Tuesday, 30 March 2010
2010 British Touring Car Championship Preview: Crisis averted, now for the drama!
When Vauxhall announced that they would be ending their involvement in the BTCC at the end of 2009, signalling the prospect of a series with no manufacturer backed teams for the first time in twenty years, the doubters were calling the end of the BTCC as we knew it. Through the long British winter, it became apparent that two of the remaining top teams were to lose their title sponsors, Airwaves and RAC, the latter’s withdrawal leading to champion Colin Turkington being unable to find the budget to defend his title. As the weeks and months passed it became clear that Fabrizio Giovanardi and James Thompson, with four titles between them, would be competing on distant shores in 2010, and Jason Plato was making some pretty discouraging noises about finding the necessary budget to compete this term. With Matt Neal, the only other former champion in last year’s field, in limbo after the exit of VX Racing, it was clear that we may also be without a whole crop of the top drivers in the series. Would this be the end? How much longer could ITV4 justify coverage of this length, without the star attractions and with depleted grids to boot, when they had so many episodes of Minder, The Saint and Ultimate Force that had not been on in the previous 72 hours? What a mess!
As the snow fell and Britain fell into its usual chaotic state, the tide slowly began to turn. Some new teams, albeit without the might of the departed Vauxhall squad, signed up for the championship, in the form of former Mini Challenge squad Forster Motorsport, who would run a pair of BMW 320’s, along with AmD Milltek Racing, championship winners in club motorsport, who would run a VW Golf at the start of the championship, with their sights set on expanding as the season progressed. Dunlop announced a new four year deal as title sponsor of the series, taking over the role from sister company HiQ, who would now put its name to the teams’ championship, also until 2013. Series regulars Dave Pinkney and Andrew Jordan announced that they had bought a Vauxhall Vectra each, which they would run with their own teams, Pinkney Motorsport and Pirtek Racing. We knew that the Focus, which had shown such improvement at the tail end of 2009 would return in the hands of the super competitive Tom Chilton plus one, and that Tech-Speed, with the unflinching support of backer sunshine.co.uk would run its Honda Integra’s for the rapid (and very popular) Paul O’Neill and veteran John George. But, with the season nearing there were many unanswered questions, even for a category which usually keeps us guessing until the last minute, meaning we would seemingly have to wait until the official championship launch to learn the fate of the UK’s premier racing category.
Then, in March, the columns began buzzing with BTCC news, Rob Collard had signed for WSR, to partner miracle man Andy Neate, who had sustained terrible injuries in a Britcar race at Silverstone in 08, when it was unclear whether he would walk again, let alone race. Jason Plato tested a Chevrolet Cruze at Oulton. Team Dynamics had agreed deals for Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden to drive their Civic’s. Race-winner Tom Onslow-Cole was in at Arena Motorsport as a partner for Chilton. Another top line up at Motorbase, having clung on to title sponsor Airwaves and added Leyland Paints to their livery, Mat Jackson and Steven Kane were unveiled. Triple 8, who ran the factory Vauxhall programme, bought two of the Vectras they had worked on, and signed 2009 Clio Cup champion Phil Glew to pilot one. However at the launch on March 23rd came the best news on the health of the series, 23 cars were on the entry list, more than at the same period in 2009, and two teams, Team Dynamics and RML, would be running two car works teams for Honda UK and Silverline Chevrolet respectively, Plato joined at Chevy by another Clio star, Alex MacDowell.
The naysayers have been put firmly in their place, eight race winners already confirmed, two works backed outfits, new blood and the usual fix of the top UK venues, teamed with record coverage on the ITV network, still a crisis? Nope.
But who will triumph in one of the most highly anticipated seasons to date? Plato is fast becoming the early season favourite, the confidence-oozing veteran seems reinvigorated by the Chevrolet backing, and the new Cruze, and topped the timesheets in the group test at Brands on the launch day. Don’t believe that he isn’t focussing on surpassing Andy Rouse’s record haul of 60 BTCC wins, which he is now just seven wins shy of. His arch rival Matt Neal will be one of the main threats, as will fellow Honda driver Shedden, while Motorbase and WSR will expect their BMW’s to be right at the sharp end. The Team Aon Ford Focus was much improved at the end of 09, but the late switch to LPG may mean they have some catching up to do in the early season. The Vectras will be quick, especially the Triple 8 pair, their potential could depend on who completes their driver line-up. Tom Boardman returns to the championship from his WTCC adventure, with his Seat Leon, and will expect to be in the frame for regular points, as will Paul O’Neill in the Integra. There should be a great battle in a middle order that will be joined by Matt Hamilton, who will be hoping to build on his part season last term, in his Civic, Lea Wood in another Integra and Martin Johnson once again bringing his 2001 Astra to the party.
It is a huge disappointment not to have Colin Turkington beginning his title defence at Thruxton this Sunday, but don’t rule him out from returning at some stage if the necessary funding can be put in place, WSR has a 320 on hold with his name on it. Trouble is, if they don’t move quickly, the rest of the pack might be out of his sight, although don’t expect the main protagonists to have much between them, the last three championships have gone down to the final day, there is no reason to expect this year to be any different.
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