• Sixth podium of 2014 keeps ‘Flash’ Gordon firmly in title hunt
• Matt Neal endures weekend to forget but vows to fight back at Croft
• Honda retains manufacturers’ lead as mid-point of season approaches
Gordon Shedden overcame a variety of challenges as the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship stopped off in Cheshire for the fourth outing on its 2014 calendar at Oulton Park last weekend – tallying a trio of top five finishes and a sixth podium of the campaign to keep both himself and Honda Yuasa Racing firmly in contention for title glory.
With Oulton’s International Circuit layout back in BTCC use for the first time since 1996, qualifying was a disjointed affair, as inclement weather conditions and a brace of red flag interruptions made it difficult for drivers to settle into a rhythm.
In the circumstances, Shedden did a superb job to place his Civic Tourer third on the starting grid for race one, but team-mate Matt Neal was not so fortunate, finding his final lap – his best by some margin – scuppered by a late accident for a rival that stopped the session prematurely, leaving him a frustrated and unrepresentative 14th.
Surrounded by fast-starting rear wheel-drive cars, ‘Flash’ slotted into fourth place early on in the opening encounter, thereafter producing a consistent and competitive run to take the chequered flag in the same position and further bolster his championship challenge.
His efforts stymied by the near-impossibility of passing around the International Circuit, Neal duelled with fellow BTCC title-winners Andrew Jordan and Alain Menu throughout en route to 14th.
In race two, Shedden found himself embroiled in a fraught three-way scrap over the final podium position. Pushing hard, fifth place yielded another very solid points haul, whilst Neal gained ground to cross the finish line 12th.
The last race of the weekend, as ever, saw the grid positions reversed, placing Shedden fourth – and poised to pounce. On a wet-but-drying track with the sun emerging but standing water remaining underneath the trees, the Scot took advantage of early errors from a couple of his adversaries in the tricky conditions to advance to second.
Giving chase to the race leader, he initially homed in at the rate of half-a-second-a-lap, but with grip levels at a premium and mistakes multiplying up-and-down the field, Shedden elected to sagely settle for the runner-up spoils, keeping firmly in-mind the bigger picture of a drivers’ crown at stake.
“That was a strange weekend,” reflected the 2012 BTCC Champion. “Of course, you’re always targeting pole positions, fastest laps and wins, but to come away from Oulton with a fourth, a fifth and a second was a really strong result.
“I don’t think anybody could have forecast how little overtaking there would be in the races. The nature of the circuit layout meant there was just nowhere to go in races one and two, which was hugely frustrating – so in hindsight, qualifying turned out to be absolutely vital. Fortunately, I was on the track at the right time with the right tyre strategy and in the right weather conditions – and ultimately, that was where my weekend was built.
“If qualifying was key, the races were all about grinding out results and bagging decent points – which is what I was able to do. There were a lot of quick cars out there – including us – and championship challenges are often based upon making the best out of tricky weekends.
“The Civic Tourer felt great; I worked it pretty hard to make up ground in the initial phases of race three, and it was brilliant to finish the weekend on the podium. We achieved what was probably the maximum we could have got from the three races – and the importance of keeping in the hunt like that at this stage of the season really cannot be underestimated.”
Whilst Shedden maintained second spot in the standings – just nine points shy of the lead – Neal’s nightmare Oulton Park weekend continued in race three, as the triple BTCC Champion found himself collected in somebody else’s accident at the very first turn.
That leaves him sixth in the drivers’ title chase heading next to Croft at the end of June, with Honda at the top of the manufacturers’ classification and a close second in the teams’ table.
“It was one of those meetings where nothing seemed to go right for me,” Neal rued. “I was on-course for the second row of the grid in qualifying when the red flags came out, and that really dictated the rest of my weekend. But for the early stoppage to the session, it would have been game on and most likely a completely different story.
“The car felt fantastic throughout, and that was probably the most frustrating thing of all because we just couldn’t do anything with it. We had a lot of pace; I was actually having to feather the throttle at the end of the straights because other cars were braking so early, but you simply couldn’t overtake.
“What happened in race three then just compounded it all, but I need to focus on the positives. We’re not even halfway through the season yet and I’m going to be light in qualifying for the foreseeable future. I’ve lost a lot of points, but like Oulton, Croft is another circuit I love and I’m confident that once we get there, I’ll be able to start clawing back some ground.”
“It was a difficult weekend,” echoed Honda Yuasa Racing Team Manager Peter Crolla. “It was a combination of the changeable weather conditions, the fact that the International layout didn’t really lend itself to passing opportunities and the similar performance balance between all the cars at the moment that makes for close racing but not a great deal of overtaking, sadly.
“Matt missed the sweet spot in qualifying; he was six tenths-of-a-second up on his previous best effort when the red flags came out at the end of the session. That hit him pretty hard – had he been able to complete the lap, it would have been night-and-day a different weekend for him.
“Gordon, by contrast, had a strong qualifying and from there he got his head down in the races, held it together and kept it on the black stuff to make the best out of what were a tricky couple of days. That means we’re still in good shape in all championship tables, so onwards and upwards as we turn our attentions to Croft.”