It was always going to take a lot to match what had gone before…but that wasn’t exactly a bad start, was it? I mean, as a whole, it generally doesn’t take much to see just how competitive motorsport can be, but, while pretty much any series is capable of producing the odd season of classic racing, being able to deliver to such a consistently high standard year in, year out takes some doing, and, without a shadow of a doubt…this championship is right up there with the very, very best. To be honest, it’s not hard to see why it’s been held in such high regard for so long – after all, while the names, faces and even the rules have changed significantly over the years, you’d have to look very, VERY hard to find anything that comes anywhere near when it comes to close, no-holds-barred, bumper-to-bumper racing – and, if the opening exchanges are anything to go by (which, of course, they almost certainly won’t be), it’s already shaping up to be yet another absolute cracker. The 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship has begun in typically frantic fashion…and it’s only going to get better from here.
However, while there’s little doubt that the current-spec NGTC regulations have aided the rapid growth of the BTCC in recent seasons, one thing they’ve (so far, at least) been unable to do is prevent the almost relentless stream of success enjoyed by the dominant partnership of manufacturer Honda and stalwarts Team Dynamics, with the formidable pairing of veteran Matt Neal and reigning champion Gordon Shedden securing no fewer than four of the last six drivers’ titles between them, and so the main question in the paddock ahead of the opening three races around the Brands Hatch Indy circuit in Kent was whether or not the increasingly competitive grid – having reached its full capacity of 32 entrants for a third season in succession – would at last be able to step up and give them a bit more of a challenge to deal with right from the off. The answer? Well, at first glance, it might seem not, but, when you look behind the headlines…it wasn’t quite so clear cut.
Initially, the main talking point was to be found in qualifying as Eurotech Racing team boss Jeff Smith took advantage of some tricky conditions to net a shock maiden pole position in the series in his independent Honda Civic (also built by Team Dynamics), but the drama went up another level when it came to race day as contact between former champions Neal and the factory BMW 1 Series of Colin Turkington off the line in the opening race saw both taken out of contention within yards of the start. On track, Speedworks Motorsport’s Tom Ingram – who was one of the breakthrough stars of 2016 – replicated his performance of 12 months ago to secure the opening victory of the season in his Toyota Avensis ahead of Shedden and the striking newly-liveried MAC Tools Mercedes A-Class of the ever-consistent Adam Morgan before the reigning champion took his first win of 2017 in a shortened Race 2 ahead of veteran Rob Collard’s works BMW and Ingram’s Avensis, with an equally dramatic reverse-grid Race 3 going the way of 2013 champion Andrew Jordan on his debut weekend in the Pirtek-backed 1 Series ahead of recovering team-mate Turkington and the brand-new Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra of series returnee Tom Chilton.
After the short, sharp blast around the short circuit at Brands, the second race weekend of the season saw the championship move up into the Midlands and, more specifically, to Donington Park in Leicestershire, with the numerous fast and flowing corners providing a very different challenge for the teams and drivers compared to the season opener. One of the stalwart venues of British motorsport, the track (which was re-opened in its current form in 1977, although racing has taken place here since way back in 1931) is perhaps best known for hosting the European Formula One Grand Prix in 1993, which saw the late, great Ayrton Senna master some atrocious conditions to take one of the finest victories of his career, but has only recently started to get back on its feet after an aborted bid to take over as host venue of the British Grand Prix – coupled with the death of its long-time financier Tom Wheatcroft – nearly saw it go out of business altogether in 2010.
A typical lap of the 1.9 mile (3.1 kilometres) ‘National’ layout begins with a long run down the pit straight to the tricky first right-hander at Redgate – which starts off fairly open corner before tightening considerably on exit – that leads almost immediately into the right-left-right sequence of dauntingly fast sweepers known as the Craner Curves, with numerous camber changes making it difficult for drivers to find the optimum racing line as they plunge downhill before dabbing on the brakes for the misnamed Old Hairpin (which is in fact a medium-speed right-hander) at the bottom of the hill. From there, the track begins to pick up speed again as it climbs back uphill underneath Starkey’s Bridge and through the fast left-hand kink of Schwantz Curve before slowing briefly for another testing right-hander at McLeans (where the challenge of braking around the bend can cause drivers to lock up and run deep), with a short, sharp rise then leading up to the blind, double-apex right-hander of Coppice and out onto the back straight, giving the cars a chance to stretch their legs before hitting the brakes again into the recently reprofiled final chicane – which is now positioned further back from where it was originally, and is also noticeably tighter on entry – that brings them back onto the pit straight.
