Preview: Can Menu do a double double?

Alain Menu has proved the master of Donington Park this season, but with a full load of 'success ballast' onboard for this weekend's double-header, it could be tough for the Swiss to retain that accolade.

Preview: Can Menu do a double double?

The Ford Mondeo driver won both rounds at Donington short circuit earlier this year - both of them with a 'top of the shop' 40kg of ballast, but since then Vauxhall and Honda have both emerged as potential race-winners every time out .

The 2.5-mile Grand Prix circuit used this weekend adds further complications to the mix, with the tight esses and hairpin altering the track's characteristics considerably. But Menu has proved his pace around this longer version of the Leicestershire track as he still holds the lap record for BTCC cars with a time that stands unbeaten from his championship-winning year of 1997 with Renault.

"Donington is a good track," he says. "It's not my favourite track in Britain, but the long circuit is kind of strange... You get to the end of it and you've got the hairpin and the chicane, which is heavy braking for two corners. That's not going to help with the extra weight."

Team-mate Rickard Rydell will also carry ballast for the meeting, albeit a less extreme 20kg earned from a single Snetterton podium. Third Mondeo driver Anthony Reid on the other hand, carries no ballast at all - a point that is likely to give him a significant advantage on a circuit with at least one steep climb, and a section that requires heavy braking.

"That's the thing. They've got the same car and less weight, so on paper, they should be faster than me. But overall, I think I have a good chance of winning the championship," says Menu.

Reid, third in the championship before Donington, says "My aim is to capitalise on the lack of ballast this weekend. My team-mates have won races when they were in the same position, so hopefully I can do the same thing. I always try to win every race and I've been a bit unlucky not to win so far this year."

"I think it's going to be hard at Donington," Menu admits, "because the race is on the long circuit, the Grand Prix circuit, and we've got to race on the part with the first gear hairpin, with the weight, which is probably going to be more of a handicap on the long circuit than it is with the short one. And everyone else has improved as well. Vauxhall are better, and Honda have improved quite a lot, so I think it's going to be harder. But I have won with 40 kilos before, so it's not impossible."

One factor that may work in Menu's favour is that the faster men from rival teams also have to carry weight as well. Honda's James Thompson and Tom Kristensen, and Vauxhall Vectra pilot Jason Plato will also carry varying amounts of ballast at Donington after their Snetterton performances.

Menu has 144 points so far, 10 ahead of team-mate Rickard Rydell, after 16 rounds. Reid is a mere four points behind the Swede, so if Menu is to break away in the 24-round championship, he needs to do so soon.

Holding a watching brief will be Vauxhall's Yvan Muller, free of ballast, and no doubt relishing the chance to turn the tables on Jason Plato, who finished on the podium at both Snetterton races and still fancies his championship chances, despite team orders favouring Muller in the Vauxhall camp. Frenchman Muller is just 15 points behind third-placed Reid, while Briton Plato is only a further two points adrift.

In addition, Honda star and 1994 BTCC champ Gabriele Tarquini will also be ballast-free, and could lead the challenge to the Ford crowd with Muller.

A wild card will also appear on the horizon at Donington this weekend, with the return of David Leslie to the series in the car that carried all before it last season - the Nissan Primera.

Leslie won three races last year in the Primera, finished runner-up in the Drivers' Championship to team-mate Laurent Aiello and helped Nissan to both the Manufacturers' and Teams' titles. And one of his most impressive performances of the season came at Donington, when he broke the qualifying lap record to claim pole position and went on to dominate the race, his first win of the season.

The Scot will race the ex-Aiello Primera, which is now in the hands of Michelin Cup for Independents outfit PRO Motorsport, for the remainder of the season. He replaces Glasgow's Colin Blair who has withdrawn from the series to concentrate on business commitments.

"It's fantastic to be back again," says Leslie. "The team asked me to drive because I'm the one with the knowledge of the Primera and I think I'm the best person to get the most out of the car. I don't think I'll be in a position to win outright. This is an independent team and it doesn't have the funds of the manufacturer teams. I'm realistic about it, I don't expect to be doing what I was doing last year, but I will be going out to have fun and hopefully mixing it in the pack."

Blair's decision provisionally hands the Michelin Cup for Independents title to Matt Neal, giving the Englishman his second successive championship. With 232 points, and a maximum of 140 up for grabs, the Team Dynamics Max Power Racing star cannot be caught. "It's great to be champion again," he says. "Now I can just concentrate on trying to get an outright race win.

"I'm sorry Colin has left, but David taking over his seat is good for me because hopefully we can push each other to go quicker and take the challenge to the manufacturer boys. But I'm sure David will be trying to win races for himself."

Making his BTCC debut this weekend is young driver Lee Linford. The 26-year-old breaks into the Class B ranks behind the wheel of a Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot 306 GTi to support that division's leader Alan Morrison. It is a big jump for Linford, who is a Hyundai World Rally Championship team technician. The Englishman has not raced this season but last year competed in a national one-make GT sportscar championship, where he won ten out of 14 races.

He says: "It's a huge leap, but I tested the car last week and I did fairly well. My dad used to take me to watch the BTCC and it's been an ambition of mine to race in it."

The favourite for overall honours, however, should be Menu - but the uncertainty introduced with success ballast makes the races almost impossible to predict, between manufacturers and drivers. Honda and Vauxhall have undoubtedly closed the gap to Ford since the last meeting, but the Blue Oval has not stood still in its effort to take its first BTCC title since the current Super Touring era began in the early 1990s.

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