Tag Archives: Brands Hatch

Tommy Hill’s lap of his life

Tommy Hill wins BSB Showdown for Swan Yamaha

Ups and downs - BSB champ Tommy Hill has seen it all. (Motorsport Vision)

Epic is an over-used word these days, for Tommy Hill it is nowhere near enough to describe the day that will come to define his life. While F1 crowned its champion with four races to spare the British Superbike title was settled in somewhat more dramatic fashion. After 26 races the championship came down to a frantic last gasp duel at Brands Hatch between local hero Tommy Hill and American superstar John Hopkins. The points were so tight that whomever reached the flag ahead of the other would take the season. Appropriately they found themselves together on track battling for second place, the stopwatch telling us they were a scant six thousandths of a second apart with Hill being the man in front. Watch that magical lap here.

Many fans have a soft-spot for the mercurial John Hopkins, but even his staunchest supporter can’t help but applaud and savour Tommy Hill’s title. With little money behind him Tommy took the Virgin Mobile Cup in 2003 to propel himself into the British Superbike series until 2007. It was a time when he showed flashes of extreme speed over a single lap but he never had the machinery or the maturity to keep the fast laps coming over a race distance.

During 2006 Hill made appearances in World Superbike which included a shock pole position as a wildcard at Silverstone. He also made a few starts in World Supersport in 2007 and signed for Hannspree Altea Honda in what should have been the deal that propelled him onto the world stage. Instead he endured two bone-shattering accidents that meant his big chance passed Tommy by as he spent more time in hospitals than on the track. During his early off-road career he also suffered life-threatening injuries for which he is still treated to this day; all motorcycle racers have painful stories to tell but few are as wince-inducing as Tommy Hill’s.

It was during this appalling year that Tommy lost one of his friends, the World Supersport young-gun Craig Jones. Tommy was by his bedside as his pal lost the battle against injuries sustained in a crash while battling for the lead at Brands Hatch in almost the exact same spot where Hill was to seal the title last Sunday. While stood on this stretch of tarmac he tearfully dedicated his success to his late friend.

Lap 20 of the 26th race of a thrilling British Superbike season will go down as one of the single greatest laps of any race anywhere. Tommy found himself ahead of Hopkins by less than a bike-length as they started it, they came round to complete the lap and the season even closer. They passed each other six times on that epic tour, the destiny of the title swinging with each move. Sporting drama gets no higher. The ensuing photo-finish had the crowd on its feet, the commentators screaming and the Swan Yamaha team crying.

Despite the stakes being sky-high this was a battle for second with the race win going to Shaky Byrne on his HM Plant Honda. It was bittersweet for Byrne, the British Superbike’s play-off style Showdown denied him the crown – under a more conventional points system he would have taken the title by a handful of points from Hill and Hopkins. This is the second year of the Showdown in BSB and so far it has been a success. 2010 was the first year it was used and it helped Byrne’s teammate Ryuichi Kiyonari to his third title to become the most successful BSB rider of all time. This year was a totally different story for Kiyo who was a distant and inconsistent sixth in the points and was sacked as soon as the team returned to base this week.

Until Sunday I wasn’t a big fan of the play-off system used in BSB or Nascar. With Jimmie Johnson mastering the last few races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup he has made Nascar title-deciders somewhat predictable by winning the previous five titles. Shortly after the BSB Showdown thrilled us Jimmie Johnson took the win on the Kansas oval to temper my new-found enthusiasm for the practice of leveling the top contenders points tallies late in the season to ensure a tight finish. But if Nascar comes down to a last-lap shoot-out of the kind we saw at Brands then maybe I’ll be a convert to this contrived method of spicing up the show.

For now let us enjoy the thrill the Showdown has brought us in 2011. British Superbikes are astonishingly competitive, the envy of the world. With the spiraling budgets of the World Superbike teams it is Britain that strikes the best balance between high-level racing and something that young talent can realistically aspire to. Tommy Hill is a shining example of what kind of racer can be nurtured in such a demanding but accessible arena, a place that allows a kid from Kent to take on a Moto GP superstar in a formula that tests even the best. Expect Tommy to finally get the full-time ride he deserves on the world scene, although it will be hard to top last Sunday no matter what successes lay ahead in his life.

