BTCC Goes From Strength-To-Strength - Full 2017 Grid Boasts Incredible 16 Race-Winners By: British Touring Car Championship
The Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is speeding into 2017 with its most successful grid in history, as an extraordinary 16 race-winners and a whole host of eager challengers prepare to go head-to-head for the most coveted crown in UK motor sport.
For the second year in succession, a capacity 32-strong grid has been unveiled during today's (16 March) annual Season Launch at Donington Park. Half of the drivers on the entry list are previous visitors to the top step of the podium, totalling an astonishing 329 victories between them – testament to the strength-in-depth of the series and proving that the BTCC continues to attract the crème de la crème of driving talent.
There are two new manufacturer entries on the list – with Vauxhall making an eagerly-anticipated comeback with Power Maxed Racing and BMW bolstering West Surrey Racing's bid. These two marques will do battle with Honda, Subaru and MG for manufacturer glory, with 11 independent outfits joining the fight for outright Teams' honours.
The BTCC is renowned for its close competition, bumper-to-bumper action and delivering drama and excitement by the bucketload. The 2016 campaign was no different, as the scrap for supremacy went right down to the wire in a three-way final race showdown between Gordon Shedden, Sam Tordoff and Colin Turkington, with the Scot digging deep to successfully defend his Drivers' title.
The 2017 season sees the advent of the second phase of the current generation of NGTC rules – as all 32 cars will now run with common RML Group components – a new TOCA engine and new Dunlop tyres.
All of the high-octane entertainment will continue to be broadcast live, free-to-air and in high-definition on ITV4, with the championship's loyal long-term partner additionally producing extensive highlights programmes.
This year's Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship will again comprise 30 races across ten events at nine venues around the UK, with the season commencing at Brands Hatch on 1/2 April and concluding on the legendary Grand Prix circuit at the same venue on 30 September/1 October.
In the starting blocks
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Half of the drivers in the 32-strong field in 2017 have won at least one race in the series –underscoring the sheer unpredictability of the BTCC – while there are a whole host of young pretenders and seasoned chargers eager to join the winners' club.
Having lifted the Drivers' laurels in both 2015 and 2016 in nail-biting last-minute fashion, Gordon Shedden will be looking to draw level with the legendary Andy Rouse on four titles – as, indeed, will Halfords Yuasa Racing stablemate Matt Neal, who demonstrated last year that experience counts as he fought for the crown right the way down to the final weekend.
Neal will head into his 27th BTCC season in 2017, and both he and Shedden will be behind the wheel of the potent and proven Honda Civic Type R, sporting a bold new, inverted black-and-orange livery as the Japanese marque bids to regain the Manufacturers' trophy.
Defending title-holders West Surrey Racing have similarly upped the ante, with BMW providing manufacturer backing, and the squad enter the forthcoming campaign rebranded as Team BMW for WSR returnee Colin Turkington and mainstay Rob Collard. New recruit Andrew Jordan will compete under the BMW Pirtek Racing banner.
Turkington's off-season defection from Subaru to his former home of WSR sent shivers down the spine of many of the Northern Irishman's rivals, as last time he drove a BMW – in 2014 – he piloted it to his second BTCC crown. Renowned as a rear-wheel drive specialist, he will doubtless be a leading threat – as, too, will Collard, who enjoyed his finest year to-date in 2016 as he led the championship during mid-season and was one of eight late-season title protagonists.
It will be fascinating to see how Jordan adapts to rear-wheel drive machinery, and the 2013 champion and reigning Independents' title-holder is bullish about his prospects following an encouraging winter testing programme.
Subaru's entry onto the BTCC grid last year caused quite a stir, with the Japanese marque taking a quantum leap forward mid-season as both Turkington and Jason Plato vied regularly for race wins. Whilst the former has since departed, Plato remains, and the record race-winner in the series' history is hungrier than ever to clinch his third championship, having been a top three contender in practically every season since making his bow back in 1997.
Alongside 'JP' this year will be one of the BTCC's brightest young prospects in the shape of Ashley Sutton, who enjoyed an outstanding rookie campaign in 2016 with MG Racing RCIB Insurance, notably conquering the elements at Croft to claim a superb maiden victory. As he heads into his sophomore season, the 23-year-old will be keen to learn from old master Plato and continue his upward progression with Adrian Flux Subaru Racing.
Team-mate James Cole is eager to build upon his learning season in the rear-wheel drive Levorg, while a newcomer to the grid for 2017 will be 17-year-old Renault UK Clio Cup graduate Josh Price, who advances to the pinnacle of British tin-top competition under the BMR Racing Academy banner and will join the five-driver rookie battle for the Jack Sears Trophy.
Manufacturer-backed Power Maxed Racing's Vauxhall Astra is one of the most intriguing propositions in the pack, with Tom Chilton rejoining Britain's premier motor sport series six years on from his previous stint as one of three returning race-winners in the field. Alongside the Surrey star will be Senna Proctor, who will make his BTCC debut at Brands Hatch next month as he jumps up from Clio competition.
Last year's Independent champions Motorbase Performance have undergone a rebrand – with a striking new look – following the addition of Shredded Wheat as title sponsor across all three cars. Mat Jackson – the most successful driver in the field yet to lift the laurels – returns for an eighth consecutive season with the Kent-based operation with his eyes fixed firmly on the ultimate prize, and he will be accompanied by the experienced Martin Depper and new boy Luke Davenport, who steps up to the championship from the supporting Ginetta GT4 SuperCup.
MG Racing RCIB Insurance will have an all-new line-up in 2017, with Aron Taylor-Smith and Daniel Lloyd pairing up at the Triple Eight-run outfit. Taylor-Smith moves over from BKR, with Lloyd preparing to embark upon his first full season in the championship. Taylor-Smith is already a race-winner, and Lloyd proved in a part-season with Eurotech Racing last year that he has the pace to compete right at the sharp end, so hopes are high.
