The 2009 HiQ British Touring Car Championship was a season to remember as records were broken; all three races in one day were won by the same driver and the title was won by a BMW for the first time since 1993.
The official entry list was released Media Day and saw some noticeable absences. 2008 Series runner up Mat Jackson, who's main sponsor quit because of the recession, 2001 Champion Jason Plato who had been left unemployed after the withdrawal of Seat Sport UK at the end of 2008, Tom Onslow-Cole after he left VX Racing and Steven Kane, who had driven for Motorbase Performance in 2008.
2009 saw the return of the Ford name to the grid, with Arena Motorsport running under the banner of Team AON, with Tom Chilton and Alan Morrison at the wheel of two brand new Ford Focus ST's.
Dan Eaves also made a welcome return to the Championship, having been dropped by Team Halfords at the end of 2005. Eaves returned with the new for 2009 Cartridge World Carbon Zero Racing team in the Bio Ethanol E85 Seat Leons alongside BTCC regular Adam Jones.
Another very popular returnee to the series was Paul O'Neill, who had been without a full time drive since 2004 because of his diabetes. Paul returned with the team sunshine.co.uk squad at the wheel of a Honda Integra alongside Martyn Bell, in his second year of running in a front wheel drive car.
Andrew Jordan, who made his BTCC debut alongside his father Mike at Team Eurotech in 2008 moved across to join the works Vauxhall outfit alongside the Champions for the last 4 seasons, Matt Neal (2005, 2006) and Fabrizio Giovanardi (2007, 2008). Steven Kane's drive at Motorbase Performance, which was renamed Airwaves BMW for the season due to a new sponsorship deal with the Airwaves chewing gum brand was taken by the double Seat Cupra Cup Champion Jonny Adam, while David Pinkney became the oldest guy on the grid when he joined the Team Dynamics squad alongside Gordon Shedden, with their striking new livery after Halfords dropped their sponsorship of the team.
Three days before the season started at Brands Hatch, on the Indy track, it was announced that Jason Plato had put together a deal with the works Chevrolet WTCC Team, RML to run a Chevrolet Lacetti at Brands Hatch.
Brands Hatch saw 3 different race winners in the three races, as Matt Neal took the opening win of the day from pole position and led home a VX Racing 1-2 with team mate Fabrizio Giovanardi second, with Colin Turkington in third. The race two victory went to a delighted Rob Collard, who had pushed his way past Colin with a couple of laps remaining to take the lead which he held on to. This was the Airwaves BMW's first ever BTCC win, and it came at their home track.
The race 3 draw saw Jason Plato drawn on pole position with the second Airwaves BMW of Jonny Adam alongside him. On lap 2, Jonny hit the back of Jason's Lacetti, taking the rear bumper off. Jason demonstrated excellent car control to hold it and recovered from the spin in second. Jason was unable to catch Jonny and finished second, but this would become first after the race as Jonny was penalised 4 seconds for spinning Plato and thus lost his debut win. Ironically Jason remarked in interview after the race that he probably could not have helped Jonny for the whole race!
Between the Brands Hatch and Thruxton meetings, Vauxhall confirmed that it was going to withdraw from the BTCC at the end of the 2009 season, the pull out being down to the financial downturn. This decision leaves the BTCC without a manufacturer entry for 2010.
Thruxton saw another two drivers returning to the series. James Thompson, who won the BTCC in 2002 and 2004 returned alongside Pinkney at Dynamics as Shedden was replaced and Mat Jackson made his return at the wheel of the RML Lacetti, with Plato moving across to the brand new Racing Silverline team, still in the Lacetti.
Another three races saw another three different winners as the series showed that the fans and drivers alike were in for a very competitive season. Race one saw Giovanardi lead home team mates Neal and Andrew Jordan for a VX Racing podium lockout, with the only non VX Racing driver on the podium being the Independent winner, Colin Turkington. Paul O'Neill took a very credible fifth place on his return to the grid.
Race two saw Colin Turkington claim his first win of the season having passed Giovanardi on the last lap for the win, with Matt Neal in third which meant his fifth podium from five races.
Race three saw a repeat of Brands Hatch as the returning Mat Jackson took the win from the reverse grid. Having started second, Mat out dragged pole-man O'Neill and never looked back, with Adam Jones taking his first podium of the season and the first podium for the Cartridge World outfit, with James Thompson completing the podium. Paul O'Neill had been running a very strong second before a safety car came out to recover John George's stranded car. After the Safety Car, O'Neill suffered a puncture which caused him to pit.
Donington Park – a case of is it on, is it off? Finally it was announced that it was on, and two records were broken in the same weekend.
Qualifying saw Andrew Jordan take pole position and with it the record of being the youngest pole sitter in BTCC history, at 19 years, 358 days old.
Race 1 saw another record broken as James Thompson took his first win in the BTCC since Croft 2006 with a masterful drive in tricky track conditions. Thompson's win meant that for the first time in BTCC history, the first seven races had been won by seven different drivers.
James Thompson then followed up his first win with his second win of the season in the second race and in the process broke the pattern of a different winners in every race. Thompson held on for the whole race distance to claim a light to flag victory. This race was also unique as it was the first time in BTCC history that four past or current Champions finished together – Thompson (02, 04), Neal (05, 06), Giovanardi (07, 08) and Plato (01).
Race 3 saw Harry Vaulkhard start on pole position after the grid switch with the Airwaves BMW car of Rob Collard alongside him. Collard used the BMW's Rear Wheel Drive traction to take the lead from Vaulkhard off the line; drove off into a comfortable lead, and became the first BMW victor since 1995. Meanwhile, behind saw a battle between Vaulkhard and Giovanardi, the former spinning Giovanardi around and dropping both of them down the field, which in turn benefited Turkington, Plato and Mat Jackson. James Thompson had gambled on tyres and by the end of the race had climbed his way up to 6th place after being as low as 14th at one stage. The fastest lap went to another driver who gambled, Paul O'Neill.
