Still chasing

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I said in my last column that if I was to stay in contention for the British Touring Car Championship title I must win at Knockhill. I did. But it could’ve been better.

I qualified second for the first race, and made a good start to beat Rickard Rydell’s pole-sitting Volvo into the first corner. Everybody had expected Rickard to win both races easily: he had been the quickest guy when we had a two-day test at the track the previous month, and throughout the week of testing leading up to the race he was the fastest man every time.

But I felt pretty confident all the same. When Volvo did their race runs it was not all that impressive. And this showed in the first race: he was maybe quicker in the first seven laps or so, but after that I was quicker. Not by much maybe a tenth or two but this meant I had quite a comfortable lead.

And then it happened. Approaching McIntyres, a tight downhill right-hander, my Renault Laguna’s gearbox broke and I was stuck in third. My race was over. We’ve used this gearbox for the last two years and we’ve never had this failure before a weld fractured on the selector barrel but that’s motor racing. I hope we don’t come to regret it at the end of the season. I was also on the front row for the second race in Scotland. This time I was just over a tenth slower than Rydell in qualifying. He’d been almost half a second up in the first session, but I’d had a problem with my brakes that had limited me to just two timed laps. We couldn’t quite match the Volvo over a single lap, but after my experience with the new Michelin tyre in the first race this gave my Williams Renault Dealer Racing Laguna improved turn-in for the slower corners while appearing to have a longer life – I knew I could beat him if I got a good start.

Rickard seems to have a real problem getting the Volvo off the line: I don’t know him well enough to say whether this is a problem in his brain or with the car, but it doesn’t really bother me as long as I get into the first corner first. Once I had accomplished this I was able to dictate the race from the front. It was good to win, but my earlier retirement is still playing on my mind.

As is Brands Hatch.

After my mixed result in Scotland, it was obviously important to gain a couple of strong finishes at Brands. It had looked promising during the TOCA test on Friday, and by lunchtime I was third quickest. We had a few small problems with my race car in the afternoon, so I drove the T-car, which had the same set-up. I didn’t do many laps, but I was able to do a high 46s despite small brake problems, so we thought that we’d be OK when I got back in my race car on Saturday.

But It just didn’t happen. I ended up as slow as I’d been on Friday afternoon. There were mitigating circumstances. In both sessions, what should have been my quickest lap the first flier was spoiled. In the morning Tarquini went off and there were waved yellows, and then smoke started seeping out of the dash, so I had to abort. In the afternoon, Cleland was going slowly on the circuit and inadvertently held me up.

My team-mate Will Hoy started at the front and scored his first win. I was left to fight my way through from seventh. Will had the set-up that Mark, my engineer, and I had worked out for the Grand Prix support race at Silverstone. At Brands, we didn’t get chance to try it until the warm-up, when I was quickest!

As I then expected, the car was really good in race one. I overtook Radisich at the start and passed Harvey going into Druids. A few laps later I went by Cecotto and then I caught the first three fairly easily. I could have gone a bit quicker, but the cars were very evenly matched mild I didn’t want to do anything silly. I just poked my nose inside Cleland three or four laps from the end, but I was happy to settle for fourth.

In race two, Tarquini came down the inside at Paddock so I opted to take the long way around Druids. But Cecotto was on the inside, and he just drifted wider and wider until I was on the grass. We touched a little, and it looked like he had started to go straight again when he suddenly turned left. I think he’d suffered a broken rim in the initial contact. so there wasn’t much I could do. I lust hit him and he spun around. After that, the car was not very good. The cambers were out, so it was a handful, but I thought I could still score a few points.. until the throttle jammed open on lap 14!

We don’t lift off when we change up in a touring car, but I felt something weird as I came out of Clearways. I had a feeling the throttle was stuck and braked a little early for Paddock, just to be on the safe side. It was just as well I did… I drove back to the pits on the ignition switch, and that was that.

Obviously that’s made the championship more difficult now. At the start of the year I wasn’t sure how to play the season. I hoped that I would be in a position to challenge for the championship, but I wasn’t sure how Williams would adapt to its new environment. I should have guessed it would do so very smoothly, and although I’d rather be leading the championship, I feel we’ve given a very good account of ourselves. Put it this way, there are six races left, and we’re still in with a chance.

I’m not sure which of my main opponents represents the biggest threat: one day I think it is Cleland, and the next I think it is Rydell. But if you look at the circuits we still have to go to — Snetterton, Oulton Park and Silvers tone National — you have to say that Ryden and Volvo will be tough to beat. But then the Vauxhall is a very good car…

Of the three of us, I think that Cleland has the most pressure. He’s been going round telling everybody how much winning this championship would mean to him, and I think he really means it. I’m not saying that this will be his last chance to win, but he knows that he’s not getting any younger and that he might not get a better chance to achieve his ambition.

At the end of the day, however, what your opponent does is out of your hands. All a driver can do is concentrate on fulfilling his part of the bargain. I am confident that Williams, with its budget, it professionalism, and history of winning championships, will give me everything I need to win the BTCC. I’m relaxed, I’m confident. and I think I am driving well at the moment that’s all I can be right now, even if we could do with a change of luck on the final run-in… Whatever, I certainly haven’t given up the chase. A M

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