BTCC 2011…coming to a racetrack near you

And it’s set to be one of the best seasons yet….

(im taking no credit for the video)

Unlike Formula 1 which has five world champions on the grid in 2011, best of sparring partners Matt Neal and reigning champion Jason Plato are the only BTCC champions gracing the field of Britain’s tin-top finest, and unless you haven’t heard of the sport you can be sure that more paint will be swapped between these two as they resume where they left off from their titanic battle for the title last year.

Plato back for title number three

On that final day at Brands Hatch it was Plato who dominated to seal his second title, but this year will be far, far tougher for him. In fact, the reigning champion and his Silverline Chevrolet team appeared mysteriously vacant in the world of motorsport gossip because of concerns regarding their cars adaptation to the new regulations, meaning for a moment we almost had a repeat of last year’s bizarre scenario where the reigning champion disappeared from the sport the following year.

The concerns surrounding the team’s performance are drawn on by the fact Silverline will be one of the teams on the grid that aren’t running a turbocharged NGTC-spec engine, sticking with their rapid Chevrolet Cruze that won Plato his long-overdue second title, entered under the BTC rules that Alan Gow has permitted for one more year with a normally aspirated engine.

But this won’t worry them too much when you consider the positive factors for the team.

Jason Plato will defend his title in the same trusty Chevrolet Cruze

Firstly, it’s clearly obvious that the team did find the sweet spot with the Cruze during the latter half of 2010 in which Plato finished the season with a pole and two wins…even with maximum penalty ballast, so these car concerns aren’t too dramatic as Plato and his team-mate Alex Macdowall should start the season with a great chassis around them.

It also seems that we saw a different and surprisingly more calm and controlled Jason Plato last season. All he was focused on was the championship – before the season, and all the way until it was wrapped up – and this focus on consistency rather than the banzai-pinball approach with other cars on track may have transformed Plato to his top form in racing.

Honda given an extra boost

Dynamics are a team going into the season full of optimism – as well as a office full of cash thanks to Pioneer and Yuasa sponsorship – retaining their much improved Honda Civics and the driver pairing of Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden which racked up 10 wins out of the 30 last year.

Their big improvement however is the switch to the turbo engine for the new regulations, which will initially give the team some headaches but should be rapid once any problems are ironed out .

The teams problem in the last few seasons has been their consistency, whether it be the car or drivers. If the car can perform at all circuits this year and handle the ballast better over the season than in the past few years of the civic, and if Neal can improve his qualifying and Shedden finally get some good luck come his way, they should be spraying the winner’s champagne quite a lot this season.

Ford’s focus can only be the title

While there may be no true favourite for title standing out so far, all six drivers that will sit in a Ford this season must feel they have a shot at it. The fact that Tom Chilton crashed into the tyre wall at Croft in qualifying last year, somehow got out of the gravel trap AND then managed to grab pole position a few minutes later after a quick repair job with some hammers and race tape proved just how quick the improved (ableit LPG-powered (or over-powered)) Focus was last season.

The drama surrounding the team’s monstrous straight-line speed at times last year make you wonder how they didn’t run away with the title. Their season was always plagued by other teams and drivers – particularly by nervous championship leaders at the time – complaining about the LPG power, and therefore a restrictor was added to the cars and constantly modified whenever the two Tom’s were too far ahead at the front, or even too far off the pace to confuse the fans.

This year it will be different however as Chilton and his new Team AON team-mate Andy Neate will have the sleek latest edition of the Ford Focus at their disposal, complete with the turbocharged NGTC-spec petrol engine and, although its performance has yet to be seen, the team are coming off an encouraging season of six poles and seven wins and will push for the title this year with Chilton for sure.

(…And no, if you have watched the video above, the new Ford will not sound mysteriously like an owl – it’s just the tyres rubbing the painted rumble strips….it really does sound good).

Their 2010 chassis’ will still feature on the grid for this season however, but this time in the hands of the Airwaves Motorbase squad – who have switched from BMWs to the increasingly popular Focuses for 2011. If anything, Motorbase will be the spoilers to the top teams thanks to the combination of the Ford chassis, and it’s number one driver, Mat Jackson.

With Jackson still onboard the team, the Airwaves squad are a one to watch this season – and will be hard to miss thanks their alarmingly bold livery – with a strong car and a strong number one driver to lead the team to success this season.

Motorbase were one of the few teams that were thinking of running a three-car attack on the championship but later rejected that idea, with Jackson joined by newcomer Liam Griffin, the relatively unknown but improving youngster coming from a Volkswagen and Porsche racing background, showing signs of his potentional in the Carrera Cup GB last season.

So what about the other Tom?

The most surprising revalation of pre-season had been the lack of signature to any contract of Tom Onslow-Cole, the man who could have won last year’s championship heading to the Brands Hatch finale. So what had really been going on?

Well clearly why team AON let him go initially is quite baffling, although financial difficulties for Onslow-Cole appeared to be the reason behind AON’s focus switching to securing Neate, who really needs to improve if he is to remain in the BTCC after a season which he struggled for pace, and ended seemingly as a rival to John George for most incidents of the season.

This opened the door to team Airwaves Motorbase to almost snatch the youngster and put him in one of their Fords, a team that would have been an enviable fantasy team let alone a real lineup. However, they decided to play safe with their own financial situation for the time being and stuck with two cars.

