At Donington on Sunday, the BTCC didn’t look like it would throw up many surprises. The drivers and teams you’d expect to be at the front finished there, with an all-Honda podium of Gordon Shedden, Andrew Jordan and Matt Neal in Race One.
Race Two was considerably more exciting, but it was still Jordan-Plato-Shedden at the end. The only revelation so far was that last year’s wild child Adam Morgan proved his performance at Brands Hatch was no fluke by coming home fifth in both races.
Back in the pack, Tom Onslow-Cole had finished 13th and 10th in his Team-HARD. Volkswagen Passat (yes, the annoying full stop after ‘HARD’ isn’t a mistake…). Unimpressive numbers on the face of it, but rewind two weeks and it would have looked like a miracle.
At the season opener at Brands, the cars arrived straight from Tony Gilham’s Gravesend factory on Saturday, having been finished that morning. Onslow-Cole qualified 17th and ran there or thereabouts all Sunday long, often struggling to overtake the S2000 cars.
Last week Gilham announced that they would be fighting for podiums at Donington. Nonsense, we all thought. No matter how much testing the team could throw at that car, it couldn’t be sorted that quickly, if at all.
Then, after Onslow-Cole fought hard for his 10th place in Race Two, he was drawn as pole-sitter for the reverse grid Race Three. Suddenly Gilham’s prophecy had come true, and he was feeling confident.
“It’s been a massive learning curve for us, but it’s been a good day,” he said before Race Three. “We were expecting some decent results coming into this weekend, based on the cars that we’ve built and the attention to detail we’ve put into them. We’ve had a shakedown test this week and we’re 90 to 95 per cent finished with them now.
“We’re sitting on pole position for Race Three at Donington on only our second weekend with the new team. It’s a very strong showing; Tom’s on front-running pace already so we’re very excited.”
Team-HARD.’s Vauxhall Insignias – driven by rookies Jack Goff and James Cole – were still looking rather raw, but Gilham was naturally proud of his star driver and car: “Tom’s a great driver. It’s why we got him on board, but it’s no good Tom being quick and the car being slow.
“By no means are we there, it’s not a finished job. But we’re making big jumps forward. On paper we’re a big team, with the number of cars we’re running and a fourth on the way, but we’ve still got a lot to prove. Hopefully we can get a good result in Race Three and really put ourselves on the map.”
At Brands, the Passat and both Insignias looked cumbersome, but Gilham was quick to dispel that notion. “They may look big, but at the end of the day all the cars have to weigh the same, and you’d be surprised at how light the shells are. At the moment, Tom’s running a slightly heavy car, what with the amount of work still left to do on it. But we’ve got great pace even with the weight, so it’s like we’re running full success ballast.
“We’re in a very strong position; Tom’s got what it takes and we’ve got what it takes as a team. If we can get all of those things working together, we’ll be onto something really special.”
In Race Three, Colin Turkington beat Onslow-Cole into Redgate on his way to a popular and well-deserved victory in only his second weekend back in the BTCC. Soon, Sam Tordoff was past too, followed by the Hondas of Shedden and Neal and Morgan’s Toyota. Onslow-Cole defended hard but could do nothing about the faster cars. Then came Plato, but the robust defence continued until the double champion was rebuffed.
The sixth-place finish might have been facilitated by the reverse grid, but both driver and car had the pace to stay there. If, as Gilham says, the cars are “90 to 95 per cent finished”, then we can expect to see them up there more often.