The British Touring Car Championship bursts back into action at Snetterton this weekend, so TouringCars.Net recapped on the action which unfolded in the first half of the year.
With 32 full-season entries, it was always going to be a good year for the British championship. Things kicked off, as usual, at the spiritual home of the championship at Brands Hatch in April.
Speedworks Motorsport’s Tom Ingram kicked off the 2017 season exactly how he began the previous one, taking victory from the front row of the grid. The 23-year-old didn’t quite have it exactly the same as in 2016 though, as Eurotech Racing’s Jeff Smith secured a shock pole position on the Saturday.
The season didn’t begin according to plan for either Colin Turkington or Matt Neal though, as the BMW and Honda driver collided on the start straight almost as soon as the race began.
Defending champion Gordon Shedden has never won the opening race of a season and 2017 was no different, although the Scot did secure his strongest-ever start to a season by finish behind Ingram in race one before going on to win race two and take a top ten in the third race.
Going from best to worst – and double champion Jason Plato might technically have not had his worst start on paper (that accolade, it could be argued, goes to his 2016 season when he took just one points finish with 13th) but having finished 12th in race one, his start line shunt in race two went on to stymie his season for the next three months.
Elsewhere a quintet of rookies began their BTCC careers, with Power Maxed Racing’s Senna Proctor emerging as the best of the new bunch having secured a 13th place finish in the second encounter.
The championship moved on to the East Midlands for the second round of the season, where mixed conditions produced a particularly mixed bag of results.
We also got the first hint of the true speed of the Subaru Levorg in 2017, as Ash Sutton briefly took pole position before he was thrown to the back of the grid for having had a turbo overboost. The 23-year-old didn’t take long to get back to the front end of the field though, ending the weekend with two third-place finishes.
Aiden Moffat became the BTCC’s newest winner in race one with a mature drive in his Mercedes, having started from fourth and passed more experienced drivers such as Rob Austin for the win.
Ingram became the first multiple winner in the second race, moving back to the top of the championship standings.
The first major controversy of the season came in the rain-soaked final race at Donington. First front-row man Neal slipped off the circuit on the first lap of the initial start, before the red flags were flown due to cars sliding off the circuit left-right-and-centre in the torrential downpour.
The three-time champion wouldn’t be allowed to take the restart due to having received outside assistance. His team-mate Gordon Shedden then went on to win the race, before being stripped of the victory due to a ride height failure.
That meant that race three saw BMW’s Turkington take the win – the first factory-backed victory for the Munich marque since Roberto Ravaglia in July 1996.
Matt Neal reignited his title charge at the high-speed Hampshire circuit, emphatically winning race one after claiming his first pole position in almost five years. Shedden made it a Honda 1-2 for the first time in just over a year.
Disaster then struck in the following sprint, however, with Neal being taken out of contention due to a power steering issue on his car. Nevertheless, he proved his abilities in the final race by carving through the field from 29th to finish 11th with one of the biggest gains from grid positions seen during the first half of the season.
Despite Ingram’s rivals trying to reduce the gap to the top throughout the weekend (with Rob Collard and Turkington also picking up victories), the Speedworks driver managed to leave the circuit with a three point extended margin of 17 over his nearest challenger, thanks to picking up a further two podiums in the second and third races of the day.
A dramatic crash in the second race of the day for MG’s Dan Lloyd saw a lengthy delay at the high-speed Church corner, and significant damage to the Triple Eight car, although incredibly it was turned around in time for an exploratory outing in the final race of the day.
Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan continued a miserable run of form that saw him pick up just eight points over six races.
Subaru star Plato continued to struggle for pace in the first races of the season, with the final race of the day in Hampshire proving to be particularly challenging as he lapped around at the back of the pack.
After failing to finish in the top ten once since the first meeting of the year, Jordan returned to form at Oulton Park, winning the opening race of the day, having started alongside Neal on the front row. For Neal, a second successive pole demonstrated the pace in his Civic and he followed it up with a strong weekend, finishing on the podium in all three races.
Sutton scored his first win for Subaru in race two, having fought hard with Aiden Moffat in the race, as the BMR driver’s championship campaign really started to gather momentum.
Securing his second win of the season in the reverse-grid final race, Shedden left the Cheshire circuit as the championship leader after early points trailblazer Ingram endured a nightmare weekend, picking up just one point for a fastest lap over the course of the action.
Ingram’s woes began with contact from Jack Goff in the first race, and he ultimately retired with a damaged car. Being down in the pack on the difficult-to-pass circuit made things harder for the Speedworks ace and he failed to make any ground up in either race two or three.
The damage to Ingram’s championship challenge was somewhat lessened by his other rivals having their share of bad luck – Turkington was apparently ‘brake tested’ by Moffat in race one according to the team and the damage to his car with three laps to go dropped him to the back of the field and gave him an uphill struggle for points in the remaining races.
Elsewhere, Motorbase driver Luke Davenport and Subaru’s Josh Price picked up their first-ever BTCC points at the circuit.
A miserable start to the weekend at a wet Croft circuit only got worse in qualifying after a huge shunt for almost half a dozen cars in one of the biggest accidents the BTCC has seen in modern times.
Davenport ripped the sump off his Ford in the wet session, laying oil on the track and going off himself on his own fluids. That caused a chain reaction with other drivers heading into the high-speed section of the circuit unawares, leading to Jeff Smith and Árón Taylor-Smith piling in at unabated speed.
Numerous other drivers also went off in the dramas, including Jordan, Morgan, Goff, Whorton-Eales and eventual pole-sitter Sutton. The session was stopped and abandoned, as the injured Davenport, Smith and Taylor-Smith were taken to hospital, eventually emerging with injuries, the most serious of which were with Davenport who was in an induced coma for a number of days.
The first race proved to be relatively orderly, with Sutton claiming another win ahead of Turkington. Ingram claimed his first top ten finish since Thruxton, although it would prove to be his only points of the weekend in another frustrating meeting.
Given the rear-wheel drive cars’ advantage at the North Yorkshire circuit it was no surprise that Turkington went on to win race two, edging ever closer to the championship lead.
Race three saw Motorbase’s Mat Jackson take the win and become the ninth different winner of the season, although he only finished in the top ten in half of the races to that point and hit the half-way point of the season a huge 86 points adrift of the championship lead.
Heading into the mid-season break defending champion Shedden was on top of the standings with 188 points, 11 ahead of ‘Mr Consistency’ Collard and 12 ahead of Turkington. Collard, who is the only driver to have finished every race inside the top ten let alone the points, has proven his worth with some mature driving in 2017 and he headed into the mid-summer break in a stronger position than ever before.
The second half of the season is set to be intriguing, but there are some early indicators – Shedden has 72 more points than he did at the same stage in his 2016 title winning year, and the top five are slightly more spaced out than they were last year.
It will take some effort to stop the Scot claiming a fourth title, but both BMW drivers are well-placed to take the fight to the Honda star.