With so many medium and high-speed corners, as well as a relative lack of heavy braking zones, there’s not actually as many overtaking points around the lap as it first appears, with the best tending to be either a late dive down the inside into Redgate – the open nature of the corner on entry can allow moves to be made around the outside, but it does require a lot of co-operation from the car in front to avoid unnecessary contact on the apex – or, failing that, with a similar move into McLeans after picking up a good run on the exit of the Old Hairpin. Elsewhere, although it the heaviest braking point on the circuit, the final chicane is realistically too tight to force a move without being completely alongside on the approach, while, despite not being a regular passing place in itself, running side-by-side down the Craner Curves can sometimes open the door for a lunge into the Old Hairpin, although this kind of move needs a significant level of bravery to be successful.
The corresponding three races here 12 months ago gave relatively little away in terms of how the championship was going to pan out, with youngster Ash Sutton marking himself out as one of the BTCC’s new generation of stars to take a stunning pole on only his second weekend in the series in his factory Triple Eight MG before regular contender Mat Jackson came through in the Motorbase Ford Focus to take victory in the first race of the day ahead of the second MG of Josh Cook and Brands winner Ingram. Collard then emerged on top ahead of the Ford and Irishman Aron Smith – now known as Taylor-Smith after getting married during the close-season – in his Team BKR Volkswagen to take BMW’s first win of 2016 in Race 2, before another dramatic reverse grid race ended with Neal becoming the sixth different race winner from the opening six races as he led home team-mate Shedden to score a Honda 1-2 in Race 3, with BMW driver Sam Tordoff – who ultimately came within a whisker of becoming overall champion at the season finale before quitting for pastures new – rounding out the podium in third.
So, after getting his championship defence underway in solid fashion at Brands Hatch, would Shedden and Honda start to take control once again as the season began to get into its stride; after producing such a promising opening weekend to emerge as the Scot’s closest rival in the points, could Ingram maintain his early form and begin to mark himself out as yet another potential championship challenger, or, after playing second fiddle to the reigning champion and the young pretender in Kent, would one of the other pre-season favourites emerge from the shadows to give them both something to think about in the early stages of the season? Well, I think it’s about time we found out the answers – this is the story of the second round of the 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, Rounds 4, 5 and 6 from Donington Park…
As usual, the half-hour qualifying session provided more than its fair share of talking points, not least the dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the works Subaru Levorgs at Team BMR as Sutton produced a stunning time in only his second event with the team to comfortably take pole for the second year in succession, but the joy for Warren Scott’s outfit was short-lived as the car was then excluded from the results for a technical infringement, meaning the ever-popular Rob Austin was promoted onto pole position in his Handy Motorsport Toyota ahead of the rapid Eurotech Racing Honda in the hands of Jack Goff. Despite having to haul around 66kg of success ballast because of his championship position, Brands winner Ingram was again strong to take third ahead of a superb fourth from Scottish youngster Aiden Moffat in his Laser Tools Racing Mercedes A-Class, while the two factory Civics of Neal – who was forced to park with steering problems before the end of the session – and championship leader Shedden (the Scot carrying the maximum 75kg of ballast) were again evenly matched on the third row.
