The 2001 British Touring Car Championship gets off to a flying start on the April 15-16, when the first rounds are held on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit.

New for 2001, Touring Cars will run two classes: The Touring Class and the Production Class. The new sporting regulations, designed to lower costs for teams competing in the Championship, have boosted the number of entries, and attracted many new teams to the series.

Series Director Richard West commented: "I'm very pleased with the number of entries to the 2001 Championship. I think the combination of Vauxhall, Peugeot, Lexus and Alfa Romeo 147s, are going to be a potent force for racing in the BTC Touring Class. As for the BTC Production class, I'm equally delighted with the number of entries."

Pre-season testing has shown that the Vauxhall Astra's are likely to be the cars to beat at Brands, with the Peugeot 406's playing catch to both the Triple Eight and Egg: Sport cars.

However, Peugeot insist that their lack of pace, in relation to the Vauxhall's, has been due to the relatively late introduction of the 406 Coupe. They insist that their true form has yet to be seen.

Indeed, with the likes of long-time Independent runner, Matt Neal, and BTCC returnee Steve Soper at the wheel it is hard to imagine the Peugeots not being in with a shout of the title, which looks like being fought out between the two marques.

The Vauxhall Motorsport challenger will be the new 2.0-litre Astra Coup? driven by Oxford-based Jason Plato and Frenchman, Yvan Muller - the same pair that took the race-winning Vauxhall Vectra to no less than sixteen BTCC podium finishes last year.

However, these won't be the only Astra Coup?s lining up on the grid. Following the announcement of satellite team, Egg Sport, spectators will be treated to Vauxhall's ''Awesome Foursome'' with seasoned BTCC campaigner, James Thompson from Yorkshire and West Midlands newcomer, Phil Bennett completing the Astra Coup? line-up.

Vauxhall Motorsport Manager, Mike Nicholson welcomes the arrival of the new season: ''We are really looking forward to a fresh new challenge. Much thought has been put into the new rule changes and I am sure that the racing will be closer than ever, providing not only tough competition between the teams but also a great spectacle for the championship's followers.''

''Vauxhall will have four Astra Coup?s on the grid this year which is great news. All we need now is to get on with the job in hand and get some cracking results.''

Both Vauxhall Motorsport drivers, Muller and Plato, feel that they have unfinished business after finishing fourth and fifth respectively in the 2000 championship. Each has declared his own intention to win. Jason Plato however, having topped the time sheets at the final test (at Oulton Park on April 4) before the seasons gets under way, is clearly chomping at the bit.

''I'm determined that this is going to be my year. I've worked hard for this, gaining experience over the years and fine-tuning my race craft. I've always had the pace but fans are going to see a more complete driver now - a driver capable of taking the championship title. Bold words I know but I'm wanting that trophy!''

Yvan Muller, who spent his winter honing his race skills on the ice racing circuits of Europe where he took his sixth consecutive Andros Trophy in the process, knows it will be a tough year ahead: ''I see everyone on the grid as my main rival, you cannot ignore anyone. We have had an advantage getting our cars ready first but because of that, Peugeot, Alfa Romeo, Lexus and MG (when they arrive), will all want to push us even harder. It is going to be an interesting year but my aim is to do the best job possible and win as many races as I can in the Astra Coup?.''

Responsible for design, build and running of the four Vauxhall Astra Coup?s is Brackley-based race preparation company, Triple Eight Race Engineering Ltd. The company worked round the clock throughout the winter months to convert the Astra Coup? into the mean race machine it is now and following tests in the UK and abroad, is confident Vauxhall's Astra Coup? will be the car to beat this season.

''It has been a great challenge for us to build a race car from scratch. We had a new model to work with, new regulations to abide by and not much time to get it all completed,'' says Triple Eight Director, Ian Harrison, the man responsible for overseeing the Astra Coup?'s development.

''But, it all came together very nicely in the end and as pre-season testing has shown, the Astra Coup? is going to be a great race car. It sounds fantastic, looks business like and the feedback from the drivers indicates that fans won't be disappointed this season.''

NEW LOOK CHAMPIONSHIP - NEW LOOK CARS

Race weekends take on a different format this year with the traditional Friday test sessions scrapped as part of the effort to cut costs. Instead, a more compact race programme has been devised. The BTC Touring cars will not turn a wheel until qualifying day when they have two 45-minute free practice sessions in the morning.

This year BTC Production and Touring cars having their own 30-minute qualifying sessions with next Sunday's BTC Touring car qualifying session starting at 3.15pm. Qualifying itself will be different: the best two lap times determine grid positions - of those two times, the one set earlier in the session will be the used for the Sprint race grid and the one set later is used for the Main race grid.

''Car reliability and immediate speed are going to be crucial to this year's half hour qualifying session,'' says Plato. ''We only have 30 minutes to set two really good times and if something goes wrong in that half-hour, a puncture or an off for example, we could end up at the back of the grid with a heck of a job to do during both races. It's bound to catch someone out this year - I just hope it isn't me!''