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Spot the difference

Looks the same to me... (pic Barry Adams)

You’d be hard pressed to spot the new generation of British Touring Cars during the first three races of the new season at Brands Hatch last Sunday. Aside from a couple of new marques it was business as usual with Jason Plato and Matt Neal winning in a Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic respectively.

The new turbo-charged NGTC-engined cars were slightly quicker in a straight-line than the normally-aspirated units, but again there is nothing unusual about hearing Plato moan about rivals blasting past him – LPG and diesels have been doing the same for the last couple of years. Ultimately it’s always a two litre petrol car that has taken the title and that could still happen this year as Plato once again leads the standings after some very accomplished driving from the old-pro. Jason’s first two 2011 victories also took his career total to 62, surpassing Andy Rouse’s 60 wins that were collected in a great variety of fire-spitting machinery through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

I was chuffed to see fellow scouse Paul O’Neill up there on the podium in race three, although not half as pleased as the man himself was! Speedworks were also representing my region as the Cheshire team ran their new Toyota Avensis which is still lacking the development it needs to put in a really respectable performance.

The new rules may have had little effect on the spectacle but teams like Speedworks are evidence that it could provide a lifeline to smaller teams which brings a spot of variety to the grid, always a healthy sign. It’s a lot better than watching half a grid of Vauxhalls knocking each other off the road back in 2001 when the BTCC last had a major rulebook rethink. This time around there is a welcome mix of old cars that have had new life breathed into them by the turbo engines and all-new machines such as the Toyota, the Audi and the new ‘global’ Ford Focus. TOCA have learned the lessons of the past choosing to evolve things a little slower than when they ditched the Super Tourers that the BTCC pioneered.

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Electric dreams

 

Now which EV class should I race? Black or blue? The Westfield trumps the Think.

The Drayson Racing team today announced that they would be heading to the new EV Cup – the UK-based series for electric cars. The former British politician and ALMS racer Lord Paul Drayson will be taking on the challenge of the world’s only proper electric racing series with his eponymous team, its high-profile defection from a more conventional racing series is as much a first for motorsport as the cars themselves will be.

 

The EV Cup, as far as I can tell, is a two-class championship, with one class being for Think City cars (glorified golf carts) while the Sports class features the Westfield iRacer, a machine that certainly looks the part. This sporty number packs 260bhp and has the increasingly common overtaking button, but it only runs 30 miles between three hour charges, so you can guess how long the races will be.

 

Westfield is a company best known for producing Lotus 7 inspired kit cars, hardly the most cutting-edge credentials. Having said that, Westfield have already shoved a hybrid power-train into one of these 50-something year old designs and its more advanced Le Mans-inspired road racers are plenty quick.

 

Paul Drayson has always been keen on promoting innovation through racing, so it’s apt that Drayson Racing are taking the electric plunge. In a decade will the hum of magnets replace the roar of exhausts? Maybe – as long as the age old question of where the electricity is coming from is answered. Like many, I’m yet to be convinced that we aren’t just moving the emissions from exhaust pipe to power-station. It’s the power providing mega-corporations who should be cleaning up their act first, not the makers of humble hand-crafted sports cars.

 

At least the miserable sods that live around racetracks such as Brands Hatch who complain about noise will have nothing to moan about with a quieter breed of racing car. What was there first – your Barrett Homes or our majestic race track? Let’s have a Brands Hatch 24 hour race – and we’ll go pitch our tents on their lawns!

 

Anyway, I digress, the EV Cup is an interesting initiative and it is good to see an established team taking the plunge into a brave new world. But what looks really intriguing is a third class for prototype EVs that is free from the restrictions of a one-make series. This class bizarrely runs as a separate competition that appears to be a time-trial, so I don’t really see how it is a third class for the EV Cup at all. Whatever the confusing class structure, what counts is that a prototype EV competition is a good thing. A one-make series can only boost the image of electric cars, rather than actually improving the breed through racing. Let’s just hope that this somewhat odd combination of little shopping trolleys, carbon-fibre monsters and a confusing prototype class can be made to work.

