With engines set to fire up today for the start of the BTCC season we'll get the first signals of where the balance of power stands at the beginning of a new era for Britain's premier racing series.
And it is exactly those engines that could very, very easily decide the 2011 championship – a little bit of a strange proposition in a series where races are more often decided by a last lap pass or an aggressive door-banging than the engineers in the pits.
The reason for this is the Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) turbocharged engine. After being picked up by only a handful of teams in 2010 the winter has seen seven more teams put the new engine in their cars, producing a dichotomy that runs the length of the grid – from the would-be back markers to the teams and drivers expected to fight for the title.
The effect the engine will have on the performance of cars is a hot topic in the BTCC paddock, and when www.thecheckeredflag.co.uk spoke to drivers on both sides of the divide in the build up to the season the importance they give to the engine that will pull (or push in the RWD BMWs and Audis) their car along is clear to see.
All seem to be agreed that there is a speed advantage, though you don't need to be a driver to grasp that, only witnessed the power of the Team Aon Focuses in a straight line.
Jason Plato – the reigning champion whose Silverline Chevrolet have opted to remain with the S2000-spec powerplant – puts the turbo advantage in initial acceleration out of the corners, though he insists that top speed is very similar between the normally aspirated and turbocharged cars.
However, one of the many drivers who has jumped on the turbo-wagon over the off-season, Tom Boardman, says he has seen his speed though speed traps – which measure terminal speed – in the Special Tuning SEAT pick up by 10kmp/h in testing with the new engine.
But, a switch to the NGTC is not all sweetness and light, and perhaps no man is better placed to describe the potential problems than Honda Racing Team driver Matt Neal – the double champion who leads the turbo charge on the 2011 title.
“There's a great advantage, but there's also disadvantages,” he says. “With the engine braking, I know the Aon guys went on about it last year and I was like everybody else going 'oh, yea, yea they can brake fine' but it really is tricky.”
“Then you've got the extra weight of the engine – the new engine is 30kgs heavier and then that weight so you've got to try and loose the weight and that weight is over the front end so your weight distribution's all gone to pot so there is a multitude of things and then you've got the heat issue – it's only a small engine bay in there and that turbos running 1000°C and that's only six inches away from the cylinder head which is aluminium and that melts at 600 so and it's only 12 inches away from my feet,” he adds, describing parts of the engine going transparent with heat.
The issue of weight distribution could be critical in how the NGTC cars perform during races – as opposed to the short blasts of qualifying. Firstly, it forces team to start anew with set-up data, Neal even suggesting that he and teammate (and fellow title hopeful) Gordon Shedden has had to adapt their driving styles around the capabilities of the new motor.
Then there is the issue of tyre degradation.
From 2010 is was clear that while the turbocharges cars had the power, they also had the propensity to slip back as the race wore on – the season endured by Andrew Jordan (one of the few to take the new engine at the first time of asking) is testament to that as time and time again he powered to a promising position, only to fall away as the front tyres on his Vectra cried mercy after too many laps of coping with the pressure of steering and coping with the torque delivered by the engine.
If any turbocharged team what to be potential race winners every race of every round they need to overcome this problem.
Tom Chilton, another man who has experience of turbocharged power, says that Team Aon's new Ford Focus features changes to the suspension the team putting what it learned last year into the new car.
Each of the new teams now has to come up against the problems that Chilton, Jordan and the other pioneers faced last year and have already found solutions for.
That fact sets up an interesting season. Not only will the balance of power swing back and forth from track to track and week to week with the tinkering of performance balancing, but it offers up the prospect of a season of two halves – the first favouring the S2000 runners, the second the NGTC drivers as their teams get to grips with the new technology. It also gives fans of the series the prospect of a battle within a battle as the new engine shuffles the pecking order of teams, as Plato – an interested observer of this battle – explains.
“Between the turbo cars it's going to be an interesting fight to see who sorts his car out the quickest,” he says. “It's going to be interesting to see how they fight amongst themselves to see who comes out in terms of being the force. I predict it will be Honda because I know some of the people there, they've got some very good staff and Matt, they're good at what they do – probably the best in that environment at trying to develop a car than any others.”
The period it takes the NGTC drivers to adapt to their also puts new importance on the opening rounds of the championship. While some of the S2000 runners further down the grid have hopes of capitalising and picking up what Geoff Steel Racing team manager Martyn Bell calls “cheap results” those further up the grid, such as Tech–Speed and Silverline have to be looking at months of April and May as a chance to gain a hold in their campaigns for the independents' and overall titles respectively.
“If I'm honest we need to get up the road and while I predict they'll be struggling,” says Plato. “Because when they get their car working better which they will do they're going to be quick and they're going to be hard to overtake if not impossible because down every straight they're going to go”
“We've got to win at Brands Hatch, we've got to win at Thruxton we've got to win at Donington. We have to score some really good points. The prefect start would I'd want two wins at Brands, two wins at Thruxton and Donington. That'll be the dream start to the year and then some good, solid top-five finishes in race three at each of the first three meetings. We've got to make hay now whilst we're at an advantage in that we sort of understand the equipment.”
The three races at Brands Hatch many be the first rounds of the season, but they will also be some of the most important.
If Plato can pick up the two wins he wants then it's a very successful start to the season, if Sunday evening sees an NGTC powered Neal, Sheddon, Chilton (or anyone else) leading in points the defending champion, he implies, could easily be looking at losing his title already.
In 2011 engines really are that important.