INGRAM WINS, BUT HONDAS LEAD THE POINTS AFTER BRANDS HATCH
Three different winners, but one car stood out as a threat on Sunday.
The British Touring Car Championship was back with a bang last weekend.
There was a maiden winner in Tom Ingram in his Speedworks Motorsport Toyota Avensis, a victory for the reigning champion Gordon Shedden in his Honda Civic Type R and a popular triumph for Adam Morgan in the Ciceley Racing Mercedes-benz A-class.
The prevailing mood of the weekend was that Honda is once again at the top of its game. Shedden and team-mate Matt Neal took four podiums between them, and they sit top of the points pile already.
There were some strong cameos aside from the winners, with WSR BMW 125i M Sport drivers Rob Collard, Sam Tordoff and Jack Goff all with a decent chance of wins, and the Triple Eight Racing MG pair of Ash Sutton and Josh Cook showed revitalised pace from the MG.
But the writing is really on the wall for the rest: Honda has the crown, and it means to hold on to it.
There were lots of questions for Ingram to answer ahead of the opening race of the championship. He had set recordbreaking pace in qualifying to line up on his first pole of his career but could he resist the might of the factory Honda Civic Type R duo of Shedden and Neal behind? Ingram was twice a podium finisher in 2015, but could be make the breakthrough?
After 27 laps, he had resoundingly answered those questions with a yes. He held his nerve in to Paddock – allied to a sluggish getaway by Shedden – and soon pushed himself more than half a second clear of the rest.
Even after an early-race safety car period, to clear up Alex Martin’s battered Team Parker Racing Ford Focus from the Cooper Straight, Ingram continued to assert his dominance.
“I was keeping the gap at the level it was, because I was mindful of what had happened to Jason Plato at this meeting this season [when Plato’s VW CC suffered a heartbreaking puncture when he was leading],” said Ingram. “It was Catch-22. I wanted to push on, but I didn’t want to ruin things. But then, with about four laps to go, I decided to put the hammer down a bit.”
He wasn’t really under any pressure. Shedden was left trailing by 2.3 seconds at the flag. The reigning champion wasn’t really under any threat from Neal, either, as the sister car had dropped a few lengths behind after the restart on lap seven.
Shedden was, like Ingram, slightly concerned about the tyre wear. “I just wanted to make sure I banked the points and maybe we were a bit reserved there,” said the Scotsman. “I pushed hard early on but I wanted to get to the end. This is a great way to start the championship.”
Neal too was satisfied with the result, but was looking forward to seeing how the ballast would affect those around him in the second encounter.
Behind the Honda duo was the other star man of the race, MG’S rookie Sutton. He had lined up fifth in qualifying and slipped inside Tordoff at Druids on the opening tour. Form that point, he concentrated on keeping Neal’s bootlid in sight and crossed the line in fourth place after a brief mid-race place swap with Goff ’s BMW too.
“That was quite a baptism – there was a lot going on during the opening part of the race, but I wanted to go forward and I did,” said the 2015 Renault Clio Cup champion. “I was trying to keep hold of those in front, but I was learning all the time about the tyres and the way other people race. I had to make a couple of brave moves in to Druids to keep hold of fourth, but then I backed it off a bit towards the end.”
The reason Sutton could take his time was that it was his team-mate Cook running in his wheeltracks. Cook had forced his way inside Morgan’s Merc at the start of lap nine, and then jumped Goff at Paddock on lap 15.
Collard rounded out the top six, but that was only after lap two contact with team-mate Tordoff left him bemused. The pair raced in to Surtees side-by-side and Tordoff was spat on to the grass.
“I had got a run and he just kept coming over and over on me,” said Collard. “There wasn’t really any need for that.” As you would expect, Tordoff had the opposite view…
Aron Smith (Team BKR VW CC) made it to seventh place and delighted his team, which was making its debut in the category. Mat Jackson’s Motorbase Performance Ford Focus, which had been fitted with the soft tyres, was delayed by running wide in to the gravel on lap two. But, once he had gathered it up, he was on a charge. He sliced up to eighth by the finish and the team was pleased with the pace. Behind him, Morgan and Goff rounded out the top 10.
