BTCC: Back with a Bang?

During the BTCC’s 60th anniversary season last year, I wrote a strongly opinionated article arguing that Britain’s top motorsport series was too contrived and gimmicky, that the desire to create races full of ‘highlight reel’ crashes and incidents had damaged the final product for some of the fans who wished to see a good, clean and fair race. I was a fan who had fallen out of love with the championship, disillusioned by the sight of the Race 1 winning driver falling away in the second race of the day when success ballast and tyres would relegate them to a finish on the second page of the results.

As a result, my enthusiasm for the 2019 season opener at Brands Hatch on Sunday wasn’t exactly brimming. Indeed, it was mainly my intrigue at how the carousel of driver and car changes for the new season would play out that led me to watching a very wet and foggy first race of the season on Sunday morning. Even with the changing conditions, I was hardly expecting a classic race to unfold in front of me.

Incredibly, the race that did indeed unfold was close to becoming an instant classic. Those who will no doubt become the challengers for the title as the season unfolds – the likes of Ash Sutton, Jason Plato and the BMW trio of Turkington, Jordan and Oliphant to name but a few – got tyre choice wrong, going for wet weather tyres that were only good for a handful of laps as the track dried. That allowed Josh Cook – who was the only man within the top ten on the grid to plump for dry tyres – to take a commanding win from Jake Hill and Tom Chilton. Remarkably, there was little in the way of contact or controversy – aside from a drive through penalty that would absolutely ruin Jason Plato’s weekend.

From 2nd on the grid, Plato fell foul of a new rule dictating that all of the car is behind the white grid markings, rather than the front wheels. It appears to be a rather pointless rule designed in the interests of making jump starts ‘easier to spot’, an issue that has never been an issue as far as I’m aware. Of course, this does not take away from the fact that Plato had clearly breached the new rule, but a drive through penalty was far too great a penalty for the inches that Plato had crept forward before stopping on the grid. Plato has, rather rightly, since publicly noted the need for the BTCC to have a serious rethink about the penalties it applies. A five or ten second penalty would have been far more fitting and wouldn’t have hamstrung Plato for the rest of the day.

Race 2 was also a fantastic race and highlighted that the new ballast rules – where cars are now given much less success ballast – have worked fantastically. Josh Cook wouldn’t feature in the battle for the lead in Race 2, but a finish in 7th amongst the best of the rest showed that he was still competitive and wasn’t left going backwards like he would have been last season. The new rules balance the racing enough to be fun and accessible for the casual audience that will be vital for the BTCC in a season where it is the biggest free-to-air motorsport offering in the UK with Formula 1 entering its exclusive agreement with Sky, but also ensure that the racing doesn’t feel contrived. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a shock if we see drivers winning both of the first two races of the day at other rounds this season.

Up front, however, it would be Andrew Jordan who took a statement victory from 15th on the grid. On a race day where Turkington and Oliphant never really recovered from the strategic failures of Race 1, Jordan stormed through the field on the first lap to sit behind Ash Sutton’s Subaru and followed his fellow BTCC champion through to the front, before making a decisive move for the win just over halfway through the race. It was a world-class touring car drive from Jordan, and it sets him out as one of the strong title favourites for 2019. It was a shame that he ended up being barged around in Race 3, which means that he only leaves Brands Hatch 8th in the standings.

Race 3 would see further controversy, as Tom Chilton was stripped of an excellent win after being handed a 5 second time penalty for a push-to-pass on Matt Neal for the lead of the race. The stewards are going to clamp down on unnecessary contact harsher than they have in previous years and compared to incidents such as Senna Proctor’s much more forceful move on Aiden Moffat at last year’s season opener it certainly does appear harsh. Chilton, to his credit, accepted the penalty and apologised to Neal – but should these new guidelines for penalties for contact not be applied consistently he may well have complaints about the penalty come the end of the season.

Rory Butcher inherited the win from Chilton – who was relegated to 2nd place – giving himself and AMD their first victory. It rounded off a strong weekend from the Essex outfit, who looked like the best of the rest alongside Cook and BTC Racing. Three top 10 finishes for both Cook and Butcher see them in 1st and 4th in the standings respectively, and whilst I don’t expect them to be involved in the championship reckoning by the autumn, they certainly look like potential candidates for the Independent’s Championship alongside Chilton, who will be aiming his sights much higher after a weekend where he was the best of the established faces by a country mile.

What is perhaps most important, however, is that the product on track appears to be much improved this year – and the first BTCC meeting of 2019 was the most enjoyable meeting that there has been for a long time.

 

Images used taken from btcc.net