With just twelve rounds to go in this years British Touring Car Championship ahead of the series annual visit to Knockhill this weekend, the top ten in the championship standings could all be forgiven for taking a look at the table and thinking that they’ve got a shot at the title.
The BTCC receives a plethora of positive feedback from the rest of the motorsport community regardless, but the fact that, with over two-thirds of the season elapsed, such a bold statement can be described as true is, quite possibly, the biggest compliment any series can be paid in an era where the level of competition and entertainment in any motorsport category is scrutinized to the n-th degree.
The man currently sat in proverbial pole position for this years championship honours is Rob Collard, by a mere three points from team-mate Sam Tordoff, both of whom are chasing their first crown. Triple champion Matt Neal sits within menacing distance of the BMW duo, an additional three points adrift, whilst his team-mate, defending champion Gordon Shedden, the ever-impressive Colin Turkington, series stalwart Mat Jackson, former title winner Andrew Jordan and three exciting young talents in the form of Tom Ingram, Adam Morgan and Jack Goff can all claim to be in with at least an outside shot of being in contention come Brands Hatch in October. And this journalist still maintains it would be foolish to rule out Jason Plato until the maths is against him.
On a long and mostly-wet journey through Scotland to Knockhill ahead of this weekend, TouringCars.net posed the question; ‘what did the title race look like this time last year, and is there anything we can learn from it?’. So often we see a close title race in the BTCC, yet how often does a trend emerge that simply passes us by in the heat of the action?
It would be fair to say that the tagline of ‘closest season in recent years’ is one often overused in motorsport journalism, but in the case of this season it does ring true. A quick look at last years standings says a lot; first and foremost that, with twelve races to go last year, what is now a 50-point gap between the lead and 10th was a staggering 97-point margin before Knockhill last season.
One of the main issues with Formula One at the moment is it’s lack of competition, something the BTCC certainly provides by the pit-lane load. However, the faces of those competing at the front, by and large, hasn’t changed in a few seasons. Whilst Tom Ingram is a fairly new addition to the winners circle, the general rule of thumb is that each of his nine (ten, including Plato) championship rivals have finished at the sharp end of the standings at least twice in the last three seasons. So, whilst at the beginning of every season we insist almost religiously in preview features that everything is there for everyone to play for; is it?
Many would like to hope (this journalist included) that we can crown a new first-time champion this season, whether that be 47-year old Collard, who if he were to retire without winning a series crown would be arguably one of the best not to do so, or ex-MG protegee Tordoff, whose maturity since he chose to fly the nest to WSR and adapt himself to a different specification of car has paid dividends so far.
Now seems as good a time as any to give Mat Jackson a first title he craves, a just reward for a few mixed seasons of development with the Ford Focus ST that have only consistently brought him the results he deserves in the last 12 months. But what of Ingram, Morgan or Goff? Having been competitors for at least three seasons apiece (five in the case of Morgan), surely now is as good a time as ever to make the step up to the ‘next level’? And Jason Plato could equal Matt Neal on three titles…
However, based on the championship standings at this point last year, it would be foolish to assume either of the BMW drivers is set to make history, regardless of their pole position in the title race. Eventual champion Gordon Shedden was 32 points adrift of eventual runner-up Jason Plato heading to his home race in 2015, and ultimately the title race only ended up so close because of Shedden’s woes at Brands Hatch, coupled with a set of storming last-ditch performances from Plato in an attempt to wrest the title from him.
And there is a form book to be considered. At this stage last season, Tordoff for example had finished outside the top ten just three times in the first eighteen contests, clocking up two race victories, four podium finishes and thirteen top-eight results in the process. He would score just one further podium finish all campaign, whilst dropping outside the top ten four times and retiring from two races en route to 6th overall, some 78 points adrift.
History has taught us that now is the best time to hit the front in the series, as Shedden did last summer to reclaim lost ground before establishing himself as the title favourite in the ensuing twelve contests. Many still tip Colin Turkington to be the most likely man to go on such a run, having won a race in the Levorg GT at every contest since Oulton Park, including two pole positions. The Subaru promises to be an exciting unknown in Scotland this weekend, but the Ulsterman could yet pull off a third title none would have expected possible on the Sunday evening at Thruxton, for example. Not this season, at least.
So what can we learn from last season’s title race? Practically speaking, nothing that changes anything. Twelve races are left to run, which means twelve varied and unpredictable possibilities, many of them quite possibly a trip to the gravel or for an early shower, the hallmarks of a title charge that fell just short as the season concluded. However, for those who can balance their results just the right side of competitive, it seems like now is the best point in the season to hit the front, as the BTCC standings adopt a Darwinist approach and begin to thin out the weak candidates from hereon in.
Whether trackside in Fife or watching from the comfort of your own sofa this weekend, I hope you enjoy watching the next chapter in this years title race play out.