The HiQ MSA British Touring Car Championship returns this weekend to Snetterton in Norfolk after its six week summer break with Team RAC driver Colin Turkington taking in a 25 point leader from Matt Neal. During this preview we will also look at how the teams and drivers have figured over the first half of the season and looking ahead to see who will be standing on the top step of the podium as champion come October the 4th at Brands Hatch.
Since joining the BTCC back in 2002 this season is finally the year that Colin Turkington is in a position to make a serious bid for the championship and he is taking full advantage of it by taking 5 victories so far, including an impressive 4 wins out of the last 6. Despite Turkington not being used to this situation, as this is the first time he has led the championship during his career, he is confident for the rest of the year and said, "It's true I don't have the experience of being in this situation like the other guys behind me do, but I feel quite relaxed about it at the moment."
In August the BTCC will have 3 events and Turkington is fully aware of the implications, "August is going to be the big month. We have three rounds and there's going to be a lot gets decided in that one month"
As already mentioned Turkington comes into this weekend's race with 4 victories out of the last 6 and does not see any circuits not suiting his WSR prepared BMW. "I actually don't see a circuit where we'll have a real problem - that was always going to be Donington, but even there we came out of it in reasonable shape."
Despite this he still remains wary of other challenges, particularly at Snetterton, from the ever-improving Chevrolet Laccetti's and Vauxhall's push for the outright championship, and finished by saying, "I feel we are heading into Chevrolet territory there. It's definitely a track that will be strong for them, particularly for Jason and Mat. Jason has been our closest rival in recent rounds but I still consider Vauxhall, with Matt and Fabrizio, the biggest threat."
Turkington's team mate Stephen Jelley will also aim high for the rest of the year after matching his improved pace with finally getting on the podium in all 3 races of the last event at Croft. Although he did have a big crash in testing at Snetterton at the beginning of the month leaving the Team RAC driver "dazed", he was able to compete in testing at Rockingham just a week later.
Matt Neal will be keen to get his championship bid back on track after leading the standings up until Croft. Neal won the first race of the year at Brands Hatch and went on to score podiums in the next six races. Since then the Vauxhall has struggled for pace particularly in hot conditions which has seen the 2005/6 champion surrender his lead, although he is in fighting shape in more ways than one -- as he has taken up martial arts -- to be crowned BTCC champion for the third time and knows this is really where the championship heats up. He says, "This is when it starts to get ugly. I know from when I won my two titles that it's time to really roll up your sleeves as a driver for the fight that's coming so figured I'd best be prepared for it."
Just 4 points behind Neal in the championship is reigning double champion Fabrizio Giovanardi. His bid for a third title didn't get off to the best of starts at Brands Hatch when despite scoring a podium in round 1, he then had a puncture in race 2 and got caught up in an incident in round 3. Since then Giovanardi has always been playing catch up, particularly as like Neal, he has struggled to get the best out of the car in hot conditions. His cause was not helped at Donington when, after qualifying on pole, his car failed to start on the weigh bridge dropping him down to the back of the grid. Despite this he has taken two victories at Thruxton and last time out at Croft producing arguably the move of the season so far, while in testing at Snetterton he also topped the time sheets.
Third VX driver Andrew Jordan has enjoyed an up and down season and still remains looking for his first series victory, despite scoring pole at Donington and having had several podiums. Although he would have had surely more but during the first round at Brands the 20-year-old suffered mechanical trouble while in second.
Although only being confirmed as a last minute addition to the grid, Jason Plato lies fourth in the championship in his RML Team Silverline Chevrolet Lacetti. Plato was set to watch the first round of the championship on TV when he got a late deal on the Thursday to race at Brands Hatch and duly went on to take victory in the third race of the day. Since then he has been able to put this one race deal into a season long title assault and although not having tasted another victory since he has become the fastest front wheel drive car and reached the podium a number of times since.
Plato was joined at Team Silverline at Thruxton by 2008 championship runner up Mat Jackson and, like Plato at Brands, he instantly went on to take victory in the third race of the day. Since then, although lining up on the front row of the grid, he has not been able to get onto the podium. His bad luck included a puncture while in third at Oulton and then at Croft when bad food poisoning affected his performance, causing him crash out of the 1st race before admitting defeat and calling it a day.
Oulton also saw a third RML Lacetti on the grid in the hands of James Nash and although has shown he has good pace has not quite yet managed a point scoring finish.
Rob Collard also remains just about in touch of the championship fight although a bit behind in fifth in his Airways BMW. Collard got his season off in fantastic style by winning at Brands, the first for Motorbase, and he followed up his success in round 2 by again winning at Donington. Since then he has enjoyed mixed fortunes although he did put in one of the drives of the season at Donington when in race 3, after mechanical trouble in race 2, he drove from the back of the grid to fourth.
