Last weekend I attended my first British Touring Car Championship race meeting in three years. For me, this was a massive wait, having been at least once, often twice a year since I was about four years old. I have very fond memories of Jason Plato taking his first crown in 2001 in the torrential rain under a murky blue sky (the like of which I have never seen since) whilst Yvan Muller’s Astra caught fire in front of us at the bottom of Paddock Hill Bend. I can also remember watching the great Super Touring days with Alain Menu in the Renault Laguna, and latterly Ford Mondeo, and being thrilled to interview him for my school newspaper in August 1999.
Since those glory days, the series has been through several changes. In 2001, a production class was introduced and the rules changed significantly, resulting in pretty much every manufacturer save Vauxhall leaving the series. Grids were small and despite some exciting racing, the BTCC was clearly a shadow of its former self.
Through the 2000s, the series saw Seat come and go and Colin Turkington take the title for BMW in 2009, just as Chevrolet decided to enter the series properly. The most successful manufacturers over the last fifteen years have all had Jason Plato drive for them at some point so Chevrolet were onto a winner when they signed the great man from Oxford. Sure enough, Plato clinched the 2010 title as the BTCC entered a new decade with much more promise. TV viewing figures have been higher than ever, entry levels have swelled and the racing has never been closer.
Most importantly, however, the championship has long term potential that appeals to drivers, manufacturers and fans alike. Last year was the first year that new specification touring cars were allowed to enter, in preparation for a full shift to a grid comprising entirely of “NGTC” – Next Generation Touring Cars in 2013. These cars are cheaper, greener, but crucially also look, well, cool.
During the course of 2011, the rules for the traditional cars and the new breed were tweaked several times in an attempt to preserve parity between all teams by the governing body, TOCA, led by New Zealand legend Alan Gow. Naturally, this caused a great deal of controversy. But in the end, five drivers went into the final round at Brands with a shot at the title, beating 2010’s final round record of four contenders. So no one can argue against parity being enforced, really. Popular tall man Matt Neal took his third title for Honda, narrowly beating team mate Gordon Shedden and perennial front runner Plato, to add to his 2005 and 2006 crowns.
So that is where we find ourselves in 2012, slap bang in the middle of a transition stage. The big talking point this year was the re-introduction of that great make MG with their star driver, you guessed it, Jason Plato. These days there is minimal pre-season testing time available, particularly for new teams, so little was expected of MG first time out. Having said that, such is the buzz around Plato that most believed the team would be big contenders late in the thirty-race season which runs until October.
The first shock of the season occurred before we even got to the racing on Sunday. Saturday’s qualifying session saw the formbook completely thrown out of the window. Former Renault Clio Cup champion Dave Newsham’s Team ES Racing Vauxhall Vectra took pole, stunning the paddock and those of us watching on itv.com’s exceptional online live player. So the scene was set for a spectacular start to the season.
Newsham was unlucky come Sunday, however, but easily passed more people on track than any other driver, showing true bulldog spirit. It was former Wife Swap star Rob Collard who prevailed in the first race of the day, jumping from third on the grid to second, before seizing the chance to muscle his way through as Newsham had a small slide at Paddock. Contact from Andrew Jordan pushed Newsham down to third. Later in the race, Collard and Jordan slipped back and Newsham had a run on Matt Neal for the lead into Paddock. Plato had a run on both of them and tried to make it three abreast into the first corner, pushing the unfortunate Newsham off into the gravel and retirement from the race. Somehow, Collard came through to take a lead he would never lose.
Sadly for Newsham, the second race grid is set from the race one result, putting him right at the back after his earlier non-finish. Despite this, and having to pit early in the race, he managed to finish an impressive ninth, having been eleventh on the last lap. He may be 44, but Newsham is clearly a rising star of the BTCC.
Meanwhile, Plato and Neal had renewed their old rivalry with some fantastic nose-to-tail racing, Neal holding on for his first win of the season. The race three grid sees the first 6,7,8,9 or 10 finishers from race two have their positions reversed. The exact number is pulled out of a hat to save people backing off in race two to finish tenth to claim pole for race three. Just to continue his bad luck, the number eight was drawn – had nine been drawn, Newsham would have been on pole but as it was he would have to start ninth.
A dramatic race three saw a red flag after Mat Jackson’s Motorbase Ford Focus ran wide in front of us and broke an oil pipe, dropping oil on the racing line up to Druids and seven cars slid into the gravel. After the car park was cleared, Collard led Rob Austin, Jordan, Plato and Newsham. The front two dropped back, however, and it was Plato who took an historic first win for MG at the team’s very first outing, the car not having had a proper test until a week earlier. Jordan held on for second and Newsham took a brilliant maiden podium. I’ve seen a lot over the years from the BTCC but Plato, MG and Newsham seriously impressed me last week.
It looks like we’re in for a stellar season – the championship goes all over Britain and there really is no excuse not to get along to one of the meetings in 2012.