By Pat Cranham - BTCC reporter
This weekend sees the much-anticipated return of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, which will take place around the 1.2mile Brands Hatch Indy circuit. Recently, at the season launch it was announced that a record high of 27 cars, the highest amount in 20 years, have signed up for the 2011 season, although a grid of 23/4 cars is expected for the season opener.
I think we're in for a thrilling season.
It’s hard to pick a favourite for the season, however the man everyone has to beat will be 2010 champion Jason Plato, who will also have the all time BTCC win record in his sights at Brands Hatch after he equalled Andy Rouse’s record of 60 wins last time out at the circuit on his way to the championship. Plato returns for the second season in an updated works Silverline Chevrolet from last year’s WTCC championship winning team. Ominously for the rest of the field Plato said after testing the car back in March at the Kent circuit that he was 0.3seconds up on his time from last October, where he was the class of the field.
Unsurprisingly Plato goes into the first race of the season full of confidence and said at the Media day, "My car is a development of the car that won the World Championship with Yvan Muller last year. We know that's a step forward from where we were at the final race at Brands Hatch when we won the championship. At that race meeting we were night and day quicker than anyone else. We're pretty confident we've got the tools to do the job. I think we're in for a thrilling season. I'm confident I've got the best car underneath me and the best bunch of people around me. That's all we can hope for, but I'm pretty happy with my position at the moment."
Hoping to go one better for this season will be Matt Neal. Neal will once again be driving for his family run Team Dynamics outfit with work backing from Honda Racing and this time he has the benefit of an all new Turbo engine as developed by Neil Brown Engineering. Despite a slow start to testing Neal topped an unofficial test at Snetterton and said on the same stage as Plato at the launch day, "Our car was a little bit late getting to the track, but I'm pretty excited. I think we've got a pretty good car under us. The chassis was always an equal with the Chevy last year for the best handling car out there. Now we've got Neil Brown who has done an amazing job over the winter and we seem to have a great engine under us, too. The Ford was running the turbo engine last year and we tried to work out what its Achilles heel was. It was traction getting out of the slow corners, so we’ve been working very hard over the winter with the diffs and the dampers to try and maximise our traction out of the corners. I think we've come up with some wondrous results and the whole package looks very, very exciting for the year ahead."
Neal however is fully aware of just who the person is to beat and thinks qualifying could be the key for this weekend and said, “Saturday’s qualifying session could be where it’s won or lost. In qualifying trim over a couple of flying laps the turbo cars should have as much speed as Plato. Come the race, though, we may struggle for consistency as the front tyres are taking quite a lot of punishment. We all know the Civic has a great chassis, but the turbo engine brings added weight at the front and asks more of the tyres because of the extra torque being generated out of corners. I suspect Jason will have a very quick car over a full race distance and will really come on really strong in the second half of a race as I’m sure his tyres will be in a better condition. Plus, with a normally aspirated-engined car, he still has the luxury of ‘engine braking’ whereas with the turbo all that has gone. We might have an advantage out of the corners; he’ll come back at us under braking and cornering. If we can qualify ahead of him then, of course, we’ll certainly not be wanting to give up places and around the Brands Indy circuit it is possible to drive a wide car.”
Although confident Neal did finally admit that he goes into the race a little under prepared and finished off by saying, “We’ve not completed all the testing we’d hoped for and I’ve still not managed a full race distance in my car so there are a few unknowns. There have been a few niggly things which I hope don’t reoccur – I hope they don’t cost us a race because we can’t afford that.”
Two other drivers who could be in with a good shout of a victory this weekend include Paul O’Neill and Andrew Jordan. This will be O’Neil’s first weekend driving a Chevrolet Cruze run by Tech-speed. For the past two seasons O’Neill has performed miracles in an older spec Honda Integra. Now driving Plato’s championship winning car from last year, wins must surely be on the cards.
Last time out at Brands Plato dominated the event in the same car, however O’Neill has other objectives for the weekend, “Hopefully I’ll be able to qualify inside the top six, although it won’t be an easy task against the turbo-engined cars. If we can come away at the end of race day with three good top ten finishes and some solid points on the board, a bit like we did in the opening round at Thruxton last year, then I’ll be happy. The car felt good when we tested at Brands Hatch and at Silverstone last week, I was only two-tenths of a second behind Jason in the works car. If we can do similar this weekend, we’ll be in a good position.”
