Last year heading into the start of the British Touring Car Championship season 'biggest ever' grids were boasted, and although that's certainly not the case this year, the action is likely to be every bit as good.

For 2005 there's no reigning champ as James Thompson has headed to the world series to rack up his air miles, and there's a fair amount of change up and down the pitlane.

What there is however, is a previously all-conquering VX Racing squad shorn of its dominant Astra Coupe, meaning this year's championship could be the most open it has been in years. The team dabbled with the idea of running with a Vectra for last season, before running back to the security of the old Coupe, but that wasn't an option this time.

Development testing was conducted out of the way of public timing screens, but at the media day test late last month, the cars went head to head, and the new Astra was edged out on the timesheets by the Team Halfords Integra and WSR MG ZS.

Although the VX Racing squad may have been holding something back at the Donington Park test it's fair to say there's been more than the odd muttering of 'la voiture ne fonctionne pas bien, o? est la vieille voiture?" during the course of the season build up.

"We worked quite a lot with this car, but not enough," 2003 champion Yvan Muller told Crash.net Radio at the Donington test. "We still have not enough experience with this car, and that is our major problem at the moment."

Not only is there a new car from the team that's taken the title for the last four years, there's also two new drivers in the form of Colin Turkington and Gavin Smith. Whilst there's every reason to expect that Turkington will measure up to Muller after showing well against team-mate Anthony Reid last year, it could be a learning year for Smith.

The media test day saw the Samurai warrior Team Dynamics-run Team Halfords squad place one of its cars at the top of the times, the other back in the workshop with a gearbox issue. The squad has taken the approach of using the far more slippery Japanese Spec Integra Type R, and the car certainly looks the part, and should be right at the front if the test results are anything to go by.

"I'd expect the rest to have done their homework and come out and kick the hell out of us," quipped Team Halfords driver Matt Neal after topping the times at Donington, before adding, "I'm in it to win it."

For many title favourites, the SEAT Sport UK cars were slow at the test, and that's because they're rubbish. Either that, or they ran at Donington with the Toledos boots full of beer for Plato, Haribo for Pickford and hair gel for Hines. Anyone would think that there's a weight ballast element to the series, and a touch of showmanship from the exciting SEAT squad.

Now SEAT might have been able to hide their hand in head to head testing, but the beauty of the weight equalisation formula in place is that Mr Gow can change the weight ballast to the SEAT and all other WTCC spec cars during the course of the season.

So, whilst SEAT might be able to disguise their speed in testing, they're hardly going to finish the season in the last three places and then blow raspberries at everyone and admit they could have gone faster. Like Neal, the squad is in it to win it, and expect the threat from Plato and his two young team-mates to be very strong during the course of the year.

Despite whatever woes are going on at its Longbridge place of original manufacture, the WSR squad are a gritty and determined team as they start the year with one car and Rob Collard at the wheel. As ever, sponsorship is being sought, and a second driver for the team too. The irony here is that the MG is a proven race winner with enormous potential; given the funds there is no doubt it could take the BTCC overall title.

Collard, of course, used to drive an old Triple Eight Astra, and although the old car has seen more than its share of panel to panel action, Mark Proctor heads to the series from the Days of Thunder series with this as his steed. If Collard ran his team on a budget, then Proctor is taking this even further, and even turned up to the media day test with the car on a car trailer, no transporter here. Could be an interesting year...

With rather more money, and one of the more eye-catching, althought certainly not tasteful, paint scheme is the SpeedEquipe brace of Lexus. As if coming up from the one make Renault Clio Cup wasn't enough, the team has also opted to make its very own car as it set about the Lexus IS200. There was still plenty to do for the team just under two weeks ago with little small matters like putting an engine under the bonnet, but it's going to be an interesting time watching the rear wheel drive Japanese car through the course of the year.

The Lexus will be driven by Clio racers Richie Williams and Ian Curley who are both very capable pilots. Richie can already boast of his very own Dutch fan and will be pulling out everything he can to impress, whilst Curley is mates with British Superbike rider Scott Smart and will be aiming not to drive like Smart rides - like a girl.

Elsewhere, Arena Motorsports have two Civics on the entry list, thought initially to be for Tom Chilton and Alan Morrison, but Chilton is rumoured to be one of the drivers for MG in the DTM (financial difficulties at the British manufacturer notwithstanding). Whoever turns up in the Arena cars, the Civic chassis certainly won't have lost its pace over the winter so could impress given the right circumstances.

John Batchelor makes a return to the series and has the name of Team Firstserve Group on the entry list with a Civic Type R; don't expect too much brilliance from this quarter.

BTCC stalwart James Kaye is in it again and rolls out the Synchro Motorsport Civic to complete the grid. The experienced Kaye knows exactly what he's doing, but nothing exceptional is expected other than good solid running.

The circuit itself always provides an interesting venue and fast and furious panel to panel action should ensue. Crucially for this season the reverse top ten grid race moves to the third and final race of the day, meaning teams have at least a couple of weeks for rebuilding the remnants of the cars should it get messy.

The British weather is always a factor and it could be that Triple Eight boss Ian Harrison, who runs the works Vauxhall VX Racing team, has nothing to worry about this weekend as sleet is a very real possibility. Lead driver Yvan Muller is a multiple ice racing champion, who notched up his latest title over the off season.

Whilst everything unfolds this weekend at what is likely to be a bitterly cold Donington Park race circuit in the East Midlands, for those wishing to remain warm and in the safe confines of their homes the series enjoys fantastic coverage.

There is a bumper television package in the UK on ITV1, in the UK and Europe on MotorsTV and, of course, there will be extensive coverage in the dedicated channel of Crash.net - www.crash.net/btcc and on Crash.net's very own online motorsport radio station.

BTCC 2005 is go! Enjoy.