Behind, Michael Epps continued his tremendous form from the opening event to take a career-best seventh in his Team HARD Volkswagen CC ahead of the ever-consistent Morgan’s Mercedes in eighth, with the top ten being rounded out by the second Eurotech Honda of Brands pole-sitter Jeff Smith and the best of the BMWs in the hands of Turkington, although the Northern Irishman was a little fortunate to move into the top 10 after the second Team HARD VW of Jake Hill – which had qualified in tenth – was also excluded from the times for a rear wing violation. Chilton produced another decent showing in his Astra to finish just outside the top 10 in 12th, but it proved to be another tough session for some of the regular contenders as Collard and Jordan only managed 13th and 14th respectively in their BMWs ahead of former double-champion Jason Plato’s Subaru in 15th, while Mat Jackson ended the session in a lowly 18th in his Shredded-Wheat sponsored Motorbase Ford Focus having struggled with a down-on-power engine.
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Austin, 2nd – Goff, 3rd – Ingram, 4th – Moffat, 5th – Neal, 6th – Shedden, 7th – Epps, 8th – Morgan, 9th – Smith and 10th – Turkington
Aron Taylor-Smith – #40 Triple Eight Racing MG6 GT
As the lights went out for the first race of the day, Austin made a good enough getaway to hold the lead on the long run down towards Redgate, but it wasn’t long before the two Toyotas came together as Ingram locked up heavily underbraking and ran into the back of the Handy Motorsport Avensis before sneaking through on the inside, with the pole-man just about surviving to hang on to second ahead of Moffat after the Mercedes swept into third going down the Craner Curves, but it proved a nightmare start for Goff (who had been left with nowhere to go at the first corner after trying to sweep around the outside) as an aggressive pass from Shedden into McLeans saw the Eurotech Honda shuffled off into the gravel and plunge down the order. Up front, however, the ballasted Ingram – who was also on the harder compound Dunlop tyre – slowly began to make a break in the early stages as Austin started to come under pressure for second from a racy-looking Moffat, and, sure enough, the young Scot made his move on lap 3 with a beautiful pass down the inside into the Old Hairpin, while behind, Turkington soon started to work his way into the mix, with the BMW latching onto the tail of Shedden’s Honda in fifth as the leading group began to break clear.
Moffat, though, was on a mission, and it didn’t take long for the Mercedes to find a way past the valiant defence of Ingram on the exit of Redgate on lap 5 of 16 to move into the lead and immediately start to build a gap as the Speedworks Toyota began to hold up those behind him, with Austin first prising the door open for second on the exit of Coppice on lap 6 before both Neal – who almost ran into the back of the pole-sitting Avensis – and Turkington capitalised as well to relegate Ingram back to fifth. Behind, Brands pole-man Smith pulled off a good move against Morgan into McLeans to grab seventh before the MAC Tools Mercedes retook the place a lap later, with Collard also gaining a positing at the expense of Epps’ to move into ninth, but there was almost drama ahead when Shedden tapped Ingram into a half-spin at the Old Hairpin on lap 10 from which the Toyota driver was fortunate to recover, before the reigning champion lost out as Morgan muscled through into sixth – albeit with two wheels on the grass – on the approach to Redgate.
However, after spending several laps staring at the back of Austin’s car, Neal finally picked his moment to strike with an audacious move around the outside of the Craner Curves to snatch second away from the Toyota driver on lap 11, but, despite gaining the benefit of clear air, even the triple champion was unable to do anything about Moffat as the Scot clicked off the remaining laps to take a superb maiden BTCC victory ahead of the works Honda in second, while Austin held off a late assault from Turkington – the Northern Irishman’s challenge disrupted by a couple of yellow flag areas – to claim the final spot on the podium in third. Behind, Ingram somehow kept the rest behind to take fifth ahead of a charging Collard in sixth, with Shedden being promoted back up to seventh post-race after Morgan was given a time penalty for exceeding track limits to complete his earlier move against the Honda – the second Mercedes dropping to eighth as a result – while late drama at the bottom end of the top 10 ended with Smith snatching ninth ahead of Cook’s Focus by less than a tenth of a second at the chequered flag.
