BTCC 2014: Croft Preview

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IT’S NOT without controversy that the BTCC circus heads north to Croft this weekend.

Much of the disquiet stems from a slightly tepid fourth round at Oulton Park in Cheshire. It’s fair to say that the decision to use the full ‘International’ circuit for the first time in almost twenty years backfired: the longer layout resulted in fewer overtaking opportunities and three largely processional races.

On top of that, eyebrows were raised at the dominance of the BMWs and Audis. With the rear-wheel-drive machinery more efficient at putting power down at the start, teams running front-wheel-drive cars — the majority of the field — have been complaining they’re being disadvantaged.

In some ways, it’s a similar problem to that which F1 is facing at the moment. In order for any form of motorsport to flourish it needs to remain relevant; the only way manufacturers can justify vast expenditure on developing new technologies for the track is if the lessons learnt can be translated to production models. Disc brakes, dual overhead camshaft engines, even the humble rear-view mirror — all technologies we take for granted in our road cars that were originally developed for racing.

The issue F1 faces is that consumers are demanding quieter, more fuel-efficient, more eco-friendly vehicles. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mesh well with the race fan’s expectations of 200mph speed machines, which is why there has been so much debate over the sound of the engines this year (it’s also worth pointing out that people buying Mercedes road cars are probably more interested in fuel economy than those buying Ferraris — which provides one explanation why Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has been one of the more outspoken critics of the 2014 regulations).

Likewise, the future of production saloons is squarely in the front-wheel-drive court. The big problem is that if RWD is seen to be a competitive advantage on the BTCC grid, teams will begin to migrate to RWD equipment, with the series running the risk of losing the support of manufacturers such as MG and Honda.

In an attempt to rein in the lightning starts, all the RWD cars — essentially the BMWs of Colin Turkington, Rob Collard and Nick Foster, and the Audis of Rob Austin and Hunter Abbott — will be required to run a longer first gear this weekend. It’s a solution that’s surgically targeted at slowing the initial getaway — other options, such as adding extra ballast, would affect the cars throughout the lap. For their part, the RWD teams argue that their fast starts are only clawing back the advantage their front-wheel-drive counterparts have elsewhere on the circuit and through qualifying.

Drivetrain issues aside, it’s hard to see championship leader Colin Turkington being anything other than the man to beat this weekend. The Northern Irishman always goes well at Croft, having only failed to make the podium in one of his nine previous visits to the North Yorkshire circuit. But keep an eye on Speedworks rookie Tom Ingram, too; fresh from a record points haul at Oulton, the twenty-year-old won three out of three here in the Ginetta Supercup last year and made the podium in all three races the year before.

With a sprinkling — though probably not a deluge — of rain in the forecast for both qualifying and race day though, anything is possible.

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BTCC 2014: Disappointment for Ingram as Turkington triumphs at Oulton

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AN ENGINE problem left Speedworks rookie Tom Ingram rueing what might have been after another solid showing throughout the fourth round of the British Touring Car Championship at Oulton Park in Cheshire.

Ingram, who was promoted to second after the reverse-grid draw for the final race of the afternoon, managed only half a lap before his Toyota Avensis cut out, leaving him unclassified in race three for the third time this season.

Yet that disappointment should not detract from what was yet another strong showing for the 20 year old. After qualifying ninth, Ingram never looked in danger of losing that position throughout race one, and showed he had the pace to stay with the leading group throughout the second race, taking advantage of a mistake by MG driver Sam Tordoff and technical problems for eBay Motors’ Nick Foster to grab seventh.

Despite Foster’s woes, however, it was the BMWs that dominated proceedings on the 2.69-mile long International Circuit, with Northern Irishman Colin Turkington winning two out of the three races to go top of the points standings as championship rivals Andrew Jordan and Matt Neal struggled down the order.

In race three it was Irishman Árón Smith, plucked out of the hat to start from pole on the reverse grid, who led from start to finish in difficult conditions caused by a short but intense shower just before the start. Only United Autosports’ James Cole chose to start on slicks, but whilst he was rewarded with a point for the fastest lap on the final circuit, the wets were the better choice.

The final race of the day is invariably eventful, and there was no exception at Oulton with the safety car called in to action inside the first lap after Hunter Abbott, Matt Neal and Jack Goff came together. Ingram’s retirement left Mat Jackson challenging Smith for the lead, but a spin at Cascades effectively ended the Airwaves Racing driver’s hopes of taking the victory.

Smith has shown plenty of talent since his BTCC debut in 2011 and, though unencumbered by success ballast, drove excellently in tricky drying conditions to hold off the challenge of three former champions in the shape of Gordon Shedden, Jason Plato and the man who had already taken two earlier victories, Turkington.

Speedworks, in their home race, had a difficult run up to the event with team boss Christian Dick involved in a massive accident at Zandvoort the week before and a huge rebuilding job to complete on Simon Belcher’s Avensis after his trip in to the Thruxton trees. But there was no hint of Dick’s absence having slowed the team down in a week packed with media and testing commitments.

