The pre-season talking stops this weekend and the real action begins at Brands Hatch, as the 2014 British Touring Car Championship roars into life with a bursting of hype surrounding it, largely thanks to seven champions now gracing the grid…
Current champion Andrew Jordan added his name to the illustrious list of BTCC champions last season, and will this year test himself against six who have achieved the same.
Gordon Shedden, Jason Plato, Matt Neal and Colin Turkington again take up the fight, but they will be joined on that front by two spoilers hogging the limelight, as Alain Menu and Fabrizio Giovanardi enter the picture.
Overall, a combined tally of 262 BTCC race victories since 1991 come from these seven competitors alone, besides 12 championship titles. With the hype fully delivered, who would enter the 2014 season in best shape of the magnificent seven?
We at The Checkered Flag decipher their strengths ahead of the new season which is keeping everybody guessing – including the drivers themselves…
Andrew Jordan (2013)
2013 DNFs: 1
The current BTCC champion. In 2013, Andrew Jordan transformed into a complete touring car driver by adding consistency and awareness to his alarming speed and well-illustrated car control, homed from Rallycross success.
The 24-year-old showed more maturity than all his experienced rivals to earn the #1 plate for the first time and add his name to the prestigious champions list amid emotional scenes at Brands Hatch last year.
The speed is still improving as pre-season testing has shown, and Jordan’s uncanny knack of maintaining strong results with penalty ballast aboard the Pirtek Racing Honda Civic make him the man to beat heading into the new season as he aims for back-to-back titles, especially should that consistency continue.
The team also look to still have the best tool for the job in the hatchback Honda Civic, which was challenged last year more so than in 2012 but will still have the early advantage over the works team’s new Tourer.
“I’ve been busy, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to a great season again. Obviously I want to go for back-to-back championships but it’s going to be difficult with some many coming into the championship.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way though, and with this calibre of grid it’s pretty exciting.”
Matt Neal (2005, 2006, 2011)
2013 non-scores: 3
The most experienced driver on the BTCC grid having been in the sport since 1991, Matt Neal is still as competitive as ever heading into 2014 his his family Team Dynamics squad, who enter the new season turning heads with their striking Honda Civic Tourer.
After Shedden upped the ante two seasons ago, Neal has raised his game significantly and will no doubt save his finest hour for a season a tough as the one about to commence.
Neal looked the man to beat halfway through last season having played a genius card of evading trouble and picking up the wins at the right times, but a disastrous Rockingham round sparked by an uncharacteristic error on a race one restart was the killer blow for the triple champion.
Stating that his well-documented hand injury – picked up following the summer break last season – is no longer affecting his time behind the wheel of the new Honda, expect Neal to feel completely free of pressure and be a consistent threat for the championship once again.
“We’ve learnt a huge amount every time we’ve gone out and have made a lot of progress, which is really positive. I’m confident we’ve turned a corner now and have rounded off a few of the sharp edges. As to Brands Hatch, obviously the opposition is looking pretty strong at the moment, and there are a huge number of drivers who are likely to be sparring up at the sharp end of the grid. It’s shaping up to be the most competitive season in BTCC history.”
Gordon Shedden (2012)
Debut: 2001 (Production class)
Starts: 225 (+26 Production class starts)
2013 non-scores: 5
Devilishly quick since his full-time visit to the top class of BTCC in 2006, Shedden has spent the majority of that time at Team Dynamics, with Matt Neal partnering the Scot for six of those eight years in one of the most harmonic driver rapports within the paddock, something Shedden consistently outlined over the winter.
Shedden’s lightning pace has since made him the man within the works Honda team to beat following his near-miss to Neal in 2011, turning the tables the following year before being denied back-to-back championships potentially by five disappointing results in 2013 that Shedden still rues.
The Scot’s success in 2014 will come down to the new Honda Civic Tourer which he and Neal will now pilot at Britain’s circuits, although promising pace and development in progress from the Media Day show that Shedden’s similar outright speed and car control to Jordan could be showcased once again.
“This time last year I was immediately reminded that I was the previous year’s champion, but you realise that last year is gone and another championship lies ahead.
“We’ve brought something completely new into the picture with the Honda Civic Tourer, and I think that the car is going to become iconic. It looks so different to everything else; we’ve been testing with it since February, and I think we’ve got something different, something exciting and Honda have been known to push the boundaries and try something new and that’s exactly what we are going to do.”
Jason Plato (2001, 2010)
2013 non-scores: 5
2013 saw Jason Plato finish third overall for the third consecutive BTCC season. This pattern could almost have been broken on each occasion however, but for a mysteriously lack of pace for the MG6 GT during the mid-point of last season preventing him from achieving that in October, having picked up the most wins of any driver last year with eight.
The crucial improvement for Plato and MG is the team’s development towards allowing the car to handle the damp conditions more swimmingly (excuse the shoddy pun), which was demonstrated in the final trio of sodden Brands Hatch encounters when both himself and team-mate Sam Tordoff were untouchable for the first half of Sunday.
