BTCC @ Donington
The British Touring Car Championship has been running, in one form or another, since 1958 and is now the UK’s biggest motor racing championship. 

Those of us old enough to remember the series when it was in its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s will remember names like John Cleland, Will Hoy, Frank Biela, Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu, Tim Harvey and Joachim Winkelhok. Back then the grid was full of works teams from the likes of BMW, Ford, Vauxhall, Nissan and Renault, however by the late 2000s the only works team left on the grid was Vauxhall with the rest of the teams being independently run.

The series has undergone somewhat of a revival in recent years and with the introduction of the Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) specifications it has become cheaper for both manufacturers and privateers to run a competitive car, resulting in one of the largest grids ever at 29 cars for the 2013 season. Long gone too are the days when the grid was full of international drivers. With the exception of Aron Smith, the entire grid is made up of British drivers.

MG and Honda are the only works teams left in the championship, while there are 15 teams competing for the independent teams’ championship. 6 drivers are also contesting the newly introduced Jack Sears Trophy for drivers of Super 2000 cars. The leading Super 2000 driver in each race receives a cup and at the end of the season the driver with the most cups will we awarded the Jack Sears Trophy by Jack Sears himself. Jack was the winner of the inaugural British Saloon Car Championship in 1958.

The 2013 season got under way on Easter Sunday at Brands Hatch with Jason Plato winning races one and two and Matt Neal picking up the win in the final race.

I have been following the BTCC for as long as I can remember and have always wanted to attend a race weekend. I finally got around to it last weekend when I went along to watch the second round at Donington as a guest of the team who run a Super 2000 spec Golf GTI.

The first thing that struck me after arriving at the track on Saturday morning as I was ferried into the paddock on the AmD team’s golf cart was how open everything was. The support paddock was in the middle of what would normally be the car park and the public were milling around watching the teams put up their tents and unpack their cars while in the touring car paddock the drivers were wandering around happy to stop to chat to fans, pose for photos and sign autographs. There were no F1 style barriers and drivers hiding away in air conditioned motor homes. Fans were free to walk up to the back of the garages and peer inside. The drivers even use the same public toilets as everybody else - at one point both Mat Jackson and Sam Tordoff were in the queue behind me!

After being shown around the AmD garage and chatting to the team I went for a walk down the pit lane. As one of the smaller teams AmD are at the top end of the pit lane, near the pit entrance and as I walked down the pit lane towards the MG and Honda teams, who occupied the first two garages, the thing that was most obvious was that the further I walked along the busier the garages became. AmD and the other Super 2000 teams had perhaps 6-8 people on the team while the likes of MG and Honda have maybe 20-30.  The larger teams also have large hospitality tents that hold around 100 people while the smaller teams have a table and chairs at the back of the garage with a box of tea bags, paper cups and a tin of biscuits!

Saturday morning consisted of free practice for BTCC and the support series and then the afternoon was taken up by qualification and ended with the first race in the Clio Cup series. I was in the pit lane for most of the day on Saturday and got to walk in and out of the garages watching the teams tweak their cars between sessions. I also got to stand on the pit wall for the BTCC sessions. The noise of the cars as they drive by is amazing and like nothing I have heard before - I could feel the sound wave from the exhaust as the cars backfired when changing gear on the straight. The sound is something that simply does not come across on TV.

As the drivers sat in their cars preparing for the first free practice session thinking, some took the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the circuit!

Sunday morning got off to a hilarious start as we made our way from the main gate to the AmD garage - four of us and a box full of sponsor goodie bags on a two seater, underpowered golf cart with James, the driver, unable to use the brakes as we would not have got going again if we slowed down. People were jumping for cover, although I’m sure that while it seemed like we were doing 100 miles per hour from the inside, it had all the speed (and danger) of Fr. Dougal on his milk float from the outside!
As we made our way out to the infield to watch the first couple of support races the BTCC teams were busy with final preparations for their first race of the day.

First up on Sunday were the Formula Fords followed by race 1 of the Porsche Carrera Cup championship with Irish interests represented by brothers Karl and Michael Leonard driving for Team Parker Racing in the Pro-Am1 category.

Karl and Michael had a close battle with Victor Jiminez with Karl taking the category win in the liveried car and Michael finishing third following a spin that allowed Jiminez to get by. Karl made it a clean sweep by picking up the category win in race 2. In addition to the two race wins, Karl was also awarded the driver of the weekend trophy.

The BTCC cars took to the track at 1125 and we got to go onto the grid as the cars formed up. While the pit crews swarmed around the cars carrying out last minute jobs the photographers swarmed around the grid girls – no prizes for guessing where I ended up!

We watched the first race on TV from the AmD garage. It was a different experience watching a race on TV with no commentary. The hard work was done at this stage and all the team could do was watch. One team member had a notebook where he logged each of driver James Kaye’s lap times with a comment next to it – either a time difference to the car behind or a note about something the driver did or didn’t do – while team manager Shaun was on the radio to James updating him on events on track that he had gleaned from watching the TV. It’s not like F1 where there is car to pit telemetry and GPS driver tracking, if the team don’t see it on the ITV4 live feed they don’t know about it.

