Photo: BTCC, PSP Images

BTCC 2019 – Time for action as Brands Hatch looms

It’s time for the talking to stop this weekend when the 2019 BTCC season bursts into life at Brands Hatch for the opening meeting of the campaign.

A 30 car field will do battle for honours over the course of the year and – as per usual – it’s a highly competitive field that has been assembled, with multiple race winners, five former champions and a Le Mans 24 Hours winner all thrown into the mix…

What’s new?

Aside from changes to the cars and drivers on track, there are a number of revisions to the rules and regulations for 2019 – as well as a change to the calendar.

The demise of Rockingham opened up a slot on the calendar, which has been filled by Thruxton – meaning it now hosts two rounds of the season for the first time since 2007, when a second round at the Hampshire circuit filled the void created by the decision to no longer visit Mondello Park in Ireland.

That isn’t the only change to the calendar either, with the rounds at Croft and Oulton Park swapping positions – meaning it is the Cheshire venue that will host the final meeting prior to the traditional summer break.

On track, discussions between TOCA and the teams resulted in a number of amendments being made to the series’ regulations over the course of winter, the most significant of which relates to success ballast.

Given the close nature of the competing cars on track, the maximum level of ballast that will now be carried – either due to championship position or race results – has been reduced from 75kg down to 54kg; with the ballast handed out to the remainder of the top ten being adjusted accordingly.

Changes to the strike system should go some way towards further improving driving standards, although there are 16 drivers who go into the new season aware that they already have one strike to their name.

Those strikes last for a period of twelve months, but with the season opener taking place a day before the corresponding race meeting last season, none of the strikes that were picked up at Brands Hatch Indy last year will be removed before 2019 kicks off.

The tyre rules have also been tweaked, with the medium tyre – traditionally used as the ‘standard’ rubber– becoming the option tyre at Knockhill, and drivers being forced to use a different compound in each of the three races at Snetterton.

Who is going to win?

There’s only one way to answer that question – and it’s whoever ends the season with the most points on the board.

Season after season, people try and make predictions about who will secure the BTCC title but the simple fact is that the number of potential champions runs well into double figures.

Whilst there are the usual suspects who you can expect to figure towards the sharp end, there are also plenty of drivers who have a package underneath them that is good enough to challenge for honours if things go their way.

The only other thing for certain is that the eventual champion certainly won’t get an easy ride to the crown…

BMW – West Surrey Racing & Team Parker Racing:

As was the case last year, BMW will be represented by four cars in 2019 but it’s all change when it comes to the three being run by West Surrey Racing.

The decision to switch from the 125i M Sport – the most successful car the team has run in the series – to the 330i M Sport has certainly provided Dick Bennetts’ squad with a challenge as it raced to prepare the cars for the season launch, with no guarantee that all three would be ready to hit the track.

However, the three cars duly appeared for a roll-out the day prior to the Brands Hatch test and – in an ominous sign for the rest – were right on the pace.

Both Andrew Jordan and defending champion Colin Turkington ran well inside the top ten, whilst newcomer Tom Oliphant wasn’t far behind as he returns to rear-wheel drive after his debut campaign with Ciceley.

Given the fact that the BMW will only get stronger as the team gains more knowledge, WSR will go into the season as one of the favourites for honours once again with both Turkington and Jordan having eyes on the title.

Oliphant, a driver who suffered his fair share of misfortune last year, should also not be discounted in the fight for race wins, although a lack of track time to get used to his new surroundings may work against him in the early rounds.

Off track, it remains to be seen how much the team will miss the input of ace engineer Kevin Berry after his switch to WTCR with Cyan Racing, although the signing of Dan Millard from BMR means a championship winning replacement has already been put in place.

Whilst WSR’s 1 Series models are now safely parked up in the factory, Team Parker will continue to run the car and will hope for an upturn in fortune after a wretched 2018 campaign.

Making the switch from the Ford Focus was supposed to help Stephen Jelley move up the pecking order but it took time for the team to really gel with the car and the results on track certainly didn’t match up to expectations.

However, the pace at Knockhill – where a podium finish was the least Jelley deserved – showed that the team was heading in the right direction and plenty of hard work has gone in over the winter to improving the package.

The season launch test saw Jelley run strongly inside the top ten and lap less then a tenth of a second behind Turkington – suggesting that a better season lies ahead in 2019…

Honda – Team Dynamics, BTC Racing, Cobra Sport AmD & Simpson Racing:

Only one of the manufacturer-backed teams goes into 2019 with an unchanged package – and that is something that could work in favour of Team Dynamics.

