History will be made on 11 April when the 2004 BTCC gets underway at Thruxton, when a gas powered car races in the championship for the first time.

Team Mardi Gras Motorsport has taken advantage of the new regulations for this season to announce its return to the championship with an LPG powered Honda Civic Type-R for driver John George.

Crash.net met up with the team at Donington Park to find out more about this unique car ahead of its championship debut.

For weeks in the run up to the official launch of the 2004 season, rumours suggested that somebody was interested in running an LPG car in the BTCC.

Changes to the rules for the new season have allowed European Touring specification cars to enter the British series. ETCC rules allow for cars running on alternative fuels and Mardi Gras took advantage of this to enter one of the most talked about cars to ever race in the series.

"It was made quite simple for us to enter the car in the BTCC because of the new rules," team chief Paul Hetherington told Crash.net. "There are provisions in the Super 2000 regulations for alternative fuel cars so it was down to us to liase with TOCA in order for us to fit the car in.

"They have been really co-operative with us to allow us to enter the car and we still have some groundwork to get the car ready for the new season."

The team has faced a race to get the car ready for the new season and only got the car back from conversion experts Prins four days before the opening test of the season, meaning the team were facing a big step into the unknown.

"We built the car and we built the engine," Hetherington said. "We ran the car on petrol and mapped the engine out and then sent the car out to Prins in Holland to do the conversion work for us.

"We are pretty much at a 'suck it and see' kind of stage at the moment. Today will be the first time that this car has turned a wheel with the gas conversion on it."

To those who aren't in the know, the thought of a car running on gas could be worrying from a safety point of view. But Hetherington is quick to point out that his car is just as safe as any other on the grid.

"If you think about it our car is no more dangerous than a petrol one," he said. "What's the worst that could happen? Okay it could be involved in an accident and something could get ruptured but that can happen with a petrol car too.

"If you get 40 litres of fuel all over the track then that's just as dangerous as anything else. People need to realise that the fuel in the tank is in liquid form and it only becomes volatile when it becomes a gas."

The issue of safety has led to a unique decision regarding the fuelling of the car. While every other car on the grid will refuel the normal way, the Mardi Gras team will simply change the fuel cell in the car when the need arises.

"The issue of fuelling was something TOCA were worried about," Hetherington explained. "They didn't want a pressurised gas tanker in the paddock that could possibly be tampered with. That's where Prins helped us out.

"The forklifts trucks at the docks in Rotterdam have to have interchangeable fuel tanks, which is what we have here, so they had an instant solution to the problem. The only problem with them is that they are very heavy, so we need to work to try and get weight off the car."

With the team heading into the unknown for the news season, Hetherington is keen to stress that it will take the team time to get the car onto the pace of the opposition.

"It would be nice to think we'll find ourselves snapping at the heels of some of the big boys," he said, "but we don't expect to set the world alight to start with.

"We are still having teething troubles and the car is very heavy so we have a few penalties at the moment. We could struggle at Thruxton with the speed of the car; it'll be a few races before we get on the pace. Once we do, it's nice to think we could challenge for independent wins."

John George steps into the big time after three years in the Clio Cup and he shares the boss's optimism of what the season ahead holds.

"This is a big step into the unknown for us," George explained. "We have developed the engine over the last four day's; some of the other guys have been doing it for the last four years, so we face an uphill struggle."

However George is full of praise for the team around him.
"We've got good people working on the car," he said. "The gas people are very passionate and if it can be done, we're sure they'll do it for us. Mardi Gras are a very professional team who've been in motorsport for a long time. We won't suffer from some of the problems other new teams would."

He also shares the view of team boss Hetherington that the team can be realistic challengers for race wins in the independents championship by the time the season draws to a close.

"We've got the car to do the job, it will just take time to set it up," he said. "We have the wrong first race really [Thruxton] because it's all about power. We may struggle with that at this stage. Once we get the car sorted we should be better at the top end on flat throttle because we won't suffer from the temperature build up of a petrol car, that's the theory anyway."

Only time will tell how successful the entry will be in the BTCC this season, but the team can take heart from an LPG entry in the Vauxhall Vectra Challenge in the late 1990's which blew the field away by the end of the season. If Mardi Gras can achieve something close to that in the coming year then it would put them in a strong position for 2005, when all being well, they will be able to enter two gas powered cars into the championship.

Crash.net will follow the team and its unique car throughout the season as they try to work their way up the grid and make a real impression in the 2004 British Touring Car Championship.