All words and images by Craig Venn
Take note: if you plan to follow a motor racing championship around Britain, you will get wet. So do so at your denim jean’s peril; mine are ruined, as are my shoes and hair.
Also, if like me you travel to these events alone, you’ll learn a lot about yourself as you zig-zag your way around the country. While travelling to Croft for BTCC race-day for example, I have learned of my irrational fear of wind farms; they’re too alien, tall and violent looking, the blades scare me and I don’t like them.
Croft Circuit doesn’t have a wind farm, thankfully. What it does have is one of the slowest corners on the calendar; an unconventional boast for a sport built on the foundation of speed and a hunger to go faster. It also possesses a simplistic charm; it doesn’t undulate like Oulton Park or Brands Hatch, it’s flat and at first glance it’s rather dull looking. But the challenge proposed to the drivers by Croft’s circuit layout is like no other and the opportunity to see cars on the limit, up close and at immense speed is something Croft offers perhaps better than anywhere the BTCC has visited so far this year. Get the right vantage point and the noise in particular will be intoxicating.
In the north-east of England the only thing you can predict about the weather is that there will be some. And when the sun is shining, as it was for some of race-day morning, the paddock at Croft is a pleasant place to be; it’s small, humble and cosy, meaning you’re in amongst the action wherever you stumble. A trick to getting even closer, seeing as much as possible and getting the most out of the experience is to go wherever you want to…until somebody tells you off. The pitlane for example, is usually off-limits to the public, but first thing in the morning when the cars are being prepared and officials aren’t paying much attention you could, like I did, wander through the gate and meander past the mechanics and cars. The Honda Yuasa Team hospitality suite however, has far more vigilant doormen; “For special guests only, I’m afraid.” The reply, “My mum says I’m special” will get you a laugh but it won’t get you in.
Not hidden away in a hospitality suite was driver Rob Austin, who had high-hopes for racing around a track that suits a rear-wheel-drive car like his Audi; “I’m optimistic, it’s a great track to drive on and it should suit the Audi, a lot depends on what the weather does though…”
That was a good point and the weather was on everybody’s mind. When a brief shower washed over Croft before race one of the day it gave ample opportunity for the crowd to display some humorous resilience; not too far from Newcastle, Croft was blessed with the unmistakable sound of the Geordie accent and when the rain came, remarkably, barely an umbrella was erected. Instead, many t-shirts came off and bare beer-bellies emerged, one with ‘GO PLATO’ emblazoned below a pendulous pair of proudly displayed man-breasts; it was going to be a fun day, come rain or shine.
The sun emerged for race one allowing for the true form of each driver to be showcased, and no one could match the form of pole-sitter Colin Turkington. Watching from the fast chicane before the cars shoot off towards the Jim Clark esses, each car that passed was like a shot of adrenalin to the heart and the noise was ear-splitting as each car hopped from curb-to-curb, often clipping the corner-defining tyre bundle and sometimes missing the corner altogether. Turkington’s BMW was mighty through this section and it was perhaps no surprise that he took victory.
What was a surprise however, was just how much of the track’s challenge you can witness from virtually any given position; from the chicane you can see each car exit the final hairpin, shoot like a bullet from a gun down the long start/finish straight, brake hard for the sharp right turn at the first corner before the long right hander that turns into the quick and tricky right-left dance through the tyre bundles.
Likewise, you could stand atop the grass embankments behind the paddock and watch the cars exit the flowing sweeps of the Jim Clark esses, out-brake each other into the oddly named Sunny-In and Sunny-Out right hand turns before they negotiate the increasingly tight complex leading to the final hairpin. Wherever you situate yourself, you’re bound to see something spectacular.
I’d learnt my lesson from the gag-inducing cheeseburger at Oulton Park and brought my own food to Croft. What I hadn’t prepared for however, was the inevitable rain. When it finally fell heavy enough for even the Geordies to rush for cover, I was rescued by a married couple with an umbrella big enough for three who temporarily adopted me during the shower. Huddled behind their fold-away chairs and defended from the elements, we discussed the BTCC and other motorsports, mentioned the local topless “nutters” and talked about the tragedy that had happened the day before at Le Mans…
It dawned on us, that no matter what role you play in the motor racing community, whether you are a fan, journalist, driver or team member, you are part of a family that all share the same passion. With the news from Le Mans that we had lost a member of our family in the 34-year-old Dane, Allan Simonsen, it was with his friends and family in mind that the BTCC raced this weekend…
With the track thoroughly drenched but no rain falling, race two commenced with teams and drivers unsure of how the race would unfold. The MG drivers, Jason Plato and Sam Tordoff, gambled on wet tyres; a stroke of genius or an appalling strategy error?
For the first three laps it seemed to be the right call as both MGs launched into the lead, but with rain no longer falling and the track drying rapidly, it wasn’t long before the chasing pack caught them and they were swallowed by the entire field. Plato would finish with only his team-mate behind him; I looked around for the ‘GO PLATO’ beer belly, it was nowhere to be seen.
With the MGs out of it, it was left to Mr. Croft – Colin Turkington – to take his second win of the day, his eighth at Croft, ahead of Gordon Shedden and an impressive Tom Onslow-Cole. After the podium celebration Onslow-Cole told me to expect wins from his new VW Passat; “The car is only getting better and better…I reckon we can win this year.”
And then it happened; a torrential downpour of biblical proportions started during the Ginetta support race before the final touring car race of the day. The rain was so heavy that the Ginetta race was stopped prematurely and the BTCC teams were this time left in no doubt about using wet tyres.
Race three, as we’ve come to expect, is usually a balls-out, hell-for-leather attack, with no need to save the car for another race in the day. Throw in a sodden track and a challenging circuit and you’ve got yourself the recipe for something quite dramatic.
Aided by a lightning-quick start, Nick Foster led in his BMW while behind him, everybody struggled for grip and vision. A BMW it seemed was the weapon of choice but quite frankly, what you really needed was an outboard motor; the standing water on the track was like nothing seen for some time.
With cars slithering at all angles it was left to the wily old fox and triple-champion Matt Neal to demonstrate exemplary talent to take victory, despite a heart-stopping moment on the last lap, in which Matt had to rely on stunning reflexes and a heavy dose of luck to keep his Honda away from the wall and rescue it from a deepening puddle.
Behind him, remarkably, was race one and two winner Colin Turkington; really displaying his skill around the Croft circuit and completing his best ever race weekend.
While others struggled – most notably Adam Morgan, who entered stage left and exited stage right all too quickly – the cream really rose to the top; with Matt Neal winning, Turkington second, Andrew Jordan third, Gordon Shedden fourth and Jason Plato climbing from 20th to sixth, the championship is poised to be between these five touring car masters as the championship begins its second half.
I’ve often wondered why Croft doesn’t feature in racing calendars as prominently as other tracks in the UK. I can now only assume that locals to the Croft area are keeping the place a secret because it’s a superb venue, a real gem of the BTCC season and perhaps all too often overlooked. I look forward to going again, if not for the quality of the racing then for the hardcore, passionate and friendly crowd.
The BTCC continues at Snetterton on August 4th…