Weathering the storm

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Life may have looked a tad chaotic in the BTCC of late, but there are some things the critics don’t take on board

It s not often that a driver gets to start from pole position five times in one day!

On the two occasions that the British Touring Car Championship has visited Brands Hatch this year the heavens have opened and chaos has ensued. When wet this track becomes more slippery than most, and incidents are bound to happen when you have 20 evenly-matched cars, weighing 1,000 kilos and running on nine inch rubber, fighting over the same bit of damp track.

I will agree that three red flags in one day is too many: it looks bad on TV and it is not what the spectators have stood in the rain to see. But I also know that no driver crashes on purpose. To race in these conditions is very difficult, which is something the organisers seem to forget. After the third red flag all the drivers were called to the front of the grid and given a very public headmaster’s lecture about driving standards. I don’t know what happened behind me, but where I was the driving was clean: there was contact, but it was normal stuff. And two of the incidents that caused the races to be stopped were people having shunts all on their own; Tim Sugden’s Toyota rolled at Clearways after its windscreen had misted up, and Rickard Rydell rolled his Volvo at Westfield because its throttle had stuck wide open. On the third occasion Nigel Smith’s Vauxhall Cavalier was stuck on the circuit at Stirling’s when they stopped the race, and perhaps it was better safe than sorry as there is no room for a car to be pushed to safety here. Is this dangerous driving? I’m not so sure.

Nor do drivers ignore red flags on purpose. I admit that I have a vested interest in this subject as I was endorsed and fined after the Brands Hatch race for just such an offence. It’s true that after watching the video I had to agree that I had missed three red flags in the first race. In my defence. I was concentrating very hard on staying on the track, while at the same time watching in my mirrors for the closing battle between Tim Harvey’s Volvo and John Cleland’s Vauxhall Cavalier. I was very busy. I eventually saw a red flag at Stirling’s the slowest and least demanding corner I had tackled since the red flags had come out and I slowed immediately. I was leading so there was no reason for me to make the race any longer than it had to be…

Even if the organisers expect everything to be neat and orderly whatever the weather, we drivers know differently, and I knew it would be vital to reach the first corner in the lead. A clear track in these conditions is crucial – it’s a huge advantage. I was first away three times out of the five, and two of these good starts were made in the first race, which I won. Twice wheelspin was my downfall in the second race and Cleland beat me into Paddock on each occasion. And at the third time of asking so did his young team-mate James Thompson. I believe that my Renault was quicker than the Vauxhalls in this race, but their combined spray made it impossible to overtake and I stayed in third throughout the race.

First and third gave me a good haul of points from Brands Hatch, but it was a little bit frustrating as I was leading after the first re-start of the second race – complicated, isn’t it? – when Rickard crashed. I am sure I would have won that race and, but for this, I would have been heading Cleland by 16 points in the championship instead of being two points behind him in second.

John’s Vauxhall is a very good car and over a race distance I still feel it’s maybe a little bit quicker than my Williams Renault Dealer Racing Laguna. But on the evidence of the last two meetings, I would have to say that we are both ahead of the Volvo. My Laguna has now proved itself to be good in the wet, and in the dry qualifying at Brands Hatch I was able to set my two pole positions with just three attempts at a fast lap. Ford appear to be struggling at the moment and, of the three main contenders, I think my car is making the most progress at the moment: Williams has been developing the car constantly and recently made great improvements to its turn-in.

But we are only halfway through the season. There’s a lot of hard work still to be done. It is important to be consistent right through the year: a few non-finishes can see you slip right down the order. In this respect I think Cleland is my main rival: his Cavalier has been right on the pace all year and he has the experience to make this count. And, unfortunately for me, I think he’s had his bout of ‘red mist’ already this year when he led into Paddock four times on one day without scoring a point back in April.

I chased him around Oulton Park earlier last month. I think I might have been able to beat him into second, too, but at the first start yes, this was red flagged as well! I was passing Rydell on the run up to Island when the Volvo edged me out onto the grass while flat in sixth! This damaged my steering for the restart and I had to make do with third behind John and Rydell.

In the second race at Oulton I made a really good start and was able to take my own line into the first corner. If you can do this and push very hard for the first few laps it is possible to open up a little gap early on. This is what happened to give me my second win of the year.

Pushing hard on cold tyres has always been one of my strengths. Tyre warmers are not allowed in the BTCC and, because the rear tyres on a front-wheel drive touring car have very little work to do, they tend to be very slidy in the first lap and a half. But I believe there is more grip than people think there is. My team-mates have said that I set my car up with a little more oversteer than they do, and that this helps. Maybe. I don’t like oversteering cars – but I can drive them I just set my car up to go as fast as possible. It’s a very fine balance.

The championship is finely balanced, too. Donington Park is next and this should suit my Laguna – and the Vauxhall, and the Volvo, and perhaps the Ford…

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