Instead, the most unlikely deal was completed by AMD Miltek to secure Onslow-Cole to drive their developing Volkswagen Golf for this season, Shaun Hollamby stepping out of the seat and into the manager role. The car was a fans favourite in it’s debut last year, but now we will get to see the true potential of the little Golf with TOC behind the wheel of it.

Onslow-Cole and Phil Glew had being hanging around the AON team garage during testing, but neither appeared to have sealed a deal. With Onslow-Cole now secured at AMD, Glew is a distinct possibilty to finally recieve a deserved top-level full-time drive.

Still with the old, in with the new

Just like last year, West Surrey Racing were looking down in the dumps during pre-season. Back then it was disastrous as RAC sponsorship collapsed and Colin Turkington astonshingly didn’t have a budget healthy enough to continue, even though he had just won the 2009 championship in one of his greatest achievements.

Unlike Plato, Collard will surely never change his approach on the championship, meaning that guarenteed madness and entertainment will be on the season agenda thanks to ‘the demolition man’, who showed signs of his 2009 raw pace again last year but yet dissapointingly came away without a single win for a reward.

Should WSR get a hold on their BMW this season to adapt to the not-so BMW-friendly rules for 2011, then Collard will again be spoiler for the favourites all season. His new team-mate Nick Foster is another rookie who will enter the season as an unknown, although the step up to BTCC is a very fair deal for Foster who has experience in British GT and rallycross, and success last year in the BMW CSL Cup.

Also, background rumors are that Dick Bennetts may try to poach his former champ Turkington from Scandanavian Touring Car action for a few BTCC rounds this season….watch this space.

The trusty championship-winning Vauxhall Vectra is also still sticking around in the series, with the now proven race winner Andrew Jordan certain to be a spoiler in the standout Pirtek liveried machine alongside Jeff Smith who’s BTCC experience consists of an incident-packed one-off debut at Knockhill last year, while Triple 8 racing and James Nash carry on for another season.

Nash will this time have a team-mate – no it won’t be Giovanardi sadly – in the shape of Tony Gilham, the popular Porsche Carrera Cup GB driver who has enjoyed success in his past three years in the series, and will surely be a fans favourite when he brings his famous pink and green livery to party where Dave Pinkney left off last year.

Special Tuning had bought four SEAT Leons for their disposal pre-season, and Tom Boardman will at least drive one of them. Rumours continue to fly about the number of entries and the drivers who will fill the car seats, although a two-car assault is set to be on the cards for the team’s season.

The North East will still be able to cheer on Arthur Forster this year, Forster returning in the same BMW he drove during his learning 2010 season, while Martin Depper has switched to a front-wheel drive SEAT after an equally eventful and accident-strewn year. Lea Wood will also return in his Honda Integra, a car that he had drove some impressive races with, but surely the chassis has passed it’s best by now.

The new boys with their new toys

Alan Gow certainly knows how to create a good championship, and the new NGTC (Next generation touring car) rules that have made costs considerably cheaper than in the past decade have seen a string of new teams and manufacturers apply for the new season.

The NGTC base model Toyota Avensis will be raced by Speedworks for Ginetta G50 driver Tony Hughes, and by Dynojet for the series champion Frank Wrathall, the latter driver being one that will be watched closely by the fans as to find out just how quick the 24 year-old Lancastrian and the new Avensis can be.

In fact many manufacturer names are set to return to the BTCC grid this year. Rob Austin will bring the Audi name back to BTCC for the first time since 1998 with two rear-wheel drive A4s. Although success like Frank Biela felt in 1996 is not expected, the team will revive the career of a certain Dave Pinkney, who will return to drive one of the cars, the other looking vacant at the moment as Austin has ruled himself out of the driving duties.

The other name that is set to return is Proton. Welch motorsport intend to race at least one Gen-2 for Dan Welch, who would finally get a shot at BTCC after being competitive in one-make SEAT championships over the past few years. However, it is still questionable as to when they will make their debut – if they do at all that is – and hopefully it won’t be a repeat of Team 48 (who???)’s effort in 2007, whose Alfas never raced at all.

Fans’ favourite set to shock?

A name that was looking undeservedly vacant on the entry list this season was everybody’s favourite gritty underdog Paul O’Neill. After a brilliant season with Tech Speed where he put in some giant-killing performances in a tank-like, ageing Honda Integra, the signs weren’t looking too promising that we’d see the team in 2011.

That is until two distinctive purple liveried Chevrolet Cruzes appeared at a group test at Brands Hatch on March 9, without Plato or Macdowall driving them. Having kept the fans pondering, Tech Speed have bought the two Cruzes used by Silverline last year to win the title, and Paul O’Neill and John George will be on the grid again this season.

O’Neill in particular should be very excited about the year ahead as, unlike the last two years, he now has a genuinely fast race car in his hands, having described the car as amazing after it’s first test.

This could be the season where we will see just what O’Neill is really capable of, and he will surely believe in the back of his mind that a title challenge is a distinct possibilty.

Even Plato himself has warned the press of his wariness of O’Neill’s pace in a competitive car.

O’Neill even joked to Autosport that he “would have to give up” and give the newcomers to the sport their chance if he does not manage to win at least one race this year.

With the media day looming this Thursday, the season will be in full swing next month on April 3 at the Brands Hatch Indy circuit.


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