With packed grids, a huge variety of cars and some of the best racing anywhere on the planet, the British Touring Car Championship continues to set incredibly high standards – this is the field of 2016 in the first race of the penultimate meeting at Silverstone – but can the new campaign stand up to expectations?
Now, I know this gets said every single year, but let’s be honest here…this has all the makings of something special, doesn’t it? I mean, one of the many great things about motorsport as a whole is that there’s so much variety in terms of the various different styles of racing, meaning that – regardless of which one you prefer – there’s a championship out there to suit virtually anybody, and, as far as I’m concerned…this is the best of the bunch. Sure, on the surface, it can’t really compete with the engineering masterpieces that you get in Formula One, nor does it produce the same brutal, rugged spectacle of the World Rally Championship, but these things are almost a price worth paying when the quality of the racing itself remains so consistently high year after year, and so it’s really no surprise why many people regard it as the best saloon car series anywhere in the world. That’s right, the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is back, and, as the 2017 season prepares to kick off at Brands Hatch this weekend…it’s virtually impossible to predict who’s going to come out on top.
However, before we get into any of that, as much as this is my favourite racing series of them all, I realise that it’s not necessarily going to be for everyone – in fact, some of you might not even have heard of it before – so, for those who are coming to the BTCC for the first time (where have you been?) and don’t yet have much of an idea as to how it works, here’s a brief run through of some of the key rules and regulations…
- The cars themselves – which are all built to the same Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) regulations – are powered by 2.0 litre turbocharged engines that develop around 350 brake horsepower, with each team given the option of running either their own in-house engines or purchasing the so-called ‘TOCA engine’ (which has been redeveloped during the off-season by the Swindon company that has prepared them since they were first permitted to be used back in 2010).
- However, as a means of cutting costs, many of the other key components on the cars are all provided by one single supplier to every entrant, including the 6-speed sequential gearboxes, suspension kits (which are now all prepared by the RML Group for the first time after a hybrid year of older-spec GPRM components in 2016) and brake packages.
- The tyres are also controlled to just one supplier in the form of long-term partner Dunlop, who provide both a ‘prime’ compound tyre (which is used in two of the three races each weekend) and an ‘option’ compound (which must be run in one race), with the teams nominating their selected ‘option’ race prior to qualifying, and must spread this equally throughout the nine race meetings (the exception being Thruxton, where all cars have to run the hard tyre).
- There’s variation in terms of the way the grids are set for each of the three races – while the results from qualifying set the order for Race 1, the finishing positions from the opening race then form the grid for Race 2. After the second race, those finishing between sixth and tenth are put into a random draw, with the driver whose number is pulled out being promoted to pole for the partially reverse grid Race 3 and those that finished ahead slotting in behind.
- Success ballast is also imposed on the top ten drivers, with 75kg being given to a race winner (or, in the case of Race 1 of a particular weekend, the championship leader) and proceeding down through 66-57-48-39-33-27-21-15 to 9kg being given to the driver in tenth.
- Points are awarded in a slightly different way to the general FIA system, with a race winner receiving 20 points and proceeding down through 18-16-14-12-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2 to 1 point for the driver finishing in 15th position, while bonus points are also awarded for taking pole position in qualifying, setting the fastest lap or leading a lap during a race (although the latter is restricted to a single point, regardless of how many laps a driver might lead).
So, now that that’s all been cleared up, it’s time to focus on the upcoming season in more detail, starting with a championship calendar that was confirmed way back in June last year in order to avoid as many clashing race dates as possible with other domestic racing series, but, to be honest, there’s not too much that needs to be said here, with the now traditional 10 event itinerary retaining exactly the same order for an unprecedented sixth season in succession.
After the short, sharp blast around the Brands Hatch Indy circuit to get things going in anger, the teams, cars and drivers then head off to the East Midlands and the very different challenge of the twisting, turning Donington Park before cranking up the speed even further on the way back down south to the fearsomely fast Thruxton in Hampshire. From there, the more handling-based circuits then take over for a little while, with the picturesque setting of Oulton Park in Cheshire being followed by the brutal simplicity of the converted airfield at Croft in North Yorkshire before the championship’s six-week summer break.
