The UK’s premier motor racing championship – the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship – is set to boast its biggest grid in 17 years in its latest round of 2011 at the Rockingham circuit in Northamptonshire this weekend (17-18 September).
Michael Caine, previously a front-runner in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB, will make his BTCC debut in a third Ford Focus for the Airwaves Racing team that is fighting for the outright and Independent titles with its lead driver Mat Jackson.
Caine’s arrival means 27 drivers are expected to contest the three BTCC races at the Rockingham circuit near Corby this weekend. Not since 1994 has the entry for a BTCC event during the championship’s two-litre era that began in 1991 been as high and only once has it been bigger (for the British F1 Grand Prix’s support race in 1993).
Furthermore, with just nine out of 30 races to go this season – three at Rockingham, three at Brands Hatch, Kent (1-2 Oct) and three on ‘Finals Day’ at Silverstone, Northants (15-16 Oct) – 13 drivers can still mathematically become Champion.
Honda Racing pair Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal lead the way in their Civics but are separated by just one point. They are closely followed by Jackson and reigning Champion Jason Plato in his Silverline Chevrolet Cruze. Vauxhall Vectra rivals, 888 Racing with Collins Contractors’ James Nash and Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan are in the hunt as well. Rockingham is a home event for both Newport Pagnell’s Nash and Rugby’s Jordan and also preparation expert RML that runs Plato’s Chevrolet from its factory in nearby Wellingborough. Similarly for Jordan’s team-mate Jeff Smith, also from Wellingborough, and hard trying Bedford racer Chris James in his small ES Racing.com team’s Chevrolet.
At the front, though, all eyes are on Scotsman Shedden to see if, in these final three events, he can overcome Worcestershire team-mate and past double Champion Neal and lift the first BTCC crown of his career.
Fresh from attending the launch of Honda’s new Civic road car with Neal at this week’s Frankfurt Motor Show, Shedden said: “Sure, we’re getting to the business end of the season but, for me, it’s business as usual – I need to keep scoring the big points. Settling for three safe results at Rockingham would be suicidal because the others would eat me up in no time.
“With the championship in mind some people’s tactics on and off the track might change. I know from last year, when I came close to the title, that this is the hardest championship to win and that if you want to win it you have to be hard enough to put up with all sorts of games.”