Now, I know this kind of thing gets repeated virtually every year, but it’s probably true this time around…this really could turn out to be something special, couldn’t it? Of course, in motorsport, it’s always a risk to build up the prospects of a particular championship before a wheel has even been turned, only to then find that the on-track action falls short of those high expectations once the season gets underway, but, having forged a formidable reputation as one of the most competitive series around, I suspect that’s not going to be the case here. I mean, granted, the big-budget racing of years gone by might be little more than a distant memory, but, with a huge range of cars and manufacturers on view and tightly controlled regulations that help to keep the action as close as possible, the formula has remained pretty much the same ever since – after all, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it – and, when you add an ever-growing list of driving talent into the mix…there’s plenty to get excited about. Sure, the 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is going to have to go some way to match the drama of the past few years, but, on paper…it could be even better than before.
While it’s hard to argue with the fact that, even by its own high standards, the level of competition in the BTCC has been increasing ever since the introduction of the Next Generation Touring Car regulations back in 2011, with an ever-growing crop of young chargers stepping up to pit their wits against the big names, no one has been able to get near the levels of success enjoyed in recent years by the factory Honda squad and their long-established partnership with Team Dynamics, but, while four drivers’ titles might suggest on the surface that the rest haven’t had a sniff, when you dig a little deeper…they’ve most certainly had to earn it the hard way. Indeed, the 2016 season was a classic case in point as reigning champion Gordon Shedden looked to become only the seventh driver in series history to win the championship on three occasions, and, despite suffering a difficult start to the season that saw the advantage shift to the ever-consistent Sam Tordoff in the rear-wheel-drive West Surrey Racing BMW, the Scot continued to pick up the points in the second half of the year to go into the final round as one of no fewer than EIGHT drivers with a shot at the title, where, despite the best efforts of the Yorkshireman, the Honda man made his move in a typically dramatic season finale to snatch the crown from Tordoff by just 2 points and, in the process, become the first driver since Italian Fabrizio Giovanardi in 2007 and 2008 to secure back-to-back titles.
Over the off-season, the appeal of the championship has swelled even further, with the long-awaited return of Vauxhall as a fully-fledged works team after eight seasons away and BMW’s agreement to provide full manufacturer support to WSR – the first time the German marque has been represented by a factory-backed team in the BTCC since 1996 – swelling the number of manufacturer entries to five, leading many to draw comparisons with the Super Touring era of the mid-1990s, which saw virtually every mainstream brand taking part at some point. However, while those days did indeed produce some spectacular action, it ultimately became a victim of its own success as the budgets of each individual team started to spiral out of control, and, although I’m sure many people would like to see even more works teams entering in the near future, the fact that so many privately-run, privately-funded operations have been able to compete at the sharp end in recent seasons shows just how successful the current regulations have been, and so I think these kinds of comparisons (at this stage) are a bit premature.
The much-anticipated opening round of the new season saw the championship return to one of the most iconic venues in British motorsport for its now traditional curtain-raiser, with the short, sharp 1.2 mile Indy layout at Brands Hatch – the track hosting the first three races of the year for a seventh season in succession – providing both teams and drivers with a deceptively challenging opening assignment as they looked to get their title challenges underway. A former host venue for the Formula One British Grand Prix (albeit on the longer GP configuration), the track has undergone relatively little in the way of alterations in recent times, and so is one of the more familiar circuits currently on the calendar, but, with a capacity 32-car field to fit onto such a short lap, finding good track position amongst the traffic – whether in qualifying or race trim – is often a critical factor in determining a driver’s chances of picking up the best possible result.
A normal lap begins with a reasonably short run along the Brabham Straight – which has a noticeable change in gradient towards the inside of the track, and has often caused problems for drivers starting races from pole position as they get too much wheelspin and slide down towards the pit wall – to one of the most fearsome corners on the calendar in the form of the daunting right-hander of Paddock Hill Bend that drops steeply downhill on exit, with the cars then having to climb back up the other side before turning through the tricky right-hand hairpin at Druids. From there, there’s another sharp drop downhill before the tight left-hander of Graham Hill Bend – the short apex here making it a common place for drivers to run wide and fall foul of track limits rules – that leads out onto the short Cooper straight, with the cars then having to negotiate the rapid direction change through the medium-speed left-right ‘esses’ at Surtees and McLaren before feeding back onto the pit straight by way of the tight right-hander at Clearways and the endless sweep through the final corner of Clark Curve.
