It’s getting closer and closer to crunch time in the 2016 BTCC and as we head into one of my favourite BTCC rounds of the year at Rockingham the championship battle is looking more and more like a straight fight between Honda and West Surrey Racing/BMW. I always leave Rockingham with a tinge of sadness, as what had the potential to be one of the UK’s best race circuits has ended up being what can only be described as a white elephant sitting on the outskirts of Corby, but it does provide some of the, if not the best viewing in the whole of the UK, which makes it a perfect location to go touring car racing. It may not have the glamour and prestige of Brands Hatch, danger of Thruxton or roller coaster undulations of Knockhill but it certainly has been the setting for the odd piece of BTCC drama over the years. Matt Neal and Jason Plato might be able to tell you more!
Ahead of the action over the course of the weekend I’ve picked out what I think could be three of the biggest talking points ahead of rounds 22, 23 and 24 of the 2016 championship.
Jackson and Shedden Are Still In The Race
And boy what a weekend this would be for both drivers to really stake their championship claims. Before Tom Ingram claimed a historic podium in race three last year Rockingham 2015 was very much the Mat Jackson and Gordon Shedden show with Jackson leading home Shedden in race one, before we saw positions one and two reversed for the second race of the day. After fairly solid rounds for both at Knockhill, which critically kept both drivers in championship contention for at least this weekend at Rockingham a repeat of last year’s performances could see either, or both drivers clamber onto the heels of Tordoff and Neal.
It won’t be easy, but qualifying with less success ballast than their three championship rivals (Tordoff, Neal and Collard) should see Shedden and Jackson higher up the grid for qualifying and race one, which in turn should translate into stronger results. Both are still very much in the race, but need a repeat of 2015 to begin making inroads into the top two.
Crucial Bounceback From Collard
I said in my Knockhill roundup that Rob Collard’s clash with Colin Turkington in race three could, and probably will be one of the defining moments of his season. Had Collard not clashed with Turkington he would have most likely gone on to finish 2nd at worst, and as a result would have been at least 17 points closer to teammate Tordoff and Matt Neal. Qualifying with the third highest amount of success ballast is no doubt going to hamper Collard during races one a two, it has done all season, but Rockingham is track which does allow overtaking, and we all know just how good Rob Collard is at that.
What’s more concerning heading into the Rockingham weekend is Collard’s indifferent form at the Northamptonshire track over recent seasons. In 2013 Collard was classified 7th, DNF, DNF, his 2014 result card reads 11th, 9th, 6th with results from last year reading 18th, 28, DNS, an average finish of 13th place in his last six finishes at the Rock. A repeat of 2015 this weekend will surely make Collard’s chances of securing what would be an extremely popular maiden BTCC crown vastly more difficult, especially if Neal or Tordoff have a strong weekend so it’s back down to that all important qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Qualifying strongly and I think we’ll see a strong set of results from Collard over the course of Sunday, but another poor session qualifying around the 20th place mark could potentially spell trouble for Sunday afternoon.
Drama Never Far Away at Rockingham
A few years ago we had the now legendary/infamous (choose as you will) spat between Jason Plato and Matt Neal, last year we had an epic battle between Tom Ingram and Jason Plato and this year we arrive at Rockingham in the wake of yet another round of comments by Plato regarding his “borderline offensive” criticisms of the BTCC’s engine parity rules. Now, it wouldn’t be the BTCC without a comment, quote, disagreement over engine parity rearing it’s head every season but by my reckoning I think TOCA are doing a fantastic job. The racing we’ve seen this year is better than I can remember for a long time, and it can’t be an easy job trying to regulate a whole swathe of different cars and engines.
Team BMR, the Subaru works team have released a statement voicing their support of TOCA’s engine parity rules in the hope to quash any drama which could potentially result from TV interviews this weekend – a great PR move guys, let’s hope it works! I can understand Plato’s frustrations, especially when the Subaru project has been something he’s worked on for a number of years but I can also see the Subaru Levorg becoming the benchmark BTCC race car for a good number of years so I don’t think they guys over at Team BMR have got too much to worry about!
Given the form of Colin Turkington in recent races I think we can still consider the #4 a dark horse for this year’s championship, although his clash with Collard at Knockhill was damaging to say the least. I expect both Turkington and Plato to feature inside the top ten in both qualifying and races this weekend, the Subaru should be strong and another handful of podium finishes certainly isn’t out of the question.