BTCC DIARY 2013 – EPISODE 9 – ROUND 8, ROCKINGHAM

8All words and images by Craig Venn

I so desperately didn’t want to like Rockingham Motor Speedway; the Northamptonshire circuit has replaced the natural elegance of the traditional British circuits such as Brands Hatch or Oulton Park with modern infrastructure, the romance with concrete and the natural green scenery with vast expanses of…grey. It does however, provide a viewing experience like no other, and sausages of Michelin star quality…

‘The Rock’ is unique – in Britain at least – with its four-corner banked oval dominating the local landscape and its slightly ‘mickey-mouse’ inner section offering the more traditional layout for British racing. As far as oval autodromes go, Rockingham Motor Speedway is no Daytona, but it’s as close as the UK gets and with its high-rise grandstands you can witness every ounce of on-track action, a bonus for those who don’t want to miss a thing.

The grandest grandstand of them all overlooks the start/finish line and more importantly is equipped with a roof; when the rain becomes as persistent and pesky as it did on BTCC race-day, that roof becomes a welcome sight. It seemed like an unwise decision therefore, to not take cover for the first race of the day when the rain began to fall, but as it turned out, standing on the roof of the pit-lane garages offered a remarkably unique experience…

It’s a feature of Rockingham that fans can access the roof of the garages housing the teams and their machinery, meaning a new and unique view is on offer for touring car fans. First on the race-day agenda for each team is a last-minute scrutineering check – ride-heights and weight, mainly – followed by brief pit-stop practice runs, all of which were closely watched by me and a few eager fans from our elevated perch atop the pit building. With the burble of engines vibrating through the floor beneath me, here, I thought, is where to watch the day’s first race.

2

Initially, that was a poor choice, not solely due the rain lashing at my exposed face but also the lack of visibility: you can see the pit-lane, of course, but touring car races aren’t renowned for their pit-stops. You can see the start/finish straight where the cars scream by within inches of Rockingham’s concrete walls and the hairpin that forms turn 2. And that’s it.

About to abandon my rooftop vantage point and head for the main grandstand I encountered a familiar figure: wearing a Honda jacket and pacing from one side of the roof to the other, walking through the increasingly deep puddles, was a very focused and important looking man.

Phil Crossman is Managing Director of Honda UK and can often be found working closely with Honda’s BTCC team. At Rockingham he watches the racing from the roof of the team’s garage, pacing from one side to the other and walking through puddles; it was stood with him on the roof that I watched the day’s first race to the end, chuckling somewhat at Phil’s reaction to his driver, Matt Neal, spinning behind the safety car – cue a quote I couldn’t possibly publish.

It started out okay for Phil and his star driver line-up; both Hondas launched well from fifth and seventh on the grid but the first race wouldn’t be a straight forward one, the weather making it difficult for many. Championship contender Andrew Jordan would claim the lead on the first lap and would protect it until the chequered flag, while behind him, four cars were lost in a pile-up on lap one; the survivors were left squabbling amongst themselves in race-long battles throughout the field.

As Matt Neal fought his way back to a disappointing 14th, hope for Crossman laid with Gordan Shedden. The reigning champion ran third for much of the race, behind Jordan and eventual second place finisher Mat Jackson, until Shedden was ambushed by Rob Austin in his Audi at the final corner. Austin and his many fans would celebrate a well deserved podium whilst Shedden would curse his last-lap loss and Phil Crossman, well, he swore…a lot.

Watching a motor race with a Managing Director gave an intriguing insight into how those with a vested interest view the sport: Crossman’s passion was evident and his will for the red and white Hondas to perform was incredible, far more intense than your regular fan, and yet his enjoyment of good racing was clear, whether it involved a Honda or not.

With the rain subsiding – albeit briefly – Crossman headed for the garage and I headed for a burger van, where a surprise awaited me…

…not the sausage, bacon and egg baguette, dripping with barbeque sauce (although it happened to be by far the best food found at a racing venue so far his year, the sausages were divine) but rather, the Stormtroopers. You can witness some extraordinary things when at a motor sport event but a collection of Star Wars’ Stormtroopers is perhaps the most bizarre. As I soon discovered, the white-armoured troops were present to raise money for charity rather than invade Northampton – although Rockingham’s endless grey landscape is vaguely reminiscent of the Death Star, I suppose.

10

With various coins donated to the Sith’s cause and too many sausages consumed it was time to sample to hustle and bustle of Rockingham’s drab paddock; the dismally dull weather didn’t help.

With rain falling and commitments-for-drivers-when-not-in-the-car it’s difficult to hunt down a touring car star for a chat, but with one main tunnel with which to gain access to the paddock, there’s opportunity to conveniently ‘bump’ into drivers – somewhat more acceptable than lingering outside toilets, I’m told.

Team HARD racer Jack Goff strolled through the ’Rock’s’ long tunnel amongst an excitable and damp crowd. He was absent from the previous round of touring car races due to budget issues – as was I, something I made clear to Jack as to make him feel better about it. “Yeah, it was a shame to miss Knockhill”, Goff said. “But this weekend is going well, ninth in that first race was good and we’ll see how we go in the next two, should be fun with the weather”. With that, Goff jogged up the stairs far more athletically than I could and went back to a team in which he now finds himself as the most senior driver: following former team-mate Tom Onslow-Cole’s defection to the Airwaves Ford Focus team days before – a story which gained much publicity – the pressure piles on Goff to perform.

Goff would struggle in race two of the day, winding up 14th at the end, whilst a clear crowd-favourite emerged as a maiden race winner…

With the main grandstand full, it was from under an umbrella with questionable integrity at the roofless turn one grandstand that I witnessed Rob Austin launch from third on the grid to the very front before any contender had made it to the first corner. Despite the more experienced Gordon Shedden’s best attempts at hauling in Austin, it was the Audi that spurred across the finish line first, for the first time in Austin’s career. The crowd erupted, a noise like which I haven’t heard all year and the welcome sight of Austin stood on a dented car roof, arms held aloft victoriously, is the sight of the season so far.

RobAustin

While Austin struck gold and Shedden claimed silver, title contender Colin Turkington completed the podium. The real story however, was the DNF by Matt Neal, courtesy of a broken steering arm; Phil Crossman would be furious, probably. Neal’s DNF, Shedden and Turkington’s podium, Jordan’s eighth place and rather lacklustre results from MG’s Jason Plato made the championship table an interesting read, but with one more race of the day to go, it could all change before the team’s departure from Rockingham.

It’s difficult to dislike Rockingham when cars are on track; you really can witness every inch of action when positioned at the right vantage spot and it’s why I returned to the turn one grandstand for the final race of the day, umbrella well and truly broken now. If Andrew Jordan is serious about becoming the British Touring Car Champion of 2013 then winning Rockingham’s third race was the right way of going about it; it was another masterly demonstration to accompany his victory earlier in the day. Turkington and Plato joined him in that order on the day’s final podium and Shedden and Neal finished fifth and seventh respectively, right where they each started the day.

It all means that Jordan now leads the championship by an impressive 30 points over Gordon Shedden with 6 races to go. What’s more, the events at Rockingham mean I’ll return, for the sausages if nothing else. My opinion of the venue changed for the better as the day progressed; I can forgive Rockingham’s rather dull appearance when it offers an unequalled viewing experience. Let’s hope for less rain next time though.

BTCC 2013 continues at Silverstone of the 29th of September, i’ll be there too…

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