All words and images by Craig Venn
If Snetteron could talk, it would tell tales of aerial dog-fighting from its days as a World War II airfield, regale stories from its days as host to the United States Army Air Force before moving on to equally dramatic tales from decades of motor racing. Some of the more intriguing and exciting will no doubt involve the British Touring Car Championship and 2013 provided yet more fuel for Snetterton’s long-living fire; Spitfire and Messerschmitt swapped for Honda Civic and MG6.
Following a frustrating journey to Snetterton, I found myself sneaking in through the poorly signposted back door, as much as one can sneak while shouting expletives at a sat-nav. Soon, the frustration faded as relief set over me; it’s been six weeks since the BTCC was last in action and it’s amazing how instantly comfortable I felt amongst the bustling paddock, almost as if the touring car circus has become a second home.
The comfort could also stem from the familiarity of Snetterton: ‘Snetts’ is a MotorSport Vision owned venue – like Oulton Park and Brands Hatch – and there’s no doubting it; there’s an obvious brand identity evident at MSV circuits, a certain refinement lacking from such places as Thruxton and Donington Park that leaves you in no doubt that the place is in good hands. Facilities are clean and plentiful, grounds are well kept and the entire venue is fan friendly – Snetterton even has a play park for young children and young children only, as I was so firmly told before I’d even had a go on the slide. Variety may be the spice of life but if MotorSport Vision had the means to monopolise the sector, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Fan friendly Snetterton may be but the Norfolk-based circuit also appeared to be MG friendly – the pair of MG6s shared by Jason Plato and Sam Tordoff occupied the front row after dominating qualifying, the latter claiming his maiden pole-position. Such was their pace that the day’s races looked set to feature nothing but Plato and Tordoff heading the field. Fortunately for the fans and a shame for the Triple 8 MG squad, it didn’t transpire that way…
Six weeks is a long time to wait between races – in any category of racing – and the expectation was for several on-track incidents blamed entirely on racing-rustiness or over-eager drivers, but the biggest and most traumatic crash of the day came from a young lad on a fold-away chair: the grass embankments that line the perimeter of Snetterton’s 3-mile length are superb for witnessing as much action as possible and it was from the peak of one these that the young boy, swinging perilously on his fold-away chair, toppled backwards, somersaulted down the hill like a doll tossed by a child before coming to rest many feet from where his impromptu and uncomfortable journey started. Cue many tears and an immediate and somewhat melodramatic rescue mission from the parents. The boy was taken to the circuit medical centre with nothing more than a small boo-boo to his leg and a severely bent chair.
With that over, the touring cars lined up on the grid, a pleased Sam Tordoff heading them all. With a faultless getaway Tordoff was never challenged, taking his first victory and proving that he is not just a star of the future but very much a star of the present. Jason Plato fended off the advances of Gordon Shedden and Colin Turkington to hold on to second whilst behind, it was chaotic, dramatic and thrilling; British Touring Cars personified. Most notable was the comical issue faced by Audi driver Will Bratt – the bonnet of his A4 had come adrift and slammed against the windscreen and roof. Nonetheless, Bratt completed an entire lap at full racing speed before heading to the pit-lane for repairs, semi-blinded all the way by the errant bonnet.
Championship leader, Matt Neal, was most notably missing from the front of the field in race one; not once did he come close to racing in the top 5. Neal had qualified and woeful 11th and could only manage 9th come the end. This was a terrible result for Neal – blamed on success ballast and dubious turbo boost levels permitted for Matt’s car – but enabled the championship fight to tighten up.
