Last year’s British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) proved to be one of the closest and most keenly contested ever. Going into the final rounds at Brands Hatch, no fewer than five former champions squared-up in an attempt to claim the 2015 crown.
Ultimately, a string of solid results in all three races saw Gordon Shedden emerge victorious, taking his second title since joining Team Dynamics back in 2006.
Nearly six months on, the Kent circuit is ready to reprise its leading role, this time as the venue for the BTCC’s 2016 season opener.
With a capacity grid of 32 starters, a new manufacturer (Subaru), former race winners aplenty, and a number of impressive rookies, this year’s stage has been set for possibly the greatest encounter yet.
Set over 30 races at 10 events, and played-out in front of an ever growing trackside and live television / online audience, the BTCC is not only firmly established at the pinnacle of all UK motor sport, it now challenges the likes of DTM and NASCAR as a world-leader too.
So what makes the BTCC special? And why, when behemoths such as Formula One are seeing audience numbers in decline, is the BTCC able to grow its brand and keep its public turned on?
Paying attention to the basics
The answer, in four parts, is really rather simple. Firstly, it employs strong and decisive leadership; these days, Formula One is constrained by the inattention of Bernie Ecclestone, the battle for his succession, the uncertainty of its ownership and the committee room culture of the FIA. The BTCC on the other hand has Alan Gow, TOCA (the organising body behind the championship) and the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC).
It’s a seamless effort, guided by a sure understanding of both the sport and the businesses that accommodate it. There’s nothing overtly clever about what TOCA does, there is, however, great skill in the way it has crafted and maintained a harmonised approach that caters as much to the BTCC’s audience as it does to those underwriting its commercial success.
Next, there’s the recognition that this is a sport built on the foundations of its fan base. What Gow and TOCA have created is a championship that thrives on close racing and an equally close interaction with its audience. Regulations, timetables and media are all meticulously organised and reorganised to ensure that what is delivered is exactly what the fans want; high-energy, wheel-to-wheel battles on the track and access to its heroes and glamour off it.
With three headline races each Sunday, and a packed schedule of support acts, the little time where the track stands quiet is equally well served with open pit lanes, meet-and-greets with the drivers, sideshows and show cars, and merchandise stalls brimming with the latest team wear and souvenirs of the day. If that sounds a little like a circus, it is; a very well managed one which understands that the people who flock to the grandstands and banking are the very people who make this championship special.
Whilst the role of BTCC fans is pivotal, so too are the commercial undertakings that have done much to aid the development of the series: This is where Gow and his team have been particularly clever. There have been none of the ‘grab today, gone tomorrow’ collaborations that seem to frequent and burden other sports. Instead, TOCA have carefully nurtured successful partnerships that allow potential to be explored through the security of long and mutually assured contracts. Whether this is with Dunlop, ITV, HiQ or whoever; each is able to take a view that allows it the time and budget to implement a structured investment plan, designed to deliver directly at race weekends, but then also well beyond: It’s a remarkable approach and one that’s seen to benefit everyone.
Of course, there’s clearly bragging rights about the value BTCC can return to commercial partners, but what I hear more of, from all sides, is how parties connect and relationships can be structured so that the obvious benefit is to the championship first, foremost and always.
Finally, the drivers and the teams. Some are household names, others perhaps less familiar, but all dutifully play their part. As most modern touring cars use common underpinnings, it’s those behind the wheel and in the garage who make the difference. In an environment where 0.3 seconds can determine whether you qualify P1 or P12, there’s much to be gained from experience; the understanding of the cars, the tyres, the circuits, the conditions, and just how far you can ‘push’ your opponents. They all combine to help cement reputations and secure long and healthy careers. Yet equally, so does the work amongst the fans and sponsors. It’s a demanding role that requires an extraordinary effort.
The role of car manufacturers in the BTCC
There is, however, one final element, one missing link, that the BTCC has yet to fully capture. Out of the 32 cars that will arrive at Brands Hatch this weekend, only 12 will carry full manufacturer backing. My belief is that for the BTCC to truly establish itself at the top of the global rankings, this figure should be nearer 60% of the total entries; the remaining cars comprising independents and customer teams.
Video: The New Subaru Levorg
Having said this, the addition of Subaru (via Team BMR) to this year’s grid is a huge bonus and will create many more column inches worldwide as we eagerly report on their progress. There’s absolutely no doubting the pedigree that Subaru, or engine partners Mountune, bring with them. There’s also little doubt that drivers Jason Plato and Colin Turkington, leading the squad of four, have the ability to score points and win races. Very wisely though, nobody at BMR is talking about short-term goals. This is a three year plan, and we should all remember this. If it goes well, not only must we hope that Subaru remain, but that their success will entice one or two others (manufacturers) too.