After a horrifying accident in the supporting British Formula 4 single-seater series caused significant delays to the timetable, the start of the second race saw pole-man Moffat get away superbly to lead the field into Redgate, but a dreadful start from Neal on the outside of the front row saw the Honda immediately drop behind the lightning-fast BMWs of Turkington and Collard off the line, with the Norther Irishman first showing his nose around the outside of Austin before team-mate Collard tapped the back of the Toyota at the Old Hairpin to force his way into second. Further round the opening lap, there was drama when former team-mates Mat Jackson and Jordan came together at Schwantz Curve – the Shredded Wheat Focus ending up buried in the tyres as a result – but, up front, the battle for the lead was soon on as Ingram soon capitalised on a failed attack from Collard against Moffat to nose his way up the inside and into second on the exit of Coppice on lap 2.
Having been relieved of most of the ballast from the earlier race, the Toyota man was on a real mission in the early stages, and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before the lead changed hands as the Speedworks driver got the run out of Redgate on lap 4 to push his way through into the lead as Moffat quickly slipped back into the clutches of the chasing pack, while an impressive opening few laps from Cook saw the Maximum Motorsport Ford pass reigning champion Shedden to move up into the top five. The man to watch, though, was proving to be Sutton – who recovered from his qualifying disqualification with a stunning charge through from 31st on the grid to finish 13th in Race 1 – as the Subaru continued to make more progress in the early laps, with eye-catching moves on both Shedden and Turkington being followed by an opportunistic move against both former MG team-mate Cook and Moffat (the Mercedes having been passed by both Collard and Shedden on the exit of the chicane) on lap 6, and it wasn’t much longer before the Team BMR driver despatched of the reigning champion as well to move up into a potential podium position.
However, while everything was kicking off behind, Ingram continued to stretch away, with the Toyota establishing a comfortable gap of over 4 seconds by the chequered flag to become the first repeat winner of 2017, but the battle for second went right to the wire as Collard – aided by yellow flags at the chicane – just held off Sutton to take the place by a mere 0.2s despite almost losing out down the back straight on the final lap, with the latter netting Subaru’s first podium of the season with another impressive drive to third. Behind, Cook took an excellent fourth in his Focus ahead of Turkington’s BMW in fifth, with the two factory Hondas of Shedden – who slipped back late on after sliding through the gravel on the exit of Coppice – finishing line astern in sixth and seventh respectively, while series returnee Dave Newsham secured the best finish for the fledgling BTC Norlin Racing team in his Chevrolet Cruze by taking eighth in front of the recovering Goff and Chilton, who battled back after retiring early in the first race to round out the top 10 in the Astra.
Race 3 (Reverse Grid):
Conditions, though, took a major turn for the worse ahead of the final race of the day – with the reverse grid draw placing Newsham’s Chevrolet onto pole position as the top eight cars were switched around – as heavy rain caused some cars to slide off the road even before the end of the formation lap, but, when the lights eventually went out, a superb start from Neal on the outside of the front row saw the Honda immediately power into the lead heading down towards Redgate, with Turkington making the most of his rear-wheel-drive traction away from the grid to run side-by-side with Newsham on the exit before eventually settling behind in third. However, it wasn’t long before all hell began to break loose in the pack as, after Shedden somehow recovered from a major moment heading down through the Craner Curves, Ingram aquaplaned off the road on the approach to the Old Hairpin before Collard was turned around on the exit after contact with Smith’s Honda, but the main drama was yet to come as Neal then joined the casualties when he skated into the gravel underbraking for McLeans, and, with so many cars littering the side of the track, the red flags were deployed before the end of the opening lap to bring the action to a halt.
With the original grid having reformed for the restart, Newsham – who was left on his own on the front row after Neal was prevented from taking the start after receiving mechanical assistance to get out of the McLeans gravel – took advantage of a second stab at pole to hold the lead into Redgate, with Turkington again failing to get the better of the Chevrolet off the line as he settled into second, while Cook made an excellent getaway from further back to move up into third at the expense of Shedden. After a brief safety car period, however, the reigning champion wasted no time in repassing the Focus exiting Redgate for third before getting up the inside of Turkington into the chicane, and, by the beginning of lap 5, the Scot had moved into the lead after powering past Newsham down the pit straight, while further back, a mistake from Collard at the Old Hairpin on lap 7 saw the BMW driver drop to ninth behind both Daniel Lloyd in the leading Triple Eight MG and Goff’s Honda, but ahead, there was better news for his team-mate as, having spent several laps tucked up behind Newsham, Turkington finally blasted past the Chevrolet to take second heading down the back straight towards the chicane.
