REVIEW: BRITISH TOURING CARS SHEDDEN
A record number of winners and a hard-fought title spiced up the BTCC. By Matt James TO THE RESCUE
he British Touring Car Championship was settled with a whimper rather than a bang at Brands Hatch when Gordon Shedden simply powered ahead of his rivals to earn a third crown by a mere two points.
There was no great drama, no controversy and no accidents. It was all very unlike the season that had gone before that climax.
There were 12 different winners over the course of 2016, which goes to show how competitive the category is. But that in itself is a double-edged sword. Does it mean that winning a race in the BTCC has become too easy? Not necessarily. What it means is that all of the factors have to be spot on for a driver to prevail in a single round.
There are a number of ways that a driver can be impeded over the course of a race weekend. There is the success ballast that is fitted to the fastest cars, the option tyre that has to be used at least once over the weekend and the reversed grid anomaly too.
It is rare that a driver will have all of those things in his favour. Even when he does, there is the ultra-tight competition itself to deal with.
While all of that adds up to making each individual race a very tough nut to crack, the spin-off is that the experienced drivers, the ones who have been around the block a bit, know how to put a title challenge together.
It is no coincidence that, of the eight drivers who went into the final showdown at the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit with a chance of lifting the title, five of them were former outright champions.
Going in to that final battle, though, the man at the head of the points table was Sam Tordoff in the WSR BMW 125i M Sport, one of the few who hadn’t lifted the silverware before.
That marked a huge step up for the racer, who was only in his second
season in a rear-wheel-drive BTCC car and his fourth full year in total.
He showed consistent rather than stunning pace over the opening period of the season before things kicked into life with a win at Oulton Park. He won again at the eighth meeting of the year at Rockingham (which was remarkable after an electrical problem in wet weather meant he started race one from the back of the pack).
Even by that stage though, the writing had been on the wall. The engine equalisation formula turned down the output slightly over the latter part of the season and from there, Tordoff was in defence mode.
There was a tweak to the BMW’S Neil Brown-developed powerplant over the winter, with direct injection added and Team Dynamics Honda Racing Civic Type-r WSR BMW 125i M Sport Motorbase Performance Ford Focus Team BMR Subaru Levorg BMW 125i M Sport Team Dynamics Honda Civic Type-r Team BMR Subaru Levorg Motorbase Performance Ford Focus Ciceley Racing Mercedes-benz A-class Speedworks Racing Toyota Avensis Team Hard Toyota Avensis Triple Eight Racing MG6 Triple Eight Racing MG6 Ciceley Racing Mercedes-benz A-class Team BKR VW CC
running with less boost than they been granted just to make sure stayed within the rules. That is why the cars were so far away from the front at Croft, but it pointed the way for the remainder the year. Shedden admits that as well as the engine woe, the cars were a long way from the ultimate set-up window. After Croft, there was lots of headscratching at Team Dynamics and solution was found. From the start of the second half of season, race one at Snetterton in July, Shedden’s average finishing position was sixth. He clawed back massive points at most races and ultimately nicked two more than Tordoff when he overtook him at Brands Hatch during that final round.
The late-season momentum had been firmly with Shedden, while his teammate Neal had the reverse: he started strongly but suffered as others got on top of new cars. Neal’s tactic over the opening part of the year, when he was weighed down with success ballast and tyre option dilemmas, was to get all of that pain out of the way early on and build towards a race three win.
That worked well and he led the standings initially – but that also came with the whammy that he went into each meeting with the maximum 75kg of ballast.
He was in the hunt until the end but was spat out of race two at Brands following an electrical failure. Neal ended up in the tyres and ultimately the medical centre with mild concussion. It was a very unsatisfactory conclusion to the season.
New champion Shedden, who’d finished third in that final showdown, was joined on the rostrum by round 30 winner Mat Jackson.
Jackson’s victory helped him to third spot in the points. He was the joint most successful driver in the year in terms of race wins but came up just short.
The Motorbase Performance Ford Focus was a very potent weapon last season and the engine equivalency formula pegged it back a little over the winter, but the team was confident that the upgrades to the chassis would compensate.
Motorbase also had the most potentially explosive driver line-up on the entry list too, as it added 2013 champion Andrew Jordan to the stable.
There was an immediate flashpoint in the opening rounds at Brands Hatch, and the pair had a frank discussion afterwards. Harmony was restored and Jackson got his charge rolling with a win at Donington Park in meeting two, but the increased competitiveness of the series meant it was going to be a long shot.
There was a cruel puncture at Thruxton where points went begging, and he was also afflicted by an ECU problem at Snetterton. In a year when the margins were so fine, those were crucial come the end of the campaign.
Jackson now has the unwanted accolade of being the driver with the most race wins to his name without a title. Third in the points would be good enough for most men, but he felt it was another chance missed.
Team-mate Jordan, who claimed the Independents Trophy, would go on to finish in eighth in the standings in another tough year. He felt that he never really hooked a weekend up as the engineers were pushing the car through the course of a weekend. When it did all click, like at Silverstone in the ninth meeting of the season, he was the highest points-scorer of all, but it was too little too late and Jordan has now left the team.
The story of Subaru’s first foray into the BTCC as a manufacturer-blessed entry was a dramatic one. The boxerengined Levorg GT, which resembles an estate car, had the engineers buzzing with excellent drag and performance figures before it hit the track, but those did not translate.
The chassis was fine, as could be seen when the weather was changeable, but the power was not there.
Initially there were problems with the fuel rail on the car, which led to a spectacular conflagration for James Cole at Donington and ultimately meant all four examples of the car were withdrawn from Thruxton.
Allied to that, the rapidly expanding outfit had not had time to homologate a bespoke manifold and that meant that the car was breathless. There was a tweak to the technical regulations before Oulton Park in June and then their rivals’ worst fears were recognised: the Levorg was a monster.
Turkington took the first win at Oulton Park and went on to collect four more victories. From its difficult birth, it had become the car to beat and Turkington’s sprint to fourth in the points was stunning.
Team-mate Jason Plato, one of the prime movers behind the entire Subaru Team BMR programme, was also in the title hunt at the death. He was perhaps trying to push the envelope in terms of the car’s set up beyond the more cautious Turkington. When it worked it flew, such as at Knockhill, but there were some blind alleys along the way, which left him behind the sister car.
Plato was racing a rear-wheel-drive BTCC car for the first time in his career. This can’t be underestimated. Turkington had taken his two titles (2009 and 2014) in rear-wheel-drive cars and he and his engineer Kevin Berry knew the tricks. Plato was learning.
Look at 2015, when Turkington and Plato were paired in a front-wheel-drive VW CC. Plato had the edge when it came to the last fractions of a second, and that was reversed when the drivetrain was swapped. With one year’s learning, Plato will be back in the hunt in 2017. ■