With the dust having well and truly settled at Church corner and the furor over Thruxton’s safety having died down, the British Touring Car Championship returns to action this weekend as the field takes over the airwaves of the heart of Cheshire, embarking on the annual trip to Oulton Park.
With plenty of points of interest coming into the weekend, the five-week break afforded by the 2014 BTCC calendar before this weekend’s action also gives us our first proper chance to assess this year’s pecking order which, while tight in time, already seems to be clearly defined.
Reigning champion Andrew Jordan has looked every bit the part in the opening three rounds of the season, continuing his cool and composed style of driving as he bids to become the first back-to-back champion since Fabrizio Giovanardi achieved that feat between 2007 and 2008. Jordan tops most of the statistical charts this year but his three wins – including a maiden victory at Thruxton – demonstrate just how far he has come since his debut in the series in 2008, with each requiring a test of his mettle to hold onto first place.
Gordon Shedden and Colin Turkington are the 25-year-old’s closest challengers in terms of wins (two apiece) and in championship standing, their victories lifting them well clear of fourth- and fifth-placed men Matt Neal and Jason Plato, who have one win between them after Plato triumphed in the first race of the day at Donington Park.
Shedden and Neal’s standing this season has been dictated somewhat by the need to bed-in their new Civic Tourers, but the characteristics of the picturesque Oulton Park circuit are likely to play into their hands, with the fast, flowing bends demanding a car that is strong on mechanical grip and well-planted on track. Plato will also be confident of a strong showing, having won the first two races at the circuit last year, as he looks to restart what has so far been a stuttering championship challenge.
The layout for this year’s event differs from that on which Plato took two victories last year however, as the circuit’s ‘International’ configuration is to be used for the first time in the BTCC since 1996. The layout goes deeper past the Island hairpin where the cars previously turned to complete the back end of the lap, instead heading west to the famous banked Shell Oils turn, before negotiating the Britten’s chicane and heading back onto the Hilltop straight where the course rejoins last year’s track.
While only Neal and two-time champion Alain Menu are the only present day drivers who were on the grid the last time the series raced on the layout, a number of the machines they competed against on that day will be in action this weekend as the HSCC Super Touring Car Championship joins the support bill, with the likes of John Cleland returning to touring car action. ITV will also be providing live coverage of action of both races, with Saturday’s race following the BTCC qualifying session and Sunday’s race included in the raceday coverage on ITV4.
As for the current crop, the field looks set to return to full numbers after Robb Holland, who missed the last round at Thruxton after his shunt at Donington, confirming that he will be racing this weekend. The two drivers whose participation seemed in jeopardy will also make the party, as Simon Belcher’s crowd-funded repair efforts mean he will be present while Ollie Jackson’s Proton was repaired after a mammoth effort by his Welch Motorsport team, who completed their rebuild earlier today (Friday).
But with the chance of rain still a lingering prospect on Sunday afternoon, what is not yet clear is just who will emerge from the weekend victorious as we brace ourselves for another enthralling BTCC meeting.