As for Jordan he goes into his second season in his Pirtek Racing Vauxhall Vectra and enters this weekend full of confidence having won the last race in 2010 and also topped the official test following the media day at Silverstone. Jordan also hopes he will have an added bonus with this being the second season with him running the Turbo engine and said, “We are definitely in the best place yet, with what we learned about the turbo engine last year. There are a lot more people coming in with turbo engines this year and I think our experience will stand us in good stead.”
One driver who fans and team alike will be keen to keep an eye on will be Tom Onslow-Cole following his shock late announcement that he would drive the AmD Miltek prepared VW Golf. Onslow-Cole surprised the whole BTCC paddock by announcing that he would drive for the team in only their second season of BTCC racing, with the team not scoring a single point in 2010. This year the team go into the season full of confidence following a winter redeveloping the car and with their all-new turbocharged VW TFSI engine developed by Lehmann. Things didn’t get off to a good start at the Media day with the car failing on its morning installation lap eliminating him from the day. However Onslow-Cole did get his first taste of the Golf during a very productive days testing at Brands Hatch earlier in the week with team boss and 2010 team driver Shaun Hollamby saying, “Our test at Brands Hatch was really good and I’m pleased with how it went. It was how we hoped it would be on Media Day. After the problems we suffered at Silverstone we’re still going to be doing some setup work on the Saturday before race day. The main thing for us yesterday was to make sure the car ran reliably. We can now concentrate on performance. Handling-wise the car is a big improvement on the Ford Focus Tom drove last year – I know that from being behind him last season, as it looked a massive handful. By the end of the day, Tom was clearly fully committed – that was obvious watching him get the back end out at Surtees – and he said to me that it was the most productive test day of testing he has ever done,”
Other things to look out for this weekend include the debut of Team Aon’s ‘Global’ Ford Focus Touring car, which will be driven by regular driver Tom Chilton with Andy Neate taking the second seat following his move from WSR, and the introduction of full New Generation Touring Cars (NGTC). The first NGTC prototype was introduced at the last race of the season at Brands Hatch and was driven by former double BTCC champion James Thompson.
The men behind the Toca prototype, GPR Motorsport have had a busy winter not only developing the Toyota Avensis but also building the car for former Ginetta G50 teams Speedworks and Dynojet. Both cars were late in being developed but were unveiled at the Media day. Tony Hughes, Speedworks was able to complete some troubled shakedown laps while current G50 champion Frank Wrathall was on hand to show for the first time his Dynojet Avensis and hopes to be able to test the car prior to the first race.
If things weren’t busy enough for GPR they were then also commissioned by Rob Austin Racing to build a pair of Audi A4’s. Like the Avensis’ the team face a race against time to get the car on the grid for the weekend but hope to have the one car running with their only current confirmed driver veteran Dave Pinkney at the wheel.
This weekend will also see BTCC debuts for former Porsche Cup GB racers Liam Griffin (Airwaves Racing) and Tony Gillham (Triple 8), former GT and BMW CSL Cup racer Nick Foster will make his BTCC debut for WSR while last years Clio Cup champion Dave Newsham will drive a BMW for Geoff Still Racing in the series for the first time.
For the many thousand of fans likely to set upon the Kent circuit another thing to look out for will be the race debut of Nicholas Hamilton younger brother to 2008 F1 champion Lewis Hamilton.
Nicholas will take part in the Clio Cup, a feeder series for future BTCC stars with drivers such as Tom Onslow-Cole, Jonny Adam, Phil Glew and Dave Newsham all winning the series on route to the BTCC. Lewis has also announced that he will take time out from his GP preparations and will travel over 21,000 miles following his second place finish at the Australian GP to be present at Brands Hatch to support his brother, who could perhaps be another yet BTCC star of the future to come through the series.
So things certainly look good for the BTCC heading into the opening race where the only thing predictable is the close nature of the racing. So stay logged into to Motorsport.com who will of course be present all weekend bringing you full reports and images from the weekend where you can see who gets off to the perfect start for 2011.