Trio of tin top legends battle it out in Cheshire

The three most experienced tin top drivers in the 2015 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship produced enthralling performances in qualifying at Oulton Park today (6 June) as Jason Plato pipped Matt Neal and Andy Priaulx respectively to claim the 48th pole position of his BTCC career.

With no fewer than nine major touring car championships between them it was the dominant Plato who showed his hand first with a 1:25.974s lap time. The double BTCC champ went on to take another chunk of time off the lap record but any chance to repeat the performance was seemingly scuppered by a brake fire in the pitlane. It wasn’t a major issue for Team BMR and the VW racer was able to return to the action in the final minutes, although he was unable to improve his time.

Incredibly as the marshals were trying to keep Plato’s VW CC cool in the pitlane his old adversary Matt Neal was on an absolute flyer round the 2.22-mile Island circuit. The Honda Yuasa Racing driver crossed the line just 0.011s off the ultimate pace, so it was over to Priaulx to see what he could do.

The Team IHG Rewards Club driver didn’t disappoint as he set the fastest second sector time of anyone. He blasted out of Lodge, up the hill and across the line to see he had fallen short by an incredibly close 0.071s. So it was joy for Plato as he edges towards a half century of BTCC pole positions, but this was his first for the fledgling Team BMR squad.

The session was fast becoming a last gasp shootout as MG Triple Eight Racing’s Andrew Jordan claimed fourth while championship leader Gordon Shedden hauled his Type R to fifth on his final tour by setting exactly the same time as the MG6 ahead of him – an impressive lap from the Scotsman considering his Honda is carrying maximum success ballast.

Colin Turkington and Aron Smith had proved inseparable for much of the day and that theme continued into qualifying as the Team BMR duo had to settle for sixth and seventh respectively, nearly half a second slower than stablemate Plato.

After his MG6 failed a mid-session ride height test Jack Goff had it all to do in the final moments. Performing under intense pressure and with only two flying laps available to set a representative time, the young gun can be pleased with his eighth placed effort.

Tom Ingram was another leaving it late to set his best time as he claimed ninth in the Speedworks Toyota ahead of the Thruxton race-winning WIX Racing Mercedes of Adam Morgan. It is of note that the top ten drivers were all within the previous lap record.

WSR’s Sam Tordoff will have been slightly disappointed with 11th while his multiple race-winning team-mate Rob Collard could only manage 19th, albeit only just over a second slower than the pole time. Martin Depper again performed well to take 12th for Eurotech ahead of Power Maxed Racing’s Dave Newsham.

It was an important session for Inverness-based Newsham as he saw off the challenge from his rookie team-mate Josh Cook. The battle for Jack Sears Trophy honours looks set to be extremely interesting tomorrow as Cook edged out Mike Bushell’s Ford Focus by just 0.010s. Despite the closeness Bushell will be starting at the back of the grid after being penalised for his part in the accident with Simon Belcher at Thruxton.

27 of the 28 entries completed laps although the Proton of Andy Wilmot suffered with an unknown problem. RCIB Insurance Racing’s Kieran Gallagher was unable to take part with his team busy carrying out an engine change ahead of tomorrow’s action.

Jason Plato said: “It was a little bit closer than I thought! I knew that the Hondas would come out of the blocks eventually – they’re not normally early risers but when it matters they turn the taps on. I had a 1:25.3s lap in the car and I should have done that, but I made a mistake at the hairpin. I think that was a great qualifying session because Matt [Neal] would have been on the ragged edge to do that time and so was I. It’s amazing – the two old guys on the front row, at least I’m the right side of the couple of thousands of a second that split us. It’s going to be great – hopefully we’ll be able to keep Andy [Priaulx] behind us off the line because I wan’t to have a great fight with Matt for the win tomorrow.”

Matt Neal said: “I’m really really pleased – I didn’t expect that we’d be that close to the front. On the lap I came in I was slightly up but I tried to play it a bit safe and you just can’t afford to do that in the BTCC. When you take the weight into account it’s even better. Jason [Plato] is carrying some too and I think we’ll see a few surprises tomorrow. We’ve got Andy [Priaulx] back at the front who will be fast starting and could be a pain. It’s shaping up nicely for tomorrow, I’ve done a lot of laps around Oulton Park – in fact the first team I ever drove for was based not far away in Rochdale so it’s something of a second home track. We’ll give it a go at getting past Jason!”
Andy Priaulx said: “I would definitely have taken third if you’d offered it to me this morning. Coming here a lot of people were talking about how it would be a good circuit for us. I’m very happy to be where I am but I’m also a little bit disappointed because I think with the perfect lap, pole was possible, and we’ve also got to remember that we’re running light. Both Jason [Plato] and Matt [Neal] in front have got ballast on the car and we don’t – Rob [Collard] was strong here last year and he’s 19th now so we need to look into that. I really drove the wheels off the car – there was nothing left in the tank. It could be interesting at Old Hall tomorrow – I’m never going to say I’m comfortable, but Matt and Jason are racing for the championship and I’m not. If they want to risk it for a biscuit then let’s see what happens – I just want to win races and please the crowds this year, fighting for the championship isn’t realistic so I just want to get onto that top step.”
Andrew Jordan said: “The car has turned a corner – we’ve made good gains. The guys around have got weight on and are still ahead so we need to keep working, but the thing I’m most exited about is our race pace – the car felt really good on its tyres on the long run in practice. We’ve managed to get good points out of our bad weekends so far, so hopefully starting where we are tomorrow we can have a good day. We’re only 15 points off and it hasn’t been a great start, so if we can move the pace up a little and keep the consistency we’ll be right back in it. I’m thinking bigger picture at the minute – a few years ago it would really have bothered me that I hadn’t won a race yet, but at the moment it’s all about consistency. I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made as a package – we can go on the attack now rather than having to defend.”

Gordon Shedden said: “It’s good, it’s just a shame we got blocked on the last lap again – it keeps happening! I had no choice, I was running out of time to start my last lap and it’s one of those things. I think it’s tough out there, to start fifth and on the third row with 75kg of ballast I’m happy with, but as ever you always want a little bit more! As the weight of cars fluctuates as the day goes on tomorrow there will be plenty of others with the problems that I’ve got now.”

Colin Turkington said: “We’re relatively happy – the car is strong but we’ve been a few tenths shy of where I want to be all day. I’m not sure how much weight is affecting the car – I think if we can improve the balance a bit there will be some more speed. There’s a bit of time in the car and a bit in me at the moment – overall we’re there or thereabouts. I like Oulton Park and I always enjoy racing here – the car is really strong, I was worried we might struggle with traction in the FWD car but it’s been really good. I want three more solid scores – I don’t know if we’re quick enough for wins but the package is strong.”