Tom Ingram enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2016 with independent squad Speedworks Motorsport, winning the curtain-raiser at Brands Hatch and tallying a brace of pole positions behind the wheel of his Toyota Avensis – with even loftier ambitions for 2017. Another Toyota driver to feature up at the pointy end over the second half of the season was Rob Austin, who increasingly got to grips with front-wheel drive after years of racing rear-wheel drive Audis. The Handy Motorsport ace was a regular podium threat in the closing rounds and will be keen to pick up from where he left off.
Adam Morgan's Ciceley Motorsport Mercedes A-Class will carry a completely new livery in 2017, having changed from yellow to red in deference to new title sponsor Mac Tools. The Lancastrian has won at least one race in each of the last three seasons and is targeting an all-out title challenge this year. In the sister Laser Tools Racing A-Class, Aiden Moffat has edged consistently closer to the front of the field and now has the top step of the podium firmly in his sights.
Jack Goff has traded rear-wheel drive for front-wheel drive as he moves from WSR to Eurotech, where he will partner team owner Jeff Smith in the squad's brace of Honda Civic Type Rs. Team HARD has switched its trio of Toyota Avensis' for three Volkswagen CCs, with Jake Hill remaining on-board to pilot the TAG Racing entry and fellow returnee Michael Epps driving one of two Autoaid/RCIB Insurance Racing-branded cars alongside rookie Will Burns.
Matt Simpson is preparing for his second season in his eponymous Simpson Racing Honda Civic Type R, which is now being run by Honda powerhouse Team Dynamics. Two-time race-winner Stephen Jelley is a welcome 'comeback kid' eight years on from his last BTCC start as he lines up for Team Parker with Maximum Motorsport alongside Josh Cook, who claimed a brace of rostrum finishes in 2016 and is chasing his first victory in the series.
Ollie Jackson is back in AmDtuning.com with Cobra Exhausts' distinctive Audi S3, and he will be joined by reigning Renault UK Clio Cup champion Ant Whorton-Eales, who will be eager to make a speedy impression. BTC Norlin Racing, meanwhile, completes the field with its brace of Chevrolet Cruzes, and whilst the entry might be new, the backbone of the team isn't, having previously competed in the BTCC from 2006-2008 and again in 2014 as BTC Racing. The driving strength blends the experience of Dave Newsham with the potential of Chris Smiley, and hopes are high of springing a surprise.
In total, there will be a full grid of 32 drivers with Audi (AmDtuning.com with Cobra Exhausts), BMW (Team BMW, BMW Pirtek Racing), Chevrolet (BTC Norlin Racing), Ford (Team Shredded Wheat Racing with Duo, Team Parker with Maximum Motorsport), Honda (Halfords Yuasa Racing, Eurotech Racing, Simpson Racing), Mercedes (Ciceley Motorsport, Laser Tools Racing), MG (MG Racing RCIB Insurance), Subaru (Adrian Flux Subaru Racing, BMR Racing Academy), Toyota (Handy Motorsport, Speedworks Motorsport), Vauxhall (Power Maxed Racing) and Volkswagen (TAG Racing, Autoaid/RCIB Insurance Racing) all represented.
One step beyond
The second phase of the BTCC's NGTC regulations is well underway with all 32-cars carrying the latest specified RML chassis, suspension and associated components for the first time this season, whilst the all-new TOCA engine has also been introduced.
Series organiser TOCA awarded the two vital Technical Partner contracts to the RML Group and Swindon Engines as part of its 'mid-term' evaluation of the NGTC regulations.
The upturn in car performance will be further bolstered by the debut of the brand new Dunlop Sport Maxx BTCC tyre range – the series' title sponsor forecasting lap time improvements of up to one second per lap at some circuits in 2017.
Dunlop had already predicted a significant increase in grip and traction with bigger tyre sizes and new constructions for the forthcoming campaign, and initial winter testing has corroborated the expected performance gains (see separate release).
Whilst the series goes from strength-to-strength on-track, it remains in rude health off-track, too, with both ITV and Dunlop signed up until at least 2022.
The ITV network's new agreement with the BTCC commences in 2017 – the largest TV contract in the BTCC's history and also the longest sports broadcasting contract into which ITV4 has entered. ITV's live and free-to-air coverage will take the partnership with the BTCC into an incredible 20th year.
At least seven hours of live coverage will be screened from each race day. Highlights programmes will also continue to be aired on ITV4, whilst qualifying will be shown via ITV's dedicated BTCC website – www.itv.com/btcc. All transmissions will be streamed 'live' via itv.com, with highlights programmes available to watch via the ITV Hub.
Dunlop similarly committed to a further five-year agreement – the contract extending both the title sponsorship and official tyre supplier partnership into a third decade.
BTCC Series Director Alan Gow said: 'We are delighted to have officially launched the 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship here at Donington Park.
'We believe this season will set the bar even higher, with 16 race-winners highlighting the strength in depth throughout the field. Furthermore, attracting two new manufacturers to the grid demonstrates the ever-growing appeal of the BTCC both on and off track.
'As I noted last season, this truly is a golden era for the BTCC and again proves it is the only show in town in British motor sport. With so much quality amongst drivers and teams alike, unpredictability is very much the name of the game and that is what keeps the fans coming back for more – in increasingly greater numbers.
'With the unstinting support of our title sponsor and loyal broadcaster, tyre and technical partners, the BTCC is set to deliver in spades once again and judging by today's attendance, the level of interest is sky-high and everybody is excited to see how things shake out in the opening round at Brands Hatch. It's going to be an absolutely stellar season.'