After a long break, the British Touring Car Championship was back this weekend for the first rounds of the new season. What did our BTCC Correspondent make of proceedings? Read on for his views and driver ratings.
As the dust settles on the first BTCC weekend of the season, it has certainly raised a few interesting points. Matt Neal leads the championship, level on points with Jack Goff, from Aron Smith and Andy Priaulx after a Sunday that saw three different winners. Several sections of the media have described the action as ‘sensational’ and ‘brilliant.’ I wouldn’t go as far as that, solid, perhaps being a more apt adjective.
The Brands Hatch Indy Circuit has traditionally produced close racing and this weekend was no different. I will no doubt continue to complain every year until we don’t race on the Indy Circuit, but I just don’t enjoy a lap that is less than 50 seconds long with only 10 sections. There are other circuits out there that would be able to host a BTCC meeting, meaning we wouldn’t have to visit Brands twice, not that I have anything against Brands itself.
Andy Priaulx might not have raced in the BTCC at Brands for many a year, but he has of course visited since his last BTCC visit. It was evident from his pole qualifying position and his subsequent performances that he’s not here to make up the numbers, but he’s going to be a title contender. Many people, me included, may not have had him in our immediate contender thoughts, but this has obviously changed over the weekend. It’s hardly surprising considering his record of racing BMW touring cars and the fact he’s in last year’s title winning machine.
My title tips, Jason Plato and Colin Turkington, had a solid if yet unspectacular start to the season. The Volkswagen CCs already look better than last year in terms of pace with 3 of the 4 being in the top 4 for qualifying, but with Aron Smith leading the trio. Smith leads the way in championship within Team BMR too after the opening rounds, trailing Neal by a point. However, things would have been different if Plato hadn’t suffered a puncture when 4 seconds clear, despite have 57kg of ballast on board, with a few laps remaining in Race Two. Turkington had a solid start to life with his new team, securing 30 points on his opening weekend. He’ll get better, I’m sure of it, but things certainly look bright for Team BMR. I do worry however, that at some point they will trip over each other with 3 of the 4 being so closely matched. We’ll watch this space. One small complaint; the cars look pretty dull.
The Hondas however, look the same as usual in their traditional red and white livery and they’re as fast as usual too, or at least they are on the evidence of this weekend. Both Neal and Gordon Shedden were race victors in a car that isn’t even available to see in the showrooms as yet. It will have been a welcome start for Honda after last season’s struggle, by comparison with other recent seasons, with the Tourer version of the Civic. Neal showed on Sunday that he clearly still has the fight and desire for the BTCC, something that I questioned on several occasions last season and in all honesty I was surprised to hear he was even lining up on the grid this year. Maybe with a car more suited to him, we’ll see the best of Neal once again, as he’s been too often in the shadows of Shedden recently.
From Neal at one end of his BTCC career to Jack Goff at the other end. I expect this lad to win races this season. He’s shown great promise in his 2 years so far, not least in his 2nd place finish on the Grand Prix Circuit at Brands at the end of the 2013 season. Goff looked on the pace all weekend in Plato’s old MG; a car that we know can win races comfortably. Now Goff has the machinery under him, he has the talent and it’s a case of matching them up. I hope things go well for him. For Goff to be level on points with Neal at the end of the first meeting is a great achievement and it will no doubt be a great confidence boost for the season ahead.
One man who boosted himself forward was Rob Austin thanks to ‘ball gate.’ During the reverse grid draw for Race Three, he spotted ball 10 (his ball) and hung on to it whilst he swirled the other balls around. At the time, it wasn’t particularly obvious to me, but once it was highlighted it was quite clear to see that this happened. Fair play to Rob in the end, he admitted his error, he’s apologised, he’s looked like a plonker, but we need to move on now. As luck would have it, Alan Gow still picked out ball 10 for the final race anyway. Austin claimed he’s seen people do it before which is probably a fair point. Yes, we hope for honesty, but surely there must be a better system than having a half transparent goldfish bowl with balls in to decide the pole position for a race. An opaque goldfish bowl? A National Lottery style machine? Straws? You get my point. Alan Gow has at least since confirmed that ‘current’ drivers will no longer make the draw, to avoid such incidents happening again.
