GORDON Shedden has been super-quick all year, but in his last free practice session at Snetterton a fortnight ago the Honda Civic driver was hot. Not metaphorically, but literally.
And not just the sort of hot under the collar you get when the under-seat heater is stuck in the “on” position. Instead of a warm rearguard, the Fifer was almost frazzled as the whole side of his car was engulfed in flames.
“I was coming round the last bend in free practice when there was a pop, like a misfire, and all of a sudden there were flames shooting out from the underside of the car,” he said. “There was a massive fire because we had a fuel line failure, and it had touched against the brakes, which were red-hot, and set the car ablaze in a fairly big way. I’d been hoping for a scorching weekend but got a bit more than I bargained for. It was a bit warm.”
That fire, which saw Shedden deluged with texts and tweets by worried race fans and family, was the latest in a series of unfortunate events in the recent life of Flash, as Shedden is widely known. Another came later that weekend in the third race at Snetterton when Shedden’s gutsy third-place finish was stuck off after post-race technical checks revealed that his car had exceeded the turbo-boost limits. That followed a season-opening race at Brands Hatch when the Scot’s car was crippled by a technical fault which saw his engine continually cut out at 130mph, almost causing a crash and forcing him to pull out.
“Everything’s conspiring against me at the moment,” he laughed. “But it could be far, far worse. The truly remarkable thing is that, after going up in flames at Snetterton, we were able to build anything for Sunday, especially as we basically had to replace everything from the bulkhead forward and the sides of the car. It was just a proper mess but they got it rebuilt in four hours. I started last and got up to seventh in the first race, and then finished second in the second race, and third in the third race before they scratched me.”
It says a lot about Shedden’s explosive season that, had he retained that third place at Snetterton, he would now be leading the BTCC instead of trailing his forty-something team-mate Matt Neal by just eight points and leading his equally superannuated rival Jason Plato by two points. Apart from those two catastrophic weekends, the Scot has been in dominant form, winning six of the 12 races between Brand’s Hatch and Snetterton. Yet instead of arriving with the pack trailing in his wake, Shedden is now scrapping to get to the top of the pile. It’s an almost identical scenario to last year, when he arrived at Knockhill trailing Ford’s Mat Jackson by eight points and went on to finish second in the championship after a third-place finish the previous year.
This year, however, the 33-year-old has his eyes set firmly on the main prize. Not only is he driving well enough to become the first Scot to win the British Touring Cars Championship since his mentor John Cleland in 1995, but he also has the added incentive of needing to perform at Knockhill on the 20th anniversary of the Fife circuit’s involvement in BTCC. For Shedden, a local boy who works at the track and is married to the chief executive Jillian, the daughter of owner Derek Butcher, it is shaping up to be a weekend to remember.
“I guess this way it keeps it exciting for the fans,” he said. “Still, it should mean some great racing because it’s so close at the top, with three of us within ten points.”
Shedden doesn’t seem to be worried by the fact that his car, whose bodyshell took 1,000 hours of work to assemble, was reduced to the status of burned-out wreck less than two weeks ago. Instead, he is focusing on the upside, which is the fact that he has a career in motorsport at all.
As recently as 2009, when he lost his drive with Halfords and spent that recession-blighted season on the sidelines working at Knockhill, his continued presence in the sport he has loved since he took up karting as a 16-year-old was been far from assured. That uncertainty has lent a hunger and focus to his quest to become BTCC champion. This weekend that desire will propel him around one of the most eccentric little tracks in motorsport.
“It was a very difficult period where it was drummed into me that you don’t deserve anything in life and that you’ve got to work for it,” he says. “Realising how easy it would be never to get back in a car again spurred me on and made me work even harder to be able to race because I don’t have a family that can pay for my racing. I found all my own sponsors. That’s not a sob story, but every time I’ve been given an opportunity I’ve grabbed it with both hands and tried to make the best of it, even if 2009 was a really tough time. I think my determination to get back on the grid and my sheer bloody-mindedness was probably the spark to get me back into the Honda drive for the following year.”
If Shedden is to win at Knockhill today, which would leave him leading the championship with just three rounds remaining, he needs to harness his knowledge of this remarkable little course with such a dramatic history. Thanks to its unusually tight shape, undulating track and hefty camber, 20 years at Knockhill have witnessed almost non-stop drama.
“Knockhill’s fantastic, it’s one of the few proper true old-school circuits that we still have left,” says Shedden. “You couldn’t go and design Knockhill on a sheet of paper in the way that all these new F1 circuits are so regimented. Knockhill is like an absolute rollercoaster ride, the crowd are really close to the action, they’re really part of the event, and there just isn’t a second to relax. You’ve got to be absolutely on it everywhere. That why everyone loves coming to Knockhill.”
As he talks about the track, Shedden remembers some seminal incidents, such as in 1994 when Gabriele Tarquini rolled his Alfa Romeo (“an iconic moment of touring cars”) but mainly he remembers the Scots. In all, nine Scots have raced here in BTCC. That number includes the two-times champion Cleland, plus Colin McRae in 1992 when he raced for BMW. But most of all it includes the late great David Leslie whose epic drives in his Nissan Primera against Steve Soper, Laurent Aiello and Jo Winkelhock in the early 1990s really sparked Shedden’s passion for touring cars. At Knockhill the remaining seven Scottish drivers will all be photographed together, and will all lap the circuit in their old cars.
“For me the big bonus is the crowd and the support I get, which gets bigger and better every year,” says Shedden. “It lets me walk that little bit taller with a bit more spring in my step and a little bit more confidence. And that just allows me to push a little bit harder and perhaps find a little bit more speed.
“It’s very humbling because I kind of get embarrassed when people are coming up to me and asking for autographs, I literally can’t walk six feet without people jumping on me.”
If he wins at Knockhill today, make that three feet…