With the British Touring Car Championship starting this weekend, as does its support series. While it might have gone into 2015 with minimal expectations, 2016 will be about maintaining the high standard for exciting racing that MSA Formula has grown to enjoy.
Last season saw the rise to fame of Lando Norris as the title battle between him and Ricky Collard culminated in a final round thriller. The success of the two young British stars will resonate throughout the 2016 field as they look to follow in Norris’ footsteps.
Like in 2015, the championship starts and ends at Brands Hatch, with one team already proving to be the benchmark. At the hands of Norris and Colton Herta, Carlin became the team to beat in 2015 and it looks like little has changed with the signing of James Pull. The Singaporean-born 16 year old was an early championship contender last year and picked up a few podiums before a mid-season slump saw him switch outfits.
“The team has been brilliant.” Pull commented after his switch to Carlin recently, “They are really professional about everything they do. I feel as though I’ve learnt so much, already. We have looked very fast in testing and with last year’s experience behind the wheel and of the tracks, we think we have a real chance of winning the Championship this season.”
He won’t be the only experienced driver in the team though, as former Ginetta Junior racer Devlin DeFrancesco joins the line-up. While many have hyped up his abilities pre-season, the Canadian brings minimal success outside of karting. Despite this, he’s been regularly within the top four during pre-season tests, suggesting this may be a turning year for him.
The same can be said about his team mates, as Carlin have been the team to beat around Rockingham and Brands Hatch. Completing the experienced Carlin crew are Max Fewtrell as well as Petru Florescu, who returns to the team after a mediocre 2015 campaign.
Despite his apparent lack of car knowledge, Fewtrell has become acclimatised rather quickly, while Florescu has topping a number of the sessions. With the experience they have, him and Pull are likely to be the men to beat in the early part of the season, but the rest of the MSA field aren’t going to roll over too easily.
While Carlin may seem to have had the measure of the opposition during testing, one team will once again want to put the pressure on, as TRS Arden have decided to field a mixed experience team.
They bring in two rookies in the form of Jack Martin and Ayrton Simmons. Like their rivals, they’ve decided to host a four car team, though Simmons will miss the first two rounds as he won’t turn fifteen until Thruxton. Both have already proven themselves though, becoming some of the quickest rookies throughout the tests.
Meanwhile Rafa Martins returns to the series after a strong end of season saw him claim two podiums and ninth in the overall standings. However; he’s failed to show the pace that many of expected from him so far in testing.
As a result it may be down to one driver to lead the charge for Arden. Pre-Season testing can tell an engineer a lot, especially compared to the opposition, but one driver who continued to make a name for himself in the early tests was Luis Leeds.
With Red Bull backing and a year’s experience in the Australian Formula 4 Championship, the TRS Arden Motorsports driver goes into the year as one of the favourites for the title. While he might have achieved sixth in his opening year in single seaters he isn’t the only Australian to come across from the partner series.
Zane Goddard, saw minimal success in 2015, but he’ll have a year’s experience with the Ford Eco-Boost machine just like podium finisher Harry Hayek.
While many of the smaller teams have failed to return for the second season, Jamun Racing will be making their debut with one of the most promising line ups on the grid. Hayek, who finished fourth in Australian series, even beating the highly anticipated Leeds, will be joined by Jamie Caroline, the defending Ginetta Junior champion.
2014 saw Norris win the rookie crown in Ginetta’s before going on to take the MSA title. As a result many have labelled Caroline as the favourite going into the year. Despite this, both Jamun drivers have been absent from some of the testing, something which may affect both of them in the early part of the championship.
Another driver who knows about disappointing seasons with high expectations is Sennan Fielding. The British hopeful had a mediocre season by his own standards, managing to claim fourth place overall, collecting three wins. As the highest place returning driver, all eyes will be on him as he looks to fight at the front.
When talking to TCF at the end of last year, Fielding said his lack of regular teammates held him back in the early part of the year. As a result three drivers now fill the JHR Developments squad with Jack Butel returning to the line up. They’re joined by Billy Monger, who impressed by taking fifth in Ginetta Juniors.
Continuing the list of Ginetta graduates is Frank Bird. However; failure to finish inside the top ten throughout the 2015 season will mean that there’ll be a serious mountain to climb for the fifteen year old.
He joins Fortec Motorsports, one of only three teams to have announced four drivers, they were also one of the few crews to have challenged Carlin in the tests with two drivers making a name for themselves.
The battle for the rookie championship proved to be almost as exciting as the main title battle last season, as it looks like it’ll be fought largely between the two Fortec drivers. Ross Martin topped a few of the timesheets and enters the year as a prize for winning Formula Kart Stars.
Meanwhile; Alex Quinn announced his intention quite early, becoming one the first rookies to be signed, as a result he’s had plenty of testing. The Racing Steps Foundation backed star has already topped a session at Rockingham and has regularly been the rookie to beat this winter. The four car team is rounded out by another rookie, Nicolai Kjærgaard.
Kjærgaard won’t be only Danish driver on the grid though, as Patrik Matthiesen completes the list of drivers moving up from Ginetta Juniors.
As the top Ginetta rookie in 2015, Matthiesen, like Caroline, will have a lot of pressure on him this year to perform. Though a lack of team mates may prove to be a problem for him as the season progresses and he aims to move further up the grid.
Completing the currently announced 2016 line-up will be experienced ADAC F4 racer, Carrie Schreiner. The German star isn’t planning to race a full season, but the experience will be vital for her as she plans to mount a serious challenge back home. She’ll partner Goddard at Double R Racing, who will value the input of another experienced racer, with the Australian hoping to make the most his opportunity for the title.
Notably though, a few teams have not decided to make any commitments for the following season. Richardson Racing, who fielded three different drivers at various points last year have only been seen at occasional MSA Formula tests with Ben Sturge at the wheel, however; he’s not confirmed his intention for the coming year.
MBM Motorsport and Martins’ former team, SWB Motorsport have both failed to appear, while Falcon Motorsport, the team who finished a race inside the top eight just once throughout the entire season have also not returned.
This doesn’t mean the grid will be empty though, with 20 drivers already announced, it remains similar to last year in what’s predicted to be an incredibly open championship.
As for the calendar, that’s barely changed. MSA remains loyal to BTCC and with the jump from Formula 4 to Formula 3 now clearly defined in the UK, it’s likely that we will once again be considered the place for young drivers around the world to compete. With almost half the grid from another country, the Nations Cup is likely to throw up another nail biting conclusion.
As for the main championship, testing would tell you to put your money on the Carlin drivers. However, past results would tell you that Fielding or Hayek are the men to beat. Both have not shown the times many were expecting from them and as a result Leeds or Quinn could yet lead their team to glory. Of course the Ginetta graduates should not be counted out either, as Caroline, Monger and Matthiesen look to disrupt the opposition.
Ford will once again be the Engine supplier giving an advantage to the experienced drivers