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Column: Oulton preview – battle resumes

Photo by a five-week break, the British Touring Car Championship returns to action this weekend as the teams head to Oulton Park for the fourth round of the season. Another strong showing at Thruxton means that Matt Neal now leads the Championship, but will he be able to continue his charge at the top or can the MG’s return to winning ways in the North-West?

A stalwart on the calendar, Oulton Park has played host to the championship for more than fifty years, and is typical of a number of the tracks on the calendar as it requires the drivers to be committed throughout the lap. Run on the shorter ‘Island’ configuration, the seven-turn, 1.66 mile circuit is full of undulations and a firm favourite among both fans and drivers. Last year saw Honda sweep to three victories, with Gordon Shedden’s race two win splitting a pair of triumphs for Matt Neal.

Tyre selection is back on the agenda after the teams were not required to run the soft compound at Thruxton (due to the high-speed nature of the circuit) and it will be interesting to see which race each driver chooses to run them in. At the season-opening meeting at Brands Hatch, run in particularly cold temperatures, the soft tyre appeared to suffer particularly badly towards the end of a stint, but they seemed to hold up better at Donington Park a fortnight later. With air temperatures expected to be around 20 degrees and those on track even higher come race day, it will be intriguing to see how well the tyres last.

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The dream scenario for Honda would be to repeat their three victories from last year, but while the records show wins in every race for the outfit, those victories were the only podiums that both drivers scored during that race meeting, and the biggest winning margin was in the second race of the day for Shedden, who crossed the line 1.2 seconds ahead of Andrew Jordan.

That said, both Neal and Shedden will be confident coming into the weekend on the back of a fine outing in Hampshire, with Neal moving into the lead of the championship with two wins and a second place and Shedden continuing his revival after a disappointing start to the season. The Civic has tended to be the quickest car at Oulton in the past couple of years, so don’t be surprised to see the pair out front, with the Pirtek Hondas Andrew Jordan and Jeff Smith also in close company.

Jason Plato lost his lead in the championship for the first time in the final race of the day at Thruxton, but he will be as confident as ever coming into this weekend. With only a failure in the dying laps of the final race of the day preventing him from racking up a third victory of the season last time out, Plato is well aware that he has arguably his best chance to win the championship since his last title in 2010 this season, and he will be eager to add another victory to his collection at Oulton Park. Sam Tordoff doesn’t quite appear to be at that stage yet, but it is early days in a debut season that has already won the young driver a number of admirers.

Airwaves Racing finally had reason to cheer after Thruxton as the showed encouraging pace throughout the weekend, which was reinforced by a fifth and seventh place finish for Aron Smith and Mat Jackson respectively in the third race. During the break the team tested their third NGTC car in a bid to eek more speed out of the machine, but a podium still looks slightly out of reach for the squad as they look to their strong form of last season.

Tom Onslow-Cole was arguably the driver of the day at Thruxton in his ever-improving Volkswagen Passat, as he finished on the podium twice  before adding a fourth place finish in the final race of the day. Having started the season battling among the S2000 machines, Onslow-Cole’s upturn in form as seen him leap into the top ten in the Championship standings, and his aim will surely be to emulate that form again this weekend.

Rob Austin spoke with renewed optimism that he can join Onslow-Cole in challenging the established teams at the front of the field after a difficult couple of rounds for his squad. Incredibly, since his podium in the opening race of the season, Austin has only managed one further points finish, a 14th place at Donington Park. With a sizable break in racing offering a chance for testing, however, Austin believes that his Audi will be able to offer more this weekend.

The heat is higher than ever in the S2000 class too; Lea Wood showed just what his Vectra is capable of with two victories in the class, racing with the NGTC machines for much of that time, while Liam Griffin added another victory to his name after using all of his tactical nous to use the ailing Audi of Rob Austin to act as a buffer between himself and the rest of the class in the first race of the day at Thruxton. He and Wood share the lead of the class, but they cannot afford to be at all complacent in such a competitive group. Joe Girling’s ‘class pole’ at Thruxton showed just how much progress his M247 Racing team have made since the start of the season, and the debut of Aaron Mason in place of the absent James Kaye at AMD Tuning will add another element of interest to the battle in the Jack Sears Trophy.

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