Casting your eye over everything that has happened so far in the 2012 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is a challenge.
This season has been something of a breath of fresh air for the series, and we've seen representatives from Honda, MG, BMW, Ford, Audi, Proton and Toyota fighting for podium places.
After last season, when the first introduction of the new Next Generation Touring Car threw up plenty of controversy, 2012 has seen the tried-and-tested S2000s take the fight to the new batch of NGTC motors. As a result, the racing has been breathless and often unpredictable.
When the first grid of the season formed for the traditional curtain-raiser at Brands Hatch, nobody could have predicted who would lead the cars into 2012, let alone the polesitter himself.
“It was a case of 'well, at least I'm on the grid',” recalls Dave Newsham, who had been worried his budget would stop him from getting a drive in 2012. “To turn up and get pole position at Brands Hatch, that was just incredible. You just don't expect that – a tiny little team, a tiny little budget, in an old car – it's just kind of unheard of isn't it?”
Incredible, but the Team ES Racing.com man's great opening race was cut short. Jason Plato, in a brand-new MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 few had expected to challenge at the front in its debut, made an ambitious attempt to wrest the lead from the Scot into Paddock Hill Bend and the ensuing contact sent the Vauxhall Vectra off into the gravel trap. As it was, Rob Collard came through to take the opening win of the season for the older specs in his eBay Motors BMW, ahead of Matt Neal in Honda Yuasa Racing's new NGTC Honda Civic, and the second BMW of Tom Onslow-Cole.
Neal would go one better in race two, besting Plato after a long fight, to deliver the first series victory for a new NGTC car, while Andrew Jordan's Pirtek Racing Honda locked out the podium places for the new regulation motors. Plato would leave the circuit with the championship lead though, as victory in the final race of the day ahead of Jordan and an impressive, recovering Newsham, gave him a four-point cushion ahead of defending champion Neal.
It may have appeared business as usual, but it was anything but. Neal himself noted the competition was fiercer than he'd ever previously seen at the opening round, and Newsham and Collard had shown the S2000s were going to be a force as the big teams got to grips with the cars and the new regulations. Heading to Donington, who was going to win was anyone's guess.
Round two started with NGTC domination, as Plato, Neal, Shedden and Jordan filled the front two rows. However, it was Mat Jackson's Redstone Racing Ford Focus ST who crossed the line first, before adding a third-place finish in the second race behind Gordon Shedden, opening his account for the year, and Neal in the second Honda. Jordan could only manage 5th, with Plato recording a DNF, meaning six of the top ten were older-spec cars. Shedden won again in race three, but only after Jackson was excluded for exceeding the boost limit in his Ford and Plato was demoted to second after getting a time penalty, and this time it was Tony Gilham who took the final podium spot in his Team HARD. Honda Civic S2000.
Plato's four-point lead over Neal remained intact after the second round of the championship, but the racing was becoming increasingly difficult to call – Shedden's win in race two had made it five winners in five races.
To Thruxton, then, the fastest track on the calendar. And to make things more challenging, monumental rainfall hit the Hampshire circuit. In atrocious conditions, it was Mat Jackson who mastered the conditions to take his second win of the season after first corner contact between polesitter Andrew Jordan and Jason Plato had sent the Pirtek Honda in the barriers. Behind him Newsham beat Plato to second place in a race shortened following a hefty shunt for Liam Griffin, while the Yuasa Honda's of Shedden and Neal – who had qualified in 18th and 20th after individual dilemmas – had driven brilliantly to finish sixth and tenth.
Shedden's result set him up brilliantly and the Fife racer was the pick of the bunch as he won comfortably ahead of Plato, before pipping teammate Neal to victory in race three despite starting 9th on the reverse grid. Jackson was third in race two while Frank Wrathall was on the podium in the final race of the day. Plato's results – third, second and fourth – meant he was still four points to the good at the head of the championship, but now it was Shedden nipping at heels as the BTCC took a break before the fourth round at Oulton Park.
As the championship moved to Cheshire, the Hondas had made a breakthrough at a test at Pembrey. Neal reflects: “To start with the cars were quite a handful and hard work to drive, but we turned a corner around Oulton time after a good test at Pembrey and they are a different beast all together now.”
And so it proved. Neal took two wins at Oulton in races ones and three, sandwiching another win for Flash in race two, as the Civics looked unbeatable. Plato, who had taken pole again, missed the first race after a fault was discovered with the suspension weld but recovered to take a third and a second, but had now lost his lead in the title fight. Shedden, with five wins to his name from just 12 races, was the new leader, five ahead of teammate Neal and a further seven in front of the lead MG.
Honda's impressive run continued in the opening two races at Croft. Neal edged out Rob Collard in the opener, the BMWs excelling once again in Yorkshire, to propel himself into a temporary championship lead before Shedden regained top spot with victory in race two ahead of his teammate and Rob Austin. Plato ended the seven-race winning streak for the Civics with a comfortable win ahead of Onslow-Cole and Andrew Jordan, to claw back some much-needed points in the championship.
Neal's fourth place finish was enough to give him the slenderest of leads as the championship headed into the summer break, one point ahead of Shedden. Plato's win kept the Hondas in sight but is 29 points behind the 2011 champion.
The development of the lead NGTC cars means the second-half of the campaign is set up to be a straight fight between the Yuasa teammates and Plato's MG. Rob Collard and Andrew Jordan are neck-and-neck in the fight for fourth, just ahead of Onslow-Cole and Mat Jackson, but further back the fight is extremely close.
16 points separates Brands poleman Newsham in 8th and Lea Wood in 14th. Austin, currently 12th, is one many expected to challenge at the front in the second season in his Audi A4, but a variety of problems mean he's been restricted to just seven points finishes. Dan Welch's Proton is another to have shown promise but languishes down in 16th.
It is anyone's guess who will win, and anyone's guess who will battle for top ten places. The opening 15 races have provided great action and the coming races have plenty to live up to. But as we enter the half of the season where, as Neal says, “the gloves get taken off”, 2012 promises to deliver.