Before the 2011 season started I, on this very website, suggested that the destination of the British Touring Car crown had already been decided by the choice of engines that faced the top teams – to stay with normally aspirated S2000 powerplant, or switch to the NGTC turbocharged unit.
Vindication for that point of view took only until the qualifying session for the season opener at Brands Hatch, when Matt Neal's turbocharged Honda Civic started a string of pole for the works Honda team that only ended at Croft in June.
Neal's joy was short lived, as the BTCC returned to form only two corners into the new season when the double champion was pushed into the gravel trap by Alex MacDowall. That allowed MacDowall's teammate – and defending champion – Jason Plato through to win from third on the grid, before he added a second win in race two – doing exactly what the Silverline Chevrolet driver believed he had to do to get his title defence off to a successful start, but race three gave a glimpse of the power of the turbocharge cars.
The randomly selected grid reversal gave Matt Neal back the pole position, but more crucially plunged Plato back into the pack, surrounded by turbocharged cars. For the first time old and new spec were side by side, and while Neal was taking a first win of the year Plato was left frustrated, Mat Jackson able to pull away in the turbocharged Focus. The battle lines had been drawn.
The following round at Donington Park only confirmed suspicions as the turbos dominated and Plato struggled. Forced, he said, into overdriving the car to keep pace with the new spec car he picked up a puncture in race one, before barrel rolling spectacularly out of race two after lap contact with series rookie Liam Griffin. Only a superhuman effort by the RML squad lending the weekend some sort of redemption by repairing the car in time for the day's final race in order to score some points.
While Plato suffered, the turbocharged teams shone. Matt Neal added to his Brands win while Andrew Jordan and Mat Jackson won ahead of the chaos that reigned at Donington Park.
The obvious advantage of the turbocharged cars gave TOCA a problem, and began the process of performance levelling, with boost pressure lowered before the following round at Thruxton, with weight breaks for the S2000-engined cars coming in before the series reach Oulton Park.
The engine dilemma continues to cause controversy. Plato continues to struggle for form – only having won twice after Brands Hatch – once each at Thruxton and Oulton Park – and grab the headlines with his post-race comments as much as his driving. Plato's accusations that the speed of the turbocharged cars, reappeared after he crashed out at Thruxton, but it was after his win at Oulton Park that he surprised everyone, continuing to protest despite having inherited the win when Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden clashed on the final corner of the final lap.
That blip aside the two Honda's continue to be the cars to beat, two wins at Croft to close the first half of the season helping Matt Neal to keep the points lead at the head of five NGTC powered entrants, including Triple Eight's James Nash who led the championship, and looked on course to take a maiden BTCC win, after Donington Park but seems to have be hit more than most by the ever increasing squeeze on the turbocharged cars.
Three times a winner thus far this year Mat Jackson lies second for Airwaves Racing in the year old Ford Focus, while Team Aon have found the going more difficult with the new 'global' Focus. The team swelled to three drivers after one of the more surprising moves of the season so far. AmD Milltek Racing's 2011 season was ticking all the necessary boxes, the VW Golf running team taking their first points in the second Donington race.However, an unexpected but amicable separation moved driver Tom Onslow-Cole back to his 2010 home at Team Aon, and left an open seat in the Volkswagen. 2010 driver turned team principal Shaun Hollamby took over the car at short notice for Croft, former Clio Cup champion Martin Byford now set to join the rookie class of 2011 for the second half of the season.The other rookies have had mixed results.
Both Tony Gilham and Jeff Smith enjoyed points scoring starts at Brands, as Liam Griffin suffered a no less memorable, but much more inauspicious start to the year, crashing into Rob Collard on the warm-up lap before the season opener.The fortunes of Collard and rookie teammate Nick Foster have been tied to the changing technical regulations. The BMW, already looking off the pace in 2010 was struggling to break into the top ten early in 2011, but a decrease in minimum weight and the removal of the restrictions on gear ratios have made the rear-wheel drive cars potential race winners – especially on a damp track – as Collard and Foster showed at Oulton and Croft as the two WSR drivers finished second and third in the final race at Croft, Foster scoring second place – the best finish for a rookie so far this year.
The rookie cars have been less fortunate, with both full NGTC spec Toyotas plagued by teething problems. Both the Dynojet and Speedworks entries have steadily improved since their faltering start in early April. Dynojet man Frank Wrathall shares the best finish for for the new cars – twelfth – with Rob Austin, who has become the lone regular driver for his own team in the Audi A4.
British Touring Car Championship standings after Round 15
|1||Matt Neal||Honda Racing Team||140|
|2||Mat Jackson||Airwaves Racing||131|
|3||Gordon Shedden||Honda Racing Team||120|
|4||Andrew Jordan||Pirtek Racing||111|
|5||James Nash||Triple Eight||104|
|6||Jason Plato||Silverline Chevrolet||100|
|8||Tom Chilton||Team Aon||64|
|9||Alex MacDowall||Silverline Chevrolet||47|
|11||Tom Boardman||Special Tuning Racing||31|
|13||Jeff Smith||Pirtek Racing||12|
|14||Tony Gilham||Triple Eight||12|
|15||Tom Onslow-Cole||AmD Milltek Racing / Team Aon||10|
|16||Andy Neate||Team Aon||9|
|17||Dave Newsham||Geoff Steel Racing / Special Tuning Racing||9|
|18||Lea Wood||Central Group Racing||4|
|19||Liam Griffin||Airwaves Racing||2|
|22||Rob Austin||Rob Austin Racing||0|
|23||Chris James||Team ES Racing||0|
|24||Shaun Hollamby||AmD Milltek Racing||0|
As with the first half of the season, the second half of the season, which starts at Snetterton on August 7, will put any changes to the balance of performance centre stage. While it though that the teams with new engines for 2011 would need time to challenge for wins, they have been fast since the first weekend. Still, alongside any changes TOCA make, the teams will be making their own changes, perhaps bringing new teams and names to the podium.
TCF's Three To Watch
1. Matt Neal – Championship leader, three times the fastest qualifier, once the man who took out his teammate. Neal has had an eventful first half of the season with a win tally that puts him on pace for a third title
2. Mat Jackson – A man reborn. A dismal season in off-the-pace BMWs in 2010 has given way to a season that has already given up three wins. He enters the second half of the season as Neal's closest rival, but will need more than reverse grid wins to continue to challenge.
3. Frank Wrathall – The benchmark for the full-NGTC entrants. Already lauded as a future champion if the Dynojet squad can carry on improving the first points for the Lancastrian are not far away. A car and driver of the future.