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The 2009 BTCC title – it’s been emotional

Turkington and Plato tough it out into Paddock Hill

Turkington and Plato tough it out into Paddock Hill

Phew, did you see the final meeting of the British Touring Car Championship at Brands? It was quite something, the best championship finale for the British tin toppers since Cleland and Soper got acquainted at Silverstone back in 1992. Colin Turkington took the title, but boy did he have to work hard as he diced with fellow contenders Fabrizio Giovanardi and Jason Plato for the crown over the final three race meeting. It was like the good old days of the BTCC; there was even a Ford battling it out at the front and to top it off there was a crowd of nineties proportions with over 35,000 packing into Brands’ natural amphitheatre.

Before taking to the majestic Brands GP circuit it was nice guy Turkington who held a narrow lead in the drivers championship in his West Surrey Racing BMW ahead of the Vauxhall of the gloriously unhinged double champion Fab Gio and the unlikely lad Plato in his reasonably priced car. Watching from the pitlane were four generations of the Northern Irish Turkington clan; this was going to be emotional.

In race one Tom Chilton led away from his shock pole position in the aforementioned Ford, but Jason Plato in his Racing Silverline Chevy Lacetti was putting him under pressure the entire way. Plato was the surprise member of the three championship protagonists, he only got the drive with days to go before the start of the season, but he gamely went down fighting ’til the bitter end. Tom Chilton’s Team Aon Ford Focus dominated the race from lights to flag. Almost. With only one corner to go Plato pounced and scored the narrowest BTCC victory of all time as he pipped Chilton by a mere 0.015s. Team Aon were denied their first win, but the spiky coiffured Chilton wasn’t done yet and continued to figure at the sharp end all day. Turkington was down in eighth which allowed Giovanardi and Plato to close that gap.

Race two and the championship tightened up still further as Plato once again had to find a way past Chilton who gamely fought to keep a train of quicker cars behind him. Alas, they soon bundled Tom out of the way with Plato starting the Ford’s demise by nudging him wide at Druids. I can’t get over how Jason gets away with so much rough stuff, but this time it did have the effect of prolonging the title battle to the final round as Giovanardi and Turkington followed the Chevy home. It was great to see the top three in the championship proving their status by locking out the podium. It was clear that with Gio’s Vauxhall teammate Matt Neal on the pole for race three that Turkington would need to deliver the drive of his life to hold onto his slender title lead.

After a thrilling Nascar-style side-by-side duel between almost everybody on lap one, leader Matt Neal played the team game and held up Turkington to put him within reach of Giovanardi. This put Plato in striking range too though and the old fox wasn’t out of the championship chase just yet.

Eventually Colin Turkington made a move on Matt which ended in contact, an unusual sight for the BMW pilot in ’09. Although Colin now had the lead he was visibly slower and did an incredible job of hanging onto the top spot until lap 15 when, you guessed it, Plato snatched it from him. But a rare three wins from three races wasn’t quite enough for Jason as championship leader Turkington refused to give in and took his wounded car to second, enough for the title.

Colin’s first BTCC championship brought out the cheers and tears from the team, the family, the man himself and me. Yep, I got all emotional about it, which I think is about right. It took me back to the halcyon days when I was first watching touring cars intently and a nice bloke scooped the honours. Let’s hope next year delivers more of the same.

Well, things won’t quite be the same next year as Vauxhall are leaving the sport after 20 years on the trot. The marque gathered all their previous works drivers except race-a-holic James Thompson who was off racing whatever touring car he could get his hands on, as per usual. From Jeff Allam to Yvan Muller, they were all there to pose by a selection of Vauxhall’s most successful 2 litre touring cars.

Vauxhall were the last of the works efforts in the BTCC, it looks like it will be all privateers next year as the big boys tighten their belts. That makes it seem rather apt that two independent runners, Turkington and Plato, took the first two spots on the leaderboard by season’s end. I doff my hat to both for putting on a mighty show at Brands and bravo to Vauxhall for supporting the sport so loyally for so long.

Those in Britain can still catch all the action on ITV4’s website.

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