Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Going Through Church On Sunday

That, in case you are wondering, is Church, the fast right-hander before the chicane at Thruxton. The old Hampshire aerodrome is one of the relatively few British race circuits which I have never visited in the quarter century or so since I first went through the gate at Brands Hatch to watch qualifying for the 1985 European Grand Prix. I had never thought of the place as particularly interesting before, but as I sat watching the opening races of the British Touring Car Championship I began to revise my opinion.

Yes, it's not the most interesting looking circuit layout. From the right hander of Segrave which leads drivers out of the complex, it's essentially a long blast for a mile and a bit down to the chicane at Club. Yet, watching the touring car boys drifting through Noble and Church at between 120mph and 150mph, sometimes in a full-on four-wheel drift of a kind that one very rarely sees in front wheel drive cars, I began to see the appeal of the place. Leaving Rockingham aside for a minute, it is arguably the closest thing that Britain has to a high speed oval circuit, and with Silverstone long since emasculated, is almost certainly the fastest race track in the country (Silverstone has a faster lap record, but one should bear in mind that this record was set by Michael Schumacher in the all-conquering Ferrari F2004, while the Thruxton lap record is held by the rather less feted Earl Goddard, during a EuroBOSS race ten years back. It's fair to say that a modern F1 car in the hands of a professional driver would be frighteningly fast round the Hampshire circuit.

Yes, it's not quite an oval, but the way the cars followed and drafted each other through the series of fast, flowing corners reminded me of the best aspects of oval racing. And the chicane and the slow 90 degree corners near the beginning of the lap add overtaking opportunities which might otherwise be lacking and to my mind add to, rather than detract from, the circuit's appeal. The recent move by the circuit owners to build a spectator banking on the back stretch of the circuit is a big improvement too, providing spectators with an opportunity to watch drivers fight it out on the most demanding part of the circuit.

What, though, of the state of the series which kicked off last weekend? How has the recession hit Britain's most popular national racing series? The most immediate impact has been that a lot of corporate orange has been repainted sponsor-less white. Championship winning West Surrey Racing's BMWs have lost their RAC backing, while Halfords have deserted Team Dynamics, though the latter would appear to have some backing from the Honda works to continue to race their in-house developed Civic Type-Rs. The most telling sign that all is not entirely well in BTCC-world is that reigning champion Colin Turkington has not returned to defend his title because he couldn't find a drive. With teams not interested in drivers who couldn't either bring sponsors, or pay out of their own deep pockets, the Northern Irishman has been left high and dry. The works SEATS and Vauxhalls have gone, although both manufacturers maintain a presence on the grid through private entries, and just as West Surrey Racing continued to race its MG ZRs after the collapse of the Rover Group, Triple 8 racing are pushing on with their Vectras despite the loss of support from the troubled manufacturer.

Despite these losses though, there was some good racing, and while the back half of the grid appears to be made up of club racers with deep pockets looking for a bit of entertainment on a Sunday afternoon, there's enough competitive cars and drivers at the front to keep things interesting. Indeed, the variation in driver ability helps to show how important a factor it, as well as the machinery, actually is. Compare, for example, Paul O'Neill's third and fourth places in his ancient ex-Team Dynamics Honda Integra with what team owner and mobile phone entrepreneur John George was able to achieve with the same equipment. Equally, Mat Jackson and Fabrizio Giovanardi were a lot quicker than their inexperienced team mates. It's unclear whether Giovanardi, who has only a one-race deal with Triple 8, will see out the season, but at first glance, his dominant victories in races one and two suggest that he could well add another BTCC title to his CV if the money is found to enable to continue his campaign.

That, though, is to forget that the Vauxhalls have always been very quick around Thruxton, and Giovanardi's hit rate at the circuit is particularly high. Jason Plato's Chevrolet Cruze, a more modern machine, being run by the same RML team which runs the works cars in the World Touring Car Championship. And it is not only former champion Plato who might be able to take the fight to Giovanardi. Motorbase's Mat Jackson came close to winning the title a couple of years ago in his family-run ex-Priaulx BMW and Team Dynamics appear finally to have got their new-shape Honda Civic well and truly sorted, and Gordon Shedden took pole, while Matt Neal led until both Hondas shredded their tyres in the first race. The way that Neal progressed through the field in the second race suggests that he too could emerge as a significant title contender and I'd be surprised if Honda didn't regularly challenge for race victories later in the year.

In recent years, touring car racing has been tarnished by endless battles over the rules intended to equalise peformance between cars built to different rules. In particular, the WTCC has seen constant disputes over exactly what is required to ensure a fair fight between front wheel drive, petrol powered Chevrolets, rear-wheel drive petrol powered BMWs and diesel powered, turbo-charged SEATs. There are no diesel powered cars in the BTCC this year, but despite this, Alan Gow's TOCA organisation has arguable an even more difficult challenge on their hands. Not only is there the argument over how best to equalise front wheel drive and the theoretically faster rear-wheel drive cars, but there is the conflict between WTCC-spec S2000 cars, unhomologated BTC-spec S2000 cars (such as the Vauxhalls and Honda Civics), ageing BTC-spec cars (there are now only the two Techspeed Integras now, five years on from the move away from BTC-spec cars), the LPG-p0wered Arena Motorsport Ford Focuses and the two privately entered Vauxhall Vectras now running the standard-issue TOCA engine, a detuned turbo-charged 2 litre engine intended to provide more cheaply the same horsepower and all-round performance as the more expensive S2000-spec normally aspirated 2 litre engines.

It was impressive, therefore, that the only complaints to make the press last weekend concerned the long-ratio first gears that the BMW teams were forced to run in order to nullify the startline advantage the rear wheel drive cars had over their front wheel driven rivals. West Surrey Racing and Motorbase were rather upset by the fact that the first gear they were forced to run appeared not only to slow them away from the line, but to place a tremendous strain on their clutches. Certainly it sometimes seemed that the BMWs were actually considerably slower away from the line than their front-driven rivals. Given time, and perhaps orders for stronger clutches from Motorbase and WSR, I'm sure this can be sorted out. All in all, despite the sponsor-less cars, and in spite of the absence of the reigning champion, the BTCC still looks to be in reasonably good health, certainly when one compares it with the state of the series 10 years back, when the 'Supertourer' era came to an ignominous end with grids of just 8 or 9 cars. If nothing else, it certainly beats going to church on Sunday in my book.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home