The euphoria of a good qualifying session on Saturday ahead of a race day that would see him start his 700th BTCC race promised so much for Matt Neal, but on Sunday the racing Gods conspired to spoil the party for the man who proudly bore the number 700 on his race car to celebrate a career that has so far spanned no fewer than 29 years and a total of seven Driver’s Championships (four in the Independent’s category and three as overall champion).
COVID-19 may have ensured that virtually nothing in this world is ‘normal’ at the moment – but at least we can rely on the weather to bring a touch of familiarity. So it was at Oulton Park for the third meet of the season, with the heavens opening just as the BTCC cars lined up on their first grid of the day. The resulting decision to have two warm up laps proved the downfall of Carl Boardley, whose Team Hard BMW 125i careered into the tyre barriers at the end of the first ‘formation’ lap, requiring significant repairs to the street furniture before the race proper could begin.
During the delay, the rain stopped - providing the perfect conditions for the rear wheel drive BMW’s of Colin Turkington and Tom Oliphant to make significant moves as the lights went out. Turkington moved from 3rd to 2nd while Oliphant made up five places into 3rd by the end of the first lap. However, as the race progressed it was the front wheel drive cars that came into their own. By lap 3 a great scrap between Oliphant and the hard charging Josh Cook in his BTCC Racing Honda Civic saw Cook (who had no success ballast for this race) take 3rd and quickly move up to the rear bumper of Colin Turkington.
A brief safety car period on lap 4 (following Ollie Burn’s balletic pirouette into the barriers) preceded Cook getting past Turkington at the very wet and appropriately named Knicker Brook and then on lap 7 Cook made a great move to take the lead.
Surprisingly, despite great duels throughout the field, the positions remained fairly static for the last third of the race with Cook taking the chequered flag ahead of Butcher, Dan Cammish, Jake Hill, Turkington, Tom Chilton and a very impressive Tom Ingram who steered his Toyota to 7th from 14th on the grid.
While the positions remained static throughout the last third of the race, they were destined to change after the chequered flag dropped when Josh Cook’s Honda failed the ride height test – demoting him to last and enabling everyone else to shuffle up by a place.
By the time the lights went out at the start of Race Two the rain had stopped and it promised to be a fascinating race as drying conditions suggested the race would ‘come to’ the rear wheel drive cars as the laps progressed.
On the back row of the grid the unfortunate Josh Cook had the double whammy of 60kg of success ballast and no points from Race One. Just ahead of Cook, Matt Neal sat 24th on the grid (a result of a being called back into the pits for a faulty rear rain light in the first race). It was an ignominious start to the race which would mark Matt’s 700th BTCC start.
Inevitably Cook and Neal’s starting positions meant that there was just as much interest in seeing how the two ‘Cobra’ men could salvage something from the race as there was interest in what was happening at the front of the grid.
As the race developed there were two-way battles throughout the field: Cammish and Turkington for 3rd and 4th, Jake Hill and Tom Ingram for 5th and 6th, and Adam Morgan and Tom Oliphant for 8th and 9th.
By lap 14 Cook was up to 13th (just one place off being involved in the reverse grid shakedown for Race Three) when the unthinkable happened: While Cook overtook Chris Smiley, Cook’s teammate Michael Crees undertook the Hyundai driver and made contact with Cook’s Honda as they emerged from the ‘triple decker sandwich’, sending Cook sliding into the barrier and out of the race.
Meanwhile, Matt Neal had made his way up to 13th but agonisingly couldn’t make up the final place that would have put him into the reverse grid shakeup. At the front Turkington, Cammish, Ingram, Oliphant, Hill and Chilton claimed 3rd to 8th respectively, securing valuable Championship points.
By the standards of BTCC, the first eleven laps of Race Three proved to be a very calm affair. The two BMWs of Colin Turkington and Tom Oliphant were just beginning to put real pressure on race leader Adam Morgan when a red flag halted proceedings for the day.
Stephen Jelley, running 20th in the Team Parker Racing BMW, crashed at Druids and, as his car slewed across the track, he was collected heavily by the Team Hard Volkswagen of Nicolas Hamilton, who struck the barriers, with Hamilton's team-mate Ollie Brown also sustaining damage in the incident.
The good news was that no one sustained serious injuries in the incident, but it left Turkington and Oliphant wondering what might have been.
Race Three again proved one to forget for the Halfords Yuasa Racing team as both drivers fell victim to opening lap incidents, Cammish dropping to 17th and Neal forced to pit with a puncture. Finishing positions of 15th and 24th was poor reward for the pace of the two drivers. At least Dan Cammish kept up his record of making the podium at every meeting in 2020 with third in Race One – and like all the BTCC teams, they will have little opportunity to brood on their misfortune as, for the second time this season, the BTCC stages meetings on successive weekends. The series heads north to Scotland for rounds 10 to 12 of the BTCC at Knockhill on 30th August.
While it was also a frustrating day for Colin Turkington and WSR, at least they remain at the top of the standings – they may not have secured a win but a successful damage limitation exercise eventually saw Turkington leaving Oulton Park with a 19 point lead in the Driver’s Championship.