Plato is prone to a strong start to the season, and to finally become a three-time champion in a season as competitive and unpredictable as the one in store would be the sweetest of the bunch for the driver with the most wins in the sport’s history – Plato having never gone a season without a win to his name.
“We were a bit unlucky last year, but the mindset this year is very different. All of that gives us real confidence ahead of this season and as a team we’re a more organised and in the best position we’ve been to challenge for the title.
“We’ve got genuine manufactured developments coming through now, which we’ve never had before and in the past we’ve spent time in the off season trying to understand the car, but we have that information now and we also have a good wet setup too, which had previously been a big achilles heel for us.”
Colin Turkington (2009)
2013 non-scores: 3
This time 12 months ago, Colin Turkington was the man making all the pre-season BTCC headlines when he announced his return to the championship, following 1274 days out of the championship since he last won it during the memorable 2009 season finale at the same Kent circuit.
It took just six races for Turkington to return to winning ways at Donington Park, however it was the visit to Croft last year that was the real turning point for himself and the development of WSR’s BMW 1-Series, with a near hat-trick of race wins falling the Northern Irishman’s direction in a day full of all kinds of typically British weather conditions.
Towards the end of the season, the 31-year-old from Portadown became a championship contender once again, and ultimately a rough start, coupled with unfortunate incidents at Snetterton, Silverstone and Brands Hatch denied him that chance to challenge Jordan for overall and Independent title honours which were out of his hands.
This season however, a clean start would eradicate that problem, and a consistent year would back up the 2009 champion’s proven lightning pace to make him one of the pre-season favourites for 2014, experience very much now also on his side.
“The level of competition this year is extremely high. But it’s never easy in this championship, it’s never an easy year, so we just have to focus on our own car, and give the best performance each time. It’ll be good to win a race at the opening round, I have that surely in the forefront of my mind.”
Fabrizio Giovanardi (2007, 2008)
One of the most spectacular drivers to grace the BTCC, Giovanardi carries one of the most enviable touring car racing CVs known in the category, with just the mere nine championships across Italian, Spanish, British and European series to name.
The popular Italian, although not entirely renowned as the greatest qualifier during his venture in the British Touring Car Championship between 2006-10, is certainly one of the most difficult to beat when a race gets underway, having previously always kept himself in the picture for a strong result even when the script was altered during the action by an incident thanks to a mind for consistency since 2007 (See Snetterton 2008, race two for the finest example).
Not afraid to get his elbows out, Giovanardi’s prolific car control and outright skill will allow Motorbase to pull every ounce from their developed Ford Focus in 2014, although it may take a few encounters for the former double champion to find his groove in the talent-filled, physical arena once again as he adapts to a car very different to the Vauxhall Vectra.
“With four years out of this championship, it felt strange doing long distance races which isn’t really my style. When I had the chance to come back I was surprised. We’ve done pre-season testing and I was increasing my performance and working with the team to understand the car, which is completely different.
“I will try to bring my experience to the team. The car is difficult because before you had to run a standard car and then say what you need, but in the end I think that we will do a good job.”
Alain Menu (1997, 2000)
One of the biggest stories of the BTCC ‘silly season’ for 2014, the return of Alain Menu to the championship for his first full season since his championship-winning 2000 campaign is one that brings back further nostalgia to the British series, the Swiss driver having battled in DTM and the World Touring Car Championship ever since his previous venture to the UK series.
Menu’s true last appearance in BTCC however was a one-off trio of Thruxton races in 2007 to support Giovanardi to a maiden title, and his qualifying excellence was displayed in the Vauxhall Vectra on that occasion well enough to warrant a quick start for his comeback.
Warren Scott and BMR Racing have pulled one of the scoops of the season already, although Menu himself knows that success he will crave on UK soil again will take time in a still-developing Volkswagen Passat CC.
Menu, however, is certainly a name you would want to be in the driving seat of a developing machine, and his WTCC speed showed that the 50-year-old could still show the sport’s young blood a thing or two.
“I am excited to be back, mainly because I love racing and it’s still a passion for me. I was missing it and this was a great opportunity to come back in the UK and the British Touring Car Championship.
“The championship is on the up again so I think that it is a good time to come back, and I want to enjoy myself and hopefully win a few. I think that there will be more cars and drivers capable of winning races because of the rules, but, like I always said, any championship where you fight at the front is competitive, and this championship is very hard to win consistently.”
The 2014 British Touring Car Championship gets underway this weekend at Brands Hatch’s Indy circuit on 29/30 March, a place at which Neal holds the qualifying lap record of 48.210s around from 2011.
The circuit is also the happiest hunting ground for Plato, who leads the way in terms of wins at the circuit from the seven champions in question with 24, Neal next up on 13 ahead of Menu on seven, Giovanardi on five, Turkington on three and finally Shedden and Jordan both on one each despite both having won the title at this very circuit in the past two years.