The opening BTCC rounds at Brands Hatch and Donington Park have given everything the UK's premier tin-top series should. Close racing, aggressive driving, not to mention a few crashes, and the championship goes into its third weekend at Thruxton with James Nash leading the points standing for the first time in his BTCC career.
Brands Hatch showed the pace of the NGTC turbocharged engines, but also proved that Jason Plato's normally aspirated Chevrolet Cruze had the ability to beat the new-spec cars. Donington, however, was all about the turbocharged cars as they swept the podium in all three races.
For Thruxton it could be all change – the Hampshire track presenting a new challenge compared to what has gone before this season, and the NGTC teams will face it as the first round after their boost pressure was lowered to try and slow them down. And it's impossible to look beyond the alteration to the technical regulations when it comes to previewing this weekend's three races.
Thruxton – even before the 0.1 bar boost pressure decrease was mandated – was looking to be one of the tougher events for the turbocharged cars.
Though the season so far has seen little of the crippling tyre wear some expected the NGTC adoptees to suffer Thruxton – notoriously hard on tyres anyway – will be a key test for the Dunlop rubber on the front wheels of the front wheel drive cars.
The turbos are not only going to be presented with problems by the super-fast bends such as Goodwood, Village, and Church but also by the Club Chicane that ends the lap. When www.thecheckeredflag.co.uk spoke to Matt Neal before the season the lack of engine braking from the turbocharged car compared to the previous spec engine was one of the key factors the double champion brought up in discussing the change in powerplant his Honda Racing Team – as well as many others – have had to tackle over the recent off-season.
With the heavy braking area into the chicane so critical – in terms of racing and overtaking, of not in overall lap time – three races at Thruxton could be just what Jason Plato needs to bounce back from a Donington weekend that left him fifth in the standings after two non-scoring races.
Leading the championship, despite never having won a BTCC race is James Nash. Nash has never raced at Thruxton before – Triple Eight fielding Fabrizio Giovanardi and Phil Glew in the 2010 season opener – and will start the weekend carrying success ballast. If Nash could claim his first BTCC win this weekend it would confirm his title chances and rubber stamp the early pace of the Swindon Engines powered Vectras – Pirtek Racing driver Andrew Jordan also enjoying a very positive start to the season, including a win at Donington Park.
No doubt the fastest cars this year have been the Honda Civics of Honda Racing Team – claiming pole position at both tracks so far this year – including a front row lock out in the previous round.
Of course, whether Matt Neal keeps his 100% pole position record, and whether Nash can protect his early points lead comes back to any difference TOCA's regulation tinkering makes.
Drawing direct conclusions from comparing lap times at Thruxton to the relative performances at Donington is like comparing apples to oranges such is the difference between the circuits, but if Plato, Paul O'Neill, Alex MacDowall, or whoever ends qualifying as the best S2000 runner can be anywhere inside the top five then TOCA can look at a move in the right direction. If, however, said S2000 leader wins the race from a pack of hamstrung turbocharged cars, then the difficult job of balancing performance still needs to be completed.