Pat Cranham, BTCC correspondent
Once again this year’s Autosport International Show at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham saw a large contingent from the world of the British Touring Car Championship in terms of both personality’s and machinery.
One of the highlights from day 2 included having the top 3 in the Championship from 2011 speaking on the Autosport main stage together with 2011 champion Matt Neal sitting next to his old arch enemy Jason Plato and his Honda Racing team mate Gordon Shedden.
Me and 'Flash' [Shedden] worked well together and all the balls fell into the right holes.
Surprisingly for once Plato and Neal were at perfect harmony and spoke about a number of things including different Touring Car Championships from around the world which led to the pair speaking at length about their experiences in the Australian V8 Supercars and Bathurst which they both agreed was the toughest form of Touring Car racing in the world.
Unsurprisingly the topic quickly turned to the BTCC and Neal spoke about winning his third title and said, “We were in a great car and we had the regulations with us with the turbo engines, but it will probably be a different case this year. We’ve had a great car under us for the last couple of years, it was just the regulations suited what we were running. Me and 'Flash' [Shedden] worked well together and all the balls fell into the right holes. It ran really well, we had a good year but it didn't always go the right way - like at Oulton Park, where Jason won.”
This year Neal’s Honda Racing team have switched to the new specification format and hopes he and the team will benefit from announcing their plans and development early as he hopes to emulate Andy Rouse’s BTCC record of 4 Championships and said, "We've got a new Civic built to the new NGTC regulations, which is a new thing for us. If it goes half as well as it looks then it should be fantastic, but never know with new car. We hope to hit the ground running. I don't know what Jason is up to but hopefully he'll be there too."
Despite often lagging behind in his normally aspirated Chevrolet against the Turbo’s Plato still managed to take the most victories and admitted he did enjoy last season at times although Honda were fully disserved of their tittles and said, “If I'm honest there was an awful lot of enjoyment last year in spells. It was great to win eight races but we were well and truly beaten, that's the fact of it. Sometimes things go in your favour and sometimes they don't - like Matt said the balls were rolling in his pocket and they weren't in ours. Matt and Gordon got the right kit, we didn't – we didn't go turbo because we were promised there would be parity, which just simply wasn't the case. It was very difficult for the organisers to understand just how much performance these guys had in their back pocket, but had I been in their shoes I would have done exactly the same thing. Team Honda did a fantastic job last year and beat everybody, including the organisers.”
Despite not having anything in place for the coming season Plato admits the BTCC is still where he wanted to be and said "I'll make no bones about it though: I want to be out there. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't, but I love it. If there is any opportunity for me to be out there I want it, and I look forward to having further dust-ups with these two reprobates."
Although Plato wasn’t in a position to announce his plans there have been very strong rumours circulating on various BTCC forums that if come true will shock a lot of the BTCC world. Over the last few days these rumours have been gathering pace with some suggesting that an announcement could be made next week, so make watch this space!
In 2011 Shedden became the most successful Scottish driver in BTCC history but lost out on the big prize in the final race to Neal by only a handful of points. Following 2011 Shedden now believes he knows what it takes to become BTCC champion and said, "In 2010 I went into the last race with a chance of winning the championship but it was a long shot. Last year was the first time really that I went with a genuine chance of picking up the big prize. It wasn't to be but I'm on the upward trend – I've been third, been second, so the pressure is on. Touring cars is not an easy championship to come into – there are a lot of drivers coming in from support races who can put a race together, but it is completely different to put a championship together. Experience does count though and I know now I've done enough, earned my spurs and am ready to win a championship. I gave myself a good shot at the championship last year and it didn't quite work, so I'll just give it even more this year."
Like Neal, Shedden hopes having the New Generation Car ready early will be an advantage where as some of his main competitors won’t be in as good position and said, “Our car is about a month away to be fair, we're making good progress but it’s still a while away. I think it will be 'lastminute.com' and a few cars will be rocking up at the first race without having done much testing – it'll be a bit of a lottery."
As well as the starts both on the stage and walking around the show trying to get deals sorted for 2012 there were also quite a selection of BTCC machinery on display. As announced on Thursday Ollie Jackson was confirmed at AmD Tuning and his number 99 VW Golf was on display at the pipercross following the revealing of his name on the car while Neal’s Triple winning 2011 Honda Civic was on display on the Team Dynamics stand, the men behind the project for the last time before the car is switched to the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship with Thomas Engstrom.
In 2011 Tom Boardman took his maiden BTCC victory for Special Tuning Racing and his Seat Leon was on display at the Scorpion stand sporting a brand new livery which they hope to use in 2012. Although it’s unlikely that we will see Boardman in the championship as Special Tuning announced prior to the end of the year that the team intend to make use of their 4 Seat Leons by splitting their time between the BTCC and World Championship. Boardman looks set to go to the World Championship with the team having secured a new 1.6 turbocharged engine as supplied by the official Seat Sport outfit while the team also hope to have 2 drivers out in the British Championship. Once again they will be powered with their turbo powered Lehmann engines and the team has admitted interest in competing for them within the BTCC has been strong.
The only New Generation Touring Car on display at the show belonged to BTCC new boys Thorney Motorsport with their Vauxhall Insignia. The team had hoped to race their “batmobile” for the first time at Silverstone but were restricted to 3 shakedown laps on the Sunday Morning and a couple of formation laps. Since then however the batman logos have gone and team boss driver John Thorne had a successful first test at Donington following the season where he admitted he was “blown away with how the car felt”.
The final BTCC car on display was that of Tom Chilton’s Team Aon ‘Global’ Ford Focus on their engine suppliers stand that of Mountune. Chilton took 2 victories in the car in 2011 however sadly for BTCC fans neither Chilton nor the team will be back for 2012. The team have already announced that they will be competing in the World Championships and have already recently shock down their new car fresh with a new 1.6 litre Turbocharged engine, once again supplied by Mountune and with Yokohama tyres compared to the Dunlop tyres used in the BTCC.
The show still has one more day to go and more drivers are expected on the Autosport Show to speak about their plans for the 2012 season. Despite not as many announcements being made as expected at the Show it’s still anticipated that we will see record grid and that big news is expected to be announced in the next few weeks, not just with Plato but also with a number of big teams. So for all your big BTCC news as it breaks be sure to keep logging back to Motorsport.com in what promises to be an exciting period for the Championship.