It was a British Touring Car season in which a lot changed, but nearly everything, eventually stayed the same.
A season which saw new names become championship contenders and new rules make an impact on the series, but which ultimately came down to a battle between two of the BTCC's most familiar names at the finale at Brands Hatch in October.
The season began under the spectre of loses. The absence of 2009 champion Colin Turkington seemingly due to a near inexplicable lack of funding was a keenly felt surprise. However, the loss of Vauxhall's works input into the series through Triple Eight Race Engineering was well known, but no less a blow for a championship that none the less welcomed works backed efforts from Honda, Chevrolet and Ford stepping up with the Dynamics, RML and Arena squads.
The season also saw the beginning of a new chapter of BTCC, with the initial vestiges of the Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) rules that are due to be phased in across the next three years. The turbocharged engine specified under the rules was chosen by both Andrew Jordan and Dave Pinkney – both campaigning Vectras garnered from the Triple Eight clear out – for full season efforts, while several other teams and drivers would fit one of the new powerplants for races during the season.
Almost, in hindsight, embracing the air of uncertainty was the season opening rounds at Thruxton in April.
In light of the six months to follow it was an anomaly.
This was largely down to the unexpected return of Triple Eight – or Uniq Racing with Triple Eight – with Fabrizio Giovanardi and Phil Glew in a pair of black Vectras.
Giovanardi, confirmed at the eleventh hour, promptly won the first two races, but Triple Eight's form was not to last. Following the Thruxton weekend Uniq pulled out – with the unlikely reason that they had too much interest following the event – and so began a troubled season for the BTCC's most successful team of recent years, though still with the Uniq name hanging round their neck for the formalities throughout the season.
Glew, despite his normal backing from WD40, was also out of the team, and in came James Nash – something of a revelation in a limited schedule in 2009. Nash showed promise in 2009 – only losing a race win after a debateable stewards decision but never looked likely to claim a win. A mistake a Snetterton in August, twelve months on from the-win-that-wasn't summed up his season. Nash made his debut at Rockingham at a second round of the championship where, Giovanardi distraction over, the season really got underway.
The signs for the season ahead were there for the crowd to see. Tom Chilton putting the Team Aon Ford Focus on pole before Matt Neal and Jason Plato split the three wins between them.
The stage was set for a battle between the most successful men in the field – the pair sharing a further nine wins during the remaining weekends. However it was the supporting performances – though to relegate them to supporting roles is truly unfair – that produced a unique four way battle for the overall championship at the final round.
After a difficult year spent bouncing from team to team in 2009 Gordon Shedden was back at his spiritual home at Team Dynamics and returned from the wilderness in flying form. Two wins at the Croft meeting that ended the first half of the season kickstarted his championship challenge in the Scot's best season to date in a Dynamics team revelling in the additional input from Honda as well the return of two full time, top flight drivers after a 2009 in which they employed four different drivers for just three wins during the season.
But if Shedden's run into contention was quiet the form of the two Toms in the Arena Focuses was anything but.
Having opted for a LPG-fuelled engine the cars enjoyed an obvious speed advantage – taking six poles from the qualifying session over the course of the year. The team took their first wins with the Focus at the sodden Brands Hatch GP weekend, with each driver taking a win a piece (though only after Chilton had had a second win taken from him after failing the scrutineering checks after the second race).
However, it was the second half of the season when the Fords threatened to steal the show.
The month break between Croft in June and Snetterton in August included a test at the Norfolk track, when – on the long straights of the former airfield – the Ford and the LPG unit showed its true potential Chilton recording the fastest time of the two days by half a second.
When the series returned for the sixth round instead it was the Silverline Chevrolets who dominated qualifying – Alex MacDowall went fastest, becoming the series' youngest ever pole sitter in the process, and when the gear changer came off in the 19-year-old's hand off the line it was Plato who was left to dominate.
The Cruze was the class of the field while the Tom Chilton was left to take third in the first race of the weekend. The pace was not gone, however, TV pictures tracked Tom Onslow-Cole fighting up the field after problems in qualifying and illustrated the advantage the Focus had as it galloped away from anything down the Revett Straight. That alone would justify TOCA taking the unorthodox step of further restricting the Team Aon cars between the first and second races.
Looking back the weekend at Snetterton may have been the turning point in the season. While Plato entered the meeting eight points down on Matt Neal a haul of two wins and a fifth gave him a twenty point advantage to take through the second half of the season, an advantage that would never disappear through the remaining four rounds of the championship.
