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Croft preview: Honda out to defend

Rounds 13, 14 and 15 of the 2012 British Touring Car Championship take place at Croft, North Yorkshire and the weekend marks the last opportunity before the summer break for a team or driver to secure a victory or best result of the season.

The Croft weekend last year saw Matt Neal and Mat Jackson share the victories while it was Neal who led the Championship going into the summer break.

It was Neal and Jackson who was involved in one of the closest finishes of the season around the Croft circuit – the damp to drying opening race saw Jackson start with slicks on the front while Neal was wets all round. Neal finished 0.055s ahead of Jackson. Neal went on to win the second race of the day while Jackson secured his third victory of the 2011 campaign in the final race.

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Last time out at Oulton Park, Neal and his Honda Yuasa Racing Team team-mate Gordon Shedden shared the victories as they moved into the lead of the drivers’ Championship. Shedden holds a slender five point advantage over his triple Champion team-mate.

Neal has won four times around the North Yorkshire circuit while Shedden has two wins and the team has won eight of the twelve races to date in 2012, Shedden leading the way with five victories while Neal has three.

With eight wins from 12 races is the question is: can anyone defeat Honda, despite them running a lower turbo boost than anyone else?

Hot on the tails of the Honda duo is the MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 of Jason Plato. Despite only having a single victory to his name, the double champion’s consistency is keeping him in the hunt. He bounced back from a no score in the opening Oulton Park race with a double podium finish but finds himself 12 points behind Shedden.

Team-mate Andy Neate had his best result of the season at Oulton Park in the #44 MG6, as he secured a seventh place finish in the opening race before his bad luck returned and he failed to finish the other two races.

Another driver who secured his best result in the series was Dan Welch at the wheel of the Welch Motorsport Proton Persona. Having qualified a career best eighth, he brought the #12 car home sixth in race one which he bettered once again in race two, as he finished fourth overall and had been running inside the top three until the last few laps.

Lea Wood in the BINZ Racing Vauxhall Vectra also secured his best result in the BTCC as he finished inside the top five in the final race. His previous best result had been a seventh place finish, which he secured in the Honda Integra last year and in the second race at Oulton Park this year.

Another driver to record his career best finish in the BTCC at Oulton Park was Liam Griffin in the #6 Redstone Racing Ford Focus. He kept his nose clean to bring the car home eighth in the second race which led to a front row start in the final race. His weekend was interrupted with a retirement either side of his eighth place finish.

Redstone Racing team-mate Mat Jackson had a fraught weekend at Oulton Park. The #4 Ford Focus driver was celebrating his birthday on race day and he left the circuit with a best result of fifth and dropping down the standings to sixth, while Aron Smith in the #5 car had a troubled weekend and failed to score a point over the weekend.

Jacksons difficulties at Oulton Park has seen him drop behind the eBay Motors BMW 320si of Rob Collard, who is now the only driver to have scored points in all 12 races run to date in 2012.

He led both the first two races and secured his first podium finish since his Brands Hatch victory in race one and rebounded from his race two altercation with Jackson to secure another top six finish in the final race.

Tom Onslow-Cole also secured his first podium since Brands Hatch with a third place finish in the final race, having led the way during the early stages and then defending from Shedden in the closing stages. Nick Foster had a solid weekend in the #18 BMW and secured a trio of top ten finishes.

Andrew Jordan in the Pirtek Racing NGTC Honda Civic rebounded from his disastrous Thruxton weekend with a double podium finish in Cheshire, following home a works Civic in each of the first two races before his weekend ended heavily in the barrier.

His double podium finish was enough to move him into the top five overall in the drivers’ Championship and back into the lead of the Independents drivers’ points.

The sister Pirtek Racing Honda Civic of Jeff Smith had a troubled weekend but he held on to his top ten Championship standing with a 12th place finish in the final race of the day.

Croft will see Rob Austin Racing run both their NGTC Audi A4’s as Rob Austin rejoins the series having sat out Oulton Park. He partners Will Bratt, the former single seater ace having an impressive debut with a brace of points finishes in the #14 A4, and Austin believes that a podium finish was on if Bratt hadn’t retired in the second race of the day.

Croft marks the first time since Silverstone last year where the team will run both their cars and it was the same weekend in 2011 where the team started to turn their fortunes around and unlocked some extra pace from the cars.

One team looking for a change in luck is Speedworks Motorsport and Adam Morgan. Out of the 12 races run in 2012, he has scored points in two, not started two and failed to finish all the others. He has shown speed and potential during the free practice sessions and needs a clear, incident free weekend.

Joining him in the team for Croft is former BTCC race winner Paul O’Neill, in the car normally raced by Tony Hughes. Hughes had his and the teams’ best weekend to date at Oulton Park as he secured a trio of points finishes, including a career best result of 12th in race two.

Due to prior commitments on Croft raceday, Hughes has had to stand down and has handed the car over to O’Neill, who will be keen to impress after he found himself without a 2012 drive. Morgan will be looking to learn from O’Neill and secure three solid finishes to head into the mid season break on a high.

Another team looking to bounce back from a difficult weekend in Cheshire are Dynojet and Frank Wrathall. The #11 Avensis driver finished all three of his home races but only secured a single outright top ten finish having been grass cutting during the opening two races.

He will hope for an upward turn in fortune this weekend – it was at Croft last year where the full potential of the NGTC cars started to come to the fore and if it wasn’t for some bad luck, Wrathall would have had some points.

Ollie Jackson in the Volkswagen Golf has had a tough season to date but he secured a trio of points finishes at Oulton Park, and has scored in six consecutive races now. He is still to secure another top ten finish after his eighth place at Brands Hatch. A change of fortune is on the cards for Jackson and Team Owner Shaun Hollamby. Hollamby drove the car at Croft last year, his appearance in the BTCC.

Tony Gilham in the Team HARD. Honda Civic continues to have a solid season as he secured another two points finishes in the #34 car, and a good weekend could see him head into the summer break inside the top ten in the Championship, while Team ES will look to continue their strong second season in the BTCC.

Dave Newsham continues to drag the most of his Vauxhall Vectra while Chris James continues to try his hardest and his efforts were rewarded with a double points finish at Oulton Park.

As was the case for Thruxton and Oulton Park, John Thorne and the Thorney Motorsport team will not be at Croft, and they intend to return to action at Snetterton in August.

With Honda being the form team, can anyone stop them from securing yet more victories with their Honda Civic or will the circuit of two halves throw up some surprise results?

Who will head into the summer with a smile on their face after securing a victory at Croft?

TouringCars.Net will have full coverage of Free Practice, Qualifying and the races plus coverage via the official TCN Twitter feed: @touringcarsnet, while coverage will be on ITV4 from 11.30 Sunday morning until 6.30pm.

Free Practice 1 is due to get underway at 9.30 Saturday morning with the second session due to get underway at 11.50am. Both free practice sessions will run for 40 minutes, while the 30 minute qualifying session will start at 15:05.

The first of three 15 lap races gets started at 12.02, with round 14 at 14.37 and round 15 at 17.12.

Touring-Cars.Net Croft Predictions:

Pole Position: Gordon Shedden

Race 1:
1. Gordon Shedden, 2. Matt Neal, 3. Jason Plato

Race 2:
1. Gordon Shedden, 2. Matt Neal, 3. Andrew Jordan

Reverse Grid Pole Position: Paul O’Neill

Race 3:
1. Mat Jackson, 2. Tom Onslow-Cole, 3. Rob Austin

Fastest Lap: Gordon Shedden

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