Tim Harvey's preview to the BTCC shootout
13 October 2011 – This weekend sees Silverstone play host to the BTCC championship finale, where the season-long rivalry between Honda and Chevrolet finally meets its end. Who better to quiz over the fantastic possibilities than 1992 Champion and ITV television commentator Tim Harvey, who dramatically clinched his own title at Silverstone.
We are poised for another energetic shootout and Silverstone is the setting. Are you expecting a challenging day in the commentary box?
At the end of the day, we’ve just got to keep up with who has scored the most points in any one race. There are five drivers in it mathematically, but in reality it’s three drivers who are likely to pull it off – Matt Neal, Jason Plato and Gordon Shedden. But the reality is that each one is going to have to try and out-score the other two in each race; with the unpredictability of touring car racing, that’s going to be on a race-by-race basis and we’ll see where we are at the end.
As with 1990 – when we had a transitional year, with the turbocharged Ford Sierra Cosworths plus the new 2-litre class – 2011 has witnessed a selection of different cars: turbocharged and normally aspirated vehicles, plus some NGTC runners. How do you sum it all up?
I think, on-track, we’ve had some excellent races – some really good racing, a variety of different winners and a variety of different cars being competitive.
Off-track, it’s probably been the most acrimonious season I have ever known. That’s a shame, but as you say it’s a transitional year. The trouble is, it’s people’s livelihoods, it’s their passions, it’s their competitive instincts which are all being changed, if you like, by (Series Director) Alan Gow having to bring an equivalence in parity between the cars. If you look at that, we’ve often had 12, 13 or 14 cars all covered by one second in qualifying.
You have to say, if you take a broad view of it, Gow has done a very, very good job. The trouble is, because he has had to change things to advantage some people and disadvantage others throughout the year, none of them are happy because they are all racers and all want it to go their way all the time. So I think Alan has done a good job overall but, in doing so, he has had to incur the wrath of the competitors a few times!
It certainly seems that, with the leading drivers especially, they are now using anything possible against each other – both on and off the track…
The drivers themselves – particularly Plato and Neal, obviously – are completely wrapped up and consumed in the whole thing: who’s got the advantage, what’s fair and what isn’t fair. It is all because it revolves around a driver’s whole life, you think about these things 24 hours a day.
They will repeat things which, to the outside world, might seem petty or inconsequential. But, as a driver myself, I completely understand that because they are under the pressure cooker of trying to win the championship and in each of their minds it has gone unfairly this year.
We have seen a number of titles decided at Silverstone over the past two decades – for Will Hoy, Jo Winkelhock, Gabriele Tarquini, Rickard Rydell, Laurent Aïello, Alain Menu and Matt Neal for his second title. But the best remembered is your own victory in 1992; do you think 2011 could match that, in terms of the sheer rivalries and two Champions going up against a non-championship winner?
Absolutely! I think all of the ingredients are exactly as per ’92: the acrimony in the pit lane, three drivers going for the championship, although in this particular case we have two drivers with one team as opposed to three different manufacturers. But there is still a lot riding on it; in this case, Honda and Chevrolet will both have their full-page national press adverts ready to go on the Monday morning, should they win.
In ’92, we eventually had a first-time Champion in yourself. If history repeats itself, Gordon Shedden will do the honours this weekend…
I think Gordon has kept a quieter profile than most throughout the whole of this, which is in his nature anyway. On the day, I think the animosity between Neal and Plato could actually get the better of them. Certainly at Brands I don’t think either driver was 100 percent focused on their racing; I know they both won races, but they had a lot of other issues going on.
It’s going to come down to two things: who wants it badly enough - and that ought to be Gordon because he hasn’t won it before – plus the element of luck, which of course they can’t have any control over and in touring car racing luck will play a part.
Hopefully the title will not be decided by a collision (as it was in 1992), although all of the ingredients are there…
Definitely. As I said, the animosity is there, so I guess - if that is what it took - it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility. But, essentially, all three are brilliant drivers and they would want to win it on the track, fair and square.
With the weight penalty and reduced turbo pressure, Matt Neal insists that straight-line speeds are now Honda’s weakness. Which car do you expect to be strongest on the Silverstone National circuit?
We will have to see, because both Neal and Plato are playing down their cars’ strengths and weaknesses. This is how it is now; they have to state their car’s disadvantages in order to sway public opinion and Alan Gow’s opinion into penalising them or the other car. This is why they are all playing the game…every quote single now is about, ‘How slow my car is’ or ‘How fast his car is!’ But I think, on balance, the Honda will be the quicker car.
Do you believe series administrator TOCA has now found a fair balance?
I would have said so, although at Brands Jason Plato qualified sixth tenths of a second quicker than both of the Hondas, so the Chevrolet clearly had a huge advantage for outright pace. But is that because the car suited the circuit? Is it because Jason was on top form?
Who knows, but the tradition in touring cars is that the different circuits bring out the strengths and weaknesses in different cars and it’s impossible to have all of the cars equal on all of the circuits.
I still believe that the Silverstone circuit ought to favour the Honda…if it doesn’t, in all honestly there is something wrong with the system because it’s not right if a normally aspirated car can qualify on pole by six tenths.
Theoretically, turbo cars should be on pole because they have a higher tyre wear issue during the races and should be quicker over one lap; that hasn’t happened at the moment but there are so many different ingredients into what you call parity – ultimately, lap time is the decider, but Chevrolet was certainly a lot quicker at Brands.
Whichever way one looks at it, how much must Team Dynamics - the outfit which runs the Hondas - be regretting Oulton Park (when Neal and Shedden collided and threw away a one-two finish at the last corner)?
Well…I didn’t mention it at Brands but at the moment that happened I had a feeling it could be a crucial moment in this year’s championship. They had by far and away the best car in the first half of the year, before the raft of penalties and so on came in, but they didn’t maximise their points.
Oulton Park was obviously one case where they catastrophically lost almost all of their points. They are now only five points in it and, while they won’t be thinking about it at the moment, if they lose the championship by the number of points they lost at Oulton then they’ll obviously think back to that.
I hesitate to ask: Who do you tip to become 2011 Champion on Sunday?
I would go for Matt Neal. I think his car will be the best, I think the odds are on Honda because it’s two against one and I think, at the end of the day, he is the team leader; although they’re joint number one, Matt is probably the team leader there – it’s his family’s business, his family’s team and I’m sure they’d like him to win, although I would personally be delighted to see Gordon take his first championship.
This is undoubtedly Honda’s opportunity; not to take anything away from Plato and Chevvy, but Honda have done the best job in producing the best all-round car.
Tim Harvey was talking to GPUpdate.net’s Gregory Haines
Twitter: @GregoryHainesF1, @timharveyracing