27 December 2007
Crash.net's BTCC season review – Part 1.
At the conclusion of the 2006 season, the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship was in good shape, with ever increasing grid numbers, a strong television package, and a title fight that went to the wire at Silverstone before Matt Neal lifted the title for the second successive season.
All-in-all, things looked good then heading into 2007….
With the BTCC embracing the Super 2000 rules found in the World Touring Car Championship, the grid looked rather different when the field assembled at Rockingham for the annual Media Day back in March. For a start, the champion had a new car as Team Halfords switched the all-conquering Honda Integra for the new Civic – although the car wasn't ready to run on the day and the team faced a race to even make sure it had two cars for the opening rounds at Brands Hatch. Team RAC had new machinery and a new driver line-up, with Tom Onslow-Cole joining Colin Turkington in a brace of BMW 320sis while VX Racing also had a new machine – with the Vectra replacing the Astra Sport Hatch. Indeed, of the front-runner teams, only SEAT Sport had some continuity, with Jason Plato and Darren Turner at the wheel of the same SEAT Leons they had used in 2006.
Elsewhere on the grid, SEAT Cupra Cup champion Mat Jackson had made the step up with the same BMW 320si that Andy Priaulx had taken to the previous season's WTCC title, while Adam Jones had swapped the Xero Lexus for a SEAT Toledo run by GR Asia under the Team Aircool banner. After a toe in the water entry with Dave Pinkney in 2006, Motorbase expanded to two cars, with Matt Allison and Gareth Howell in SEAT Toledos, while Pinkney joined forces with Richard Marsh to enter two Alfa Romeo's for the new A-Tech team. Eoin Murray, Martyn Bell, Chris Stockton and Nick Leason all returned in S2000 machinery while two new-comers completed the S2000 brigade in the shape of BMW racers Jim Pocklington and Rick Kerry – the latter becoming the first person to enter a diesel car in the BTCC.
Although being ineligible for the outright championship, there was still a healthy group of BTC-spec cars entered, led by Mike Jordan in the Eurotech Integra. He was joined by fellow Honda racers Simon Blanckley and John George, while Jason Hughes and Fiona Leggate teamed up as Kartworld expanded to two cars. Turkish racer Erkut returned for a full season under the Arkas Racing banner with his Astra Sport Hatch – completing a healthy field of 26 cars entered for the campaign.
First blood on Media Day went to Vauxhall, as Giovanardi set the pace during the afternoon test session ahead of Jordan and Turkington before the field headed to Brands Hatch for the opening three races of the year…
Despite the fact that the car was completed late, and hadn't done much pre-season running, it was Turkington who claimed the first pole position of the season after edging out Plato and Turner around the short Indy Circuit – putting a BMW on pole for the first time in more than ten years. Giovanardi and Chilton were fourth and fifth, but the new Civics were down in ninth (Neal) and 14th (Gordon Shedden).
However, Turkington couldn't make the most of the fast-starting BMW as the opening race of the season went the way of Plato. The SEAT man jumped into the lead at the start and survived two Safety Car periods to lead the Team RAC man home to the finish, while Jackson took a fine third on his debut – although he would then be excluded for ignoring a black flag. It meant Neal inherited third ahead of Jordan, Onslow-Cole and Chilton. Giovanardi meanwhile could manage only tenth place after an incident at the start and a problem on a restart dropped him as low as 16th.
Plato repeated the feat in race two, leading Turkington from start-to-finish for his second win of the day, while Chilton put the Vectra onto the podium for the first time in third place. Turner was fourth ahead of Neal and Jones while Giovanardi was seventh after a coming together than forced Shedden to retire – the Italian taking pole for the final race once the wheel of fortune was spun.
Giovanardi couldn't convert the pole however as Neal made a demon start to race three to lead the field into Paddock Hill Bend and he managed to defend for the entire race to give Halfords a dream start to life with the Civic – although it was a win the team admitted had come against expectation. The man pushing Neal early on was Jones but he would gradually slip down the order as Giovanardi recovered from a poor start to finish second with Jackson third – this time keeping the position. Fourth for Plato, to add to his earlier wins, meant he left Brands with a nine point lead over Neal, with Turkington seven points further back. Giovanardi meanwhile was 24 points off top spot in fifth. Retirement in race three saw Turkington left second in the Indy standings behind Jones – although that would change heading to Rockingham for round two.
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