Racing against the BTCC's best

27th March 2014

It’s only a few days until the BTCC returns at Brands Hatch and the buzz is still growing. I’m just happy to be getting stuck in with one of the biggest and best grids we’ve had in a long time.

The media day test at Donington was frustrating with the weather spoiling any chance of decent running, but it is what it is. I think we’ve done well with our pre-season programme this year. Of course, we won’t know for sure until we get to Brands. A lot of teams like to shout about how quick they’ve been in testing but if you can’t back it up on race day you’ll look pretty stupid. Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut.

Racing against champions

A lot’s been made of the fact that there are seven champions on the grid so I thought I’d tell you a bit about what it’s like to go wheel-to-wheel with them. The driving standards in the BTCC have improved massively over the last few years, but these guys have been the benchmark for a long time.

Matt Neal’s so experienced that sometimes he’ll pull a move on you and leave you thinking, ‘bloody hell, that was good.’ If he’s caught you napping, fair play, you’ve had it. That’s happening less and less as I become a better racer but I still learn a lot from him. He’s been there and done that, he knows when to keep his nose clean and when to have a go. When I was following him in race one at Silverstone last year we were running through the pack and he was opening a lot of gaps for me. His moves were so impressive.

I’ve had a couple of dings with Matt over the last couple of years and they’ve been amplified by our relationship with the works team… plus I’ve known him since I was about six years old! He’s the last person I’d want to have a run-in with.

Gordon Shedden’s a bit more erratic and unpredictable than the other top drivers. He’s also incredibly aggressive, which can put him in a bad position during a race, but that’s no bad thing in itself. He’s won a lot of races and the championship because he’s a fighter.

Jason Plato’s got a bad reputation but I haven’t really had any run-ins with him, just hard racing. Some people made a lot of our race at Silverstone last year when I was on his tail the whole way but I thought it was cracking. There was a little bit of rubbing but frankly you expect that from all the front-running guys. I wasn’t going to cry about it; I’ve done worse to other people and they’ve done worse to me.

Jason’s hard but he’s fair. He’s not one of those drivers who you worry about in that respect, there won’t be any huge contact. Of course I don’t know what’ll happen this year but I don’t think he’s dirty. He’s just good at what he does, he knows when to do it and I still learn a lot from him. At Silverstone he knew I was faster through Copse so he was backing me up through there and he covered everything I tried.

Colin Turkington’s a very clean, fair driver. People have said he’s possibly a little bit too fair. We had an incident at Snetterton last year where I tried to dive down the inside and the gap disappeared. Some of the fans weren’t so kind to me on social media after that but Colin held his hands up and said it was his fault.

When Colin’s behind you you’re never worried about a stupid lunge, you can trust him. You can have good races with him and he’s excellent defensively while barely losing any pace, which is impressive.

I only raced against Fabrizio Giovanardi for two years and that was back when I started. We were team-mates at Vauxhall in 2009 but to be honest I wasn’t very good that year so I was very rarely on the same piece of track as him. One of the most interesting things about this season for me will be racing Fabrizio now that we’re closer together in terms of pace and experience.

He’s got a reputation for being very switched on, doing little things to control a race that you might not see trackside or on TV. If you’re in the car behind it’s a different matter; he’ll constantly make you hesitate on the throttle so everybody gets bunched up behind him. He knows how to play to his strengths.

When I worked with him at Vauxhall he knew exactly what he wanted from his car and it never took him long to figure out what was needed. Once he’d got his set-up sorted he was instantly quick everywhere so his chances this year depend on how quickly Motorbase can get the Ford working. They struggled last year after the boost equalisation was brought into line.

The only time I’ve raced against Alain Menu was on TOCA Race Driver but I’ve been watching him in British and then World Touring Cars for many years and he’s a real icon. He’s a really nice guy too: he texted me after the Brands finale last year to congratulate me and I’d never met him at that point.

He’ll be a real asset to the championship and really help to get those BMR Volkswagens towards the front with the experience and professionalism he brings. If I was a team owner he’s who I’d want in the car – if they’re getting good results it’ll be because of his input. From his point of view I think he’ll enjoy the challenge. At first I was a little surprised that he’d signed for an unproven team but with the crew they’ve got I’m sure they’ll get the car where it needs to be.

Driving an Aston and an Austin

In my last column I talked about the possibility of doing some GT racing in the future and since then I’ve been to Portimão for a go in one of Andrew Howard’s Beechdean Aston Martin GT3 cars.

It was different but very fun and it was an eye-opening experience. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, working with a new team, but it’s good to challenge yourself. Jonny Adam – Andrew’s co-driver – was also in the car so I had some good data to work with.

The Aston had a lot more downforce that I’m used to, not to mention the RWD layout, so it took a bit of time to get to grips with it. I did some night running which was a real culture shock. Portimão’s very up and down and some of the brows are completely dark until you get into the next dip – I was going around for about six laps missing my apexes. The atmosphere when you’re driving at night is great though, seeing bits of brake pad spark up in the corners.

I think I did a good job and the team were pretty happy with me so now I’m just trying to put together a deal to hopefully do the Spa 24 Hours. Fingers crossed.

This year I’ll also be doing some HRDC events and the Goodwood Revival with my dad in our Austin A40. We’ve been building it up over the last couple of years – we told my mum it was just going to be a runabout but I knew different!

I’m really looking forward to going racing with my dad again, it’ll be just like when we started. With touring cars you enjoy it when you do well, but you wouldn’t feel good if you finished seventh. You’re there to do well. With historic racing it’ll be nice just to enjoy the driving for the sake of it, although that theory might go out the window during the first qualifying session.

I’ll be checking in next month after the first BTCC round, hopefully with some good results to talk about. See you then.

Driver columns
Sébastien Buemi
Karun Chandhok

Dario Franchitti
Olly Gavin
Lucas di Grassi
Johnny Mowlem
Mads Østberg
John Surtees
Paul Tracy

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