Whilst daily Red Tops pitch feverishly into a war of words over Britain’s impending exit from the EU, it’s the BTCCs Tin Tops that look set to make headlines of their own, as the strongest grid to ever assemble embarks on an exceptional 30-race quest for the greatest prize in UK motorsport, the British Touring Car Championship crown.
Only twelve months ago, I wrote that the 2015 British Touring Car Championship proved to be one of the closest and most keenly contested ever. Then, some 26 weeks later, Gordon Shedden climbed on to the roof of his Halfords Yuasa Racing Honda Civic Type R to proclaim his victory in perhaps the greatest title-showdown we’ve seen. 2015 had not only been equalled, it had been well and truly surpassed. And now? I’m going to confidently predict that the 2017 Championship is going to raise the bar higher still.
OK, last year, I got one thing wrong; I said that I could see 13 different winners for the year but we only had 12! This wasn’t just a sign of how close the racing was; it tells us how hard it was to win. Well this year it’s going to be even closer. It’s going to be harder and whilst I think we’re going to see fewer drivers climb to the top step, each of the thirty rounds looks set to deliver the calibre of racing that is likely to see this NGTC era evolve from ‘great’ to ‘golden’.
Why am I so confident that this is going to be such a remarkable year for the BTCC? Well very simply, we have an almost ‘perfect storm’ of cars, teams and drivers aligning on the grid. The addition of BMW as a manufacturer, the return of Colin Turkington to WSR, Ash Sutton’s promotion to the BMR Levorg and full-season campaigns for the likes of Daniel Lloyd and Stephen Jelley. And then there’s the new, wider, sturdier Dunlop tyre – a remarkable piece of engineering. Designed and constructed to allow drivers to push ever harder and deeper as they seek their advantage, both in to and out of every corner. For the first time in a very long time, there’s real talent and fast cars right throughout the grid.
So what’s going to make the difference? And perhaps the most important question, who’s going to make the difference?
We’ve had seasons that have belonged to individual cars, and seasons dominated by a single team, but for me, 2017 is going to be all about the driver. There are some fantastic marques lining-up this year (BMW, Subaru, Honda, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes) and some world class teams supporting them (WSR, BMR, Dynamics, Motorbase) and yet before the red light has even flickered, we’ve potentially filled-up all of the points-scoring positions. So it has to be about the driver and in particular, their ability to put life into the new Dunlop’s early-on in the race. More rubber only means more grip if a tyre is working within a given window of temperature and pressure. In other words, drivers not only need to qualify well, they need to push straight off the line and work their rubber in spite of what might be happening around them. This isn’t a task for mere race drivers; this is the realm of champions.
It’s way too early to say if any one driver is going to be able to achieve this better than most but I am willing to name the four who I think ought to emerge as contenders as the season progresses.
The Four ‘Tops’
Ash Sutton, Colin Turkington, Mat Jackson and Gordon Shedden.
I’ve purposefully named Sutton first, as for me he’s been the absolute star in testing. And I’ve purposefully not named Jason Plato because despite the fact that I’m sure he will be challenging for race wins, I think Sutton has the outright pace and temperament to gain the advantage. Plato can and will use all of his experience to usurp his young rival but to win this title, you’re going to have to start from either Row 1 or Row 2 of the grid at practically every round and for me, Sutton’s the man to do this. His pace is electric, his consistency exceptional.
Turkington in the works BMW is my other leading candidate. There’s a very good reason why he left BMR and for once, Plato isn’t it! From the moment last year, when BMR and Mountune steered the Levorg towards its potential, Turkington seemed unstoppable. His tally from Oulton Park onwards propelling the Irishman into genuine title-contention, despite only 2 points finishes from the first 9 races. And with the refinements of the winter and the Subaru now even sharper than before, 2017 should surely be his…
No, there’s only one reason why a drivers of Turkington’s stature would leave a winning team and that’s because of an even greater opportunity elsewhere: The BMW was a good car last year, but despite leading Sam Tordoff to the final hurdle, it lacked the spark needed to seal the deal. Now, with the might of the German manufacturer fully behind them, Dick Bennetts’ squad look set to replace Honda as the leading manufacturer. It might look like the same 125i M Sport we’ve seen in previous years but this year’s model is much improved in every way. It hugs and then explodes off the apex, and delivers power where previously it faded. This a car for winners and Turkington is BMW’s man.
And then there’s the champion of 2015 & 2016, Gordon Shedden, together with Motorbase’s ever-present Mat Jackson: Neither need any introduction, their records and presence say more than my words could. Watching them lap relentlessly in testing, their sharpness and speed as thrilling and distinct as ever; their advantage coming from positions crafted by long and stable relationships within their respective teams whilst out on track, each visibly braking later and deeper than their team mates, then ‘measured’ mid-corner, and both progressively on the gas whilst others can only wait. Consistency from their cars enabled both to conjure results in 2016. This year, I think the Ford looks marginally quicker, so if Shedden is to win a remarkable ‘Triple-Crown’, he’s going to have dig deeper than ever to spoil Jackson’s run.
But the thing about the BTCC, the unique thing is that of the 32 drivers on the grid, there are probably 20 who could win a race, and 8 or 10 who probably will! So far, I’ve only mentioned my prediction for the leading quartet, but then Tom Ingram, Andrew Jordan, Jason Plato and Adam Morgan can all be expected to challenge for podiums and the occasional win. They all know what it takes and they all have the cars and the ability to be taken seriously. As too can Rob Austin, Rob Collard, Tom Chilton and Matt Neal. For differing reasons, I think that they’re going to find themselves less competitive than they might like but each has the ability to make the most of opportunities that will inevitably be presented to them. And this doesn’t take anything away from the likes of Daniel Lloyd, James Cole, Árón Taylor-Smith, Josh Cook, Stephen Jelley, Jack Goff, Aiden Moffat, Jake Hill, Josh Price and Senna Proctor. Whoever qualifies well and can make their tyres work in the opening laps will be there or thereabouts as the flag drops. The surety of this season being that in-line, formation-racing is about as likely as Ed Balls joining ‘Pans People’ (Ed: if you’re younger than 45 then look that one up).
The BTCC is back, and I, for one, cannot wait.