You may be sat reading what is primarily an F1 site wondering what this is all about, but variety is the spice of life. In 2017, rather than simply analyse and enthuse about one series, it’s high time I broaden my horizons. After all, I watch, enjoy and admire far more motorsport series than just F1.
Unquestionably, one of the most underrated series on the planet is our domestic touring cars. The British Touring Car Championship is frenetic. Bumper-to-bumper racing courtesy of a grid featuring a fascinating blend of youth and experience, on some truly brilliant race circuits.
What’s not to love?
2017 is set to be a spell-binding season. For the second consecutive year, a full grid of 32 cars will hit the track. Of these 32, 16 will be driven by drivers who have won at least one race in their BTCC careers, underlining the driving talent on display.
Gordon Shedden enters the season as the man to beat, but only just. It was a thrilling season finale at Brands Hatch in October, in which eight drivers entered the final three races with an opportunity to snatch championship glory.
Shedden, driving for Halfords Yuasa Racing, overhauled chief rival Sam Tordoff’s points advantage, beating the West Surrey Racing man in the final standings by a slender two points. Heartbreak for Tordoff, who was searching for his maiden BTCC crown, while Shedden joined teammate Matt Neal in taking a third championship crown and second in succession.
Both Shedden and Neal form a fairly formidable team. 2017 marks their eighth consecutive season as teammates and they are the most decorated line-up on the grid.
Their main competition in this regard comes from West Surrey Racing. Last years Manufacturer Champions have done what many thought would be impossible over the winter and actually strengthened their driver line-up. Sam Tordoff and Jack Goff have made way for 2013 BTCC champion Andy Jordan and a return to the team for Colin Turkington, who both join veteran Rob Collard.
Turkington had a strange winter. After a year spent developing the Subaru project, the 35-year-old was seemingly dumped by the team and even as late as the Autosport International show in January, the 2014 champion didn’t have a drive. It was an almost unthinkable situation.
A return to West Surrey Racing preserved Turkington’s BTCC career, and in turn, surely presents him with his best opportunity to claim a third drivers’ title since his last crown in 2014. That, of course, came in dominant fashion during Turkington’s last stint at WSR. He won eight of the 30 rounds and took the championship with two races to spare.
Reunited with a rear-wheel drive BMW, combined with manufacturer backing, Turkington is my early favourite for 2017 championship glory.
However, Turkington, Jordan, Collard, Shedden and Neal will face plenty of tough opponents. None more so than Jason Plato. BTCC’s most prolific race winner remains at Adrian Flux Subaru Racing for 2017 and unlike last season, the team starts with a solid baseline to build upon, having taken on the ambitious task of developing the Subaru Levorg throughout last season, ultimately prevailing.
Plato is never far from championship glory and with last season’s Jack Sears Trophy Winner Ash Sutton providing the inter-team intrigue, Plato will have to be at his best to beat Sutton, in what will be his second season in the series.
One of the winter’s biggest storylines is the return of Vauxhall, who will provide their manufacturer clout to the Power Maxed Racing squad.
This is the team who have had the most to do during test season. They have had to uncover the secrets of their new Vauxhall Astra and formulate an understanding of how to make the package work at all circuits. Subaru demonstrated last season just how difficult it is to make a new car work from the outset.
However, they have sufficient talent behind the wheel. Tom Chilton’s return to BTCC is fantastic news for the sport. The 12-time race winner is box office, with a swashbuckling driving style and while the wacky blonde hairstyle is a thing of the past, Chilton has lost none of his flair on the race-track.
Following the BTCC media day at Donnignton, he enthused, “Matt Neal was out on hard tyres doing a race run, I think, and I was within one or two metres for a few laps. I out-braked him at the first corner to sort of say “I’m back!” then I held a drift down through the Craners and Old Hairpin just to show I can still drive after being away for five years!”
Having Vauxhall and Chilton back in BTCC is a thrilling proposition and will undoubtedly add an extra element of intrigue to the equation. If the team can win a race before mid-season, I’d consider that mission accomplished, given that the project is in its infancy.
Other drivers to watch in 2017 includes Tom Ingram. The Speedworks youngster took two poles last season and his maiden race win in the opening round at Brands Hatch. He will be looking for more consistency this season. Meanwhile, Rob Austin made excellent progress in 2016, where adapting to front-wheel drive in the Toyota Avensis was objective number one. With a year’s experience at Handy Motorsport, Austin will be a stronger contender this campaign.
So, in answer to the headline question; does BTCC 2017 boast the best driver line-up in the series’ history? With 16 race winners and plenty of exciting talent eager to join the winners club, I’d say it certainly has the potential to be.
Image Credit: BTCC.net