Motorbase weren’t, however, pleased with the performance of Andrew Jordan’s sister car. The driver was unhappy with a loose rear-end, allied to understeer. Further investigation after the race showed the engine was down on boost, which went some way to explain why he was restricted to 11th position.
A lot was expected of the brand new Team BMR Subaru Levorg machines but, in truth, they were too late on parade to deliver too much. In the opening race, all of them were struck by an issue with the ECUS, which detected too much heat in the engine and backed off the revs.
By that stage, Turkington’s run had been stymied by a midfield clash at Graham Hill Bend on lap two, while Warren Scott’s car was in the pits having a propshaft replaced.
James Cole pitted with the problem, but Jason Plato stayed out. The issue rectified itself when the air flowed through the engine bay. He finished in 21st position.
If Shedden thought he needed to push his Civic a bit harder in the second race, even he couldn’t have predicted what would happen. He managed to pick up his 42nd career win but it was due to dramas that happened ahead of him.
Ingram, now saddled with the softer tyres and 75kg of ballast, nailed his start and reached the crest of the hill at Paddock before anyone else but eyes were looking to his rear. From row three, Collard got his traditional lightning getaway to snatch second around the outside of Shedden as the cars turned in to the right-hander ahead, while the Scot was fending off his team-mate Neal.
Collard was not for hanging about. He knew that passing Ingram early on would be vital and he dragged alongside his rival across the start and finish line at the end of the first lap. The pair went side-by-side through Paddock with Ingram on the outside but the duo made side-to-side contact on the way up Hailwood Hill. The contact broke Ingram’s suspension, and Collard spun to the rear of the field.
Both, understandably, had differing opinions: “We had gone through Paddock together and then Tom just kept moving over on me. I had the advantage and surely he knew he had to concede, but he just didn’t. Why didn’t he give me room?” asked Collard.
Ingram was dejected too. He countered: “We had the room to go up there side-byside, but Rob just felt he had the right to be there and we touched. I am just disappointed really.”
All that was to the benefit of the Honda pair. Shedden and Neal motored around the outside of the stranded cars over the course of the next few corners to scamper clear to the team’s first one-two of 2016.
“It was getting a bit congested with Tom and Rob off,” said Shedden. “I thought they were going to collect me, but I just managed to make it through on the outside. After that, it was all about getting my head down and escaping.”
Neal, following, was comfortable but, with five laps to go, there was drama. An unidentified culprit dropped oil at Graham Hill Bend and it nearly came apart for a lot of drivers.
“I radioed the team – as did Gordon and just the same time – saying that I thought I had a right-rear puncture,” explained Neal. “There was certainly some panic in the team at that stage. But, when I got to the next corner, it was clear it wasn’t a puncture, so that was a relief.”
With Collard and Ingram exiting stage
left, Cook was able to run in third in his MG. He had the softer tyres too, as did his pursuer Aron Smith. The VW man got a run on Cook coming out of Clearways as the cars rushed to start lap seven and the Dubliner made it ahead.
Worse was to follow for Cook as he fell prey to the Motorbase Performance train of a rejuvenated Jordan and Mat Jackson, who teamed up to demote the MG twice at the start of lap 10.
That seemed like it would be the order set until the slippery surface mixed things up late on. Jackson erred but held on to his spot, while sixth-placed Cook and his team-mate following him, Sutton, both explored the scenery.
Sutton regained the Tarmac for sixth place, ahead of Goff, Morgan and Tordoff, who had powered up from 16th on the grid. He would be glad he did too, because it landed him a reversed-grid pole position in the draw, conducted by former champion Robb Gravett.
