where perhaps I shouldn’t – with the negatives, of which there are two. Firstly, Thruxton charges for what Brands Hatch and Donington Park have already provided this year for free; for an advanced ticket cost of £7 you can get a Paddock Transfer which will see you through the pedestrian tunnel and emerge in a bustling Paddock – worth buying, in my opinion, but an uncomfortable purchase considering other venues free-of-charge access.
Secondly, the true frustration of Thruxton is born from the complete inaccessibility to the public of the track’s unique selling point; with every visit we are reminded that ‘Thruxton is the fastest track in the UK’. Yet the frighteningly fast and flowing section where the cars teeter on a knife-edge, darting from corner-to-corner between airfield and crop-field is off limits to you or me.
Despite this, the sunburn and a close call with a pheasant not using a designated pheasant-crossing on the way to the circuit, Thruxton provided a great day’s motor racing entertainment. Before a wheel was turned however, I was damn sure going to make the most of my £7 Paddock Transfer. Accosting racing drivers seemed like a good way of getting my money’s worth…
Racing drivers are human – believe it or not – meaning two things; one, they are generally polite and good humoured people, willing to spend time helping others and talking to fans.
And two, they go to the toilet.
It was by pure luck rather than a perverse pleasure that I happened to be hovering near the paddock loos when triple BTCC champion Matt Neal arrived, freshly relieved. The shock of seeing one of the sport’s biggest names in a rare moment of solitude, without an entourage of press, fans or engineers, was brief as I pounced for what is by far the most prestigious interview I’ve conducted on this fan’s-eye view adventure thus far.
Remember, this is with no special passes, no media accreditation and no prior knowledge of an opening, yet here I was, admittedly trembling slightly, talking to a three-time touring car champion!
First on the agenda, how was Matt Neal this morning? “Very good, weather’s lovely isn’t it?” It was, already the skin on my forehead was burning, but what did Matt think of how is season was progressing? “I’m reasonably happy so far but we could do with a good day today, the Civic’s working well so we’ll see but yeah, reasonably happy”.
Little did Matt or I know at this point just how good a day he and his Honda would have, but going in to Thruxton, who did Matt see as his main rivals to his potential fourth title? “Well, you can never count out Jason [Plato] can you? I think Flash [Gordon Shedden] is driving brilliantly as well and of course he’s hungry to defend his title, but we don’t want that”. It was with a cheeky grin that Matt made that last remark regarding his team-mate’s title defence but with images of last year’s season end celebrations in mind I asked about Matt’s relationship with reigning champ ‘Flash’. “We have a really good relationship actually and the celebrations last year were genuine happiness for him, I know he’s a great driver, a great guy and I think he deserved that championship more than anyone but of course, this year I have to beat him”.
I felt I was beginning to push my luck with Matt’s time but I was curious as to his thoughts on Andrew Jordan – a fellow Honda Civic racer but for a smaller, independent team, that had begun the season as somewhat of a fly in the manufacturer Honda team’s ointment by showing remarkable pace. “Andrew’s a great driver, that’s obvious, and the team have a lot of experience and talent so it’s no surprise that they’re going well, but we certainly want to beat them, regardless of if they’re in a Honda or not, you gotta beat everyone out there”.
With that – and the need to find some shade – I thanked Matt for his time and wished him luck for the day’s racing, which was to start imminently.
Failure to visit Thruxton and witness the action from Club chicane would be simply foolish. With the fast back section requiring pin-point precision, the right-left-right chicane at the end of the lap provides an ideal overtaking spot. Where there’s overtaking, there’s generally contact and action aplenty.
There is an issue at this prime location for spectators however; unless you are blessed with the balancing qualities of a mountain goat, get there early. The small mound of earth that elevates fans to an advantageous vantage spot isn’t particularly spacious and if, like me, you arrive after the majority, you’ll have to make do with a slanting patch of land on the side, balancing precariously and craning your neck to view the cars hop from curb to curb.
It’s from this 45-degree viewing spot, with skin now the temperature and colour of a freshly boiled lobster, that I watched race one of the day’s touring car action.
The star of the race was without doubt Tom Onslow-Cole, the man who, in only his third outing driving the new VW Passat, found himself on the podium in third place – a truly remarkable achievement for a small team fielding a brand new car. Before Onslow-Cole took third at the flag, the standard BTCC antics made for a compelling race. A race that saw Gordon Shedden taken out of contention by Jason Plato on lap one, Andrew Jordan lead the entire race until a puncture speared him off the track with seconds to go and Matt Neal take his 50th career win ahead of fierce rival Plato. The moral victor, Andrew Jordan, limped home 11th.
Race two commenced following a mistake by myself; my feet and ankles had cried enough of perching aside the chicane’s mini spectator mountain and I’d moved on to the turn 3,4 and 5 complex – an error, as it turned out.
Unlike at the chicane, fans at the complex aren’t supplied with a mammoth track-side television or, rather frustratingly, working speakers that, elsewhere, provide entertaining and often necessary race commentary. All this means fans are only privy to the action occurring in front of them and during race two, that simply wasn’t enough.
Matt Neal took his second win of the day…apparently.
To counteract the lack of awareness as to what was happening in the race – other than at the complex – Tom Onslow-Cole put on another remarkable showing by finishing second! And it showed just how many fans he has; with every passing, the cheers for the yellow and silver VW grew louder and louder and the atmosphere was aided immensely.
Ankles rested. Face burnt. A return to the chicane was on the cards for race three.
If all Tom Onslow-Cole’s fans were based at the complex then Jason Plato’s army of followers were camped at the chicane – the place they’d be to witness on the big screen Plato’s front left tyre puncture while leading with just a handful of laps to go! Similar circumstances that befell Jordan in race one; it’s a shame when tyres dictate the outcome of races isn’t it? An ever increasing issue in the sport but one that, thankfully, in this instance was more down to the extreme demands of the track than the construction of the tyre.
Plato’s puncture handed victory to comeback king Shedden – a fine way to end the day after it started in the barriers. But the true winner of Thruxton’s weekend was Matt Neal; winner of the first two races and second in race three sees him elevated to championship leader above Andrew Jordan and Jason Plato. A championship table that is beginning to take shape, nicely for some but for others, it makes for uncomfortable reading. With 24 races races to go however, there’s still everything to play for.
Thruxton has a certain charm to it; it’s simple and never fails to provide entertaining motor racing. There are some issues to the place, granted, but Thruxton needn’t worry too much, after all, Thruxton is Britain’s fastest race-track, and speed, more than any other aspect of motor sport, sells.
The British Touring Car Championship continues on the 9th of June, at the beautiful Oulton Park Circuit.