VAUXHALL'S "AWESOME FOURSOME" READY AND WAITING <pre> a.. Four drivers line up for series opener b.. New BTCC regulations c.. New format for Qualifying </pre> Anyone watching closely enough recently would have seen some of the most exciting and aggressive looking race cars going through their paces on Britain's race circuits, meaning only one thing: the touring cars are ready to go. Britain's premier motor racing series, the www.theAA.com MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), is set for the off next Easter Weekend (April 15/16) at Brands Hatch, Kent and four Vauxhall Astra Coupes are ready to take on the best of the best.

Vauxhall Motorsport's 26-round title challenger is the stunning new 2.0-litre Astra Coupe driven by Oxford-based Jason Plato and Frenchman, Yvan Muller - the same pair which took the race-winning Vauxhall Vectra to no less than sixteen BTCC podium finishes last year. These won't be the only Astra Coupes lining up on the grid. Following the announcement of satellite team, Egg Sport, spectators will be treated to Vauxhall's "Awesome Foursome" with seasoned BTCC campaigner, James Thompson from Yorkshire and West Midlands newcomer, Phil Bennett completing the Astra Coupe line-up.

Vauxhall Motorsport Manager, Mike Nicholson welcomes the arrival of the new season: "We are really looking forward to a fresh new challenge. Much thought has been put into the new rule changes and I am sure that the racing will be closer than ever, providing not only tough competition between the teams but also a great spectacle for the championship's followers."

"Vauxhall will have four Astra Coupes on the grid this year which is great news. All we need now is to get on with the job in hand and get some cracking results."

Both Vauxhall Motorsport drivers, Muller and Plato feel that they have unfinished business after finishing fourth and fifth respectively in the 2000 championship. Each has declared his own intention to win. Jason Plato however, having topped the time sheets at the final test (at Oulton Park on April 4) before the seasons gets under way, is clearly chomping at the bit.

"I'm determined that this is going to be my year. I've worked hard for this, gaining experience over the years and fine-tuning my race craft. I've always had the pace but fans are going to see a more complete driver now - a driver capable of taking the championship title. Bold words I know but I'm wanting that trophy!"

New BTCC regulations

Yvan Muller, who spent his winter honing his race skills on the ice racing circuits of Europe where he took his sixth consecutive Andros Trophy in the process, knows it will be a tough year ahead: "I see everyone on the grid as my main rival, you cannot ignore anyone. We have had an advantage getting our cars ready first but because of that, Peugeot, Alfa Romeo, Lexus and MG (when they arrive), will all want to push us even harder. It is going to be an interesting year but my aim is to do the best job possible and win as many races as I can in the Astra Coupe."

Responsible for design, build and running of the four Vauxhall Astra Coupes is Brackley-based race preparation company, Triple Eight Race Engineering Ltd. The company worked round the clock throughout the winter months to convert the Astra Coupe into the mean race machine it is now and following tests in the UK and abroad, is confident Vauxhall's Astra Coupe will be the car to beat this season.

"It has been a great challenge for us to build a race car from scratch. We had a new model to work with, new regulations to abide by and not much time to get it all completed," says Triple Eight Director, Ian Harrison, the man responsible for overseeing the Astra Coupe's development.

"But, it all came together very nicely in the end and as pre-season testing has shown, the Astra Coupe is going to be a great race car. It sounds fantastic, looks business like and the feedback from the drivers indicates that fans won't be disappointed this season."

New format for Qualifying

Race weekends take on a different format this year with the traditional Friday test sessions scrapped as part of the effort to cut costs. Instead, a more compact race programme has been devised. The BTC Touring cars will not turn a wheel until qualifying day when they have two 45-minute free practice sessions in the morning. This year BTC Production and Touring cars having their own 30-minute qualifying sessions with next Sunday's BTC Touring car qualifying session starting at 3.15pm. Qualifying itself will be different: the best two lap times determine grid positions - of those two times, the one set earlier in the session will be the used for the Sprint race grid and the one set later is used for the Main race grid.

"Car reliability and immediate speed are going to be crucial to this year's half hour qualifying session," says Plato. "We only have 30 minutes to set two really good times and if something goes wrong in that half-hour, a puncture or an off for example, we could end up at the back of the grid with a heck of a job to do during both races. It's bound to catch someone out this year - I just hope it isn't me!"

Easter Monday's on track action begins at 10.00am and the 12-lap Super Sprint Race for BTC Touring cars only, starts at 1.30pm. Not until the main 50-lap Feature Race at 3.45pm do the touring and production cars finally go head to head.

The battle for championship points remains the same with 15 points for the winner, 12 for second place, 10 for third and 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 points for the fourth to tenth placed finishers. An additional point will be awarded for setting pole position and for fastest lap at each Sprint and Feature Race. A further point will be awarded for being classified as the race leader in the Feature Race only.

A revised success ballast system adds that extra challenge for teams and drivers. Drivers will keep accumulating 0, 3, 6, 9, 12 or 15kgs for race finish positions of 6th to 1st although the handicap cannot exceed 60kgs. Weight will only be reduced if a driver does not finish in the top six with -3, -6, -9, -12 or -15kgs being subtracted for positions of 7th to 11th or lower.

Making their BTCC debut this year is official tyre supplier, BF Goodrich. BTC Touring cars are permitted 20 dry/slick tyres for each race meeting including free practice sessions although grooved tyres, used in wet conditions, are unlimited. Tyre warmers are prohibited.

Also new are series organisers, British Motorsport Promoters Ltd. (BMP) who have relaunched the BTCC in an effort to return the country's best loved motor racing series to its heydays of the 1990's. In addition to the vehicle rule changes which finds technical governing body, TOCA, imposing championship standard components including gearbox and brake packages on all BTC Touring cars, a massive budget has been set aside for the promotion of the championship. Reflecting this investment are a number of exciting ideas, including shopping centre displays during the run-up to each race, all aimed at giving the public and race goers more entertainment and greater value for money.

As in previous years, ticket holders will have the opportunity to experience the excitement of the pit walkabout and autograph sessions where fans can meet their touring car heroes in person and snap up any team goodies being given away. All four Astra Coupe drivers will be at next weekend's pit walkabout and autograph session which takes place between 12 and 12.45pm on race day (Easter Monday).

Anyone unable to make it to race weekends will not be disappointed either. Television coverage will be shown the following weekend on the BBC's flagship sports programme Grandstand. TOCA Radio will also be making a comeback giving listeners at the event and in the surrounding areas all the inside news, results and paddock gossip.

-VM-