Race 1 was won by Gordon Sheddon, ahead of Andrew Jordan and team-mate Matt Neal. The holding area for the winning cars was right next to the AmD garage so at the end of the race we made our way over and were right in front of Gordon Sheddon’s car as he pulled in and got out of the car. It was really interesting to see the reactions and hear the comments between the drivers as they chatted about the race. ITV’s Steve Rider and Louise Goodman were on hand to carry out the post-race interviews. I’ve not watched the races back yet, but I’m sure we managed to get into the background. Following the interviews the drivers were taken out into the paddock where the podium presentation was carried out on the back of a truck for all the fans to see.

AmD's James Kaye came home in first place in the Jack Sears Trophy - here's a shot of his empty champagne bottle. I don't think they're supposed to drink between races!

During the lunch break there was a thirty minute slot where the pit lane was opened for the public to walk about and get photos and autographs. About 20 minutes before the gates opened the queue was easily four or five hundred people deep. Luckily, we had access through the AmD garage so we were able to bypass the queue and line up at the Honda garage to wait for Flash and Matt Neal to emerge. When the public were allowed in the biggest draws seemed to be the MG and Honda teams followed by the Airwaves team and BMW with the crowds dwindling the further down the pit lane you went. I know the drivers are probably contractually obliged to sit outside their garage and sign autographs, but it is a great idea and gives the fans an opportunity to get up close to the drivers. I suspect the drivers don't get hassled as much over the weekend if the fans know they'll have an opportunity for an autograph at this session.

For race 2 we ventured out of the pitlane and took up a spot near the Craner Curves. I was amazed at the number of families that were sitting around the banks – it really is a family day out. There were first timers who arrived in t-shirts and shorts along with people who appeared to be regulars who brought picnics and tents to shield themselves from the wind. 

This was Matt Neal’s 500th race start and it was fitting that he reached that milestone at Donington, scene of his first ever win in 1999 when he picked up a cheque for £250,000 as the first independent driver to win a race outright. He ran with the number 500 on his car for race 2 to commemorate the occasion, while Jason Plato ran number 400 as this was his 400th race. 

Unfortunately for the AmD team, a start line collision between James Kaye and David Nye saw both men pile into the pit wall and retire from the race resulting in the safety car being deployed. Following the restart, Andrew Jordan pulled out a big lead after lunging down the inside of Shedden at the start of lap 7. Behind Jordan was a close battle between Plato, Shedden, Neal and Morgan with Plato eventually passing Shedden for second place and Shedden finishing in third. Matt Neal finished his 500th race in 4th place.

We made it back to the AmD garage just as they were finishing patching up the Golf – a new front end, wings, doors and lots of red tape and the car was ready for race 3. Not a bad effort for a team of 8! 

We took to the grid for the final race of the day and as James had not finished the second race he was last on the grid, just behind Warren Scott who had put his car into the gravel trap at the Old Hairpin in race two. Due to the size of the field, the back of the grid is almost at the exit of the final chicane so this allowed us a great opportunity to get a close up look at the cars as they exited the chicane and did a quick burnout to warm the tyres.

Then it was time to take another walk along the grid to check out the cars and the grid girls!

As we were getting booted off the grid I managed to get a quick photo of Gordon Shedden as he prepared for the start.

Again, we watched race 3 from the AmD garage. It didn’t go too well for the AmD team. Unfortunately, despite the sterling job by the team to get the car ready, an electrical failure caused James to stop out on track. Dave Newsham had a major wobble on the way through Craners on the opening lap that almost took out several of the top drivers, but luckily everybody managed to avoid him. Former WTCC champion Colin Turkington shot into the lead from second on the grid in his eBay BMW and remained there to the end, finishing four seconds clear of Gordon Shedden with Matt Neal coming home in third. 

At the end of the race we made our way again to the holding area to watch the cars come in and had the opportunity to eavesdrop on the drivers as they congratulated each other and chatted about the race, including asking each other how they managed to avoid the spinning Dave Newsham at Craners.

We said our goodbyes to the AmD team and walked along the pit lane inspecting the cars and emerged into the paddock just in time to catch the end of the podium presentation with Colin Turkington taking his young son onto the top step with him – something you won’t see on your average podium.

Now that I’ve experienced a BTCC weekend, I definitely plan to go back. I would recommend it to anybody. Donington is a great track as there are plenty of viewing spots and no matter where you stand you have a view of three or four corners. It is also very easy to get to as it is practically at the end of the runway at East Midlands Airport and if you book early enough you’ll get return flights with Ryanair for less than forty quid. 

I’ve included a selection of photos below. For me the first image captures the spirit of British Motorsport perfectly.