Was it really that long ago Gordon Shedden was crowned 2012 British Touring Car champion? It certainly doesn’t feel like five months have passed since the popular Scot claimed a maiden title triumph, or Aron Smith and Frank Wrathall earned their first BTCC wins.
Cast your mind back to the finale at Brands Hatch last October and think about the season we’d just witnessed. Maiden wins for several drivers, more teams committing to the series’ Next Generation Touring Car, new top dogs in the Independents’ class and the outright championship – as well as the odd outburst or political spat along the way.
Many will point to 2009 as the year the BTCC regained a lot of the momentum lost through the noughties. But there are plenty of reasons to believe 2013 will be the year the championship gets back to near its very best.
The manufacturer support of the 1990s may be long gone (only Honda and MG have ‘works’ efforts, as was the case in 2012) but the bumper grid (32 registered, though not all will show at the same time), the 26 cars committed to the NGTC regulations, and the four champions in the field mean this year could, and should, be the best since ‘the good old days’.
Joining the works efforts at the front will be the NGTC machines self-built by West Surrey Racing and Motorbase – exactly what the new regs were supposed to inspire. Add to that the ever-present Andrew Jordan and mighty-looking Toyotas and there’s a big pool of potential race-winners this weekend at Brands Hatch. Take your pick from the talent on offer – Shedden, Plato, Turkington, Neal, Collard, Jackson, Smith, Newsham, Austin, Tordoff, Onslow-Cole, Wrathall – the list goes on.
Of course, there are some aspects of the ‘new-look’ BTCC which will not sit well with purists. The boost equalisation system remains, though altered slightly from the 2012 method, which applied to each model, to being applied to either teams or drivers. It’s not one for traditionalists – turning the championship into a spectacle rather than a competition to see who is quickest – but it has made the field more competitive and spiced up racing.
The introduction of a new softer tyre will be very interesting, and perhaps offers a better barometer of team/driver ability because of the sudden introduction of strategy and tyre-management – two things which the championship has been lacking.eyond the fact that there are four champions in the field (there were in 2009 – Plato, Neal, Giovanardi and, at six rounds, Thompson) – the strength-in-depth of the class of 2013 is the most impressive it’s been for years. There are 11 race-winners in the field this season, alongside the 2012 British GT champion, former single-seater front-runners and younger tin-top talents landing full-time drives, too.
There’s also reason to be optimistic that driving standards – so often a sore point with motorsport fans – will be significantly better in 2013. As ever, there is nothing wrong with close, hard, sometimes physical competition – after all, “rubbing’s racing” – but too many times last year drivers – often frustrated and penalised with the differences in boost allowance – would resort to contact to make a move. We’ll never get away from the sort of Cleland-on-Rydell love-taps at Clearways or Druids but the adoption of a new penalty system for 2013 means drivers will certainly think twice before making all-or-nothing moves. If a driver receive three penalties for on-track misdemeanors, they will be automatically relegated six grid places.
The usual political wrangles that come with top-tier motorsport are beginning to rear their heads – rival teams fear the rear-wheel drive machines of WSR and Rob Austin Racing will be very competitive early on: because they’ve been given “rule breaks” which will allow them to hit the ground running by losing the usual RWD performance-balancing limitations.
Intrigue has been part of the BTCC for a long time. And while it isn’t perfect, this weekend’s opener will show just far it’s since the pitiful grid at the corresponding race in 2001. The days of the 90s – of manufacturers, superstars, and million-pound budgets – are a thing of the past but this year may well top any other since the turn of the millenium.
Pictures courtesy of Octane Photographic