Despite the lap being one of the shortest of the season, there are still plenty of places to overtake, with the best often proving to be on the brakes into Clearways – normally with a little tap on the rear of the car in front (a usual tactic in touring car racing) – or into the first corner at Paddock Hill Bend by using the slipstream down the pit straight and then lunging down the inside in the braking zone, but the chance of running wide and ending up sliding into the gravel makes it a somewhat risky move to attempt. Elsewhere, the relatively wide track at Druids allows for a variety of lines – although trying to run right round the outside does require the car ahead giving room on the apex, with the normal racing line taking the cars out wide – in an attempt to gain ground, while a decent run out of Graham Hill Bend and along the Cooper straight can sometimes allow a following car to open the door turning into Surtees.
The corresponding set of races here 12 months ago produced a typically action-filled start to 2016, with young charger Tom Ingram exploding out of the blocks in spectacular fashion in his Speedworks Motorsport Toyota Avensis by converting his maiden BTCC pole into a comfortable first-ever victory in the series in the season-opener, but contact in the opening laps of Race 2 with the BMW of the ever-feisty Rob Collard allowed the reigning champion to capitalise and lead home a Halfords Yuasa Racing 1-2 ahead of veteran stable-mate Matt Neal before an enthralling reverse-grid Race 3 saw Adam Morgan fend off the dual BMW challenge of Tordoff and former team-mate Jack Goff over the closing laps to record his first win of the year in his Ciceley Motorsport Mercedes A-Class.
So, with all that in mind, would the start of the new campaign deliver yet more excitement and drama as Shedden and Honda looked to kick-start their attempts to make it three titles on the bounce; having secured factory backing for the first time in years, and with arguably the most competitive driver combination on the grid, could the rear-wheel-drive BMWs of WSR deliver straight out of the box to take the fight to the Civics from the get-go, or, with such an incredibly competitive field on display, would there be one or two surprises to emerge from the chasing pack early on? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the first round of the 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, Rounds 1, 2 and 3 from Brands Hatch in Kent…
The opening 30 minute qualifying session of the year gave the teams and drivers their first chance to see exactly where they stood in the early pecking order, but a combination of changeable weather conditions and a couple of interruptions meant it wasn’t long before it produced the first major surprise of the season, with Eurotech Racing team owner Jeff Smith securing a sensational maiden BTCC pole in his Honda Civic – albeit after just getting his lap completed before a red flag – by just 0.062s ahead of the facelifted Speedworks Avensis of an under-the-weather Ingram. The two newly-liveried Halfords Yuasa-sponsored Hondas were next up on the second row – reigning champion Shedden narrowly edging out Neal to grab third – while former double champion Colin Turkington marked his return to WSR and BMW after two years away by posting the fifth fastest time ahead of the newly-liveried MAC Tools-backed Mercedes of Morgan in sixth.
Behind, Goff marked his debut in the second of the Eurotech Hondas with a decent run to seventh – albeit some three-tenths off the pace of team-mate Smith – ahead of Rob Austin in his Handy Motorsport Toyota, with the top ten being completed by career-best qualifying performances from the leading Team HARD Volkswagen of Jake Hill and Matt Simpson in his Team Dynamics-run Simpson Racing Honda, while there were decent showings, too, from the new Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astras, with the returning Tom Chilton in 12th and new team-mate Senna Proctor the fastest of the rookies in 16th overall. However, it was a tough day at the office for some of the more experienced names, with Andrew Jordan and Rob Collard unable to match the speed of BMW team-mate Turkington as they wound up a disappointing 11th and 15th respectively – the latter just behind the leading Shredded Wheat Ford of Mat Jackson in 14th – but the major surprise was the lack of pace in the Team BMR Subaru Levorgs, with Jason Plato struggling to 18th and Ash Sutton even further back in 22nd.
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Smith, 2nd – Ingram, 3rd – Shedden, 4th – Neal, 5th – Turkington, 6th – Morgan, 7th – Goff, 8th – Austin, 9th – Hill and 10th – Simpson
When the lights went out to get the first race of the day underway, Ingram made an excellent getaway from the outside of the front row to power into the lead as the field streamed towards Paddock Hill Bend for the first time, but there was immediately drama behind as the fast-starting Turkington tried to squeeze his way between the two Hondas ahead, but only succeeded in making contact with the rear of Neal’s car as the gap then closed up on him to send the pair spinning out of the race with broken suspension, with the safety car having to be called for before the end of the opening lap as a result. On the restart, Ingram wasted little time in making the break as Smith started to come under pressure from Shedden’s factory Honda for second, with the reigning champion finding a way through on the inside at Graham Hill Bend on lap 6 of 27 and opening the door in the process for the opportunist Morgan to squeeze past on the exit for third, while behind, Jordan undid some of his early progress when he ran wide at Paddock on lap 8 to allow Goff a free route through into the top six in his Honda.