The FK8 version of the Civic Type R was a quick car last season, as seen by the fact that both Matt Neal and Dan Cammish were multiple race winners, but it also led to head-scratching at times when it didn’t perform as expected on track.

Plenty of lessons were learned as a result and it means that the former champions head into the new campaign in a much stronger position than twelve months ago – with vital knowledge of the car now under its belt.

Both Cammish and Neal were on the pace during the Brands Hatch test and there are plenty who feel that there is still more to come when the real action gets underway.

Having not been involved in the main title battle last year, don’t bet against Dynamics being firmly in the hunt this time around…

There will be a further two FK8s on the grid in 2019 after BTC Racing elected to switch to the newer model, and a driver line-up of Josh Cook and Chris Smiley is one that is certainly capable of challenging for race wins.

As was the case last season, pre-season testing has been limited but a close working relationship with Dynamics should ensure that the team is able to get up to speed quickly as it looks to regularly challenge the big boys at the front.

The withdrawal of Eurotech Racing from the series resulted in AmD acquiring two of the older FK2 Civics – and it means that Shaun Hollamby’s team go into the new season in better shape than ever before.

Signing former series runner-up Sam Tordoff to partner Rory Butcher was a sign of intent from the team and a strong pre-season testing programme resulted in Tordoff topping the times during the Brands Hatch test with a record-breaking lap.

Whilst the team has managed just two podium finishes in the series to date, both drivers will be hoping to regularly push towards the sharp end of the grid and fight for wins – something that would now appear to be a very realistic goal.

Completing the Honda challenge will be Matt Simpson’s eponymous team, which continues to be run in-house as was the case in the latter stages of 2018.

Whether or not Simpson can reach the highs of last season, when he secured a first pole and win at Oulton Park, remains to be seen but the former Intermarques racer has shown that he is more than capable of upsetting the applecart and will be keen to do again.

Toyota – Speedworks Motorsport:

The Speedworks team has flown the flag for Toyota as an Independent for a number of years, and has worked hard to secure manufacturer support for 2019 as the Team Toyota GB name returns to the track.

In Tom Ingram, the team has one of the rising stars of touring car racing at the wheel and the new Corolla has proven to be quick out of the box – and has been able to complete plenty of running in both Spain and the UK.

Developing the new machine as a single car entry will no doubt throw up a challenge or two along the way, but the Cheshire based outfit has shown that it is more than capable of taking the fight to the big boys.

A few years ago, plenty of people would have been surprised at the thought of Speedworks being amongst the fancied runners for overall honours – but now, the only surprise would be if Ingram and the team aren’t right in the mix when the series returns to Brands Hatch for the season finale.

Subaru – Team BMR:

The performance of Team BMR has been one of the big talking points in the BTCC for a number of seasons, most notably since it decided to make the switch to the Subaru Levorg in 2016.

Having claimed the title in 2017, last year proved to be a challenge – with Ash Sutton unable to defend his crown after a tough start to the campaign left him with too much ground to make up in the standings.

There were still six wins however, in stark contrast to the other side of the garage where team-mate Jason Plato would score points on just four occasions.

Sutton’s return to lead the team for a third season is key to team’s chances of success although there has only been limited track time for the team – with Sutton’s car only completed the night before the season launch.

New team-mate Senna Proctor has also only had limited time at the wheel of his new car after making the switch from Power Maxed Racing but both drivers are more than capable of getting the job done on track.

One thing they can’t afford however is a repeat of the slow start that has dogged the team in recent years if BMR wants to fight for the titles.

Vauxhall – Power Maxed Racing:

When it comes to experience, one team stands head and shoulder above the rest going into 2019, with Power Maxed Racing announcing a driver pairing with a combined total of more than 1,000 starts.

The decision to sign Jason Plato, reuniting the double champion with Vauxhall for the first time since his 2001 title winning campaign, is one of the most intriguing stories of the off-season after his struggles in recent seasons.

The Astra was a race winning car last season and there is no reason why the same shouldn’t be true during the year ahead – providing Plato with the chance to move closer to the astonishing landmark of 100 race wins.

The signing of Rob Collard to drive the sister car is just as interesting, with the former WSR man making his return to action after concussion curtailed his 2018 programme.

It’s been more than a decade since Collard last raced in front-wheel drive but the 50-year-old will be hoping that he can celebrate his return to action by fighting towards the front and regularly pushing for the podium.

Ford – Motorbase Performance:

Having introduced an all-new driver line-up and a new car twelve months ago, there is some continuity at Motorbase for 2019 with Tom Chilton back for a second season and the team embarking on year two with the Focus RS.

