There's no other way about it, since the introduction of the NGTC regulation at the start of last year, the British Touring Car Championship has gone from strength to strength. The regulations haven't been met with total approval by everyone yet, but bigger grids and new cars in the championship can only be a good thing.
The second year of NGTC was widely anticipated after a long winter break. There was much to look forward to – not least the brand new Honda Civic that would be driven by last year's championship winner, Matt Neal and his team mate Gordon Shedden. How would Jason Plato progress in a brand new car in the form of the MG 6 on the marque's return to the series? What about the likes of Frank Wrathall and Rob Austin? The two would surely be among the front runners once again having gained a year of NGTC experience last season. There was an exciting mix of experience and youth on the entry list.
At the first round at Brands Hatch, we found some clues as to what the form book could be like this season. It has been highly anticipated that the older S2000 cars run by the likes of eBay Motors and Redstone Racing would prove to be competitive whilst the NGTC cars sorted their problems, but no-one expected the result of qualifying. It was the first surprise of the season – Dave Newsham taking pole position for Team ES Racing. The tiny team had only run an old Chevrolet Lacetti for team boss Chris James last year, but an expansion this season to two Vauxhall Vectras was a sign that Newsham, the 2010 Clio Cup champion, can be a contender this year. Come race day however, it wasn't the result he was hoping for.
He was tapped into an early retirement in race one as he battled with Matt Neal. An over ambitious manoeuvre from Jason Plato behind saw an end to his race in the notorious Paddock Hill Bend. But the first blood ultimately went to WSR and Rob Collard who ended a win drought that went back to 2009 in his newly turbo powered BMW.
The second event showed that even with new cars, Matt Neal and Jason Plato will still be the two men most likely to be fighting over the championship as they used their years of experience to race relatively cleanly. Despite Plato initially holding the advantage, he was overtaken not much later by Neal's Honda. It was a tale of differing fortunes at the Dynamics team however, with team mate Shedden, last year's runner-up, being beset with mysterious electrical problems. But still – it was a worrying sign for everyone else, particularly for S2000 teams. After a difficult winter testing programme for Honda, and no winter testing at all for MG, no-one though they'd be this competitive this early.
Onto race three and the first reverse grid of the year – it was a race that was ultimately won by Jason Plato, his first win this season for Triple 8. But the race will surely be remembered for the Mat Jackson induced oil slick at Druids that saw seven cars go off and the red flag come out. Once restarted it was Andy Jordan who was quick to take the initiative, but Plato soon hunted him down to take an unlikely victory at the first meeting of the 2012 season.
Three different winners from the first three races then, and already the championship was shaping up to be a close one as the series moved on to Donington Park.
After the disappointments of Brands Hatch, Mat Jackson was quick to become a fourth different winner, despite initially losing out to Rob Collard's fast starting BMW. It was a dominant win, and a sign that Jackson – a championship contender since entering the series in 2007 – will once again be a man to watch as the year progresses. But overall, it was Gordon Shedden's weekend. After a disastrous opening round at Brands Hatch that didn't even seen him in the top ten in the championship standings – he rebounded with a second place in race one. The order was reversed in the second race, with Gordon taking his first win of the season and Matt Neal following him home in second place, with Jackson third.
The final race of the day ended in typical BTCC controversy. Despite a reverse grid draw, Mat took his second win of the season on the road at least, until post-race checks found a technical infringement on his car and he was stripped of his victory. Meanwhile, a last corner tap by Jason Plato saw a furious Shedden demoted from second to third. However, a two second penalty was given to Plato, reversing the order, meaning that Gordon had somehow ended up taking his second win of the season!
Without pausing for breath, we then moved to a very wet Thruxton. Who was talented enough to succeed in such appalling conditions at the fastest circuit in the UK?
Answer – Shedden. Once again, the Scot was on great form – dominating both practice sessions and should have been on the front row of the grid in qualifying, but checks found his turbo had been over boosting and meant all his times had been disallowed. With little time to set a quick flag after a lengthy red flag thanks to Plato, it meant he'd line up only eighteenth. It was even worse for defending champion Neal who damaged his car earlier in the session and would start twentieth.
It was Jackson then, who made the most of the bad conditions in race one as the Honda's charged up the field, with Newsham impressing again with second place and Plato third in a rain shortened race. For the rest of the day however, it was the Gordon Shedden show. He took a convincing win after starting sixth place with Plato second and Jackson third this time. Gordon would win again in the last race of the day despite starting ninth on the reverse grid draw and was backed up with Neal finishing a strong second. Frank Wrathall meanwhile, benefitted in the difficult conditions to take his first podium of the year with third place.
After nine races of the championship then, Jason Plato leads – but only just, with Shedden four points back. After finishing third in the championship in 2010, and second last season, “Flash” could be the one they all have to beat this year, and could become the first Scottish champion since John Cleland in 1995.
There's still an awful long way to go in this year's BTCC championship, and no doubt plenty more thrills and spills to come. But if determination alone won you the championship, Gordon's already got one hand on the trophy.