Ingram, too, looks more assured in the car and more confident racing bumper to bumper with some of the stars he grew up watching. Whilst Sunday wasn’t to be his day, on his — and the team’s — current form, there will surely be plenty more opportunities for him to compete at the head of the field before the end of the season.

“Perfect” start for Speedworks in 2014 BTCC

Tom Ingram's Speedworks Toyota Avensis at Oulton Park

Talk about tight racing — the opening round of the BTCC at Brands Hatch last weekend saw no fewer than twenty-four cars lapping within eight-tenths of a second of each other during practice and qualifying. F1 eat your heart out.

So tight were the margins that the difference between pole and fourth was just nine hundredths of a second. Twenty-nine cars squeezed together on to the notoriously tight Indy layout in an effort to put in a lap time. Which — and I know I’m slightly biased — makes it all the more remarkable that rookie Tom Ingram, in his first ever BTCC qualifying session, was able to stick his Speedworks Avensis in to sixth on the grid.

Whilst that performance didn’t quite translate in to the fairytale race results it hinted at — ninth in race one, eighth in race two and a DNF in the final round after a controversial shove from former champ Alain Menu on the exit of Graham Hill Bend sent Ingram in to the barriers — watch this space. The 20-year old has raw pace, that is clear. Ingram may have suffered from a little inexperience dealing with the rough-and-tumble of the BTCC this time round, but as he becomes more streetwise you’d have to say he’s got the talent to be challenging very close to the front of the pack.

I spoke to Speedworks team principal Christian Dick for Pure Sport this evening — you can listen below.

BTCC 2014: Ingram leads Speedworks charge

Tom Ingram's Speedworks Toyota Avensis at Oulton Park, 4 March 2014

With just under three weeks to go to the start of the BTCC season, many of the teams decamped to the Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire on Tuesday for a day of testing and tweaking, and Stockport-based Speedworks Motorsport were no exception.

This year the Bredbury team are providing engineering support to Handy Motorsport’s Simon Belcher, but the main focus of the operation will be on BTCC newcomer Tom Ingram. The 20-year-old from High Wycombe was picked out as one of the BRDC’s Rising Stars at the age of seventeen and nominated this year as one of just fourteen BRDC ‘SuperStars’ — a support and mentoring programme for British motorsport’s brightest young talents. He won the Ginetta Juniors championship in his first full season before taking the Ginetta Supercup title twice, in 2011 and 2013. In short, this kid is quick. Seriously quick.

Everybody you speak to at Speedworks is full of praise for Ingram. Since signing at the start of the year, he’s impressed with his professionalism and the quality of feedback he’s been able to provide the team, despite the fact that Tuesday’s outing was only his second time behind the wheel of a touring car. ‘He’s very relaxed with his attitude,’ team boss Christian Dick told me, ‘but don’t confuse being very relaxed with how intense and concentrated he is on getting the job done.’

Speaking to Ingram, you get a sense of a young man very much at ease with himself and with the task facing him this year. ‘With seven previous champions on the grid it’s going to be a tough year,’ he says. ‘Today’s the first time I’ve been able to drive the car in dry conditions, so I’m taking today as another learning day as much as anything else.’

Don’t be fooled in to thinking he’s just turned up to cruise around the 2.69 mile lap, though. ‘There’s a little gremlin in that back of my mind going, “what’s he doing, what time’s he doing”,’ he says. ‘I kept saying to Christian over the radio, “what times are they doing” and he had to remind me, you know, we’re not doing lap times… the racer in me wants to just crack on and try and put some lap times in but I’ve got to be sensible and know that, yeah, we’re still learning it.’

Speaking with an easy confidence, he admits that he’s still getting to grips with the technical aspects of driving a touring car. ‘The settings we’ve got on the car — there’s so many to choose from,’ he explains. ‘On the Ginetta, we’ve got a little bit of understeer, we’ll just take a bit of rear wing off — on this, we’ve got understeer, what shall we do — well what do you want to do, we can change anything you want. So it’s getting my head around that as well.’

Throughout our interview, Ingram has lived up to his billing — relaxed, professional, mature, unflappable. Yet he still retains a boyish enthusiasm that comes to the forefront when asked what it’s like to be starting his first season at the pinnacle of tin-top racing. ‘This is the first day there’s been other touring cars here, so I was going round earlier and seeing some of the BMWs come past, thinking “this is so cool!”

‘It’s been my childhood dream to get to the BTCC. It’s what sparked my interest in the first place — watching Alain Menu, Jason Plato and these type of people, and to be lined up on the grid against them is going to be pretty cool.’

Ingram’s aim is to become the BTCC’s youngest ever champion. When the lights go out at Brands Hatch on March 29th, he’ll be aged just 20 years, 7 months and 9 days. That gives him at least three seasons to achieve that goal — Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan became the current holder of the record when he took the overall championship last season, aged 24 years, 4 months and 19 days.

