By Pat Cranham - BTCC reporter
The official unveiling of this year's Dunlop MSA British Touring Car championship takes place this Thursday at the home of British Motorsport, Silverstone.
This year we could see one of the biggest grids in many a year with at least 28 cars expected to be confirmed. During this piece we look at who is already confirmed and what to look out for after media day, as well as highlighting the main contenders for the coming season.
Leading the entry for this year’s championship is current BTCC champion Jason Plato. Plato will continue with the same package as last year along with team mate Alex MacDowall, with Chevrolet deciding to stick with their S2000 engine and continuing to have Silverline as title sponsor.
The only change for the team this season is that they will run an updated Chevrolet Cruze used to power Yvan Muller and Chevrolet to the World Touring Car Championship title last year. The team have already tested this latest spec Cruze at Brands Hatch with Plato reportedly saying that he was 0.3 seconds up on his time from last season, where he cruised to victory.
Plato is just one win away from taking the all time BTCC record from Andy Rouse, who he is currently equal with on 60 victories. Yet Plato clearly has other things on his mind by saying, “Will I win the championship again? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was possible. But there are some other good teams out there who have come on leaps and bounds since last year, meaning we’re in for one of the most competitive seasons ever. I’m delighted to once again be working with Silverline Chevrolet and RML. The team proved last year that it could provide the hardware to win the championship and, with a newer and more advanced development of the already incredible Chevrolet Cruze to campaign with, I expect we’ll be in for a dramatic and exciting season.”
Team boss Ray Mallock is also once again confident of more success, “I've no doubt that we are in for a tough battle to defend our title, however, I am confident that with such a committed team at RML and with Jason and Alex on board we can achieve our goal of championship success in both the drivers' and manufacturers' titles."
Meanwhile the Chevrolet’s used to take Plato to last year’s crown have been snapped up by Tech-speed (Sunshine.co.uk from last year). No official statement has been made yet by the team but on their website they state that they will be once again running John George and Paul O’Neill. The team have been testing at Brands Hatch and Snetterton mostly with O’Neill at the wheel but George did get a brief stint.
The car used for the tests is believed to be the one belonging to George, which was painted in an all purple livery due to sponsors which have yet to be announced. However, Motorsport.com understands that this will be a telecom sponsor with George heavily involved in the mobile phone industry.
Less clear is O’Neill. Sadly for O’Neill, budget has always been a problem for him yet a source at Brands Hatch said that the owner of sunshine.co.uk is the owner of the car with O’Neill driving 2011. This is certainly one story to look out for on media day regarding the driver and sponsor of the car. If O’Neill is indeed driving for Tech-speed expect him to be a serious contender for honours in 2011.
Chevrolet’s biggest threat in 2011 surely comes from Honda Racing, who will be using their Honda Civic run by Team Dynamics for the 5th consecutive season. Now using their brand new NGTC engine developed by Neil Brown engineering the Civic has its best chance of taking full BTCC honours after they had to settle for Team and Manufacture’s champions last year. Drivers Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden finished 2nd and 3rd behind Plato in the driver’s championship. After a low-key first test at Brands Hatch, completing just one lap, the team then topped the unofficial BTCC test at Snetterton, although RML didn’t attend.
Since then the Team Dynamics has appeared in full livery at Donington, showing off lead sponsor Pioneer and other new sponsor Yussa. The new car hugely encourages both drivers with Neal saying, “The car has lots of potential. The new turbo engine gives us lots of torque but it changes the characteristics of the car quite significantly in terms of the power delivery. I will have to adapt to that and the more testing laps we can do the better it will be. I was happy with how we managed to run at Snetterton particularly. It is encouraging but we still need to do more running to fully understand the car.”
Shedden agrees with Neal and added, “It certainly requires a different driving technique to the car we had last season. There are lots of new variables with the different weight distribution and the turbo, but we have already seen that the Civic has got massive potential.”
Other title challengers are sure to come in the hands of the two Ford teams belonging to Team Aon and Airwaves Racing, both will be using the latest Mountune petrol powered NGTC engine.
Team Aon are set to use the latest spec Focus with the aid of Ford to create a Global Touring Car which can be used in championships across the world. Chilton has been testing the new ‘Global’ Touring Car at both Brands Hatch and Snetterton and is believed to be very positive about the new car.
No team mate has yet been announced officially for Chilton; however Andy Neate who drove for WSR last year is a dead cert for the drive, taking part in all tests present by Aon.
The third driver is believed to be Phil Glew. After winning the Clio Cup championship in 2009, Glew signed up with Triple 8 for 2010. However his season was cut short after just one meeting when team sponsor Uniq pulled out. Glew was later seen out at Silverstone racing in a Seat with Special Tuning.
He was meant to run last season’s Ford Focus at Brands Hatch but mechanical issues prevented him from doing so but a reliable source from the test confirmed that a deal was already in place for him to become third driver in 2011.
Using last year’s Team Aon Focus’ will be Airwaves racing who make the switch from BMW’s. Mat Jackson will once again be driving for the team and has performed particularly well in testing. Joining Jackson will be Liam Griffin who has been promoted from Motorbase’s Porsche Cup team. Griffin however has had an eventful pre-season testing running off track at both Brands Hatch and Snetterton causing the team to already run into their spare part collection.