However, no one could do anything about the pace of Shedden as the Scot continued to pull clear in the closing stages to take his second win of the year on the road, but the drama continued post-race when the Honda was excluded for a ride height infringement, meaning it was Turkington that inherited the victory ahead of a charging Morgan, who dramatically snatched what became second away from Newsham at the chicane on the final lap by just over 0.2s, with Sutton also benefitting from the final-corner chaos to grab third as the Chevrolet man had to make do with what was still an excellent fourth place. Behind, a third top-five finish for Ingram saw the Speedworks driver take over at the head of the championship after a consistently strong weekend, with Goff right on his tail at the line in sixth ahead of Cook’s Ford and Race 1 winner Moffat – the Mercedes driver having fought his way back through late on after contact going down the Craner Curves saw him pushed onto the grass on the inside – in seventh and eighth respectively, while Irishman Aron Taylor-Smith netted MG’s best finish of 2017 with a hard-fought drive to ninth ahead of former Renault Clio Cup racer and series rookie Senna Proctor in the second Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall in tenth.
Aiden Moffat – #16 Laser Tools Racing Mercedes A-Class
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Round 4: 1st – Moffat, 2nd – Neal, 3rd – Austin, 4th – Turkington, 5th – Ingram, 6th – Collard, 7th – Shedden, 8th – Morgan, 9th – Smith and 10th – Cook
Round 5: 1st – Ingram, 2nd – Collard, 3rd – Sutton, 4th – Cook, 5th – Turkington, 6th – Shedden, 7th – Neal, 8th – Newsham (Reverse Pole), 9th – Goff and 10th – Chilton
Round 6: 1st – Turkington, 2nd – Morgan, 3rd – Sutton, 4th – Newsham, 5th – Ingram, 6th – Goff, 7th – Cook, 8th – Moffat, 9th – Taylor-Smith and 10th – Proctor
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Ingram (Speedworks Motorsport/Toyota) – 86pts
2. Turkington (Team BMW/BMW) – 72pts
3. Morgan (Ciceley Motorsport/Mercedes) – 69pts
4. Shedden (Halfords Yuasa Racing/Honda) – 67pts
5. Collard (Team BMW/BMW) – 67pts
6. Goff (Eurotech Racing/Honda) – 46pts
7. Jordan (BMW Pirtek Racing/BMW) – 44pts
8. Neal (Halfords Yuasa Racing/Honda) – 44pts
9. Cook (Team Parker with Maximum Motorsport/Ford) – 40pts
10. Chilton (Power Maxed Racing/Vauxhall) – 37pts
Teams – Top 5:
1. Team BMW – 135pts
2. Halfords Yuasa Racing – 102pts
3. Speedworks Motorsport – 82pts
4. Ciceley Motorsport – 69pts
5. Eurotech Racing – 56pts
Manufacturers/Constructors – Top 5:
1. BMW/WSR – 182pts
2. Honda/Dynamics – 132pts
3. Vauxhall/PMR – 123pts
4. MG/Triple Eight – 94pts
5. Subaru/BMR – 91pts
Independent Drivers – Top 5:
1. Ingram (Speedworks/Toyota) – 101pts
2. Morgan (Ciceley/Mercedes) – 98pts
3. Goff (Eurotech/Honda) – 76pts
4. Cook (Maximum/Ford) – 61pts
5. Newsham (BTC Norlin/Chevrolet) – 53pts
Jack Sears Trophy – Top 5:
1. Proctor (PMR/Vauxhall) – 115pts
2. Price (BMR/Subaru) – 86pts
3. Davenport (Motorbase/Ford) – 66pts
4. Whorton-Eales (AmD/Audi) – 66pts
5. Burns (HARD/VW) – 65pts