As the leading trio began to get away in the early stages, Smith continued to be the cork in the bottle as he sought to hang on to fourth ahead of an increasingly long train of cars, but eventually, the pressure started to prove too much for the pole-sitter, with the ever-spectacular Austin first to strike on lap 15 when he finally got the overlap on the exit of Paddock to complete the move into Druids and, in the process, force the Honda wide enough to allow Goff to move up into fifth at the expense of his Eurotech team-mate. Jordan, Jackson and the impressive Michael Epps in the second of the Team HARD Volkswagens were also able to gain a position by the end of the lap before the ailing Smith peeled into the pits with a wheel problem, but the action continued to be as frantic as ever, with Goff continuing to move forward as he took fourth away from Austin into Clearways on lap 19, while further back, Collard showed he had lost none of his aggression by snatching eighth back from Epps at Druids with just four laps to go.
However, nothing was going to stop Ingram out front, with the youngster comfortably able to maintain a gap over the race distance to replicate his achievement from 12 months ago of winning the season-opener, while Shedden got his championship defence off to a strong start with second despite having to fend off a late attack from the rapid Mercedes of Morgan in third. Behind, Goff escaped over the closing laps to cement fourth ahead of Austin – the Toyota driver just about holding on in front of the BMWs of Jordan and the charging Collard for fifth – while Jackson came home in eighth as the best of those running the ‘option’ soft compound tyre ahead of Epps (the VW man recording his best-ever BTCC finish with ninth) and Chilton, who gave the new Power Maxed Racing Astra its maiden top-10 result on his and the brand’s return to the series.
Tom Ingram – #88 Speedworks Motorsport Toyota Avensis
There were problems, though, even before the second race got underway as, having been slow away on the formation lap, a potential clutch problem for Ingram saw him cause the start to be aborted, and was then handed a drive-through penalty after lining up in his grid position rather than starting from the pit lane (the penalty for such an indiscretion). Despite this, the Toyota got off the line well – despite carrying the maximum 75kg of success ballast – to lead the field into Paddock Hill Bend for the first time, with Jordan making a lightning getaway to briefly grab second by the first corner before Shedden retook the position on the exit of Druids, but there was chaos behind as Plato was turned heavily into the pit wall after moving across the front of Simpson’s Honda away from the line, and, with debris strewn across the track and more cars going off – including Goff after receiving a tap from Collard into Druids – the red flags were deployed before the end of the first lap.
With the grid reformed to their original positions, the second ‘start’ saw Ingram – now relieved of his previous penalty – again make a good getaway to hold off Shedden into Paddock Hill Bend, but, unlike in the previous race, the youngster was unable to make an early break, and the pressure soon tolled when the reigning champion managed to tuck up the inside on the exit of Clearways to grab the early lead of the shortened 20-lap race. Behind, the action was as fierce as ever, with Austin losing out in the second Toyota to the rapid BMWs of Jordan and Collard – the latter pulling off an audacious move around the outside of Druids – before having to defend from Morgan’s heavier Mercedes during the early laps, allowing Goff and Jackson to latch onto the battle as well as the leading quartet started to move clear, with leader Shedden gradually able to open up a gap as Collard (having been allowed through by Jordan as the soft option tyres started to go off on the Pirtek-backed BMW) started to put the pressure on Ingram for second.
After a brief safety car period to recover the stranded Audi of rookie Ant Whorton-Eales from the Clearways gravel trap, Shedden again leapt away on the restart as Collard continued his pursuit of Ingram, and, with just four laps to go, the veteran opened the door on the inside at Paddock Hill Bend before completing the pass into Druids, but he could do nothing about the lead as the reigning champion came through to record his first win of the season. Behind the leading pair, Ingram secured more solid early points with another podium in third, while late drama saw Morgan emerge in fourth after capitalising on contact between Austin and Jordan at Clearways on lap 21 of 23 (laps being added because of the safety car), with the Toyota driver being excluded from the results post-race as the BMW dropped to sixth at the line behind Jackson’s Focus. Behind, an excellent drive saw Josh Cook take seventh in his Maximum Motorsport Ford from Chilton’s Vauxhall in eighth, with Turkington producing a champion’s performance to come through to ninth from 32nd and last on the grid and Epps rounding out the top 10 in his VW.
Race 3 (Reverse Grid):
The reverse grid draw saw the top eight cars on the grid switched around for the final race of the day, meaning the returning Chilton was eventually promoted onto pole after Austin’s exclusion, but, when the lights went out, another trademark lightning getaway from the BMW saw Jordan shoot through the middle and into the lead on the run towards Paddock Hill before Jackson, in trying to follow his former team-mate around the outside of the Astra, found himself shuffled off the road and into the gravel to drop down the order. Behind, Collard was again on an early charge as he muscled up the inside of Cook exiting Clearways on lap 1 for third, with both Morgan and the opportunist Turkington then finding a way through at Graham Hill Bend a few laps later to relegate the Focus back to sixth, but, up ahead, the fight was on between the leading pair as Chilton started to put the pressure on Jordan while the BMW driver continued to try and bring his tyres up to temperature.