The series then kicks back into life with the second half of the year getting underway in Norfolk around the still-relatively new 300 layout at Snetterton, before the championship makes its annual pilgrimage north of the border into Scotland – now the only occasion where it even moves out of England, with a previous event at Mondello Park in Ireland having been scrapped several years ago on cost grounds – to take on the rollercoaster-like challenge of the Knockhill circuit in mid-August. After that, the series returns to England and to the newest race facility in the UK at Rockingham in Northamptonshire and then visiting one of the oldest in the form of the shorter National circuit at Silverstone – the self-styled ‘home of British motorsport’ – before the title battle (hopefully) reaches yet another of its trademark dramatic climaxes when it returns to the longer Grand Prix circuit at Brands Hatch on the first weekend in October.
Here, then, is a look at the shape of the calendar for 2017 in a bit more detail, complete with race dates and, because many of the circuits have multiple different configurations to cater for all kinds of different types of racing, I’ve also included the specific track layouts wherever necessary…
- Brands Hatch (Indy) – 2nd April (Rounds 1, 2 and 3)
- Donington Park – 16th April (Rounds 4, 5 and 6)
- Thruxton – 7th May (Rounds 7, 8 and 9)
- Oulton Park (Island) – 21st May (Rounds 10, 11 and 12)
- Croft – 11th June (Rounds 13, 14 and 15)
- Snetterton (300) – 30th July (Rounds 16, 17 and 18)
- Knockhill – 13th August (Rounds 19, 20 and 21)
- Rockingham – 27th August (Rounds 22, 23 and 24)
- Silverstone (National) – 17th September (Rounds 25, 26 and 27)
- Brands Hatch (GP) – 1st October (Rounds 28, 29 and 30)
THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
For years, the thought of a capacity grid of 32 cars was considered to be little more than a fantasy, but, for the third year in succession, each of the available TOCA BTCC Licences (generally referred to as TBLs) – which were introduced to the sport a few years ago, and operate in a similar way to the Racing Entitlement Contract system of the Australian Supercars Series, although here, the licences are distributed to the teams by the series organisers rather than being purchased by the teams themselves – have once again been allocated, so, with that in mind, here’s a run through of the contenders that we’ll be seeing in 2017…
TEAM DYNAMICS (Honda Civic) – As one of the most successful teams of modern times, it’s no surprise that the defending champions – complete with a striking new black and orange livery in deference to title sponsor Halfords – are again expected to be right among the leading contenders for honours in 2017. Reigning two-time champion Gordon Shedden and former three-time title winning team-mate Matt Neal will both be seeking to join the great Andy Rouse as one of only two men to have taken the BTCC crown on four occasions – the Scot also looking to be the first driver since the early 1980s to win three titles on the spin – while second year driver Matt Simpson moves across from the Speedworks operation to run a third Civic under his own Simpson Racing banner.
TEAM BMR (Subaru Levorg) – Following a torrid start to 2016, a major turnaround in fortunes mid-season saw Warren Scott’s outfit in championship contention come the final round, and, with a year of experience now under their belts with the Levorg, hopes are high that they will be fighting at the front from the outset this time around. Veteran Jason Plato returns to lead their attack with an eye on becoming the first driver to score 100 BTCC race wins, while James Cole will be looking for better things in his second season alongside, with the team’s four-car line-up being completed by two rising stars in the form of reigning Jack Sears Trophy winner Ash Sutton – who won two races in a superb debut season last year while with MG – and 18 year-old Renault Clio Cup graduate Josh Price, with the latter running under the Team BMR Academy banner.
