Club racing & beyond: 2018 BTCC and British Superbike finales

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Colin Turkington is confirmed as the 2018 BTCC champion, Leon Haslam takes the British Superbike championship and it’s the end of the season at Prescott 

Colin Turkington celebrates winning the 2018 BTCC title

Turkington celebrates

Regular readers might suspect a hint of bias, or else plain idleness, as Brands Hatch tends to feature frequently on these pages at this time of the year and lies but 25 minutes from my front door, but a) I still consider Oulton Park to be my home track, even though it is 200 miles distant and b) Brands is quite simply a magnet for wonderful stuff as the racing season draws towards its conclusion. And that’s without mentioning the Formula Ford Festival…

Brands Hatch

Autumn, officially the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Had Keats lived another 197 years he might have added ‘sportsmanship’ to that catalogue of charms, but sadly he perished while internal combustion was but a nascent technology.

By reputation the British Touring Car Championship is a slightly posher form of banger racing, but that myth ought by now have been laid to rest. Some contact is inevitable when you have 30-odd cars separated by a singular inhalation of breath around the UK’s relatively short circuits, but proximity is also a catalyst when it comes to showcasing the bygone custom of hard, fair racing.

The campaign’s closing 15 laps, featuring a wonderful battle between Josh Cook and Ash Sutton, underlined the point. The pair were never more than a fraction apart, frequently side by side and avoided any kind of deliberate contact before crossing the line just 0.032sec apart in Sutton’s favour.

The two of them might be mates, and thus less prone to acts of serial antagonism, but that doesn’t alter the facts.

With the title all but settled in Colin Turkington’s favour – a 22nd place finish in race two was enough to nudge the matter beyond Tom Ingram’s mathematical grasp – there was always the option of idling on a sofa with glass of Sauvignon close at hand and watching events unfold from a distance, but TV is ever a poor substitute for the real thing.

And there is no evidence that the BTCC’s accessibility on free-to-air telly serves as any kind of deterrent. Even arriving circa 8am, it was necessary to park slightly closer to Orpington than Druids due to the incoming wave of humanity.

The anticipation was absolute, the mood infectious – and the whole embellished by the ancient ritual of mechanical origami, folding deckchairs being slotted at the front of the spectator banks before sunrise to reserve a prime position for the day’s balance. The title fight might have looked lopsided, but that prosaic detail didn’t dilute the sense of occasion.

While there is nothing amiss with the headline act (during the weekend’s course, Dan Cammish became the season’s 17th different BTCC winner), the supporting cast could do with a refresh. Porsche Carrera Cup cars doubtless feel wonderful from behind the wheel, but their inherent efficiency seems rarely to generate compelling racing. Likewise FIA F4, wherein the cars are possessed of too much grip and lack the engaging body language of, say, a Hawke DL15 or Van Diemen RF79.

A demonstration of the Team Dynamics-developed Mean Mower V2 – a 190bhp, 150mph lawn trimmer – provided light relief and there was a great show of brotherly spirit among the customarily rough-and-tumble denizens of the Renault Clio Cup, championship rivals James Dorlin, Paul Rivett and Max Coates slowing to complete their cooling-off lap side by side, with thumbs aloft. And then there was the setting, all of this taking place adjacent to a sprawling, leafy canopy in which buzzard, nuthatch, wren, jay, ring-necked parakeet and greater-spotted woodpecker could be heard whenever cars peeled off.

The only thing lacking was a little imagination, the presence of a guest race or two to fracture the BTCC’s homogeneity, but there are worse places to have been.

***

There was perhaps thus a scintilla of inevitability about my return a fortnight later for the British Superbike Championship finale.

While Storm Callum ripped apples from trees and blew them into the River Wye, and caused roads to collapse in Wales, it subjected north-west Kent to no more than a stiff breeze, a pleasant complement to unseasonal warmth.

There’s a popular myth that concepts such as opposite lock exist only at meetings prefixed by the word ‘historic’, but nobody mentioned that to BSB riders. Seldom have the laws of physics been so elegantly defied.

Leon Haslam follows Peter Hickman at Brands Hatch in 2018

Leon Haslam chases Peter Hickman, en route to the BSB title

The first of the weekend’s BSB races – the only one run in properly dry conditions – proved to be as pivotal as it was engaging to watch. While Glenn Irwin (Ducati) edged to his first win of the campaign, narrowly clear of a brawling mob, Leon Haslam (Kawasaki) was an unusually low-key sixth. The following afternoon would produce his 15th victory of the campaign, but this relatively subdued opening salvo secured him the title for the first time.

One year earlier he had refused immediate medical care in order to hobble to the grid – with broken wrist, thumb and ankle after a 170-odd mph tumble – and compliment victorious rival Shane Byrne.

Small wonder that his success 12 months on was so graciously acknowledged by peers.

This is a world in which complete strangers wander up and say “hello” first thing in the morning, because – correctly – there is an assumption that all present are unified by a common passion. And this is also where sidecar crews exchange pumped fists at their race’s conclusion, not just from driver to passenger but also from chair to chair.

It’s camaraderie as an art form.

 

Prescott

Nick Allen's Austin 7 Shelsey Special at the 2018 Prescott Autumn Classic

Nick Allen’s Austin 7 Shelsey Special

There comes a point when traversing the front door is all that’s required for a bracing reminder that summer has officially expired – and this was perhaps it. The London landscape wasn’t quite dappled with frost, but sections of the A40 certainly were – and the road also featured a new chicane just before Cheltenham, in the form of an errant family of pheasants. There was just sufficient time and space to swerve around them and preserve Cotswold wildlife stocks at their existing level.

Prescott’s seasonal finale is known as The Autumn Classic, a name it shared with the concurrent race meeting only 50 miles away at Castle Combe – yet more evidence of UK motor sport calendar madness, though the hillclimb was a two-day affair so it was at least possible to attend bits of both events.

The first part of the meeting was a washout, but Sunday dawned beneath crisp seasonal sunshine – and Prescott rarely looks finer than it does at this time of the year.

In addition to the customary ranks of Ford Escorts and Minis (and Andrew Bower’s Bruichladdich Capri, a new one on me in its distinctive shade of British Racing Turquoise), the paddock was graced with much Americana – including flat-head coupés that didn’t so much tackle the course as lurch to the summit in a blaze of understeer.

A healthy entry of 500cc F3 cars crackled away, with their distinctive perfume of distilled Castrol R, and passers-by paused in the paddock to jive to songs belted out by the marvellously monikered Betsy Harmony. If there is a better stage name anywhere on the planet, I’d like to hear it.

Such are the occasions that give British motor sport its unique flavour.