Reigning champion Frank Biela will return to defend his and Audi's Auto Trader RAC Touring Car Championship titles in 1997, it was confirmed today (Mon). The 32-year-old German ace will be partnered -- as this year -- by 30-year-old Briton John Bintcliffe. The duo will be bidding to repeat the Audi BTCC 'triple crown' by winning drivers', manufacturers' and team prizes.

But Biela has warned that he faces an uphill task, given that motor sport governing body the FIA has rubber-stamped the continued imposition of a 95kg weight differential between his four-wheel-drive Audi A4 and the rest of the front-wheel-drive runners. ''I always wanted to come back and defend my British title,'' said Biela, ''but it is going to be very difficult with a 95kg weight penalty for all 24 races.''

Audi Sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich added: ''Overcoming this handicap is a virtually impossible task but Audi has always been eager to take on such challenges.''

Four-wheel-drive cars will be banned from the Super Touring category from 1998, and the German manufacturer intends to develop a front-wheel-drive contender during '97.

Biela's confirmation brings to five the number of former BTCC champions who will contest next year's series, which will be the prime focus of the BBC's televised motor sport coverage. The others are John Cleland (1989 and '95, Vauxhall), Will Hoy (1991, Ford); Tim Harvey (1992, Peugeot) and Gabriele Tarquini (1994, Honda). Double FIA Touring Car World Cup Champion Paul Radisich is another contender, for Ford.

Biela was the 1995 FIA Touring Car World Cup Champion, and has previously won the German and French Super Touring titles. He won eight BTCC races for Audi last year on his way to the title. Bintcliffe finished seventh in the drivers' championship in his debut year.

Audi is the eighth manufacturer to commit to the Auto Trader Championship for '97; the others are Ford, Honda, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Vauxhall and Volvo.

Alan Gow, Chief Executive of organising body TOCA, welcomed the return of Biela and Audi: ''I am delighted that Frank is returning to defend his title and that Audi will once again be out to win the championship. It is proof -- if more were needed -- that the Auto Trader RAC Touring Car Championship is the most competitive in the world and that it is the series which every manufacturer wants to win above all others.''

-- Official BTCC website: Best in British Motor Sport