Monday, June 10, 2013

Sunshine On The Track

A few months ago, for the article An Evening At Honda, I wrote about meeting British Touring Car Champions Matt Neal (2005, 2006 & 2011) and ‘Flash’ Gordon Shedden (2012). From that evening onwards, my sons were champing at the bit to see them race. Very little persuasion in my direction was needed. I bought tickets for the fourth of this season’s meetings, at Oulton Park (Figure 62.1), which took place yesterday.

Figure 62.1: Programme front cover

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Advance booking any outdoor activity in England is a risky enterprise. We were always going to be at the mercy of weather which changes in accordance with Sod’s Law. I had kept my fingers crossed since March, and it worked: 20°C with hazy sunshine, and the setting was perfect. Oulton Park is situated in rural Cheshire (Figure 62.2), a peaceful and largely unspoiled county in the Northwest of England. It is a beautiful circuit, stretching down a gentle hill towards a tree-lined lake, just outside the village of Little Budworth.

Figure 62.2: An aerial photograph of Oulton Park. We were stationed at the top-left corner of the ‘square’.

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The weather, combined with the prospect of an exciting race timetable, ensured a sell-out. Scattered among the crowds were tents of all shapes and colours, camper vans, picnic blankets, and even a converted jeep with a couple of deckchairs anchored to its roof. Everywhere smelt of barbecues. (If any non-Brits consider our seven-spades-no-trumps attitude to sunny weather to be over the top, let me point out that it never pays to take it for granted. The summer constantly threatens to end tomorrow.)

The entire set-up was family-orientated, certainly more so than Formula One. Before the races began, the pit lanes were opened, and we were free to meet the drivers and their staff. My sons made a beeline for the Honda section, where the ever-friendly ‘Matt and Flash’ – the boys, amusingly, now speak of them almost as if they are family – were signing autographs and chatting casually to fans (Figures 62.3, 62.4 & 63.5). Reigning champion Shedden remarked that he loved the festival atmosphere at Oulton Park, especially on such a warm day, although it did mean that the temperature inside the car could become stifling.

Figure 62.3: Honda drivers Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden prior to racing

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Figure 62.4: Autographs for the boys

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Figure 62.5: Three road hogs in the making, pictured with Honda’s race technicians

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

We wandered around for a while and located the perfect trackside spec. The racing began at 12:30 p.m.: three Touring Car rounds along with Formula Ford and several other classes. The first and second Touring Car races (both 15-lap) saw Matt finish 6th and 4th, and Flash 3rd and 2nd (Figure 62.6), with MG’s Jason Plato storming to victory in both.

Figure 62.6: ‘Flash’ flashes by on a sun-drenched track.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

After tea, I watched the boys run themselves ragged in the adventure playground and we explored the numerous stalls and displays provided by the participating constructors. Enthusiasts of all ages could hardly fail to enjoy what was on offer.

We settled back at trackside, this time opposite the lake, for the third and final BTCC race (Figure 62.7). There was to be no hat-trick of wins for Plato: his MG caught fire after four laps. There were other incidents too. A tightly-packed field led to one or two bumps and emergency detours onto the grass verges. Matt pressurized the leaders throughout, even negotiating a chicane on two wheels, and finished a creditable fourth. Despite performing well in the previous two races, the day ended in disappointment for Flash, finishing at the back of the field, which visibly upset my five-year-old son.

Figure 62.7: Final race, first lap, with Matt and Flash starting in 7th and 8th positions respectively

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

We made a quick getaway once the last race was concluded. I did not cherish the prospect of being stuck in bottlenecked traffic for an hour, so I shot along a very convenient rat-run leading from Shaw’s Gate exit to the delightful town of Tarporley (see Mobberley’s HedgeHopper). Within minutes of leaving the Park, we were cruising through the Cheshire countryside, windows wound down and reliving a grand day out (Figure 62.8). I dare say I shall have no choice but to take the boys again next year – just as I had hoped.

Figure 62.8: Tickets for Oulton Park 2013

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Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery