With Andrew Jordan dramatically clinching his first series crown on October 13 last year, a tortuous – albeit intriguing – six-and-a-bit month wait will be ended tomorrow at 10:00am, when a roar in the Brands Hatch pitlane will mark the start of one of the most eagerly anticipated British Touring Car Championship seasons in recent years.
A staggering 31 entries – all of whom are committed to participate at every round – which includes 13 race winners and seven champions makes for an intriguing season, with almost every outfit bullish about their chances of being competitive in 2014.
Much of the attention during the pre-season was naturally on the series’ driver line-ups, with two double champions making sensational returns.
But there were also alterations to regulations that need to be cleared up. The most significant of those was the introduction of licences from series organisers TOCA, which requires each team wishing to compete in the series to commit for the full season, while also limiting each team to a maximum of one driver change throughout the year, except in the case of a force majeure.
The championship’s sponsor Dunlop has also introduced changes to its tyre compounds, to increase the gap between the soft tyre – which each driver has to run at least once during a three-race weekend – and the harder tyre. Whereas the tyre each driver had selected was hidden until the race in 2013, Dunlop will this year provide information on the morning of every race day regarding when each driver has elected to run the soft compound.
Competition at Brands Hatch this weekend will also mark the first time that track limits will be policed, with CCTV installed to measure drivers’ distances in relation to every corner, after stricter rules were imposed during the off-season.
The 2014 season will also mark the first time in 15 years that the BTCC has run with a single specification of rules, with the phasing out of s2000 machinery also resulting in a change to the format of the Jack Sears Trophy, which will now be awarded to the driver who makes the most progression through the field from their grid slot over the course of the season.
With the rules out of the way, all attention can turn to those who will be battling it out on track for the right to become the 2014 champion.
And what better place to start than with the reigning champion Andrew Jordan? The 24-year-old turned all of his potential and racing nous that he had shown at times in previous years into a composed and well-rounded season, which deservedly saw him crowned as champion after battling through the most atrocious conditions at Brands Hatch during the season finale.
Once Matt Neal relinquished his lead at the top of the standings, Jordan never looked likely to be toppled, proving his mettle by beating four previous champions to the crown. Fresh for 2014 with backing from Red Bull, the Pirtek driver started the season in style by topping the only official practice session on media day at Donington Park earlier this month, and it would take a brave man to say that Jordan won’t be in contention this time round.
Jordan will be looking to do what his predecessor Gordon Shedden wasn’t quite able to by winning consecutive titles, with Shedden narrowing the winning margin of victory to seven points with a stellar run of performances at Brands. His Honda teammate Neal looked the more likely to take a fourth the crown for much of the season, but a disastrous meeting at Rockingham was a sign of things to come for the three-time champion, who’s campaign unraveled from that point as he finished fourth – his lowest finish in the series since 2009.
Honda have arguably the strongest partnership on the grid – which has seen them win the previous four teams’ and manufacturers’ titles – but their big gamble this year is the introduction of the Civic Tourer, the first ‘estate’ car to compete in the championship for 20 years. There were strong concerns initially that the machine was off the pace, but with a great degree of mileage under their belts in the pre-season, the team again seem to be on course to challenge at the sharp end of the grid.
After two years of what could have been, Jason Plato will be hoping that it will be third time lucky for him in the MG6, as he looks to add a third title to his collection. Plato, whose 2013 campaign was largely undermined by reliability issues, is again joined by Sam Tordoff, who proved his worth in his debut season in the BTCC, while former single-seater champion Marc Hynes has joined the squad, completing a line-up that challenges Honda’s as the most potent on the grid.
The return of Colin Turkington to the series was a highlight for many in 2013, as the Northern Irishman somehow threw together a title challenge in an underdeveloped West Surrey Racing BMW, winning five races on his way to fifth in the championship. Turkington was keen to play down the pace of this year’s BMW despite gaining valuable testing mileage, but with Rob Collard and Nick Foster seemingly more suited to the team’s 2014 challenger, Turkington could find himself with the support that he so desperately missed out on last year.
Shockwaves were felt throughout the racing world when it was announced that two-time series champion Alain Menu would return, powered by a Team BMR Restart Volkswagen Passat. Menu, who signed for Warren Scott’s team in January, admitted recently that preparations were not where the team had hoped they would be. So, while the season might not see the Swiss battling to win the championship, it will be enthralling to see how he copes in a new era of touring cars, and you can bet that he will be up for the fight.
The final former champion that will compete is Fabrizio Giovanardi, who will race for Motorbase Performance as part of the Airwaves Racing team. Giovanardi’s return was met with joy across the BTCC fraternity, and his appearance at Brands Hatch will mark his first appearance in the series since he won two of the opening three races of the 2010 season at Thruxton, before financial issues forced him to withdraw. With the team retaining series stalwart Mat Jackson and bringing in ex-F2 racer Jack Clarke (who will race in a satellite Ford Focus under the Crabbies Racing banner), they will be hoping to return to winning ways and improve on what was ultimately a disappointing 2013 campaign.
To think, however, that the seven champions will make up the definitive list of title contenders, would be a foolish assumption to make. Could 2014 throw up a new BTCC champion?
Rob Austin goes into the season with more testing mileage to his name than in his previous three years of competition, and has been optimistic throughout the winter period about his chances of mixing it up at the front. The Audi has traditionally run well on the Indy circuit, and don’t be surprised to see Austin leading the first lap through Paddock Hill bend given the car’s lightening rear-wheel drive powered starts.
Austin lost his WIX Racing backing shortly after the end of the 2013 season to the Ciceley Racing outfit, and Adam Morgan is another driver to be watched in his A-class Mercedes, after recently revising his expectations following a series of strong testing performances.
There were also other significant shifts in the paddock, with Dave Newsham moving to Amd Tuning, his fourth team in five years. The Inverness-based driver will pilot a Ford Focus, acquired from Motorbase, and his place in the Speedworks Toyota Avensis from last year is taken by highly-rated rookie Tom Ingram, with the team halving their operation in the series.
The model nonetheless remains the most popular on the grid, with United Autosports moving into the BTCC with James Cole and Glynn Geddie, having experience success previously in GT and endurance racing. Fan-favourite Lea Wood was late to announce his plans, but he retains his place on the grid after acquiring an Avensis which will run under the Houseman Racing banner. Simon Belcher debuts in the series, also running in an Avensis.
Tom Onslow-Cole will not race in the championship this year, while the car he drove in the first part of the 2013 season will be driven by one of his teammates from the second half of the season, with Aron Smith joining two-time champion Menu in a Passat. Warren Scott will drive his team’s second Vauxhall Insignia, partnered by Jack Goff who retains his RCIB Insurance Racing sponsorship.
Robb Holland will compete in an Audi S3 with Rotek Racing, meaning a third Audi will take to the grid after Hunter Abbott joins Rob Austin Racing. Welch Motorsport have retained a two-car entrance in the championship, but David Nye’s s2000 Ford Focus from 2013 is replaced by a new Proton, which Dan Welch will drive with Ollie Jackson taking the older model.
Two Chevrolets will also be on the grid in 2014, with BTC Racing completing their build of an ex-RML hatchback Cruze to take to the grid, the giant-killers returning for the first time since 2008. After becoming the youngest driver to ever have competed in the series, Aiden Moffat will undertake his first full season in the championship, running a saloon version of the Cruze.
Whatever happens, the 2014 British Touring Car Championship is set to be one that lives on in the memory for years to come.
You can keep up to date with it all through TouringCars.Net, with coverage from race weekends and driver interviews available from @touringcarsnet and at www.touringcars.net