The BTCC organisers have tried their hardest to mix up the action again this season with more regulation and rule changes. In principle, they all sound reasonable. They have kept the rule of drivers and teams having to choose a soft tyre race before the weekend starts, but now decided to increase the amount of ballast successful cars carry and introduced it for the top 10 rather than top 6. Another key change sees the grid for the second race being determined by the fastest laps set in Race One to try and stop a repeat of the race we’ve just watched, again a good idea in principle and we’ll see how it works. However, it does worry me that we’re now nurturing the results of races with these changes rather than letting them play out more naturally. For example, Race One winner Rob Collard went from 4th on the grid to 14th by lap 14 in Race Two before eventually finishing 16th. Collard was on the soft tyre, but with 75kg of ballast on board too, are we hampering the drivers a little too much? The argument against that comes from Plato, he was 4 seconds clear with 57kg of ballast before suffering a puncture, so are the tyres the problem?
Well, yes and no. Again, it depends on your car, it depends on your driving style and arguably most importantly, it depends on the weather and track temperature. Some drivers were flying with their soft tyres, others were not. History dictates, and this weekend was no different, that in the warmer races, the soft tyres are more effective. It’s something that the drivers and teams will need to keep learning about as the season continues.
Overall, it was a solid start to the season, but by no means was it breath-taking or phenomenal. We’ll have better weekends of action, that’s for sure. For now, let’s just be pleased that the season has started and we have another 9 weekends of discussion points to enjoy before 11th October. Next up: Donington Park.
Championship Standings after Round 3 of 30
|1. Matt Neal||37 points|
|2. Jack Goff||37|
|3. Aron Smith||36|
|4. Andy Priaulx||34|
|5. Gordon Shedden||32|
|6. Colin Turkington||30|
Team BMR – Volkswagen CC (Plato, Turkington, Scott, A Smith)
A very solid start for the team this weekend, with at least one car on the podium in each race. Scott however, will need Menu’s input as he’s bottom of the leader board after 3 rounds. 8/10
WSR, Team JCT600 with GardX – BMW 125i M Sport (Collard, Tordoff)
WSR, Team IHG Rewards Club – BMW 125i M Sport (Priaulx)
A much stronger start to the year than I foolishly anticipated. Looks like the BMWs are going to be strong again. Still struggle on the soft tyres though. 7.5/10
Honda Yuasa Racing – Honda Civic Type R (Neal, Shedden)
An impressive start for the new Type R with wins for both drivers. A problem for Shedden in the final race was the only blot on the copy book. 9/10
MG 888 Racing – MG6 GT (Goff, Jordan)
A frustrating weekend for Jordan back at Triple Eight Racing despite 2 decent points finishes, but a great start for Goff. 7/10
Exocet AlcoSense – Audi A4 (Abbott, Austin)
Abbott had his best BTCC weekend ever and Austin improved throughout the weekend, despite an issue with the balls. 7/10
Motorbase Performance – Ford Focus ST (Cole, Jackson)
We won’t be seeing Motorbase until Snetterton due to financial sponsorship issues.
Eurotech Racing – Honda Civic (Depper, J Smith)
Both were a little unlucky to be caught up in other people’s incidents, but probably won’t be challenging the points regularly. 5/10
Welch Motorsport – Proton Persona (Welch, Wilmot)
Andy Wilmot unable to race due to serious car troubles and Dan Welch has broken his foot. 0/10
Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing – Infiniti Q50 (Hawken, Palmer)
Only one car out on track this weekend, but Palmer made slow progress at the back. 3/10
WIX Racing – Mercedes-Benz A-Class (Morgan)
A traditionally solid weekend from Mr Consistent. 7/10
Laser Tools Racing – Mercedes-Benz A-Class (Moffat)
A pretty good start by Moffat in his new car. 6/10
Handy Motorsport – Toyota Avensis (Belcher)
Made it to the last points position in the final race. 4/10
Speedworks Motorsport – Toyota Avensis (Ingram)
10th, 6th, 6th. A great start to the new season for Ingram. Bigger teams will be taking note. 7.5/10
RCIB Insurance Racing – Toyota Avensis (Gallagher)
No points, but improved be 2 places each time. 4/10
Houseman Racing – Toyota Avensis (Lines)
Made improvements. 4/10
Dextra Racing – Ford Focus ST (Martin)
Unfortunately retired in the last race. 4/10
Power Maxed Racing – Chevrolet Cruze 4dr (Newsham)
Newsham scored points in the second and third races. Probably the most points scored by a Chevrolet Cruze in the BTCC for a long time. 6/10
#RacingforHeroes – Chevrolet Cruze 4dr (Cook)
A decent start for Cook, scoring points in 2 races too. 6/10
AmD Tuning – Ford Focus ST (Bushell)
A solid start to the season. 5/10
AmD Tuning – Audi S3 Saloon (Hamilton) Guest racer
Hamilton isn’t due to start his BTCC career until Croft.
Images (c) Newspress/BTCC