What’s particularly exciting is that by all accounts Ingram has taken to touring cars like a duck to water. The times from Tuesday’s session are not available to the public, and with every team running different test programmes it’s difficult to judge precisely where everybody stands. But chatting with Speedworks team principal Christian Dick, he’s quietly confident. ‘We’re right in the mix. You don’t want to be too confident, though, because you don’t know who’s sandbagging, how much ballast or what equipment other teams are running and so on.’

There is one thing he’s sure about, though. Nodding towards his young driver, standing chatting to the engineers whilst the latest adjustment is made to the car, Dick smiles. ‘Tell you what,’ he says, ‘he is seriously good.’

Below: photographs from Tuesday’s BTCC test day at Oulton Park. All (c) Simon Kelsey, 2014.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Kevin Pietersen batting at Trent Bridge, 2013

Last night on 5 live, Piers Morgan gave both barrels to the ECB, Alastair Cook and the England selectors over the decision to end Kevin Pietersen’s England career. Have a listen — as one would expect from a broadcaster of Morgan’s stature, it’s an engaging piece of audio.

He’s still wrong, though.

Whilst it is impossible not to feel a twinge of sadness that KP’s international career has come to such an ignominious end — you can accuse him of many things, but being boring is not one of them — it isn’t hard to see why the selectors have made such a bold decision.

Morgan asserts that Pietersen has been made a scapegoat for this winter’s disastrous Ashes campaign. I don’t believe this is the case — clearly, the problems in Australia ran far deeper than just one man — but the issue for Pietersen is that his performances on the field did nothing to suggest he might be part of the solution. Top run scorer or not, on so many occasions he batted with such wanton disregard for the situation that he caused more damage to his own side than the Aussie bowlers.

The arguments for Pietersen’s inclusion generally follow the line that he has an X-factor; the ability to strike fear in to the hearts of his opponents as he walks to the crease. The bowlers nervously wipe their palms, gazing up at the stands and wondering which row their next delivery is going to end up in; captains look at the scoreboard, imagining the numbers whizzing round like those old petrol pumps with the numbers on mechanical cylinders.

Yet this suggestion seems increasingly tired. Ask yourself: when was the last time you saw KP play a genuinely brilliant, match-changing innings? Over the last twelve to eighteen months, has he done so any more often than, say, an Ian Bell or a Matt Prior?

The fear factor is gone. Instead of morphing in to big wobbly blancmanges at the sight of Pietersen striding out, opposition spinners are licking their lips. Steve Smith’s feeling like Shane Warne. Nathan Lyon’s never been so keen to bowl.

It is the manner of his dismissals that are the most troubling. If a batsman keeps nicking off — well, that may be poor technique, it may be bad luck or it may be good bowling, but technique can be fixed and your luck has to change eventually. When you’re lobbing catches to fielders that you knew were going to be put there for precisely that shot, or getting caught in the deep attempting to smash the spinner over long-on for six in games you need to draw, that’s idiocy. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, Pietersen ought to be certifiable.

Moreover, it’s clear that this decision is about far more than just the performances we, as cricket fans, see on the field. If it were that simple, there would be no need for the finality implied in the statements issued by the ECB — and Pietersen himself — yesterday evening.

Ever since the textgate scandal of 2012, there has been rumour about Pietersen’s disruptive influence on the dressing room. Morgan says that England should ‘learn to manage Pietersen’s genius’ and blames the decision to drop him on Cook’s ‘weak’ captaincy and a desire for ‘yes-men’ at the ECB. I refuse to accept this.

The decision to end Pietersen’s career will not have been taken by one man alone. Is it really credible that none of the vast England management setup are up to the task? Moreover, is it worth investing such time and effort in someone who, genius or not, is still just one man in a team of eleven (and more)?

Let’s not forget that the supposedly weak Cook was instrumental in Pietersen’s ‘rehabilitation’ following those dark days just over eighteen months ago. If he has now decided, along with the ECB,  that he has had enough — what has happened in order to change his mind? Piers suggested that great football managers know how to manage difficult characters and get the best out of them. He’s right — but even Sir Alex Ferguson had his limits. Just ask David Beckham.

It is a matter of regret that the man who has scored more runs than any other England cricketer in history will not get his chance to walk out one last time. But Kevin Pietersen lived by the sword, and he has now died by the sword. He has found out the hard way that no man is bigger than the team. And let’s be honest — a quiet retirement Test with a couple of decent knocks and a departure to polite applause wouldn’t really be Pietersen’s style, would it?

You’re getting sacked in the morning…

I can hardly believe that it’s February already. Where is 2013 going?

It’s been a busy January round these parts. For those of you who are football-minded, why not take a wander over to the excellent Sacked In The Morning for your daily dose of football news and views.

I’m writing a few bits and pieces for them. It’s quite exciting; the team over there are ambitious, driven and very well informed. It’s an honour to be asked to contribute and, hopefully, you’ll enjoy what I do. I certainly am!