The Focus was quick last year, as seen by Sam Tordoff topping the qualifying averages, but it was a consistent approach to the campaign that allowed Chilton to stay in contention for honours until the season finale – scoring points in more races than any other driver.

With a year under his belt with the team and a solid pre-season testing programme – which included going second quickest in the season launch test – Chilton will have eyes on launching a bid for the championship title and arguably provides Motorbase with its best chance of success.

New team-mate Ollie Jackson, who returns to Motorbase for the first time since his Carrera Cup days, will be eager to try and build on the results he has secured in recent seasons with AmD and will be keen to add to the podium finish he secured last year; something that is certainly achievable if things fall into place.

As was the case last year, Motorbase will run a second team alongside the two Shredded Wheat with Gallagher cars, with Nicolas Hamilton making his return to the series for the first time since a part campaign in 2015.

The challenges Hamilton faces due to cerebral palsy are well documented, but the younger brother of F1 champion will hope to prove his doubters wrong in his first full season in the series.

A solid showing in the Brands Hatch test was a good start and suggests he is better prepared than he was in the past to make the step up from the Clio Cup.

Mercedes – Ciceley Motorsport & Laser Tools Racing:

Three Mercedes A Class cars will once again feature on the grid this season but only two are still prepared by Ciceley Motorsport; the team behind the development of the car since it debuted in the series.

Adam Morgan once again spearheads the family-run team and, having matched his career best finish of seventh in the standings last year, will be keen to try and improve in 2019.

Whether that is possible could largely be down to Morgan avoiding the mini slumps that have hit his challenge in recent years – with Croft and Snetterton in particular having been far from kind in the past two seasons.

On the other side of the garage, Dan Rowbottom steps up from the Clio Cup hoping to impress and has been able to complete a decent amount of testing – including getting the chance to head over to Spain.

Quickest of the rookie drivers in the Brands Hatch test, Rowbottom will hope to be amongst the contenders for the Jack Sears Trophy.

After four seasons working alongside Ciceley, Aiden Moffat and his Laser Tools Racing team go it alone for 2019, with the preparation of the car now being undertaken by family business A1 Automotive Race & Restoration.

The change may be what Moffat needs after a tough 2018 season that started well before dropping off dramatically – with a run of two points finishes across four rounds mid-season.

A win at Silverstone gave a much-needed boost in confidence to the young Scot, and he’ll be keen to add to his tally during the year ahead.

Audi – Trade Price Cars Racing:

Although still running from the AmD garage, there’s a new look for the Audis this season after they were taking over by Dan Kirby’s Trade Price Cars operation.

The decision to bring in Jake Hill – who has a past relationship with both Trade Price Cars and AmD – came as little surprise, with the youngster now going into a season with a pre-season testing programme under his belt for the first time.

Benefitting from a number of changes to the car that have been carried over from the Honda Civic also sitting in the AmD workshop, Hill has shown solid pace during testing and lapped inside the top ten during the Season Launch – something Hill will be keen to replicate throughout the year ahead.

The driver of the second car proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the season, with ex-F1 racer and Le Mans winner Mark Blundell joining the team for his return to racing.

Blundell has been able to spend four days on track testing ahead of the season but is realistic in his aims for the season – with the initial focus being to have fun and learn as much as possible before starting to work his way forwards up the grid.

Volkswagen – Team HARD:

The only four-car team on the grid, Team HARD has been busy over the winter with newcomers Michael Crees and Carl Boardley doing plenty of testing to try and help them get up to speed in preparation for the new season.

Crees will be teamed up with Bobby Thompson this season, with the latter eager to try and show more of the pace that was displayed in flashes last year.

Boardley meanwhile gets the opportunity to run alongside Jack Goff after he secured an unexpected second chance to race in 2019 after Mike Bushell stood down from his drive.

Goff provides the team with its best chance to success on track this year but a lack of testing may work against him in the early part of the year at least.

MG – Excelr8 Motorsport:

Excelr8 are the new boys to the party for 2019 having elected to take the step into touring cars for the first time after years of success in the MINI Challenge.

For rookie duo Rob Smith and Sam Osborne, the move into touring cars is a big one to take, although Smith put in a solid showing during the season launch to lap within a second of the pace.

As the final driver confirmed on the grid – prior to the late change at Team HARD – Osborne goes into the season lacking track time compared to many of his rivals but once up to speed, both drivers will hope to try and push towards the points scoring positions as the season wears on.