TRIPLE EIGHT RACING (MG6 GT) – After showing flashes of promise without ever really producing the consistency needed for a full-on championship push last season, it’s all change again for one of the championship’s stalwart teams as they look to return to the front of the field in 2017. Irishman Aron Taylor-Smith – formerly known as Smith before taking the surname of his new wife after getting married during the off-season – switches from the departed BKR outfit with whom he won a race last season, while Daniel Lloyd produced some starring displays behind the wheel of a Eurotech Honda in 2016 before budget problems brought his season to a close, with the Yorkshireman looking to make amends as he embarks on his first full season in the championship.
WEST SURREY RACING (BMW 125i) – The new season heralds a new dawn for Dick Bennetts’ highly successful operation as they welcome back BMW as a manufacturer entry for the first time in 21 years, and, with arguably the strongest driver line-up on the grid, are many people’s favourites to take the title this year. Only the experienced Rob Collard – who had perhaps his strongest season in the championship in 2016 as he finished fifth overall – remains from last season, with the other two rear-wheel-drive 1 Series being piloted by former champions in the form of 2013 title winner Andrew Jordan (who moves from Motorbase to run under his familiar Pirtek Racing banner) and the returning Colin Turkington, with the Northern Irishman coming back to the team that took him to titles in 2009 and 2014 after two years at Team BMR.
POWER MAXED RACING (Vauxhall Astra) – After seven seasons absence as a works entry, one of the most successful marques in the modern era of the BTCC is back, with Adam Weaver’s young team pulling off a real coup to get Vauxhall back onto the grid for only their third season in the championship. There’s a familiar face on the driver front, too, with former Independents’ champion Tom Chilton back for the first time since 2011 for a dual campaign alongside his commitments in the World Touring Car Championship, while the second all-new Astra will be piloted by 18 year-old Senna Proctor (son of former BTCC racer Mark), who makes his debut in the series after stepping up from the Renault Clio Cup.
MOTORBASE PERFORMANCE (Ford Focus) – Having finally got the monkey off their back by taking their first title of any kind in the BTCC after 10 fruitless years beforehand, David Bartrum’s team – complete with a new title sponsor in Shredded Wheat and a striking new yellow and red livery adorning their Focuses – enter 2017 with high hopes of mounting a concerted championship push. On the driver front, the experienced Mat Jackson returns for an eighth season with the team after finishing third overall last year to lead their expanded three-car line-up, with Martin Depper switching across from Eurotech to join him along with series newcomer Luke Davenport, who steps into a front wheel drive car for the first time in his career to make his debut in the series after spells in both the Ginetta GT Supercup and the British GT Championship in recent years.
CICELEY RACING/LASER TOOLS RACING (Mercedes A-Class) – Now one of the strongest independent packages in the championship, and after a strong campaign in 2016, there’s belief that the new season could yield even more success for the two rapid A-Classes as the partnership between the teams continues to grow. Twice a winner last year, Lancastrian Adam Morgan – sporting a brand-new black and red livery on his Ciceley Racing car in recognition of new title sponsor MAC Tools – has grown to become one of the BTCC’s most consistent drivers over the last few years, while ever-improving Scottish youngster Aiden Moffat will be hoping that 2017 will be the year he takes a first win in the series in his Laser Tools Racing version.
EUROTECH RACING (Honda Civic) – Despite having arguably the best car package on the grid in the form of Team Dynamics-built Hondas, it was something of a disappointing year for the team in 2016, but there’s renewed optimism that the new season might well bring about a change in fortunes. Team principal Jeff Smith will again pilot of one of the cars, with the second being filled by the exciting talent of Jack Goff, who makes the switch back to front wheel drive with hopes of getting back on the top step of the podium – which he managed behind the wheel of an MG back in 2015 – after a fruitless campaign last season in one of the West Surrey Racing BMWs.
SPEEDWORKS MOTORSPORT/HANDY MOTORSPORT (Toyota Avensis) – Even with the aging machinery at their disposal, both teams – although now operating separately following a couple of years partnership – had by far and away their most successful seasons in the BTCC, and hopes are high they can remain competitive heading into the new campaign. Youngster Tom Ingram immediately made his mark by taking the opening race win of 2016 in the Speedworks Avensis, and returns for a fourth year with the teams with ambitions of becoming the Independents’ champion, while fan favourite Rob Austin will be looking to continue his form from the end of last year in the Handy Motorsport version to become a regular presence once more at the sharp end of the grid.