Oulton Park, a true British track and a drivers' favourite. The BTCC arrived with its usual British summer weather and the fans were in for a treat.
Pole position went to the Racing Silverline Lacetti of Jason Plato with team mate Mat Jackson along side him, with Colin Turkington in third. Plato feared the BMW which was starting behind him and knew he'd have a challenge on his hands to defend it.
Plato's worst feared were confirmed when the lights went out at the start of the first race as Turkington stormed past him off the start and into the lead. Plato was able to hold onto second throughout the race while team mate Mat Jackson was running a solid third place before a puncture caused Mat to pit and handed Jonny Adam his second podium finish of the season with third. The only consolation for Jackson was the race's fastest lap, which was a new lap record.
Race 2 saw Turkington storm away from pole for another light to flag victory while chasing him down were Giovanardi, who had climbed his way up from fourth on the grid to second by the end and Plato, who had started second. Turkington took all the available points by taking the races fastest lap as well. Mat Jackson had been on a recovery drive after his race one problems and had recovered to 8th place before another retirement.
Race 3 saw the top 7 from race 2 reversed, which put James Thompson on the reverse grid pole with Andrew Jordan second. Thompson and Jordan led from the front for the whole race distance with Matt Neal taking third, but in the final few laps having to withstand a charge from Rob Collard, who had started down in 20th place, and fought his way to fourth and took the fastest lap as well. Colin finished outside the top 10 places in 11th after contact, which in turn handed the Championship lead back to Neal.
Before the BTCC meeting at Croft, a whole new set of regulations were announced. These would come into effect from the 2011 season with the aim of reducing the costs for existing and new teams. The engines would become 2 litre turbo assisted with the aim of extending the life span of an engine, standardised parts such as brakes and larger body shells for driver safety – and to improve the closeness of racing.
Croft – the 13th, 14th and 15th rounds of the season. Pole went to Colin Turkington and with his team mate Stephen Jelley backing him up in third against the Racing Silverline Lacettis of Plato (2nd) and Jackson (5th), with the Cartridge World Seat of Adam Jones splitting the Lacettis.
Straight off the line, Stephen Jelley outstarted Jason and took second and went about defending Turkington from Jason and Mat, who had made it up to fourth place.
Mat, however, crashed out a few laps in due to a bug he'd contracted. Mat went on to withdraw from the remainder of the meeting. This meant that Silverline were down to the one car, but local driver Harry Vaulkhard was now running a strong fourth in the Tempus Sport run Lacetti. Unfortunately for Vaulkhard, his career best result didn't happen as a couple of laps before the chequered flag, he was involved in a scrap with Matt Neal heading into the Jim Clark Esses. Neal and Vaulkhard made contact, causing a puncture for the Tempus Sport Lacetti. This puncture caused Vaulkhard to spin further round the lap and as he recovered, Tom Chilton in the Ford Focus was unsighted and went into the side of Vaulkhard. Vaulkhard had to withdraw from the rest of the weekend as the accident had bent the rollcage, while Chilton sat out race two.
The race was red flagged because of the accident and the debris on track.
The second race of the weekend saw the RAC BMW's of Colin and Stephen lead away from the front with Plato in third. In a fairly uneventful race, the top 6 stayed in the same order for most of the race. Early on, Collard had passed Plato, using the traction of the BMW to pass the Chevrolet, but Plato was able to pass the BMW and retake the third place.
At the front, Turkington and Jelley were unchallenged and they paced themselves and at the line had a formation finish to record the team's second 1,2 finish of the season, after the opening race. Turkington also claimed the bonus point for leading a lap and for fastest lap – in the opening race he was able to claim the full allotment of points. Plato took his second third place of the day while Collard and Giovanardi completed the top 5.
Before the start of race 3, the skies opened and the mandatory Croft soaking, meaning that everyone was on wet tyres. The grid switch gave Paul O'Neill and the team sunshine.co.uk Honda Integra pole position with James Thompson alongside him.
Off the line, O'Neill led the field but it wasn't long before the weather claimed its first victim, Adam Jones in the tyre barrier at Hawthorn. Cue Safety Car number one.
As soon as the first safety car went in, it was back out as David Pinkney became the next victim of the weather, sliding off the track at Tower corner and into the kitty litter.
When the Safety Car went in for the second time, Paul O'Neill was the next victim as water got into his alternator and this caused him to retire. This left James Thompson in the lead with the rain master Giovanardi in second. Giovanardi then made a daring pass to take the lead, which finished at the start of the complex with Giovanardi in the lead – round the outside of Sunny In and Out as well as Barcroft. Then the third safety car came out, this time for Martin Johnson and James Nash who were both in the gravel at Clervaux. This left the fans with a short sprint to the chequered flag.
This wasn't the only excitement for the fans – Matt Neal and Jason Plato had a coming together at Clervaux, which started all the way back at the hairpin! Plato was reprimanded for the incident.
At the end the top three were, Giovanardi, Thompson and Stephen Jelley, who'd, made his way up from 9th on the grid to complete a hat trick of podium finishes – before this weekend, he'd never had a podium finish in the BTCC.
After the 15 races, Turkington had a 25 point gap over Matt Neal in second with Giovanardi in third, a further 4 points behind Neal, while in the independents' Championship, Turkington had a commanding 26 point gap over Jason Plato.
Part 2 of our season review will be on site soon, keep a look out for it.
Photo Credits: BTCC.net