The British Touring Championship (BTCC) is inherently thrilling, largely because it’s weirdly relatable to our day-to-day lives.
Pick any era from the sport’s history, you’ll find charismatic drivers doing noisy things, probably while bumping each other out of the way in a bloodthirsty rush for the tightest cornering line, in cars that look like stickered-up versions of daily-drivers.
Of course, they’re rather different under the skin.
Today’s touring car is basically a tangle of scaffolding with a 2.0-litre turbo engine and some production body panels draped over the top. For pure thrills and spills, it’s hard to beat.
So, when we were invited for exclusive behind the scenes access to the Yuasa Honda team, where multiple-time champ Matt Neal plies his trade, along with team mate Gordon Shedden (above, left and right respectively), we leapt at the chance.
We hooked up with the team at round seven of the tournament at Thruxton in Hampshire, one of the Britain’s oldest and most challenging circuits.
Here’s what we witnessed…
There are quite a lot of crashes in the BTCC.
It’s pretty much a contact sport, the drivers being of the mindset that ‘rubbing is racing’.
Throw in some extreme weather conditions, and a whole lot of exploding tyres, and there are bound to be bits of carbon-fibre and broken suspension bouncing about the place.
Our man Matt Neal had a blowout just before the pit entry somewhere around the ninth lap, and as he tried to pull across the track he clattered into a passing MG.
Then, a whole bunch of other cars piled in as splinters of bodywork whistled past our ears.
Neal’s teammate, Gordon Shedden, was also caught up in the mêlée, which is really a no-no in any team sport.
This meant the organisers had to call a temporary halt to proceedings, and all of the drivers returned to the paddock to lick their wounds.
Back in the Honda enclosure, the team were keen to explain the situation as best they could – in essence: “The cars got broken. Whoops!”
Then, they had to formulate a strategy for the following two rounds of the day – as each race day actually has three races.
Priority one, with two mangled Civics, would be to get the guys to the grid on time in functioning cars in order to claw back some pace in the next round, then get some points on the board in the final race of the day.
In the meantime, the drivers stalked the paddocks, eyeballing their rivals and whispering recriminations…
An eye-popping rebuild
While all this was going on, the garages were a hive of frantic activity, with each team’s worker bees desperately patching up and making good.
Team Hard were hastily applying new vinyl wrap to their replacement wings, while Josh Cook Racing were picking bits of Civic out of their MG.
But phrases like ‘utterly destroyed’ mean nothing to these people.
They treat the cars like Meccano: unbolt the broken bits, bolt on new bits, and lo and behold, both Hondas made it to the grid for the second race.
What’s interesting with BTCC garages is that they’re all elbow-to-elbow – rival mechanics could easily pinch each other’s spanners if they were so inclined.
It’s a world apart from the paranoid ringfencing of Formula 1.
A thrilling comeback
By this point, the atmosphere on the grid was electric.
Shedden clearly wasn’t planning a let’s-just-get-to-the-end’ affair, he was twitching with anticipation inside his snug cockpit.
He was even doing that “I see you” hand gesture to all the drivers in front
With races cut down to 12 laps from 16 to save further blowouts, the drivers’ blood was up.
Shedden started in 23rd place on the grid. By the time the chequered flag dropped, he was fourth. How? Some sort of witchcraft, probably.
The whooping and hollering in the pit garage was as effervescent as the aroma of tortured rubber and savaged brake pads.
Andrew Jordan’s shiny chrome-blue Focus pushed him to the top of the podium for the first time since June 2014, and he was really quite smiley about that. But he’s always smiley, he has one of those faces.
At this point, we snuck round the back of the pits just to see what was there, and found this fella shaving used tyres with a hot stick. Which was odd.
A triumphant third race
Unfortunately, Shedden’s car didn’t finish the third race. He crashed into a BMW. It happens.
But things were rosier on the other side of the Honda tent.
Matt Neal managed to put some polish on a rubbish day by finishing in second place, just a couple of tenths behind Mat Jackson’s Ford Focus.
The relief on the mechanics’ faces was worthy of framing and hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.
After all that spannering and swearing at jagged bits of metal, the car they’d hastily patched together was just as frisky as the fans would hope – cause enough for the crew to make a beeline for the hospitality tent’s beer fridge…
Phew. What a day – and that’s just a snapshot of what goes on during a chaotic BTCC race, where anything can happen, and often does.
What you can be sure of is that with a mighty 32 cars on the grid, there’s potential for drama in spades…