The Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship rolls into Leicester this weekend for rounds four, five and six of the season at Donington Park, where many questions remain unanswered.
The 2015 season kicked off with a bang at Brands Hatch, where the pecking order stayed as uncertain as it did when the BTCC cars took to the same Donington circuit for Media Day in March.
Matt Neal and Jack Goff enter as joint leaders of the championship, the latter thriving on his debut outing for Triple Eight Race Engineering while three-time champion Neal was left encouraged by the early double win for Honda’s new Civic Type-R.
The first of the two wins came from Gordon Shedden in race two, fending off the returning Andy Priaulx in a mad dash to the line as the former triple World Touring Car Champion starred on his comeback by grabbing pole position – leaving fourth in the standings.
Rob Collard also opened the season with a win in Sunday’s first race, although the weekend was so varied that fans left the circuit with more questions to ponder rather than answers after just one of the 10 meetings of 2015.
Tyre-some Headaches Initially
Teams also battled against the new regulations which produced differing opinions across the weekend. The combination of additional penalty ballast, race two grid system changes and each car’s performance on the softer compound tyre certainly mixed up the order, the former and latter both key talking points of the weekend.
Rear-wheel drive machines appeared to suffer more at Brands Hatch on the softer rubber, BMW more so than many as shown by the way that pole-sitter Priaulx slumped in race one, confirmed later by the fall from grace that Collard suffered in the second on the softer tyre.
Rob Austin held the lead for much of race three before degradation hit his Audi A4 harder than Neal and Goff’s front-wheel drive environments, the double race winner pointing to the colder track conditions for his early struggles while most of the rear-wheel drive competitors admitted to trouble gaining heat in the tyres prior to the lights going out.
Ultimately, this could waver from round to round, but front-wheel drive cars looked to handle their tyres better in race situations at the season opener. MG and Honda proved that, as did BMR Racing, although BMW did look strong later in the race when on the standard harder tyre as they have done in previous seasons.
Too Tight To Call
“Elated”, “Incredible”, “Astonishing”. These were a selection of words used by Neal and Shedden to describe Honda’s performance on the debut of the team’s new Civic at Brands Hatch, both collecting a win apiece at the Indy circuit.
This came as a shock to both, with testing very limited already for the new Type-R at such an early stage. The car did at times look a handful on Saturday and reliability took a hit in race three for Shedden, but both former BTCC champions pedaled the car up the field before pouncing when it mattered most.
At Media Day it was BMR Racing that held the cards in the truncated test session, Jason Plato and Colin Turkington showing their class in the Volkswagen CC by topping the times just five months after they jostled for the 2014 title at Brands Hatch GP circuit last October.
Expect both to be among the front-runners once again this weekend, Plato unlucky not to be already a race winner this season after a shard of debris punctured his left-front Dunlop while comfortably leading race two in Kent two weekends ago.
The double BTCC champion languishes in 13th in the championship standings as a result but, like BMR team boss Warren Scott, Plato remains confident in the performance of the CC as he beds into his new environment. On the other hand, Turkington admitted to still struggling with the rear axle during his adaptation back to front-wheel drive machinery for the first time since 2006, but the reigning champion sits sixth in the table having still grabbed a podium finish.
Their team-mate, Aron Smith, was the real star for Volkswagen however. The Irishman’s brace of podium finishes left him heading to Donington just a point adrift of series leaders Neal and Goff, Smith telling TCF afterwards that he is a confident man behind the wheel.
Triple Eight meanwhile looked strong as an all-round package, the MG6 GT handling the softer tyres better than anyone when Goff wore them in race one, before the #31 machine came narrowly short of victory in the third outing.
The former Renault UK Clio Cup champion impressed all weekend by out-scoring his team-mate Andrew Jordan, the 2013 BTCC champion suffering mechanical woes on Saturday before a race three collision with Austin’s Audi scuppered a potential podium opportunity.
West Surrey Racing and BMW again looked capable, despite pre-season regulation changes aimed towards them adding extra headaches to overcome. Priaulx’s pole position and Collard’s race one victory showed the car’s strengths, plus both Collard and Sam Tordoff both admitted that the 125i M-Sport felt comfortable on longer runs at the Donington test in March.
Field Set To Grow
The field should grow by two cars, with Dan Welch set for a return after sitting out Brands Hatch with a broken foot. Andy Wilmot was present at Kent, but mechanical gremlins with his Proton Gen-2 kept him out of action on the Sunday.
Also missing at Brands was the second Infiniti Q50 of Richard Hawken, who is set to make his BTCC debut this weekend at Donington alongside Derek Palmer Jr.
Timetable And Weather Reports
The 1.96-mile strip of Donington Park tarmac is a favourite among race fans in the UK and drivers alike, often prone to a frenetic finish to a BTCC race down the years as was proven by Turkington and Shedden last season.
The long sweeps and high-speed sections at the Leicestershire track tend to suit an aerodynamic package, Volkswagen and MG likely to profit while BMW admit to struggling on top-end speed. Honda’s Neal will suffer from 75kg penalty ballast initially, while the likes of Tom Ingram and Adam Morgan will bid to continue their impressive performances.
Early weather reports predict a dry weekend for the second event of the season, however if media day is anything to go by, the forecast is likely to change.
Free practice one – 10:00
Free practice two – 12:50
Qualifying – 15:35
Race one – 11:32
Race two – 14:27
Race three – 17:17
TCF’s Dan Mason and Simon Paice will bring you all the action from the BTCC and support championship paddocks at Donington, which you can keep up to date with right here at www.thecheckeredflag.co.uk, or via Twitter at @tcfBTCC.