Making his BTCC debut in the second Airways BMW is double Seat Cupra champion Jonny Adam. Adam won on the road at Brands Hatch only for his victory to be taken away shortly afterwards, after colliding with Plato when he took the lead. Since then the young Scott has often been out of luck but did manage another podium at Oulton. Wins though are definitely not out of the question for the remainder of the season.
James Thompson is in sixth in the championship despite not taking part in the opening round of the championship, replacing Gordon Shedden at Thruxton made it four former champions on the grid. Thompson instantly proved why he is regarded as one of the best touring car drivers in the world by instantly getting on the podium. Since then he has taken 3 victories; 2 at Donington and 1 at Oulton whilst also taking another podium at Croft, although clashes with other touring car commitments might not see Thompson on the grid for every round to come.
Dave Pinkney is in the other Team Dynamics Honda Civic and is another hard racer despite being the oldest driver on the grid. Pinkney has scored a few points but also suffered a nasty accident at Croft last time when he aquaplaned off the road.
Adam Jones has once again proved he can battle it with the big boys at the front of the grid and that given the right car can be one of the quickest drivers in the field having qualified in the top 5 on a couple of occasions. Despite this Jones is still looking for his first BTCC victory and only has a single second place podium to show for his efforts. This year saw the return of 2005 front-runner Dan Eaves. Sadly for Eaves this year has not proved to be so successful. His season started off well scoring points in all three races. Since then he has suffered for pace and had disastrous weekends at Thruxton where he completed only 4 racing laps all weekend, which included crashing on the warm up lap, and at Donington where his engine failed on his first lap in free practice 1 eliminating him from the weekend. Podiums are not out of the question for the rest of the season particularly in the hands of Jones although there are rumours circulating about both Eaves and the team's future.
Harry Vaulkhard has enjoyed a much improved second season and has managed to shock the big teams on a couple of occasions in his Lacetti, when at Donington he started on the front row of the grid before eventually finishing fifth. At Croft he also put in a great qualifying performance and was running third for much of the race before dropping down the field and having an unfortunate incident eliminating him for the rest of the weekend. Although having shown terrific pace this year Vaulkhard has also shown he is still getting to grips with racing with such experienced drivers but is learning all the time and may surprise a few people during the rest of the season. He also hopes a change of team will boost his chances with joining up with newly formed Bamboo Engineering, although many of the faces will remain the same from previous team Tempus Racing.
2009's most unlucky driver of the year so far must surely go to fans favourite Paul O'Neill. The likeable Scouse missed the first race of the season but returned in fantastic fashion to the BTCC since making only a handful of appearances since being diagnosed with diabetes at the end of his last full season in 2003. On his first appearance of the season he qualified a fantastic sixth, he then went on to finish fifth in the first race of the day and was then in second challenging for the lead in race 3 when he cruelly got a puncture. He suffered more bad luck at Donington when in another strong position another competitor spun him out and he had further bad luck when in the lead at Croft suffered from alternator problems. His teammate Martyn Bell has now clocked up 200 races since joining the series back in 2006 and his highlight of the season so far came when he scored double points in the opening rounds of the championship at Brands Hatch.
Much hype was made at the beginning of the season of the return of Ford to the BTCC. A lot was expected of the Focus run by Arena Motorsport under the Team Aon banner but sadly the Focus has not managed to deliver as yet. Arena have identified the main problem as not enough straight line speed and although much progress has been made the team is not yet able to fight at the front of the field. But if any team can, then Arena is definitely one of them, and in the hands of Tom Chilton they will never give up. Chilton has raved about the handling of the Focus and is convinced with the extra speed and developments he can fight at the front of the field.
Another driver making a welcome return to the series was Alan Morrison. This is Morrison's first season back since driving a works Honda Civic for Arena back in 2003 and like Chilton has only managed a couple of points since his return. Morrison missed the last race at Croft due to personnel reasons and no news has been made since on whether he is to return. Standing in for him at Croft was Tom Onslow-Cole. Like Chilton he was very impressed by the Focus's handling though also admitted they lacked straight-line speed. Sadly for Onslow-Cole mechanical trouble hampered his weekend.
Towards the back end of the grid there is also a mini race going on with the enthusiastic racers dreaming of getting some points. These include John George in his Honda Integra and Martin Johnson in his Vauxhall Astra Coupe. We have seen appearances from Nick Leason in a 1-series BMW who hasn't competed since Donington trying to find further development and also 18- year-old Liam McMillan who has had engine issues, while Jason Hughes has yet to compete this year in his MG ZS. No word has been made on whether they will be appearing for the rest of the season.
So that's a look at how the drivers and teams have done so far this season but what awaits them at Snetterton?
Snetterton was originally an airfield and has a real mix of tight and fast corners with two super fast straights. The main overtaking place is at the end of the Revett straight heading into the esses, while there is always action guaranteed at Sear and the tight chicane at Russell's.
So be sure to come back after and find out full reviews and pictures from Snetterton. Don't miss out on any of the action on Motorsport.com for the rest of the season in what is one of the most exciting and unpredictable in BTCC history.