The 2019 Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship reaches its midpoint this weekend at Cheshire’s Oulton Park.
Oulton Park is the last chance for teams and drivers to make an impression before the traditional summer break. So, who will shine on a circuit that first staged BTCC racing way back in 1960?
Oulton Park has produced some magic moments over the years in the BTCC’s proud history.
Here are some classics with some dramatic first corner carnage, a couple of Matt Neal nightmares and also, two title clinching performances.
1993 – Soper heads for the cameraman
In 1993, the Schnitzer BMW team dominated the championship and the turning point came that year at Oulton Park.
Whilst rookie Joachim Winkelhock was heading towards victory, championship leader Steve Soper hit trouble dramatically.
Chasing his long-time rival John Cleland for second place, Soper understeered off the track at Cascades.
The Brit plunged straight into the tyre barrier, leaving his BMW in a rather sorry mess.
Although Soper was unharmed, his race was over and subsequently lost the championship to his German team-mate.
It also sparked another piece of wonderful commentary from the legendary Murray Walker.
Picking up the fact that the cameraman was almost in the wrong place at the wrong time, he blurted out: “And watch our cameraman…thump! He’s a runner!”
The accident would prove to be costly, as Soper finished 13 points behind Winkelhock in the Drivers’ standings.
1995 – Cleland hits the Jackpot
Back in the mid-1990s, there were often two visits to Oulton Park during the BTCC season.
At the penultimate meeting in 1995, John Cleland had the opportunity to claim his second championship.
A devastating run of four successive victories mid-season, had put him in the driving seat to claim the title in an ultra-competitive season.
Cleland played the percentage game all day, allowing Alain Menu in the Renault Laguna to dominate and win both races.
However, the Vauxhall driver claimed second and third across the two races. This was enough to put the title out of reach for Menu and Rickard Rydell’s Volvo.
As he took the chequered flag, it was clear how much this title meant to Cleland. After narrowly missing out on the title in 1991 and dramatically in 1992, the feisty Scot had finally triumphed.
He gave the Vauxhall Cavalier the perfect send-off before the introduction of the upcoming Vectra.
1997 – First corner mayhem on the Menu
This was a circuit that is among the most successful for Alain Menu in his BTCC career.
Between 1994 and 2000, the Swiss driver took a staggering nine victories at Oulton Park.
Menu’s first title saw him take a double win at a race meeting which started with a bang.
Traditionally, the Old Hall first corner had been the scene of accidents on the first lap and was no different in 1997.
Gabriele Tarquini was hit by John Bintcliffe, who turned into the first corner without any compromise for the Italian on his inside.
Tarquini spun and the pack took evasive action. Jason Plato and Rickard Rydell were heavily delayed, whilst Tarquini, Patrick Watts and Robb Gravett all retired.
With Plato and Rydell delayed and defending champion Frank Biela slowed by steering problems, Menu cruised to victory.
This was on a day where the opposition seemed more interested in taking each other out, rather than challenge the dominant champion-elect.
2002 – Victory for O’Neill
Oulton Park has been the breakthrough circuit for several drivers over the years.
The likes of Joachim Winkelhock, Gordon Shedden, Mat Jackson and Matt Simpson have all won their maiden BTCC races at the circuit.
The most emotional though was Paul O’Neill’s debut win in 2002.
Pointless after three races, he was under pressure to deliver for the dominante Vauxhall squad. However, O’Neill would make the most of the opportunities presented to him by his teammates.
First, Matt Neal made an embarrassing error whilst leading and stopped at the wrong pit garage. He wasn’t driving for Honda yet!
Neal later crashed out and it didn’t go much better for Triple Eight. James Thompson slowed with a puncture, while a mechanical problem forced Yvan Muller to a halt.
As a result, O’Neill came through to claim victory ahead of Tim Harvey and Warren Hughes.
The emotion on his car radio afterwards spoke volumes. He reacted as if he’d won the championship, let alone his maiden race.
2003 – Muller’s time arrives
Frenchman Yvan Muller produced plenty of excitement during his spell in the BTCC.
After near-misses in the previous two years, Muller’s time finally arrived at the final round of 2003.
With a 28-point lead over team-mate James Thompson, all Muller needed to do was finish on the podium in the first race.
Despite Thompson’s win, Muller safe and secure driving saw him claim third place, and with it, the championship.
After losing the title to the Brit via reliability problems, Muller had finally claim the Drivers’ title.
In his sixth BTCC season, became the second Frenchman after Laurent Aiello in 1999 to take the coveted crown.
2011 – Honda commit Motorsport’s Cardinal Sin
To date, Matt Neal has seven Oulton Park victories to his name in his tremendous BTCC career.
However, the Cheshire circuit has seen a couple of nightmare moments which must rank near the top of his worst moments in the series.
After his 2002 pit stop faux-pas, Neal committed a bigger mistake nine years later in the second race of the day.
He followed his Honda team-mate Gordon Shedden all race in greasy conditions. On the final lap, Neal attempted an ambitious overtaking move on the Scotsman at Lodge corner.
He locked up and ran into Shedden’s Honda Civic, taking both of them into the gravel trap.
Neal’s error of judgement allowed his arch enemy Jason Plato through to take a fortunate victory for Chevrolet.
Shedden crawled out of the gravel trap to finish sixth. In contrast, Neal was left stuck in the gravel, rather red-faced as he buried his helmet in his hands.
What will happen this weekend?
Reigning champion Colin Turkington arrives as championship leader whilst BMW team-mate Andrew Jordan is the man in-form, with four victories in the last six races.
Honda, Vauxhall and Subaru will all pose a stern challenge. Oulton Park also has a habit of producing surprise winners and podium finishers.
The rain is unlikely to be a rain-affected weekend, with temperatures expected to hit the low 30s.
So, expect the creme of the crop in the touring car paddock to shine on a scorching weekend at Oulton Park.