WHEN Gordon Shedden looks back at last year’s tumultuous British Touring Cars Championship, it’s difficult for him to know where to start.
There was his near-incineration during testing at Snetterton, the opening race at Brands Hatch when a technical fault meant that his engine continually cut out at 130mph, or the disqualification at Snetterton for exceeding the turbo-boost limits after a spectacularly gutsy drive to take third place.
There were plenty of other glitches, too. So many, in fact, that at various stages it seemed as if the gods of motorsport were conspiring against Flash, as the Fifer is universally known, just as a first BTCC title seemed within his grasp at the ripe old age of 33.
“Last year was character building at times because so much went wrong,” he laughs. “When I came to Brands Hatch I was something like 40 points off the lead and I’d barely scored a point, what with the teething problems with the car. I did wonder whether my luck was ever going to change, but the saving grace was that when I was running I’d finish on the podium or win races, and that strike rate kept me in the mix.”
Yet Shedden says that the harder a prize is won, the more treasured it is. If so, there can surely have been few sporting triumphs sweeter that his against-the-odds capture of last year’s touring cars championship trophy. Although it elicited a treasured note of congratulations from the First Minister, it was otherwise a win which flew beneath the radar for much of the country’s media. Sneddon laughs: “That’s because we’re obsessed with sports that have a ball – it felt as if I’d have had more chance of recognition if I’d been playing in a third division netball match.”
Yet it was a success which makes Shedden only the third Scot to have his name engraved on the championship trophy. When you realise that the other two are his mentor John Cleland and Jim Clark, the country’s greatest-ever motor-racing talent, it gives some sense of the scale of Shedden’s achievement.
“I think it’s fair to say that last year made me very happy,” he says, grinning at the sheer scale of that understatement. “Jim Clark needs no introduction and John [Cleland] was a Scottish hero who, back in the mid-90s, sparked my love of motor racing and convinced me to try to make a life in the sport.
“When you look through the names that are on the trophy it’s incredible. Many of them went on to do great things in Formula One and to be there amongst those names is a real honour. But there’s no sense of my resting on my laurels. In fact, my motivation is higher than ever because I’ve got to go and do it all over again – I quite like having the number one on my car and don’t plan to give it up easily.”
With the 2013 BTCC campaign kicking off at Brands Hatch this weekend, there are many who believe that the Scot has what it takes to defend his title, not least the man himself.
Yet, with an unprecedented four previous BTCC champions on the grid, there has never been such a competitive field, and Shedden harbours few illusions. His most obvious rival is his 46-year-old Honda Civic team-mate Matt Neal, a three-times world champion whose campaign to equal Andy Rouse’s record of four titles was hampered by an injured hand last year. But an even more likely challenger is Shedden’s nemesis, Jason Plato. There is little love lost between the two men, the Scot’s quiet, reserved demeanour and the brash Englishman’s self-regarding self-belief meaning that the drivers have little in common other than a burning desire to be first to the chequered flag.
Plato, however, will also have to watch out for a challenge from closer to home, with highly-regarded 23-year-old Yorkshireman Sam Tordoff joining him at MG. Shedden is hoping that the youngster is fast enough to challenge Plato and create enough tensions to undermine the former world champion’s title campaign.
“Sam’s a great young driver who has come from the Porsche cup,” says Shedden. “He will learn a lot from Jason – until he goes faster than him, of course, and then he’ll learn absolutely nothing!”
The final former world champion who will be challenging Shedden is Colin Turkington, who is driving for BMW on his return to British Touring Cars from the world and Scandinavian touring car championships. The Ulsterman is an old friend of Shedden’s from their days instructing together at Knockhill (which is managed by Shedden’s wife Jillian and owned by her father, Derek Butcher) when a student at Stirling University. Still, the defending champion knows that he will be a formidable adversary in one of the most open contests for years.
“It’ll be a pretty bruising competition this year,” he says. “We were very competitive at the end of last year but theoretically we’ve got the same box of bits as everyone else, so it’s just as much a question of what progress the other cars have made. We know that the new BMWs are really quick, that Ford have had a bit longer to get their head around the cars, and that the MGs, Audis and Toyotas will be there or thereabouts. In all, there are a dozen cars that can win a race and, realistically, challenge for the title.”
It doesn’t help that the campaign kicks off at Brands Hatch, a track which has not witnessed Shedden’s finest moments.
Yet he insists that he loves the circuit, and that he has just been dogged by bad luck there.
“The little circuit we’re on at Brands Hatch this weekend hasn’t been kind to me,” he says.
“In 2011 I had a massive accident in testing and wrecked the car. I had a puncture last year and then all sorts of electrical gremlins, and I’ve had punctures when I’ve been leading races there so it hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for me.
“But then things have changed, Honda are still the team to beat, and I’ve moved from being the hunter to the hunted, and this time I don’t intend to be caught.”