The 2009 HiQ MSA British Touring Car Championship season has been one of the closest and most unpredictable ones seen in recent years. Northern Irishmen Colin Turkington eventually took his first BTCC title but only after a final race shootout between himself, double reigning champion Fabrizio Giovanardi and 2001 champion Jason Plato, where amazingly after 29 previous rounds the trio were separated by just eight points. Throughout this year, there was a total of eight different winners and a further seven drivers making it onto the podium.
Now we take a look back at how the championship was won and how the other drivers fared during the season in this two-part review of the 2009 season.
Turkington deserved his championship this year and he won it through great speed and consistency, only failing to score in two races all season. Turkington was now a veteran in the series, despite being only 27, having started in the BTCC back in 2002. He went into the season with high hopes after shown good speed in pre season testing.
After a good first meeting at Brands Hatch, scoring three top 4 finishes, it first looked like Turkington was now capable of taking the title when he passed Giovanardi on the last lap of the 2nd race of the day; a race in which Giovanardi and Vauxhall were expected to dominate.
Two more top 5 finishes at Donnington led into the meetings where Turkington would at last take the championship lead and springboard him to the crown. At Oulton Park and Croft the BMW was practically unstoppable with the blistering heat suiting the rear wheel drive car and where this would hurt the front wheel drive cars, particularly the Vauxhalls, Turkington would take four wins out of six and where all the other drivers were taking points of each other, Turkington built up a healthy lead in the championship.
After the mid-season break Turkington just needed to be consistent, which he was scoring points in every round and only finishing out of the top 5 twice on the way to the championship. Drives in particular at Rockingham and on the final day also proved he was a worthy champion. At Rockingham in race 3 he survived a Plato tap, which sent him down the order but despite this, he fought his way back up to fourth and with his other two championship contenders finishing out of the points, this proved to be the all important race. At Brands he recovered from a poor qualifying and race 1 to battle up to 3rd in race 2 and then drove aggressively but fair in race 3 to take 2nd and the championship.
Returning for his second year at Team RAC with Turkington was Stephen Jelley. After a poor first season in the BTCC, following his move from Formula 3, this was a make or break year for Jelley. Although showing better speed in the opening meeting of the year, Jelley, at times, still struggled with the nature of touring car racing. This was until Croft where he broke his podium duck in fine style taking three podiums on the same day.
He then went quiet for a couple of meetings scoring points down the wrong end of the top 10 before the arrival of a second team mate at Silverstone. Jelley came to life and put a fantastic late braking move on Giovanardi, helping Turkington score extra valuable points. This was followed up at Rockingham by his maiden wins in the series taking a fantastic double victory and although he could only manage a single 6th at Brands Hatch, Jelley has shown he can at last cut it in touring cars.
A third Team RAC BMW was brought in at Silverstone in the hands of BTCC veteran Anthony Reid. Reid was quickly back into his old ways, taking out Tom Onslow-Cole in race 1 therefore getting a fine. Although Reid, who hadn't raced in the BTCC since 2004, wouldn't really make any impression until Brands where he scored two top 10 finishes and was battling against the midfield pack.
This season it was announced after the first race of the year that this would be Vauxhalls finale within the series and after 21 consecutive years in the championship they would be pulling out and they hoped they would do so in style.
Despite winning the Teams' and Constructors' Championships, this proved to be a mixed year for the Vectra, which had really reached its full stage of development and was not the quickest car. It struggled in the heat of Oulton and Croft. In spite of this, Giovanardi still managed to somehow consistently pull out incredible results and would go into the final round just four points off the championship lead with the highlight for the team being a 1, 2 ,3 at Thruxton in race 1.
Giovanardi went into the season hoping to become the first driver since the mid 1980's to take a hat trick of BTCC titles, but didn't start the season well by having poor luck in races 2 and 3 at Brands Hatch following a second in the opening race. He then had a puncture whilst in third in race 2 and had to retire in race 3 following being caught up in someone else's incident.
At Thruxton, despite taking a win and a second, Giovanardi was disappointed he had not taken more especially being taken by Turkington on the last lap of the race in race 2. Donington saw more misfortune for the Italian when, after securing Pole position, his car failed to start sending him to the back of the grid. He battled up to 8th before taking a second and a 6th.
At Oulton the Vauxhall would struggle in the blistering heat and although he would take one podium and two other top 6 finishes, the Vectra was not the quickest car, which was the same story at Croft again in warm conditions. Giovanardi managed a miserable 13th in qualifying before battling back in the first race to take 5th. Another 5th would follow before taking a fantastic win in race 3 after an horrific downpour, where Giovanardi produced the pass of the season around the outside of James Thompson through two corners. This was the start of Giovanardi's comeback.