It was also the weekend that the restrictions to the Ford began. For all that drivers moaned about the pace advantage – Plato the most persistent and vocal – the momentum it was feared they would build up never materialised. The closest they came to domination was Silverstone where the team swept the races – albeit in controversial fashion as Onslow-Cole twice moved aside to hand wins to Chilton. But even then the others were able to stay close behind.
The two Silverline Chevrolets in race one.
Rob Collard was able to break into the domination to take second in race two, before a ballasted Chilton could only take sixth in the reverse grid race.
Whether it was the restrictions taking their toll – another batch of anchors were attached to the Ford for Silverstone – or the heavier turbo engine bludgeoning the front tyres past the point of protest is immaterial; the Fords threatened much but delivered comparatively little.
Missing from the head of the field were the BMWs. Both West Surrey Racing and the Motorbase Performance run Airwaves outfit failed to rekindle their 2009 form. Surprisingly, on his return to the championship, Steven Kane was perhaps the pick of the four regular drivers. A win in the third race at Thruxton began a run of visits to the podium he maintained through the first five races of the season – capped with a scintillating drive from 19th to third at Croft. That he was only denied the Independents' crown by two points (one race position) proves the tin-top credential of the man who spent 2009 testing the Formula Two car.
At Knockhill and Donington the title contenders traded blows, but the situation remained largely the same and four drivers went to Brands Hatch in October with a shot at taking the title.
Such was the excitement before that it would have been very hard for the races to satisfy the enormous crowd that attended the day. Once Plato placed his fully ballasted Cruze on pole on Saturday and escaped into the lead in race one the title was all but decided. With mechanical problems ruling out both Shedden and Onslow-Cole (who had a day out worth staying in bed for, losing his chance at the title and his grip on the Independents' title at the same time), it came down to Plato and Neal – two men with more than 750 BTCC starts between them. When Plato gave an encore performance in race two it was a title decided by all-round team excellence, rather than solely a driver's on track showings.
While Team Aon had been fast and loud, the RML squad behind Plato and MacDowall had quietly developed a winning car.
That final weekend at Brands Hatch also saw a glimpse of the future.
Those that didn't opt to try and beat the traffic home would have witnessed a second win of the season for Andrew Jordan and the NGTC engine. Both Jordan and Pinkney suffered throughout the season. A cocktail of engine troubles (including the same fault for Pinkney in every one of the three Silverstone races) and poor luck shackled their efforts.
Jordan in particular seemed to have a knack of finding his way into promising positions with considerable speed before falling back, often through a trivial mistake that dropped him into a midfield where the usual Touring Car aggression rules.
The win at Brands Hatch was just reward for one of the early adopters of the new regulations and surely one of the championship's best young drivers.
But, Brands Hatch also marked the on track debut of the NGTC car, with former champion James Thompson at the helm. Running well in practice (especially for a car still early in a winter of development) the car performed an exhibition run on the Sunday to nearly universal praise from both teams and fans.
If reality comes anywhere close to what series director Alan Gow hopes to achieve with the new rules then 2011 could be the dawn of a very exciting time for the BTCC.
Asked, standing in the Brands pitlane, champagne still drying from title celebrations, what he thought of 2010 he said; “fantastic, but every year we can do better.”
It all starts again on 3 April on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit – picking up where 2010 left off.
Here’s TCF’s choice of the top five BTCC drivers in 2010
1. Jason Plato – A deserving champion from a deserving team. Came good in the second half of the season and closed out the year with a dominant performance.
2. Matt Neal – Back at Dynamics and back to the form everyone knows he can deliver. Matched Plato almost win for win all year but crucial fumbles – Snetterton a prime example – left him with too much to do, too late in the season.
3. Tom Onslow-Cole – A revelation – when he wasn’t expected to play second fiddle to Chilton (which he did) Onslow-Cole emerged as a genuine title contender. 2011 could easily be his year at the right team.
4. Andrew Jordan – Rapid but occasionally wayward, Jordan should have taken more than the two wins he did. A willing guinea pig for the NGTC engine, the new spec power proved more of a hindrance than a help. Another driver for the future.
5. Tom Chilton – Almost certainly the villain of 2010, if not for his way of winning at Silverstone, then for his dating show appearances. Clung on for the Indie drivers’ title, just.