Let’s get one thing straight: the BTCC will never have another era as spectacular as Supertouring in the 1990s. Never again will up to 9 manufacturers be in one series, spending ever-increasing thousands on R&D and hiring drivers from around the world. End of story. So how do you recreate the action of those heady days when the manufacturers are reluctant to come and play? Do you do a NASCAR and implement a stupid playoff format? Or sacrifice good racing and spectacle in order to be ‘relevent’, like F1?
Nope. You reconnect the series with its roots as a series where anyone can take a family saloon, build a racecar fairly cheaply, and go racing competitively.
And boy, has it paid off for the BTCC.
There were storylines aplenty emerging from the first rounds of the 2014 season at Brands Hatch, a circuit that has become both the perfect curtain-raiser and curtain-closer for the BTCC circus – a twisty crucible that rolls up and down like a mini Nurburgring. And in amongst the record 30-strong grid were a host of characters with stories to tell.
There was a sense of deja vu amongst the top order for the weekend, with the same five championship contenders as last season usually in the mix. None more so than at the sharp end, where reigning champion Andrew Jordan started fast out of the blocks with a pole and 2 wins, before slipping to 13th in race 3 after problems with the soft tire. Interestingly, Jordan and his independent team have stayed with the Civic hatchback whilst the factory team have moved to the estate (station wagon to US readers) and the additional agility this smaller, more squat body appears to give was used to great effect. He also gains bonus points for an epic save at the first corner in Race 1, somehow not even losing the lead in the process. All in a day’s work for the genial Jordan.
Speaking of Honda Yuasa Racing, they took a bold gamble by switching from the proven Civic hatchback to the estate. Generally estates haven’t worked – see Volvo in 1994 – but it made no difference as Matt Neal finished top-5 in all three races, two of them podiums, and teammate Gordan Shedden wasn’t far behind. This was consider a weak circuit for the tail-happy estate, so one wonders if we should be worried of another Honda walkover. It will be fascinating to see if a team can step up and really match the Honda teams over the course of a season – MG still look fast but inconsistent, with Jason Plato and Sam Tordoff flirting with good finishes all weekend, and West Surrey Racing BMWs are still led by Colin Turkington alone, who took the race 3 victory.
So who will step up to the plate? Could the BTCC unearth its own Austin Dillon or Kyle Larson, a future superstar? Like NASCAR, the BTCC has a very talented rookie class this season, and Ginetta graduate Tom Ingram put in a stirling shift for the one-car Speedworks Toyota team, taking top-10s in the first two races before wrecking out of race 3. Hunter Abbot kept his head down and netted some points in his first starts for the Rob Austin Racing outfit, whilst British GT convert Glynn Geddie showed flashes of pace for the new United Autosport team. On the other hand, the much-touted Marc Hynes (you know, the guy who beat Jenson Button) struggled in a third MG, with his only notable achievement being a DQ from race 2 after dumping fellow struggling rookie Martin Depper. There is no tougher proving ground for young talent in world motorsport than the mid-pack of the BTCC, but with rookies like Ingram, Abbot, Geddie and more going alongside already proven young talent in Jack Goff, Aron Smith and more, the BTCC is in good stead.
Speaking of Rob Austin, how badly does this guy deserve a top-tier drive? Or at the least a bit of luck? The plucky owner-driver has become renown for his swashbuckling performances, and after a brilliant 5th in race 1 from an 11th starting spot, he fell victim to a driveshaft failure in race 2. It was almost worth this piece of misfortune to watch his epic drive from 28th to 11th in race 3 – in a 27-lap race on a 48-second circuit, passing 17 cars is staggering. Every motorsport prides itself on maverick, exciting characters, and whilst his character and charisma have drawn comparisons with the legendary James Hunt, Austin’s on-track performances put me more in mind of Shane Van Gisbergen – balls-to-the-wall do-or-die stuff.
But he wasn’t the only one doing the charging.
Arguably the story of the weekend was the battle of the two returning legends of BTCC. Alain Menu was voted (by fellow drivers) best touring car driver of the 1990s in a poll by Autosport magazine, and for the current generation of fans, the fiery Giovanardi is his 2000s equivalent. Both were fascinating to watch; Giovanardi was visibly unhappy with his Motorbase Ford, but still hung tough for a top-10 in race 2. Menu however, was hugely impressive. Team BMR undoubtedly signed him to help with driver development, and with his young teammates Smith and Goff both also scoring good finishes this appears to be already paying off. But crucially, he has always been able to get cars punching way above their weight, and build a team into championship contenders – from Renault, to Ford, to Chevrolet in the WTCC. The results don’t back up his on-track performances – despite loosing 3 laps in race 1 after a spin, he still passed nearly a 1/3 of the field. He was only just warming up. Race 2 he moved from 27th to 16th, before storming right up to 5th in race 3 – beating two of the Honda giants in the process. With his experience and raw speed, the four-car Team BMR outfit could be the coming force in BTCC. And don’t be surprised to see the ultimate old stager scrapping at the sharp end very soon – it’s the only place he knows.
What was fascinating to watch on the opening weekend was the intensity up and down the field – drivers put their cars and reputations on the line time and again whether they were fighting for 1st or 21st. There was a tangible sense of a huge amount of teams and drivers all scrapping for glory with a white-hot intensity that makes F1 look like a Sunday afternoon cruise. No, the manufacturer levels of involvement aren’t back, but the same urgency and electric energy as the supertouring era is back in BTCC.
And that is something to get truly excited about.
Tags: Alain Menu Andrew Jordan Brands Hatch British Touring Car Championship BTCC Colin Turkington Eurotech Racing Gordan Shedden Honda Honda Yuasa Racing Jason Plato Matt Neal MG Popular Rob Austin Sam Tordoff Team BMR Tom Ingram