In a somewhat sad state of affairs, the BTCC seems to have lost its appeal to foreign drivers; gone, for now, are the days of Yvan Muller (French) and Fabrizio Giovanardi (Italian) battling it out against the best Britain had to offer. A good thing therefore that Snetterton featured the return of Robb Holland from the United States, driving a Team HARD Vauxhall Insignia. The American would finish a respectable 21st, 15th and 14th in the day’s three races and it was refreshing to hear a different accent in the paddock – until now, the most exotic accent was that of Irishmen Colin Turkington and Aron Smith. It’s good to have some variety and encouraging that the BTCC has an appeal across the pond. “The BTCC has quite a big following back home actually, it’s shown on the SPEED channel quite often and obviously these days you can watch it all on the ‘net” Robb told me. “I’m really pleased to be involved again; it’s a great championship to be a part of”.
If race one was a dream result for MG then race two was nothing short of a nightmare as their weekend began to unravel. They would start once again from the front row, courtesy of that one-two finish earlier in the day but Plato’s early race lead would slip from his grasp as his car failed him, a flashback to last season where poor reliability arguably robbed him of a third championship. Tordoff too, suffered from mechanical gremlins and would slip to 18th by the finish; the highs of a maiden race victory wiped out in an instant.
MG’s failings gifted Andrew Jordan race victory for the third time this year as he once again inched closer to a championship lead. Only an inch mind, as championship leader Matt Neal overcame his race one issues to finish a quite remarkable second, ahead of Aron Smith and Mat Jackson – the Airwaves Ford Focuses finally showing some promise. Jordan may have claimed a victory but he also picked up a penalty along the way, thanks to contact with Gordon Shedden while Colin Turkington – the Irish BMW driver – offered a masterclass in defensive driving. The victory stands but a six-place grid penalty at the next round is Jordan’s reward for his misdemeanour.
There was a high level anticipation following race two; the race had been so close and exciting throughout that it was difficult to conceive how race three, usually the more dramatic of all the races, could be any better. For MG, it wasn’t. For the fans, myself, the tumbling boy and his traumatised parents, it was nothing short of brilliant.
Before the day’s final touring car race however, a lesson needed to be learnt: so much so have I been concentrating on every possible aspect of a day at the races, spending time hunting down illusive drivers in the paddock and trying to convey the whole experience through 1500 written words that I began to fear I was forgetting how to simply sit on the grass, eyes on the track, not through a camera, and marvel at racing cars doing what they do.
So that’s what I did. I didn’t talk to anybody before the race or after. I took no pictures. I sat and I enjoyed.
Turns out that I’m pretty good at sitting and not doing much. Furthermore, it turns out that this motor racing stuff is pretty good, you know.
Race three and it all kicked off. I overheard someone say “time for the banger race” and they weren’t far from the truth. It took just five corners before pole-sitter Dave Newsham and Matt Neal speared off the track while behind them Jason Plato entered stage left in a barrel-rolling MG – a surreal sight is a car upside-down, but not at all surprising given the driving standards on that opening lap. With Plato out of the car unhurt, the safety car was rightly deployed and a chance for everybody to calm down…
…more cars speared off at turn one on the restart – Will Bratt buried in the tyre wall – as demon-starter Colin Turkington defended from a determined Gordon Shedden – the reigning champion hadn’t won a race since Thruxton at the beginning of May.
In the race between the two champions it was Shedden who came out on top, winning a race that provided action throughout the entire field, while Turkington fell to sixth after Shedden had him spinning. The vastly improved Ford Focuses of Mat Jackson and Aron Smith completed the podium ahead of Adam Morgan’s Toyota and an astonishing fifth place from eighteenth on the grid by Sam Tordoff.
Snetterton was the perfect host and allowed the BTCC to shine, a return is a must. Perhaps it’s biased, patriotic pride but of all the motor racing series I have the pleasure of following, I believe the British Touring Car Championship delivers considerably more excitement than any other form of racing, in part due to venues and tracks such as Snetterton. And while attempting to access as much of the BTCC world as possible – such is the task of a wannabe journalist – is extremely rewarding, to simply sit and watch the racing is perhaps a far greater pleasure and I will attempt not to forget that.
The BTCC continues north of the border at Knockhill on 24/25th August…