• Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal out of luck in Northamptonshire
• Gritty performances yield top ten finishes on tough day at the office
• Honda retains sights on manufacturers’ crown with two outings remaining
Honda Yuasa Racing proved to be on the pace but out of luck as the 2014 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship visited Rockingham this weekend, with Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal denied the kind of results their speed suggested they were capable of.
Fresh from a popular podium finish on home turf north of the border at Knockhill last time out, Shedden planted his striking Honda Civic Tourer a competitive fourth on the starting grid at Rockingham, with team-mate Neal just a couple of tenths-of-a-second further back in ninth amongst the 31-strong BTCC field.
A feisty Shedden went on the attack early in the opening encounter, hassling fellow former champion Jason Plato for third position until a squeeze from his rival exiting Pif-Paf on lap four demoted the Scot to sixth and left him to contend with damaged steering for the remainder of the race. Thereafter fighting a rearguard action, eighth at the chequered flag was scant reward.
Neal was suffering even worse luck, with a fuel flow issue restricting his potential. After gamely clinging onto a points-paying position, the triple title-winner was ultimately powerless to prevent a slide down the order to 17th.
Surrounded by fast-starting rear-wheel drive machinery on the grid, both drivers conceded ground when the lights went out in race two, with Shedden completing the opening lap in 12th and Neal 18th. The duo raced well to regain positions, with the former battling through to another eighth-place finish and the latter working his way into the points in 14th.
Unfortunately for Shedden, that was pretty much where his weekend would end, as the 2012 Champion found himself removed from the action in an opening lap mêlée in race three. That it was his first DNF from 24 starts this season only served to underline his outstanding consistency.
Neal, by contrast, scythed his way artfully through the pack on the softer-compound Dunlop rubber. Slicing past his adversaries like the proverbial hot knife through butter, the Englishman was the fastest driver on the track at one stage and concluded his charge in ninth position.
“The car was good in races one and two,” reflected Shedden, whose misfortune saw him slip from second to third in the title standings. “We were looking really strong in the first of them until my steering got damaged. After that, we extracted the best that we could out of the situation, although two eighth places was evidently not what we had been hoping for.
“It all got a bit tight on the first lap of race three, and it was the usual situation where nobody is willing to give an inch. One driver came across the front of me and spun onto the grass, rejoining just in time to collect me again; someone else was then unsighted and hit me on the other side, which broke my steering and that was game over, unfortunately. Simply wrong place, wrong time.”
“After Snetterton last month, we knew this was going to be a tough weekend,” mused Neal, “but we didn’t expect it to be quite as tough as it has been. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying, but the dice just didn’t roll our way and the fuel issue that we had in race one left us on the back foot for the rest of the day.
“The first two races were a real struggle. At least I finally got to have some fun in race three – although I’ve never had to work so hard for ninth place before! The car was quick – especially through the technical section – and we had some really good pace on the soft tyres.
“I always say you’ve got to have the rough weekends to appreciate the good ones, and the bottom line is that the Civic Tourer is now better than the hatch ever was. The cards didn’t fall our way this time, but we need to look forward rather than back and there’s still plenty more racing left to be had this year.”
Honda Yuasa Racing Technical Director Barry Plowman concurred that it had been a trying weekend for the team in Northamptonshire, but with two meetings remaining – at Silverstone and Brands Hatch – he was quick to point out that nothing is decided just yet.
“It was a tough weekend and one that it’s fair to say fell a long way shy of our expectations,” he confessed. “As a team, we put the same effort in as we always do, but the results just weren’t forthcoming and that was doubly disappointing, because the Civic Tourer performed well and was fast and competitive throughout.
“Matt’s pace on the soft tyres in race three was clearly a positive, but it was frustrating for him and for us that he worked his absolute socks off to come away with only ninth position! This weekend was obviously a blow, but we will fight back. The main focus – as it always has been – is the manufacturers’ title, and the battle for that is not over by any means.”