Motorbase also have a third car available and Team Aon driver from last year, Tom Onslow-Cole, was heavily linked with the team. The drive was believed to have been offered to him but for budget reasons this never happened. Onslow-Cole then tested for Special Tuning and seemed likely to join them for 2011 until his shock announcement that he had joined AmD in their Golf, replacing Shaun Hollamby, see separate story. Motorbase are now reported to be starting the season with just two cars unless they spring a surprise for media day.
Motorbase’s BMW’s from last year have now found their way to Geoff Still Racing who makes a welcome return to BTCC racing. After running Martyn Bell in the Khumo BMW championship they then entered with Bell in the 2006 championship using an ex Schnizer works BMW. Sadly the car was uncompetitive and Bell joined Tech-speed in 2007/08 first driving an Astra before switching to a Honda Integra in 2008. During the season Bell had to pull out after suffering a freak accident on holiday, which he has since had to retire from racing.
Bell will comeback with the team taking over a management roll and has entrusted last season’s Clio Cup champion Dave Newsham as one of the drivers, with the other set to be announced at Silverstone.
West Surrey Racing have only their sponsors to be announced at media day after confirming that Rob Collard will continue to drive for them with rookie Nick Foster joining the big time as well. Whilst there also is a small chance that the team could at some point run Colin Turkington during the season.
Less is known about the third BMW team, Forster Motorsport. After a challenging first season in the BTCC, Forster announced in January that they will be continuing in the series along with competing in the mini Challenge which they had run for so many seasons. They confirmed that team boss Arthur Forster would continue along with Martin Depper. Although Depper’s car was up for sale, he stated that he would continue in the BMW until a suitable front wheel drive car was found.
Since then, no other information has been given on Forster, nor have they been out testing at all. Depper did test the Special Tuning Seat Leon at Silverstone raising questions over the team’s plans for the coming season.
Despite selling his Vauxhall Vectra from last year veteran Dave Pinkney recently announced that he would be participating this season in one of the all-new NGTC cars belonging to Rob Austin racing. Pinkney first took part in the BTCC back in 1989 and will drive an Audi A4. The 59 year old said: “I have been in talks with Rob Austin Racing for a while now and I’m very excited to be on board with the Audi project. I think we have the right package to be running at the sharp end of the grid and I can’t wait to get into the season.”
Bob Austin racing is set to announce a second driver at media day, however the biggest concern for the team will be just having a car running by then. The team commissioned GPR Motorsport to build the cars but they the shop has had a busier winter than most. GPR were also the men behind the NGTC prototype Toyota Avensis that was first run during the Free Practice sessions during the final meeting of 2010 at Brands Hatch. As well as carrying out development work and testing of the car over the winter they have also had to try and build the two Audi’s for Rob Austin Racing along with building the Avensis’ for Speedworks and Dynojet. Both ran in last year’s Ginetta G50 cup and will continue with last year’s drivers Tony Hughes for Speedworks and G50 Champion Frank Wrathall continuing with Dynojet.
We will also see 4 Vauxhall Vectra’s on the grid for 2011 and despite their age they could also be in with a shout of outright victories having been given a new lease of life with Toca’s Swindon prepared NGTC engine. Eurotech will continue for the second season with the NGTC Turbo engine with Andrew Jordan. Jordan won two victories including the last race of the season at Brands Hatch in his Pirtek sponsored Vectra. Joining Jordan at Eurotech will be Jeff Smith who last season drove in the Clio Cup and also took part at Knockhill with Triple 8. Smith for this season has bought Pinkney’s Vectra from last season and will take part in a white liveried car sponsored by I.C.D (Industrial Control Distributors).
Triple 8 will continue to run the Vectra for the second year without works backing from Vauxhall but for the first time with the new engine. James Nash will continue for the second season with the team, having shown great pace at times last year, taking a single podium although he was often let down by outright speed. Joining Nash will be Porsche graduate Tony Gillham.
Gillham has spent the last 3 seasons driving successfully in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB and before that he won the VW cup. Along with bringing title sponsor Collins Contractors to the team Gillham will also bring a lot of colour to the grid with him, continuing to use his famous pink and green livery from his Porsche days.
Other confirmed entries for the season include Chris James who will take part in his ES Racing run Chevrolet Lacetti and Lea Wood who continues in his Central Racing Group Honda Integra, but he might not appear until Oulton. Also hoping to make an appearance in the second half of the season is Welch Motorsport, who will enter a Proton in full NGTC spec for Dan Welch.
Other entries set to be confirmed are Bamboo engineering, they have yet to make an official announcement after initially stating their intentions to run Harry Vaulkhard in a two car team using Chevrolet Lacetti’s in full S2000 spec.
While the final team to finalise plans, albeit any last minute surprises, is Special Tuning Racing. Tom Boardman is so far the only certainty for a drive, who will have sponsorship from Houseman dry lining, but they have the ability to run up to 4 Seat Leons. Special Tuning will also be yet another team to benefit from a new NGTC engine. They will use the same VW TFSI engine as AmD Miltek.
Speaking about the new engine team manger Garry Robertshaw said, “Certainly compared to the S2000 from last year it’s a massive leap forward in terms of the torque and even straight-line speed – on the straights we’re 7kph faster than last year with S2000 engine and the pull out of the corners is incredible.”
So that’s how the entry looks like ending into media day. No doubt there are bound to be some last minute deals and announcements but as it stands the BTCC is certainly on course for one of the biggest grids in recent times. Motorsport.com will of course be on hand to bring you full report from the day’s activities and testing as well as bringing you the first look of all the cars in full livery for the first time, so be sure to return for a good look of how the BTCC will look in 2011.