All words and images by Craig Venn
Is there a greater pleasure than sitting in a (reasonably) comfortable fold-away chair under a blissfully hot sun whilst leafing through a motor sport magazine? I can’t think of one, but when that idyllic scene is interrupted by the roar of an engine and the squeal of tyres, things only improve.
Oulton Park, based in the Cheshire countryside, demonstrates a remarkable juxtaposition between the very man-made sport of motor racing and the natural serenity offered by grand trees and local wildlife. For a mix of sporting spectacle and stunning scenery, I believe, it is quite possibly second to none.
A simple stroll around the circuit is a delight; Oulton Park’s lake and nearby farmland offer the chance to meet families of ducks and local cattle, whilst the open-to-all British Touring Car paddock allows opportunities to rub shoulders with busy mechanics and a motor racing celebrity or two.
It was in the paddock, before a wheel had yet to be turned (noise restrictions mean not a lot happens on track before midday on Sundays) that I spoke with Mr Plato. Not star driver Jason but rather his father, Tim. Jason had not long arrived at the track via helicopter – the wind from which sent many a motor sport-branded hat flying – and it was interesting to watch fans flock to him like dogs to a biscuit-offering owner, a testament to his popularity. I asked Tim about the previous round at Thruxton where Jason was denied a potential win by a pesky tyre failure and whether Jason was confident it wouldn’t happen again; “it’s Jason, he’s always confident”. A silly question I guess; since his debut in 1997, Jason’s confidence has never been in doubt.
Delving deeper into the paddock you’ll find drivers such as Dave Newsham, who had qualified fourth for race one and felt “it’s about time we had a decent result”. But among the touring car drivers, the mechanics and VIPs I spotted arguably the most important man at the track; Jonathan Palmer. The former Formula One driver didn’t have much success in his heyday of Grand Prix competition but his entrepreneurial skills have seen him become a successful businessman. His company, MotorsportVision, owns tracks such as Brands Hatch, Snetterton, Oulton Park and others, so who better to ask where the best vantage points around the circuit are than the man who owns the place? “The hospitality suite” was his cheeky reply. I confirmed whether that was an invitation. It was not.
Walking enviously past the hospitality suite, I made my way to the infield viewing area at the entry to turn two and waited for the action to commence. With a greasy and overpriced bacon roll quickly demolished, my skin slowly baking from the morning sun, I gazed at the lake on the other side of the track, listened to those around me’s camping anecdotes and watched on the large screen a close-up of a woman’s sunburnt breasts.
After what seemed like an eternity, the anecdotes getting louder, the breasts getting redder, the trackside tannoy finally sparked into life and racing would soon begin.
The noise of the touring cars continues to astound; for what are essentially family hatchbacks and saloons, the deafening pops and bangs from their two-litre turbocharged engines send the ducks and nearby cows fleeing with startling alarm. As the cars wait for the red lights to go out, their engines bounce off the rev-limiter, the sound is like an armada of gunfire and it only serves to increase the anticipation.
A dominant qualifying performance by confident Jason Plato saw him start race one from pole. His dominance continued throughout the race and there can be no exaggerated testimony to his skills or exuberant explanation regarding his performance because it was quite simply a display of extraordinary pace; a case of doing what he had to do – win.
It was a good start to the day for MG, with Plato’s team-mate, Sam Tordoff, finishing second, ahead of reigning champion Gordon Shedden and a smoke-emitting Honda of a lucky-to-finish Andrew Jordan.
A feature of the track’s layout at Oulton Park is the quick double-apex corner at Druids; the cars really dance through there and it’s a real challenge for the drivers, but in complete contrast is the viewing experience from the inside of this demanding corner. A brief woodland walk will take you to the trackside fencing where you’ll sit surrounded by bright green trees and picnic benches. You’ll hear nothing but birds tweeting when the track sits dormant and it’s from here I witnessed a selection of the standard, healthy support race package that includes Formula Ford, Renault Clio Cup and Ginetta and Porsche categories too.
Race two of the day’s touring car action once again saw Jason Plato lead every lap – another impressive effort. The inside of the final corner, Lodge, was my chosen vantage point for this race and it was a good choice. The inside of slower corners always seem to provide a more intimate feel; crowds pack in tight against the apex of the track, craning to get photographs and get as close to the bumper-grinding action as possible. As the cars entered stage left, cocked rear wheels in the air through the right hander before dropping downhill, then quickly rising over Deer Leap before disappearing down the front straight, I was once again amazed by the closeness of the entire field – real proof that the BTCC has got their formula for racing spot on.
As impressive as both performances by Jason Plato had been by this point and as competitive as the entire field had seemed, the first two races, it must be said, were surprisingly tame by BTCC standards. Race three would be different.
Suffering slightly from one of the worst cheeseburgers to have ever passed my lips, I situated myself in the firing line of the front straight for the final touring car race of the day. With a sideways glimpse of a big-screen, constantly enthusiastic track-side commentary as well as cars flinging themselves at turn one in front of me, this was possibly the best viewing point of the day.
To review each aspect and incident of race three within the space I permit myself would be impossible; it was an example of the sort of BTCC race that comes to mind when considering what the series is all about; extremely close competition, contact, crashes and a popular winner.
For Jason Plato to win a third race of the day was going to be nigh on impossible from tenth on the grid and the task would be well and truly put to bed on lap 3, when he retired to the pitlane, flames bellowing from under the car!
Following an almighty scrap for the lead between Rob Austin, Jeff Smith, Dan Welch and Adam Morgan – none of whom have ever won a BTCC race – it was Andrew Jordan who emerged victorious once his team-mate Smith through away his chance of victory. But Jordan’s victory almost went unnoticed thanks to the constant action; at every moment, on every corner, something was happening – a bump here, a slide there, a locked wheel, an overtake, a puncture – extraordinary! Matt Neal almost rolled his Honda and not one car remained intact, all the time maintaining the British Touring Car’s loose definition of the term ‘fair racing’.
With adrenalin pumping, the podium celebration was a joy to share with Andrew Jordan, Colin Turkington and Adam Morgan. Just like at Donington Park earlier in the year, sharing the champagne shower only added to the whole BTCC fan’s experience.
From the beautiful scenery, to the thrilling on-track action, Oulton Park is the archetypal British race track. The staff too, where helpful and friendly, one even sorted my travel companion out with the price of his ticket – nudge nudge, wink wink – no harm, no foul. While this was simply a case of fortunate timing, I can offer a word of advice from my own embarrassing experience; with all the excitement and anticipation of race day, I failed to make note of where I parked my car. It’s a good job Oulton Park is a pleasing place for a walk because it took some time before I eventually spotted it again.
Oulton Park really is worth a visit, if not for motor racing’s sake than simply for the peaceful calm setting – take a picnic though, that cheeseburger really was horrible.
The next round of BTCC 2013 comes from Croft on the 23rd of June.