It’s a wet March morning and in a corner of the Donington race circuit, 32 racing drivers are sitting by a stage, waiting to be introduced to the members of the media who have braved the conditions to make it to the BTCC launch day.
This is a popular annual event. While teams will have already tested cars at circuits in sunnier and warmer locations – at least in previous years – this is the first chance for British journalists to see the new machines in the flesh, hear the NGTC engines roar down straights and listen to the Dunlop tyres squeal as those drivers push them to their limits, and sometimes beyond, in the corners.
The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) is also celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2018. Today’s cars are very different from the Lotus Cortinas and RS500s that used to make up the grid. Indeed, today’s series sees less obvious manufacturer backing, more privateer teams and rules that limit engines to just 2-litres, although still pumping out 350+ bhp from their turbocharged state. Donnington offers a first glimpse of this year’s cars to stretch their legs together at one circuit, and give clues as to who may be the driver or team to beat.
60 years young
The BTCC is not just planning a big cake with 60 candles on for its anniversary year. There is also a special race planned. The ‘Diamond Double’ will take place at Snetterton, with the third race of the weekend being an extended 60-mile affair. All cars will compete without success ballast, and there will be double championship points on offer. Furthermore, there will be a separate qualifying session for this showpiece race, with all cars qualifying at their base weights.
Other special celebrations at the Silverstone Classic, Goodwood Festival of Speed and other events around the country are set to mark this memorable milestone for the UK’s most popular motor sport series.
Series Director Alan Gow told the media: “Whilst firmly focussing on the future we are also immensely proud of the BTCC’s illustrious 60-year history, which we will be celebrating throughout 2018. We are delighted to have confirmed the ‘Diamond Double’ race at Snetterton as part of these diamond jubilee celebrations, and look forward to a number of other 60th anniversary activities during the year.
“This is a truly phenomenal period for the BTCC. The continued and unrivalled support from Dunlop, ITV, IHG and our host of loyal partners remains the envy of comparable motor sport series’ around the world. Add to this our incredible fanbase, the media interest that you see here today and of course the unparalleled excitement provided on-track… the BTCC remains the greatest show in British motorsport.”
This year sees 32 cars from 11 marques compete in 30 rounds across 10 weekends. At Donington, each of those cars was rolled out of their garages in a grand unveiling, Starting with reigning champion Ashley Sutton and his Subaru Levorg and moving down the pit lane, each team got to show off their new models. Some are simple developments on last year’s car, while others are previewing new models completely. AMD will this year run a pair of MG 6 cars, while Rob Austin is brining Alfa Romeo back to the championship with a Giulietta.
One thing to note is the increasing presence of the aftermarket in the championship. From ownership with Power Maxed Racing to title sponsorship from Laser Tools, Wix Filters, Mac Tools, Yuasa and AutoGlym. Beyond this, other garage equipment suppliers make their mark on the championship, with Absolute Alignment sponsoring Power Maxed, and supplying wheel alignment equipment to the team at every round.
Making up the capacity grid for 2018 are Alfa Romeo (DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing), Audi (AmD with Cobra Exhausts), BMW (Team BMW, BMW Pirtek Racing), Ford (Team Shredded Wheat Racing with Gallagher, Team GardX Racing with Motorbase), Honda (Halfords Yuasa Racing, WIX Racing with Eurotech, BTC Norlin Racing, Simpson Racing), Mercedes (Mac Tools with Ciceley Motorsport, Laser Tools Racing), MG (AmD with AutoAid/RCIB Insurance Racing), Subaru (Adrian Flux Subaru Racing, Autoglym Academy Racing), Toyota (Speedworks Motorsport), Vauxhall (Power Maxed Racing) and Volkswagen (Team HARD. with Trade Price Cars, Trade Price Cars with Brisky Racing).
For those wishing Formula 1 was a little louder, BTCC will certainly not disappoint, with the loud exhaust note present as the cars scream down the straights. Standing on the pit wall and listening first hand, my ears still buzzed a few days later!
Rob Austin topped the times as the all-new Alfa Romeo Giulietta made its competitive debut.
WIX Racing with Eurotech’s Jack Goff led for much of the running, before Austin hit the front during the final hour in his DUO Motorsport with HMS Racing car.
A later flurry saw the Motorbase Fords occupy second and fourth as Tom Chilton and series returnee Sam Tordoff both showed good pace, whilst BMW machinery claimed third and fifth with Colin Turkington heading stablemate Andrew Jordan.
Power Maxed TAG Racing’s Josh Cook was sixth fastest as he made his bow in the Vauxhall Astra, whilst Goff had to settle for seventh at the finish. Goff also brought about a premature end to the session when he spun into the gravel at Redgate in the final ten minutes.
Goff wasn’t the only one to suffer, however, as a number of drivers endured wild moments during the four hours of running. Eurotech team-mate Brett Smith had the most notable incident, with his crash at the bottom of the Craner Curves leading to significant damage to his Honda Civic Type R.
The Ciceley-run Mercedes of Adam Morgan was eighth, ahead of Speedworks Motorsport’s Tom Ingram, whilst BTC Norlin Racing’s Chris Smiley performed well to claim a 10th spot.
Notable absentees from the top ten included the manufacturer-backed Honda squad as Matt Neal and Dan Cammish ran the brand new Halfords Yuasa Racing Honda Civic Type Rs in public for the first time.
Reigning champion Ash Sutton had his maiden run of the year in the Adrian Flux Subaru Racing Levorg and could only manage 20th in the final classification.