The British Touring Car Championship doesn’t have a ‘jewel-in-the-crown’ race as such; it doesn’t have a Monaco, Indy or Le Mans, a distinct stand-out highlight within its racing calendar. But Knockhill is special. Perhaps it’s because it’s as close as the BTCC gets to visiting a foreign country, the most isolated venue visited. Knockhill therefore, is exotic.
The hillside Scottish track is also never anything short of thrilling, it encourages “elbows out driving” according to three-time champion Matt Neal and rarely fails to provide some of the more exciting and controversial races of the year. It is a great shame therefore, that I regrettably admit to being absent from the BTCC’s visit to the exotic Knockhill.
At Snetterton I asked Gordon Shedden – the Scottish reigning champion who works at Knockhill when he’s not racing – how he would sum up the first half of his title defensive year; the words “not according to plan” featured in his answer and I’m afraid they will also feature in my reasoning for missing three races that painfully, I knew would be unmissable.
Team HARD racer Jack Goff missed Knockhill too, citing budget issues as the reason. If that’s a good enough excuse for a driver in his first season of touring car competition then it’s a perfectly good enough reason for me to miss the weekend also. While I still believe the British Touring Car Championship offers excellent value for money to race fans, Dunfermline, where you’ll find Knockhill perched on the edge of a picturesque Scottish scene, is an awfully long way from the VennMotorSport headquarters in Southampton. It’s therefore the most expensive round of the year to travel to and unlike Jack Goff, I have no willing sponsors to see me through.
“Force majeure” we’ll call it, rather than “too poor” – sounds more professional and sometimes, things simply don’t go according to plan.
Nonetheless, it gave me a chance to view the weekend the cheaper way; via the television, all the while praying for three dull races that would suggest a trip north of the border would have been a waste of time anyway…
Sports TV coverage is something I have become increasingly animated about in recent times: with various sports being spread over many subscription-only channels it’s becoming harder than ever to follow the sport you love. Football matches, for example, have been scattered over Sky, ESPN and BT and suddenly the cost of following a season from the comfort of your own armchair has rocketed, coming close to that of a season ticket for one of the top premier league teams. Motor sport is going the same way: in the UK a season of live Formula One can be followed only if you pay for Sky Sports F1, otherwise it’s a selected few races live on the BBC, the rest delayed highlights. MotoGP will be exclusively live on BT Sport next year, at a cost, of course. If you select the right Sky package you can receive EuroSport for a few other international and national championships but ultimately the cost for your motor racing passion is becoming unreasonable. A blessing then, that in the UK the BTCC and its support races are televised live on free-to-view ITV4. What’s more, it’s my feeling that better motor sports coverage does not exist.
…my hope of tedious, un-Knockhill type racing was somewhat fulfilled: first-time pole-sitter Rob Austin could only hang on to an early race lead for two laps as Colin Turkington stole the lead into the circuit’s final hairpin. It was a lead the former champion would never lose and he would claim the day’s first victory at a canter, ahead of local hero Gordon Shedden and the Audi of Rob Austin.
The single moment of real drama – besides the usual bumping and barging – came from Paul O’Neill: the former race winner turned TV pundit – and brother of the Spice Girl’s Mel C – returned to the BTCC for a one-off drive in a Team HARD Vauxhall Insignia and ended his first race in 12 months with a tangle with Nick Foster’s BMW on lap 8. The damage to the Insignia was catastrophic and O’Neill would fail to start race two thanks to further damage received post-crash: when attempting to restart the Vauxhall it was found to still be in gear, the car lunged forward and collided with the tow-bar of the recovery vehicle. Rather comical for fans but not for those who would be footing the bill.
Once the safety car had retreated following the clear-up operation, Turkington fled and not much changed behind him…or at least that was my shaded view of proceedings as I cursed those fortunate enough to be there.
Scotland is a beautiful country, apparently, and the quirky setting of the Knockhill circuit is quite bemusing; I described Oulton Park as “a remarkable juxtaposition between the very man-made sport of motor racing and the natural serenity offered by grand trees and local wildlife” but Knockhill appears to be on a whole other level; beyond the tyre barriers, over the catch-fencing and past the crowds seems to be nothing but sheep and greenery, I can’t think of a more pleasing or quirky setting for a motor race.
Race two and perhaps one of the commentators is beginning to grate on me but still I’m impressed by the coverage; non-stop racing for over six hours! Colin Turkington scampered away to a comfortable second win of the day and Rob Austin got the better of Gordon Shedden to claim second, in a reversal of their race one battle, but behind them it was dramatically close throughout the entire field, and how could it not be? In qualifying, the top 19 drivers were covered by 8-tenths of a second, remarkable!
At this point I’m getting edgy: two races gone and I’m missing the taste of gravel dust in the air and not once have I been part of a crowd drenched in a driver’s victory champagne. I have however, found five pence down the back of the sofa for the Knockill 2014 fund, things are looking up.
Race three would be hard to watch: as I’ve come to expect, the third race of the day tends to be the more dramatic, the more entertaining and the race you really have to be there for. My saviour would be Andrew Jordan; his sublime getaway from pole-position put him into a lead he would never relinquish and to miss a dominant victory is somewhat more bearable than to miss a race-long, wheel-to-wheel nail-biter.
Of course, positions two to last were ferociously fought for throughout, and my day was ruined. Championship leader Matt Neal scrapped for second place with Rob Collard, Gordon Shedden exited the race in a ball of fire, Frank Wrathall skimmed through the gravel-trap backwards and Liam Griffin came within inches of colliding with the stationary MG of Sam Tordoff; it was excellent and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The British Touring Cars once again proved why the series is so popular in the UK and it would appear to be a highly addictive experience, something you only realise when being absent from race-day. Still, for the Knockhill experience there’s always next year, I’m five pence closer after all…
The championship is getting tense with just seven points separating Matt Neal in first and Andrew Jordan in second. Gordon Shedden is a further eleven behind in his Honda, three ahead of Colin Turkington and the battle resumes at the unique Rockingham Motor Speedway on the 15th of September…I will be there…