The series then returned to Snetterton after its mid-season break and Giovanardi enjoyed his most successful meeting of the year taking two wins and a second. Knockhill followed and once again Giovanardi fought back well, following a poor qualifying session he took a win in the second race of the day and a third in the last race.
Silverstone was another circuit where the Vauxhall struggled slightly although Giovanardi would continue to push the car above its weight and took two 5th's and a second. Rockingham proved to be much the same and he took a 6th and a second before contact with other cars in race 3 meant Giovanardi could only limp round and finish out of the points. Come the last race of the year Giovanardi was still only 13 points behind and with the Vectra back on song, he took the title right down to the last race taking a third and a second in the opening two races and just four points separated Giovanardi from his third title. Sadly though he couldn't send Vauxhall off in style and faded as the race went on finishing 4th behind his two championship contenders, and would eventually finish in third but still just eight points off of the championship.
Matt Neal started the season off in fantastic style and the 2005 and '06 champion really looked like he could make a serious bid for his third. He won the opening race of the year taking Triple Eight's 100th race within the series, which were followed up by two more podiums. Thruxton and Donnington also saw the Vauxhall driver take another four podiums out of the six races and at one point saw a healthy championship lead. Sadly for Neal though as the Vectra struggled so did he. Oulton wasn't a complete disaster though and he still managed a 4th and 7th but at Croft, due to Turkington's outstanding form, he lost his championship lead and went down hill from there.
At Snetterton he could only manage a ninth in race 1 but a non-finish in race 2 really hurt him as by now others were scoring big points. Neal recovered well in race 3 taking third as the teams went north of the border to Scotland. Neal had good race pace but in race 1 he was put onto the grass, which sent him out of control into another competitor. He then showed he had the pace and made a good recovery drive up to fourth, but by now all hopes had gone for the championship and this was shown when in race 3 he moved over to let Giovanardi past to take third on the final corner.
Silverstone and Rockingham though would be complete disasters for him and he would take just a single point from the two rounds. He finished 10th in race 1 at Silverstone before being hit out of a good place in race 2 and, although he rejoined, had another couple of spins while in race 3. Bad accident damage on the first lap meant Neal could only limp round out of the points. Things would get even worse at Rockingham and after a poor qualifying down in 15th; Neal tried to make up ground at the start. In doing so he locked everything up and ploughed heavily into Johnny Herbert. The damage was quite substantial and he missed race 2 as a result before mechanical trouble in race 3 made it a miserable weekend. For the final rounds Neal showed better pace and finished 5th and 8th. For the final race he had the perfect chance to send Vauxhall off in style by starting in Pole. But by trying to play the team game he was often on the receiving end of some contact, although he did dish it out as much as he received and eventually finished 5th.
The third Vauxhall seat this year was filled by youngster Andrew Jordan and after a impressive first season in his family run Integra much was expected of him. Jordan showed good early season pace but didn't quite make it onto the top step and, as the pace of the car went, Jordan also found it difficult to remain at the sharp end of the grid. The season started promisingly at Brands Hatch but whilst in second something broke on the car and he had to retire. He fought back in race 2 from the back to take fifth but then suffered more trouble in race 3. Thruxton saw him take his first podium finish for the team in their historic 1, 2, 3 but he couldn't build on that and finished off the points in the other two races for different reasons.
At Donnington he became the youngest driver to take Pole after Giovanardi's trouble, and just missed out on a win, taking second behind Thompson. He again failed to score in the next couple of races whilst in the next meeting he once again had to settle for second behind Thompson in race 3 of the day. In the next four meetings though Jordan would struggle a bit. Although he was a regular top 10 finisher, it was mainly lower than 7th but he did score a couple of 4th places. He also picked up four non-point finishes and spun out of second in the opening race of the day at Snetterton.
After a 7th and 8th at Rockingham Jordan started on the front row and had his best chance for a victory. He managed to take the lead early on but slipped back to second and although he managed to reclaim it, he lost it and then never could mount a second charge. The final round saw Jordan take a very good 4th in race 1 but then a puncture in race 2 and first lap in race 3 saw Jordan's season end, and what started off as a promising season ended in quite a disappointing one, although he has shown he has got a bright future and with a good car his first win can't be far away.
Jason Plato this year has had quite a season, especially as he didn't even have a drive on the Wednesday before the opening round of the season. Luckily for him RML had a spare Chevrolet Lacetti lying around from last years WTCC and a late one off deal was put together. With no testing he went on to win race 3 of the day at Brands Hatch albeit after the race. This was because Jonny Adam tapped him into a half spin where Plato produced one of the best saves ever seen in the BTCC. The car was fully sideways going into the first corner but he somehow managed to save it and recovered to take second, where he was promoted to first after the race. Due to this successful outing a deal was put in place with Silverline power tools and Plato was here for the season. He was to be run under the banner of Racing Silverline.