TEAM HARD (VW CC) – There were signs last season that Tony Gilham’s team had the potential to challenge right at the front of the field, and, having switched from the aging Toyota Avensis to ex-Team BMR Volkswagen CCs, hopes are high that 2017 will see them make yet more progress. On the driver front, Jake Hill comes back for a second season with the team after producing some superb drives last year that included a top-six finish at Croft, while team-mate Michael Epps also returns following a consistently solid debut campaign, with the team’s third entry – which fielded three different drivers at various points last season – now being filled by 2016 Ginetta GT4 Supercup runner-up Will Burns.
AMD TUNING.COM – Now one of the longest-serving current teams in the championship, Shaun Hollamby’s outfit expand to a full-time two car operation for the first time with ambitions of making further progress up the grid and becoming regular points scorers in 2017. Having made his return to the series last season, Ollie Jackson again returns to lead their attack alongside reigning Renault Clio Cup champion Ant Whorton-Eales, who finally makes the step up to pilot the second of the team’s Audi S3s having forged an impressive reputation during five strong years in the main BTCC feeder category.
TEAM PARKER RACING/MAXIMUM MOTORSPORT – Having spent the past couple of seasons fighting towards the rear of the field, there’s real optimism that the 2017 campaign will be one of significant progress for two of the more recent additions to the grid. After two years behind the wheel of a West Surrey Racing BMW in 2008 and 2009, Stephen Jelley makes a welcome return to pilot the new-look Team Parker Racing Ford Focus, while former MG works driver Josh Cook – who had looked at one point as though he was going to be without a seat altogether – gets an 11th hour reprieve to step into the Maximum Motorsport version in place of team boss Stewart Lines.
BTC NORLIN RACING – Although technically the only new team on the grid this year, the backbone of Bert Taylor’s operation is well-established in the BTCC, having competed between 2006 and 2008 as well as a single season back in 2014, and so could well be one to watch. After one year in the British Rallycross Championship, former race winner Dave Newsham makes his return to the series to lead their attack in one of their Chevrolet Cruzes, while Northern Irishman Chris Smiley will be hoping for better things in his first full season after a truncated 2016 campaign at the wheel of a Team HARD Toyota.
What a motley crew… The class of 2017 assembled for their official photo at the Season Launch at Donington Park, but which one of them will be celebrating with the title come the end of the year?
Everyone can win it – that do you?
In all seriousness, though, this is shaping up to be one of the toughest championship seasons for a long time – perhaps not since the days of Super Touring in the 1990s – and so whoever comes out with the title in October will very much have won it the hard way. However, it’s likely that the five former champions are going to be the ones to beat once again, and, of this quintet, I think the renewal of Turkington’s title-winning partnership with WSR and the rear-wheel-drive BMW is going to be tough to stop, although expect Shedden, Neal, Plato and Jordan to all be breathing down his neck.
Of the rest, there’s plenty of emerging talent hoping to bring the more established names down a peg or two in 2017 – Sutton, Ingram, Cook, Lloyd, Moffat and Hill – along with regular contenders like Mat Jackson, Morgan, Collard, Taylor-Smith, Austin and Goff, while it’ll be intriguing to see how returning drivers Jelley and (particularly) Chilton get on with their first experiences of NGTC machinery, but, with no less than half of the 32 drivers having won a race in the championship in the past, it’s difficult to really rule anyone out.
So, that’s how I see things, but now, as ever, it’s over to you to try and answer the impossible question as to where the championship title might be headed – do you play it safe and go for the regular front-runners again, or could the openness of the field this year create an opportunity for a surprise package from further down the grid? Comment with your thoughts here or on Facebook or vote in the poll below, but, for now, all we can do is wait – next stop, Brands Hatch…