One of the most heartbreaking stories of the race was Jake Hill’s retirement from a solid 10th place in his Team Hard Toyota Avensis, which would have represented a career best for him. Unfortunately, he was thwarted by a fuel pressure sensor on lap 15.
Making the flag with smiles all around was the Subaru pairing of Plato and Turkington. Both were scything through from the back after the problems in the opening race now well behind them.
Plato managed to claw his way in to the points-paying positions just after half distance, with Turkington then passing him, and Plato benefited when some ahead struck the oil. He finished 13th to land the programme’s first BTCC points.
The car’s designer, Carl Faux, explained: “This is nothing more than an extended test and we are learning every time we go out. But it seems we are learning well, which is good news.”
With Tordoff on pole and running the standard tyres, as opposed to the softer rubber, the smart money was on him to bank a comfortable win in the final encounter. Also a bonus for him was a drop in the ambient temperature, which meant that those on softs – which was five of the other rivals in the top 10 – were going into a race with conditions that are less favourable to the more perishable rubber.
But that was all counting without the incredible Morgan and his MercedesBenz. Tordoff did launch well, but Morgan used the incredible traction out of Clearways at the end of the opening lap, when Tordoff was still getting heat in to the rubber of his rear-wheel-drive car’s machine, to launch an assault. It worked as the cars dived in to Paddock Hill Bend.
A two-lap safety car to clear up some errant backmarkers did not give Tordoff a chance to generate any heat into his normal rubber, and Morgan made good his escape when racing resumed on lap five. While Tordoff and Goff stayed in his wheeltracks, there was no unseating the hatchback ahead.
“I was in tyre preservation mode from the outset, thinking about how the rubber would last,” said Morgan. “I knew the BMWS would come on strong over the closing period of the race, I had worked out where they were stronger, which was at Clearways. So long as I defended in to there, then I knew I would be OK.”
So Morgan chalked up his third career win. The WSR cars behind, with Tordoff ahead, were being carefully controlled from the pitwall.
Team principal Dick Bennetts explained: “Sam was free to have a go for the lead because we had spoken to Jack and we knew he wouldn’t attack. But over the closing stages, Jack got on to the radio to us and told us he was faster. It was a tough conundrum, but we managed it…”
The fight for fourth place was resolved in the final few yards when Jordan managed to sneak his Ford Focus down the inside of Neal’s soft-shod and 66kg-heavy Honda. It was a feat he managed by 0.037s.
“I could feel the rubber going off,” said fifth-placed Neal afterwards. “It was shot. I thought I had enough in hand, but it just wasn’t there – by a fraction.”
Jordan’s race had been robust from the start, when he and team-mate Jackson had barged in to each other at Paddock on the opening lap – a move that ultimately led to Jackson getting a puncture. There was a bit of ill-feeling knocking around the Motorbase Performance garage afterwards…
Behind Neal was Collard, who had driven a stunning race up from 16th on the grid. His launch was once again the best on the grid and he was on the soft tyres, which worked well and gave him the chance to power to sixth. It was just as well they did too, because Jeff Smith was closing in fast over the closing stages in his Eurotech Racing Honda Civic Type R. He took seventh.
The biggest name missing from this list is Shedden. The race two winner, who had been saddled with 75kg of success ballast, was also on the soft tyres so he knew he would suffer some pain.
When it came, it was the nastiest of pains. He was seventh after 15 laps, but knew something was wrong.
“I could feel the tyre going,” explained the double champ. “I was falling back but obviously I had the maximum weight and I didn’t know what the problem was. Then, when I got to Paddock on lap 21, it went. I have had bad weekends at Brands Hatch before, and this wasn’t the worst! We’ve taken a win, so I will have to take what happened in race three. Still, we look forward.” ■
Shedden won the second race Ingram celebrates his first victory in touring cars
Ingram’s weekend goes off the rails after contact with Collard in race
Morgan was on top in race three
Jackson (7) and Jordan (77) head for trouble