Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
This weekend sees the return of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship for one of the most eagerly anticipated championships in years, as the series gets under way at the 1.2mile Brands Hatch Indy Circuit.
24 cars are set to take to the grid for the opening round of the championship with it impossible to predict who will be at the front as anyone from about a dozen drivers set to be in contention. The grid also sees an exact 50/50 split between the new Next Generation Touring Cars, many of which will race for the first time, and the S2000 entries all now fitted with Turbo engines.
All eyes at Brands however, are set to be on the all new MG KX Momentum Racing team of Jason Plato and Andy Neate run by multiple champions Triple 8 Racing. The new MG 6 was unveiled at the media day although apart from a few laps during the morning’s photography tracking sessions, the car was unable to take to the track for official testing with it still only featuring a production front bumper.
The car looks absolutely amazing and Triple Eight deserves a lot of credit for pulling out all the stops.
Both cars have, however, taken part in a behind closed doors test believed to be at Brands Hatch. Plato who drives a triple 8 Racing car for the first time since the 2001 Championship at Brands Hatch admits he is “incredibly excited” about leading MG’s charge back into the BTCC saying, “I’m incredibly excited about this weekend, the first in the new 2012 season. The car looks absolutely amazing and Triple Eight deserves a lot of credit for pulling out all the stops. This weekend is all about getting to grips with this NGTC car and realising its potential and the Indy Circuit is one I’ve had great success at so I genuinely can’t wait.”
Plato is also a columnist for one of Britain’s biggest newspapers The Sun. In a recent interview he made for their motorsport page the clear message was “write me off at your peril” and with his and the team's record it’s certainly hard to disagree with that.
It’s also a big weekend for Triple 8 Racing, the people behind the MG KX Momentum Racing team. This will be the first time the team have run anything other than Vauxhall’s since entering the series in 1997. Team boss, Ian Harrison, is the only man from out of three still in charge since setting up the team, and he admits it will be a very proud moment when the car leaves the garage for the first time after all the incredibly hard recent work to get the car ready in time. “The whole team has worked extremely hard to be ready for this opening race weekend. It has been tough for the crew, but they have risen brilliantly to the challenge as they always have done. It will be a proud moment for everyone at Triple Eight when the cars role out of the garage for first practice on Saturday. However, this is the first step and inside the Triple Eight team we are realistic about what is possible, although we have clear objectives for these first few race weekends.”
Reigning Champions Honda Racing has also switched to the NGTC spec and will run the all new Civic for the first time. Honda will start with a massive advantage over the MG outfit with the team having already gone through an extensive amount of pre-season testing. As expected with any new car, the Civic has experienced its fair share of issues. However, since the official test at Silverstone during Media day, the team has enjoyed more successful tests at Oulton Park and Rockingham, which included running a full race distance for the first time and set a time more than a second quicker than the Rockingham lap record. Following that test the triple champion Matt Neal gave this assessment, “We’ve managed to do our first race run in the car without a hitch, so it was a real milestone, and that’s after we’d also learnt a lot about the car during the Media Day test so that was another positive. The car’s pace is pretty good, although our straight line speed is atrocious compared to the other cars. Despite that I think we’re getting there and we’ll be in the game from the outset.”
Neal also needs to look out for his team mate Gordon Shedden, along with Andrew Jordan, who is also driving an identical prepared NGTC Honda Civic run by his Pirtek Racing team. However, there are a couple more NGTC cars to look out for.
The first belonging to Frank Wrathall who will compete in his second season in an NGTC Toyota Avensis prepared by Dynojet. Wrathall last year was a major star in the second half of the season when he first stepped on the podium at Snetterton as Independent race winner. After that he stepped on the podium a further 4 times and surely expects to go one better than his best result of second last season; although Wrathall hasn’t completed any pre-season testing as he did not run at the official testing in the afternoon at Silverstone.
The other is Rob Austin who, since media day at Silverstone, has confirmed that he will enter the number 13 Audi, albeit for the time being with last season’s second driver Chris Swanwick waiting in the wings. Yet, for now it will be team manager Austin in the Audi A4 and following some encouraging recent testing and a best race finish of second last season, Austin now predicts wins are on the cards and said, “If I didn’t think I could win at Brands I wouldn’t bother doing it. I learnt a lot about what the BTCC is all about on track last year and after our test last week at Rockingham I know just how good our Audi now is – we’ve totally rebuilt it and the 2012-spec car is a major step forward from 2011’s. I really believe it can be right in the hunt this weekend."
