13th March 2015

If the last few weeks have proved anything, it is that most drivers in this year’s Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship believe that they will be champion.

You hear the same message from most of them: yes, we will be competitive; yes, we believe we have a great package; yes, we think we will be able to win at Brands; yes, I am confident for the season ahead.

But with the entry as it stands – and a few announcements still to be made as I type this – there will surely be a lot of disappointed people. Yet again, you see, we are in for a super-competitive season. And with a record-breaking 11 different winners last season, that is saying something. So... who is going to be champion?

Well, that is a very tough question to answer. Not only do we have the shuffling of drivers to different teams, plus the return of Andy Priaulx, but you also have to factor in the difference that the new ballast rules will have and the race two grid format as well.

Let’s start with the ballast: there is more of it in two senses: first, it covers the top 10 and second it is in greater supply: 75-66-57-48-39-33-27-21-15-9 now and there will be some venues where lugging around all that lead is going to be a major handicap. Then, the race two grid. It is now to be decided upon a driver’s fastest lap in the opening race, but you HAVE to finish. If you haven’t done 90% of the distance and you don’t take the chequered flag on the track, then you are at the back of the grid irrespective of how good your lap time is. Here are two areas straight away that will have an impact and it could be that the really shrewd drivers will play a points game on occasions: take the points and the extra weight or fewer points and less weight for the next race. It will be interesting to see how the brains’ trust on the pit wall applies itself to this.

So, with the weight and full grids to bear in mind as drivers hunt for clear track space, there are some fascinating driver/team combinations as well to address.

Andrew Jordan and Jack Goff at Triple Eight. Jordan is a championship contender no question, and Goff has his best chance yet of a win but in a sense there is more pressure now. He HAS to win this year. There can be no excuses as he has the tools for the job.

Andy Priaulx, Rob Collard and Sam Tordoff at WSR. Now, Collard has proved he can win but has been overshadowed by Colin Turkington over the last couple of seasons and needs to assert himself again. Tordoff has proved he can win races but is new to the BMW despite the team saying that he has impressed in testing to date. It will be interesting to see how he fares, free of Jason Plato’s shadow at Triple Eight as was the case last year but he won’t find it easy and nor will Priaulx despite his impressive CV as he has to adapt to the quirks of NGTC-spec cars and to the rough and tumble of BTCC. To be a major threat for the title, AP has to be on it at Brands without any hesitation.

Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden at Honda Yuasa Racing. The quietest team in the off-season, with its only news being that there was no news: the drivers would carry on for another season. The Tourer is expected to be gone and a hatchback Civic to return, albeit we know not what badge it will carry, but this could be the strongest combination on the grid. Continuity will be important and the team has that and in Shedden it has one of the gutsiest drivers on the grid. Neal struggled at times last year and if he can’t run at the very front in every race, expect Matt to be a championship factor by dint of scoring points but not larding himself up with too much weight all the time. The new ballast rules could be good for him.

Colin Turkington, Jason Plato, Aron Smith and Warren Scott at Team BMR. For many, this team’s announcement of Turks and Plato was the 'OMG' moment of the off-season. On one level, it should be the BTCC super-team: quick car, proven drivers, decent budget. On another it could be a real hornet’s nest: Turkington and Plato want to prove who is best; Plato wants to show that the BMW last year had an advantage; Turkington hasn’t raced a front-wheel drive car since his WTCC one-off in an RML Chevrolet in 2012; Turkington and Plato are new to the team (although ex-Triple Eight personnel helps Plato a little); Smith and Plato have history from Knockhill 2012; there is a Northern and Southern Irishman in the same team… on it goes!

And that is just the leading teams. Yes, I know I have ignored many but remember that in a championship this competitive you have to be scoring well in every race – the track-dependent heroics aren’t enough any more: you have to have a car that works well everywhere.

I know that we all talk up a season ahead, but this is a superb one with so much unpredictability to spice it up. Last year we had seven former champions to get excited about, two of whom never really threatened for honours, and in truth were never likely to. This year, we have the best of the BTCC’s recent history and a season to savour. A champion? Ask me in October…

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