Easter Monday's on track action begins at 10.00am and the 12-lap Super Sprint Race for BTC Touring cars only, starts at 1.30pm. Not until the main 50-lap Feature Race at 3.45pm do the touring and production cars finally go head to head.

The battle for championship points remains the same with 15 points for the winner, 12 for second place, 10 for third and 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 points for the fourth to tenth placed finishers. An additional point will be awarded for setting pole position and for fastest lap at each Sprint and Feature Race. A further point will be awarded for being classified as the race leader in the Feature Race only.

A revised success ballast system adds that extra challenge for teams and drivers. Drivers will keep accumulating 0, 3, 6, 9, 12 or 15kgs for race finish positions of 6th to 1st although the handicap cannot exceed 60kgs. Weight will only be reduced if a driver does not finish in the top six with -3, -6, -9, -12 or -15kgs being subtracted for positions of 7th to 11th or lower.

Making their BTCC debut this year is official tyre supplier, BF Goodrich. BTC Touring cars are permitted 20 dry/slick tyres for each race meeting including free practice sessions although grooved tyres, used in wet conditions, are unlimited. Tyre warmers are prohibited.

''This is the first year that the championship is using the new regulations and I think the technical side is spot-on,'' commented Vauxhall Motorsport Manager Mike Nicholson. ''It will be an interim year but that doesn't mean the championship will be any less exciting. We need now to put on a good show in order to keep attracting more manufacturer and privateer teams.''

Closer racing will please the hardcore fans and entertain the crowds with the expected thrills and spills of door-to-door touring car action, while support from single-seaters and sportscars will add variety to the race grids. All of the razzmatazz of touring cars with the grid girls, autograph sessions and promotional give-aways around the grandstands will fight for the crowds' attention along with in-field shopping malls and other family entertainment activities.

Major championship contender and Vauxhall Motorsport driver, Yvan Muller sees this as a transitional year from the old to the new BTCC: ''The new rules will work well I think and are certainly going in the right direction. It will be an interesting year. The equalising factor of the new regulations will really show the men from the boys.''

The cars all look different, but under the skin many of the major components are the same, whether it's a Vauxhall Astra Coupe, a Peugeot, a Lexus, an Alfa Romeo or the new MG, which is expected towards the end of the season. The cars each have their own individual engines; the Vauxhall's is based on the standard production 2.0-litre engine from the road going Astra Coupe. They are race tuned, by the French specialists Sodemo in Vauxhall's case, but are restricted to a power output common to all cars of about 270 horsepower - the championship sees to that by stipulating the use of a mandatory air restrictor fitted to the air intake system of all cars.

Only five engines are allowed to be used for each car during any one season, so they not only have to be able to withstand high-revving racing conditions, they also have to show the strength to last the distance of the tough 45-minute-long main races. A total of 26 sprint and full distance races face the teams during the busy season from March to October. An engine blowing up this season is rewarded by a start from the back of the grid if a new one has to be fitted at the circuit during any race meeting.

The cars each have to use the same six-speed sequential-shift gearbox and drive-axle (inner wheel hubs), the same braking and fuel system. The driver's foot pedals are all identical and the bodywork is wind tunnel tested by the series organisers to ensure there are no working aerodynamic devices other than the championship-standard rear wing, side panels and wheel arch extensions. Also, gone are the expensive dry-sump engines with their remote lubricating oil reservoirs, instead the engines have to use oil sumps just like road cars, fitted below the engine block.

This has all been done in a bold move by BMP to control the costs of both building and racing these high-powered touring cars - a move welcomed by Vauxhall's Motorsport Manager, Mike Nicholson: ''This year marks a new era in the history of the British Touring Car Championship, a year in which Vauxhall Motorsport is looking forward to a fresh, new challenge. Much thought has been put into the rule changes and I am sure that the racing will be closer than ever.''

Vauxhall Motorsport driver, Jason Plato is relishing the thought of fighting for the title again after taking the race-winning Vectra to fifth place overall in last year's championship: ''The new championship as it stands should produce excellent racing. The cars aren't quite as clever as the old Super Tourers and won't mask any mistakes that the drivers, as human beings, will occasionally make. The cars will definitely be more exciting to watch and they sound fantastic - I can guarantee there will be lots of action. We have been out testing on a number of occasions now and I am really impressed with the Astra Coupe. It's going to be quite a mean machine!''

With the revitalised BTCC being fought on every major racetrack in the United Kingdom as well as Mondello Park in Ireland, there will be no excuse for missing what is likely to be the most exciting sports action of the year.

The 2001 Championship also benefits from a superb support package - Formula Renault single-seaters, Lotus Sport Elise sports cars, and the ever-popular little Renault Clios - and as a special treat at Brands, two Formula One Races for Historic Grand Prix Cars (pre '61 and pre '66).