Meanwhile the other half of the grid will see the tried and tested S2000 cars with Redstone Racing (Motorbase Performance) and eBay Motors (West Surrey Racing) leading the charge. For Redstone Racing, Brands Hatch marks their local event while eBay Motors new recruit Tom Onslow-Cole will also be at his local circuit keen to impress.
Redstone Racing, last season then named Airwaves Racing, led the championship with Jackson until a nightmare couple of meetings, which saw them score just 1 point for fastest lap in 6 races and dented their chances of Independent and outright glory. Jackson now goes into the season full of confidence and hopes to take advantage right from the off while the likes of Honda and MG develop their new racers and said, "We have got to have podiums, be at the front and come away from Brands Hatch being in the top three in the championship table. If we come away leading it then we have done well. All we can do is focus on our own game, we know it will be a tough year to stay ahead of the NGTC cars but hopefully we can do that from the word go. I think the new cars will definitely be at the races and in testing they have proved to be very quick but is it just over one lap or a race distance? We are very mindful that they are going to be quick though, but who knows what will happen this season. All we know is what we have what was capable of winning last year and we have got to continue down that road.”
For Onslow-Cole, this marks the first race back at WSR since he first entered the series back in 2007. This season much is expected from eBay Motors who have a new Turbo power unit from Neil Brown engineering, the same people who power the all conquering Honda’s. With Onslow-Cole and last season’s drivers Rob Collard and Nick Foster, they surely have one of the most formidable driver line ups as they hope to take the team's first victory since 2009. Team boss Dick Bennett understandably has high hopes for the year ahead, “I believe we will be at our most competitive since 2009. If you asked me if I’d got a nice warm feeling inside then I’d say yes. This will be our last time with an S2000-based car but, on paper with turbo engines, this should be very competitive for us. The others are no mugs and you never know until the racing starts just where you are in terms of performance. Our biggest concern is going to be how well the rate of wear with our 17-inch tyres stacks up against the bigger 18 inch tyres on the newer Next Generation cars. At the end of the day that’s one inch extra of braking, grip and traction that they have but they are also around 100kgs heavier than S2000 cars. Let’s see. Of course we’ve never run turbo cars before so we’re a bit in the dark, while Tom has driven nothing but turbo cars for the past two years which may be a bonus. We’ve increased our staff, which is good news, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how quickly we can start ringing the most from the car. We’re all really looking forward to it.”
If you’re looking for a surprise this weekend then this could come in the form of Dave Newsham for ES Racing. This marks the second season for the 2010 Clio Champion Newsham after driving for Geoff Steel Racing and Special Tuning Racing last season. This also marks the second season for the team after they ran a single Chevrolet Lacetti for team boss Chris James in 2011. The team have now acquired both of Triple 8 Racing’s Vauxhall Vectras from last season for James and Newsham. Newsham has already shocked the BTCC paddock by topping the official test at Silverstone during media day and may well surprise again this weekend. Despite the encouraging pre-season Newsham refuses to get too carried away and said, “After an up and down 2011 I’m now in a proven title-winning car and with a team which is 100 per cent behind me. We’ll go to the opening round at Brands Hatch feeling very confident as we have already had a good test there but we know that was only pre-season and while it gives everyone in the team a lift we have to be realistic. We don’t really know what everybody else has been up to, while some of the more established names have had problems and of course Plato and the new MG team haven’t run at all yet.”
The points scoring system is also new for 2012 where the top 15 will now score points with the winner now receiving 20 points with the remaining points going down as follows 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
So that concludes who to look out for during the opening race of 2012. Brands Hatch raises many question’s such as will MG be competitive? Have Honda sorted out their pre-season issues? Who will be the first driver to take victory in an NGTC car? Will the S2000 cars still be the cars to beat?
Of course there is only one way to find; out by logging back onto Motorsport.com for full details from qualifying with race day images and reports following the weekend in what promises to be an action packed and thrilling start to the season.