In the next six races Plato managed to score in every race taking one podium and two fourths. Whilst at Oulton he managed to take the first of his four pole positions of the season. He would lose out to the rear wheel drive BMW's off of the line but still managed to take two more podiums and a fifth and, at Croft he would score two more podiums and a fifth.
After the mid season break the Chevrolet proved to be by far the quickest car on the grid and Plato would rarely be seen off the podium, but due to several non finishes would narrowly miss out on the title. He qualified on Pole at Snetterton but lost out to the BMW off of the line and in a desperate attempt to get the lead back tried an ambitious move on Turkington, which backfired, and after contact with Jordan failed to score points. He recovered well to finish in third in race 2 but then suffered more trouble in race 3 and failed to score.
At Knockhill he finally managed to turn pole into a win in race 1 but then had another mechanical failure in the next race and did not finish. He followed up this though by producing the drive of the season in race 3 when he moved up from the very back of the grid to eventually take second. At the next two events the Lacetti was the class of the field and he managed to take two victories and two seconds. But what little hope he had of taking the title went in race 3 at Rockingham when, for the second time this season, he made contact with Turkington which resulted in a puncture and a non points finish.
He went into the final race of the year still with a realistic chance of the title but unlikely as he was 23 points behind, but Plato only had one thing on his mind: three wins. The Lacetti with Plato was the class of the field and amazingly took all three wins, causing him to become only the second person in history to do so and miss out on the title by just four points. In race 1 of the day though Plato took victory in the most dramatic circumstances as he passed Tom Chilton on the last corner and won the drag race to the line to record the closest finish in BTCC history.
There is little doubt though if it weren't for lack of time in the car at the start of the season and those couple bits of contact and mechanical issues, this would have been Plato's championship.
Last year's runner up Mat Jackson was another driver who looked like he wasn't going to get a drive this year after his main sponsor pulled out and he couldn't run his family run BMW. After the first meeting in similar circumstances to Plato, he found himself in another Lacetti and, like Plato without any testing, he went on to win the third race of the day at Thruxton taking advantage of the reverse grids. By Donnington he also had gained Silverline sponsorship and would run under the Racing Silverline banner, where he would score 3 points scoring finishes with a best place of fourth.
Things started off well for Jackson at Oulton when he qualified on the front of the grid but things weren't to carry on like that when, on the last lap of the race, he suffered a puncture and finished out of the points. This was followed by mechanical trouble in race 2 while he was able to salvage three points for 8th in race 3.
Things would get even worse for him at Croft as he had been suffering terribly from food poisoning. This did not hamper him too much in qualifying and he was still able to qualify fifth. However, during the race he was struggling even more and made a silly mistake crashing out; the decision was made after to withdraw from the rest of the day. Snetterton started off well by scoring his second podium finish of the year for a second, but he was unable to score in either of the next two races due to more mechanical trouble.
Over the next three meeting he would benefit from the Lacetti being the car to beat and would go on an incredible run of form at Knockhill, Silverstone and Rockingham taking three wins, two seconds and two third place finishes, propelling him up the standings. Sadly Jackson couldn't end his season off in style though at Brands Hatch, and despite it starting off okay qualifying 6th, he didn't score any points during race day.
A third Lacetti was also run for much of the season for youngster James Nash who was only in his second season of tin top racing. Although running by the same team as Plato and Jackson he was not run under the same Racing Silverline banner. Nash couldn't make much of an impact during his first couple of meetings, and failed to score any points.
Nash was more on the pace at Snetterton but had mechanical trouble during qualifying and failed to set a time. In the second race he came 8th scoring his first points and then he took advantage of the reverse grids and took victory on the road. This was until he was disqualified after he had spun around Rob Collard in taking the lead; despite this he proved he had the pace to run at the front. Sadly for Nash he was always struggling for budget and had to miss the Knockhill event but bounced back in style taking third place at Silverstone making it a RML 1, 2, 3. He was then hit out of race 2 before giving his team mate Plato a hard time in race 3 finishing 8th.
Again at Rockingham he was on the pace and had a couple of points scoring finishes in 7th and 8th whilst in race 3 he was running well but got caught up in Turkington's and Plato's contact and was hit by Plato breaking his suspension. Due to budget reasons though he was forced to miss out at Brands in a bid to get the budget for a full season next year.
See also: Close racing in 2009 BTCC season, part 2