Laguna blues

There has been some encouragement for our columnist of late, notwithstanding John Cleland’s current form…

I spent the bulk of last month chasing John Cleland’s Vauxhall Cavalier. Since I won the first race at the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, he has collected four victories in a row to move into a healthy British Touring Car Championship lead. I used to like the guy! My Williams Renault Dealer Racing Laguna remains a very good, very competitive car, however, and he’s still within my sights – except when my windscreen mists up.

Certain circuits seem to suit particular cars: for example, Donington Park has been very kind to Vauxhall over the last few seasons. Because of this, I was delighted to set the fastest time there during the official TOCA test. What’s more, my team-mate Will Hoy was my nearest rival on this occasion. Our hopes, therefore, were high – but they proved to be slightly misplaced.

The weather for the test had been very warm; generally, this means you have less grip. It was a lot cooler when we had to qualify and we had more grip; but Vauxhall, Volvo and Ford – even Honda – seemed to benefit more from the temperature drop, and they moved ahead of us. Our car felt very good in the fast corners, but not so good in the slow corners, where we had too much understeer. I qualified fifth and sixth for the races, and from that moment I knew the meeting would be a damage limitation exercise for me.

I made a pretty good start in the first race, but was forced to lift off because of a slower car in front. This meant I was fourth into Redgate. At the end of that lap David Leslie and John Cleland touched at Goddards, and I passed the former’s Honda to be third. And this is where I stayed until the finish. It sounds easy, but in the last few laps I had to fend off the Vauxhall of a very determined James Thompson.

The new wings have made it more difficult to overtake; you have to be 100 per cent sure of your move unless you want to do something silly and take someone, or yourself, off. James, however, is young, free and single. I’m not saying that he’s reckless – in fact, I think he’s calmed down since the start of the season – but he’s a young guy, he’s in a good car, and he tends to go for gaps others wouldn’t.

But I said to myself, ‘There’s no way this kid’s taking my podium position!’ I was very defensive, holding the inside line into the corners and slowing him down through the tighter corners. We touched once, but basically it was a good dice, especially as I was able to hold onto my place.

In the second race I got stuck behind Kelvin Burt’s Ford. I think I was quicker than him, but the Mondeo is so strong in a straight line that I wasn’t able to get close enough at the end of the straight to think about making a move. I was fourth throughout.

Cleland meanwhile, took two dominant wins to move ahead of me in the championship. I was not too despondent, though, as I was quite happy with the job I had done during the weekend. Also, towards the end of the second race, the winning Vauxhall was lapping about six-tenths faster than I was; this is a lot less than at the same race last year and so, in relative terms, we have closed the gap at that track. That must be worth a bonus point, surely? We could have done with it, because there were to be no points for us at Silverstone.

Again the TOCA test proved to be a little misleading: Cleland and Thompson were easily the quickest around the Grand Prix circuit, but in qualifying both Will and I were right up with the Cavaliers, as were Rydell and Radisich. Michelin had produced a new tyre for this race, and I used two of these to take provisional pole position on Saturday. I only did one timed lap during this session; it was nothing special, just a very clean lap that kept me in the top spot until the dying moments of qualifying.

He disagrees with me, but Cleland has upped his game in qualifying just lately. I believe that having a very quick team-mate has forced him to find a little bit within himself. I think he’s realised that, even if you have the best car, the competition is so close and overtaking so difficult, that you must be on the front row to stand a chance of winning. Certainly, he’s right on top of his game at the moment.

But I still felt I could beat him in front of the huge British Grand Prix crowd – nearly all of which had stayed on to watch the BTCC race. I wasn’t bothered that he’d gone faster than me in qualifying, for being second fastest had given me the inside run up to Copse. And I wasn’t even bothered when it began to rain as we sat in our cars before the start, for my win at Brands Hatch had shown that the Laguna is good in the wet. I was bothered when my windscreen began to mist up on the warm-up lap!

By the time we got back to the start I could hardly see the starting lights. My getaway was a bad one in any case – too much wheelspin causing me to back off and bog the engine down – but the screen just got worse and worse. I was third at the end of the first lap, but almost two seconds behind Cleland and Radisich. Then I missed my braking point at Stowe on the next lap and Will got past me on the approach to Club. After that I just slid down the field. I was hoping that the condensation might clear. But it never did. It was so frustrating.

Eventually I was black-flagged because of the problem, but I was going to pit anyway. And it doesn’t matter if you have a one-stop or a two-stop policy in the BTCC because they are both wrong!

The only good thing that came out of the race was that Rydell had exactly the same problem, and scored exactly the same number of points – none. So I’m still second in the championship, albeit 52 points behind Cleland.

This gap means that I have to start winning again at Knockhill this month. I like the track – I was victorious there last season – but it’s more important than ever to be on the front row because it’s so narrow. We had a two-day test there recently when the Volvos set the quickest times. But we know that the tests are not everything, and I’m sure it’s going to be very close.

As I said, I like John Cleland but it would be nice to disappoint his home fans.