Success in the BTCC isn’t just about winning on track though. The challenge for Subaru (and indeed all constructors) is to ultimately turn results, words and pictures into sales. To do this, they can’t just rely on the likes of Warren Scott and his team. They need to work their own brand of magic on social media, in the paddock, with merchandise and via the dealer networks too. They need to fully engage and carry the voice of the fans on the terraces with them. This is the biggest hurdle. Winning on track is one thing, winning off it is something else entirely.
A season ahead of very close racing
So what about the racing? What can we expect from this new season?
The first thing that has to be said is that it’s going to start out with a dividing line between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. By this I mean those that have opted (and can afford) to run with the new RML standard NGTC components (frames, steering and suspension parts that are common to all teams) and those that are effectively having to use last year’s cars.
Running all-new RML parts Retaining old GPRM parts Halfords Yuasa Racing Team BKR Subaru Team BMR Team Hard Motorbase Performance AmD Essex West Surrey Racing Maximum Motorsport Handy Motorsport Speedworks (Matt Simpson) Dextra Team Parker Racing Welch Motorsport Speedworks (Tom Ingram) Eurotech Racing Power Maxed Racing Wix Racing Laser Tools Racing Running some new RML parts MG Racing with RCIB Insurance
We already know that RML have done an incredible job in redesigning and upgrading key parts and that benefits will be found in areas of both reliability and performance. We also know that it’s the better funded teams that have enjoyed the opportunity to employ an extensive pre-season test programme in order to explore the changes that these components make and to refine their set-ups accordingly. So generally speaking, with one or two exceptions, it’s going to be the newer cars that make most of the headlines.
Out of those entered, the Honda Civics of reigning champion Shedden and teammate (and former champion) Matt Neal, and the two Motorbase Fords of Mat Jackson and another former champion, Andrew Jordan, look the strongest. And of these, it is Shedden and Jackson who have looked sharpest and smoothest during testing.
Both are perhaps the finest tin-top drivers in the country right now and both can be expected to push themselves to extraordinary limits to overcome the other. If I’ve made this sound like a two-horse race, it won’t be. Neal and Jordan are both hungry to reprise their status as winners and both have the cars beneath them to mount a season-long challenge. It’s just that whenever I watch Shedden and Jackson on track, there’s an added dimension to their understanding of what allows them to drive smoother, faster and, when needed, that little bit harder.
The biggest question though is just how will the Subarus perform? I suspect the answer here will be steady at first, but with ever increasing pace. Everything about these cars is new; very new. The fact that they’ve only just had their first shakedown on the track should tell us that Team BMR and its drivers still have much to learn and consider. But this is an experienced outfit, led by a remarkable man, and the depth of talent behind the team is such that given the right level of support from both Subaru and Mountune, it won’t be long before the Levorg GT is taking Jason Plato and Colin Turkington back to the podium.
To simply be ready to go racing has been an achievement, but the drive and ambition within BMR is such that nothing short of dominance will satisfy any of those involved. Certainly in Plato’s mind, he’s very aware of Subaru’s past glories and he knows that a supreme effort now will forever seal the legacy of an all-time great enthusiast brand.
And then there are the West Surrey Racing BMWs, the works MGs and contenders such as Adam Morgan and Tom Ingram with their Mercedes A-Class and Toyota Avensis.
There are race winners and regular podium finishers here in abundance, and emerging young talent too. The MG pairing of Ashley Sutton and Josh Cook can both be expected to cause upsets whilst the trio of BMWs will no doubt swarm around the podium places and each other, probing for weaknesses and pushing relentlessly to the flag.
It is, as I mentioned earlier, just a matter of tenths that separate the surety of the front row from the ferocity of the midfield. Qualifying in the BTCC is everything and rapidly changing track conditions can often make the difference between a very good result and a challenging race. Just because we might expect the Hondas and Fords to be there or thereabouts at each and every meeting does not mean that this is how it will end-up. Adam Morgan, Aiden Moffat, Tom Ingram and the ever redoubtable Rob Austin will no doubt all be the in the mix too. And every now and then, don’t be surprised if Árón Smith conjures a moment of magic in last year’s Passat to steal a bag of points and maybe even a pot or three.
It really is going to be this close. From the 32 starters over 30 races, I can honestly see any one of 13 different drivers winning at some point in the season. So whoever claims the championship is going to have to score consistently and score well. Just one bad result might be one too many. And as I also said earlier, this isn’t Formula One. This is the closest real racing you can get (outside Moto GP) and I for one can’t wait to see what happens this weekend.
The 2016 British Touring Car Championship begins at Brands Hatch on Saturday 2nd April and Sunday 3rd April.
Tickets can be purchased via the Brands Hatch website.
Racing on Sunday is live on ITV4 from 10.15am, or you can catch all the action, including Saturday’s qualifying session at itv.com/btcc.