In the early stages, the battle for the final step on the podium seemed the one to watch as Morgan initially found himself sandwiched between the two other BMWs before Turkington capitalised on a slight error from the Mercedes driver at Paddock Hill on lap 8 to grab fourth, and the former champion wasn’t finished there as he then swept past the heavier car of team-mate Collard around the outside for third a couple of laps later. Behind, after showing some good early speed, Cook was forced into the pits to retire after picking up damage in the typically frenetic action in the midfield, while, having been roughed up by both factory Hondas in quick succession before losing a further spot to Goff’s Eurotech Civic, Ingram was mugged on the exit of Graham Hill Bend on lap 11 as the two Team HARD VWs of the feisty Epps and a recovering Hill found a way through on either side to relegate the ballast-laden Toyota outside of the top 10. However, the man on the charge was proving to be Turkington, as, having been released into clean air, the former double champion rapidly slashed his deficit to Chilton before prising the door open at Surtees on lap 17 to take second as the brand-new Vauxhall began to struggle on its tyres.
However, even with a noticeably faster car in the closing stages allowing him to close right onto the bumper of the Pirtek-backed machine, there was nothing the Northern Irishman could do about his new team-mate – even a slight tap out of the final corner proving fruitless – as Jordan clung on to the chequered flag to record his maiden victory with WSR and in a rear-wheel-drive touring car, with Turkington securing a BMW 1-2 on their return as a manufacturer in second and Chilton rounding out the podium after a remarkable drive to third in the brand-new Astra. Behind, Neal salvaged a strong result from a difficult weekend with fourth ahead of the ever-consistent Morgan and Collard in the third of the BMWs to round out the top six, with Shedden banking more useful points in seventh and Goff underlining the potential of the Eurotech Hondas with another solid run to eighth, while an immensely strong weekend from Team HARD saw Epps complete by far his best weekend in the championship by taking ninth ahead of stable-mate Hill.
Tom Chilton – #2 Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Round 1: 1st – Ingram, 2nd – Shedden, 3rd – Morgan, 4th – Goff, 5th – Austin, 6th – Jordan, 7th – Collard, 8th – M. Jackson, 9th – Epps and 10th – Chilton
Round 2: 1st – Shedden, 2nd – Collard, 3rd – Ingram, 4th – Morgan, 5th – M. Jackson, 6th – Jordan, 7th – Cook, 8th – Chilton (Reverse Pole), 9th – Turkington and 10th – Epps
Round 3: 1st – Jordan, 2nd – Turkington, 3rd – Chilton, 4th – Neal, 5th – Morgan, 6th – Collard, 7th – Shedden, 8th – Goff, 9th – Epps and 10th – Hill
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Shedden (Halfords Yuasa Racing/Honda) – 48pts
2. Ingram (Speedworks Motorsport/Toyota) – 42pts
3. Jordan (BMW Pirtek Racing/BMW) – 41pts
4. Morgan (Ciceley Motorsport/Mercedes) – 39pts
5. Collard (Team BMW/BMW) – 36pts
6. Chilton (Power Maxed Racing/Vauxhall) – 29pts
7. Turkington (Team BMW/BMW) – 26pts
8. Goff (Eurotech Racing/Honda) – 25pts
9. M. Jackson (Team Shredded Wheat/Ford) – 22pts
10. Epps (Autoaid-RCIB Insurance Racing/VW) – 20pts
Teams – Top 5:
1. Halfords Yuasa Racing – 64pts
2. Team BMW – 60pts
3. Speedworks Motorsport – 40pts
4. BMW Pirtek Racing – 40pts
5. Ciceley Motorsport – 39pts
Manufacturers/Constructors – Top 5:
1. BMW/WSR – 84pts
2. Honda/Dynamics – 75pts
3. Vauxhall/PMR – 72pts
4. MG/Triple Eight – 55pts
5. Subaru/BMR – 30pts
Independent Drivers – Top 5:
1. Morgan (Ciceley/Mercedes) – 54pts
2. Ingram (Speedworks/Toyota) – 51pts
3. Goff (Eurotech/Honda) – 42pts
4. M. Jackson (Motorbase/Ford) – 36pts
5. Epps (HARD/VW) – 36pts
Jack Sears Trophy – Top 5:
1. Proctor (PMR/Vauxhall) – 60pts
2. Price (BMR/Subaru) – 43pts
3. Burns (HARD/VW) – 39pts
4. Davenport (Motorbase/Ford) – 34pts
5. Whorton-Eales (AmD/Audi) – 28pts