Between 2004 and 2005, touring cars underwent a significant change, with the introduction of the FIA World Touring Car Championship - a series which replaced the European series and welcomed a number of significant new cars to the championship, not to mention a bulging grid of high quality drivers.

Nonetheless, by the end of 2005 the final result bore a striking resemblance to the previous year as Andy Priaulx, in a BMW 320i, snatched the championship away from rival and team mate Dirk M?ller in the final race of year, the German having led the standings going into the season finale.

However, despite the 'same old, same old' impression, 2005 was an exceptionally exciting inaugural season with a total of 12 different winners from 20 very action-packed races that, for the first time, strayed to the likes of Turkey and Mexico as touring cars went global.

It was Britain though that reigned supreme by the end of the year when Priaulx made the step up from being European champion to become World champion for BMW Team UK. His title win was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he only won one race throughout the year, instead having to rely on unfailing consistency to get the upper hand on his rivals.

Even that win, at Oschersleben in Germany, came at the expense of another driver's misfortune when James Thompson was pulled in for a drive-through penalty mid-way through the race. His year included a further ten podiums, with just four non-scoring races to his name.

As well as his consistency, Priaulx was also able to shrug off his cars weight disadvantage, while the reversed top-eight positions for the second race rarely posed a problem. This was shown in Germany when Priaulx managed to claw his way up to second place in race two despite having won the first race - meaning he started from eighth for the race with maximum ballast on his car.

Heading into the final round of the year with a one point deficit to M?ller, Priaulx anticipated a competitive scrap for the finish around the traditionally unpredictable streets of Macau, only to find his two second places and a double retirement for M?ller was enough to give him a 15 point lead at the end of the year - the largest margin seen all season.

Indeed, 2005 was another year where Dirk saw the title slip through his fingers having been in a similar position in Dubai in 2004. Although he was more regular at the top of the podium than Priaulx with three wins at Monza, Imola and Spa, M?ller also often found himself struggling more with added weight, something which stopped him from recording a healthy point's haul at each round.

Nonetheless, the German showed himself to be a genuine title contender yet again and were it not for a disastrous Mexican round when he failed to score a single point, M?ller could well have ended the year celebrating his maiden championship win.

It was a year of highs and lows for Schnitzer team mate J?rg M?ller who took three wins in a season of inconsistency that prevented him from challenging for top honours. Indeed early on, M?ller appeared to be the driver to beat following a convincing double win at the second round at Magny-Cours in France.

However, it was from this high that M?ller experienced a dramatic low, scoring just eight points in the next six races. A strong end to the year included a win in Turkey but his ultimate reward was a disappointing fifth place overall.

If M?ller's year failed to meet expectations then Alessandro Zanardi's certainly exceeded his own, the Italian arguably winning the award for the most significant moment of the year when he ended four years of a painful comeback trail with a stunning victory at Oschersleben.

The win came after a season spent mostly in the mid-field, but the victory spurred Zanardi onto further success, scoring in all of the remaining rounds, with the exception of one, including another podium in Turkey, leaving him in tenth place in the standings. His bravery has ultimately been the main story of the year for the WTCC and it is expected that the Italian will continue to build upon his sturdy foundations in 2006.

Overshadowed by his team mate, Antonio Garc?a completed yet another year without a victory, finishing the year down in ninth place, albeit just a handful of points off fourth. Indeed, Garcia's final position does not necessarily reflect his form, the Spaniard proving to be very consistent at the start of the year, running as high as second at one point in the season.

However, as rivals caught up, Garc?a fell into the clutches of the mid-field and by the end of the year could only manage a fourth and a sixth place in the final eight races. Two second places in San Marino and Mexico proved to be the highlight of the year but Garc?a will end the year with the ominous title of being the only driver in the top 13 not to score a race win.

Fittingly BMW ended the career of the highly successful E45 320i saloon when Duncan Huisman made the most of his one-off appearance at Macau to take the final race of the year, thus enabling the German manufacturer to hold off arch rivals Alfa Romeo in the manufacturers' standings for another year. It remains to be seen whether next years car will match the sheer pace and reliability of the previous saloon but BMW will go into next season once again as favourites.

Their plight will be aided even further by the announcement that Alfa Romeo will not be returning to the championship next year, choosing to use 2006 as a sabbatical ahead of a possible return in 2007.

Indeed, Alfa Romeo's year proved to be mixed, with their form seeming to vary according to the venue. Silverstone and Istanbul were the highlights of the year for the manufacturer - with an unprecedented one-two-three-four in the opening race in Britain, and a one-two in Turkey when a repeat of the Silverstone result had looked likely.

However, while they had the legs of BMW at some races, they also found themselves struggling to match SEAT at times, leaving them unable to challenge BMW, despite arguably boasting the most successful driver line-up.

After his low-profile return to Alfa Romeo in 2004, Fabrizio Giovanardi showed exactly why he is considered one of the worlds best touring car drivers with a mid-season comeback that kept him in the hunt for the drivers' title until the final round of the year.

Wins in San Marino, Mexico, Belgium and Turkey made Giovanardi the most coveted driver of the season, but he was let down at crucial points in the year, most notably in Germany when a heavy crash in the opening race ruled him out for the weekend, while his two rivals went on to grab a large haul of points.

As it happens, a heavy smash at the final round of the year meant Giovanardi would be witnessing the culmination of the championship from the sidelines. With Alfa Romeo leaving the championship, Vauxhall and the British Touring Car Championship beckons for the Italian next year heralding a new challenge for a driver who already has German, Italian and European titles to his name.

Elsewhere, early season favourite Gabriele Tarquini rolled back the years with a win at Silverstone, following it up with another victory in Turkey. However, with the points' situation very tight by the end of the year, four straight retirements left the 2003 champion down in a relatively lowly seventh.

On the other hand his team mate Augusto Farfus Jr. finally broke his race win duck with a victory at the final round in Macau, a result that saw him vault up to an impressive fourth place by the end of the year. With his team mates moving on next year, the Brazilian is expected to spearhead a semi-works effort next year in the same car.

James Thompson meanwhile found his debut year as a full-time driver at Alfa Romeo tougher than expected and although he managed a victory at the first round in Monza, the Brit was unable to replicate that feat, ending the year in eighth place. However, along with Tarquini, Thompson will be side-stepping into the SEAT team for 2006, the Spanish manufacturer ending a hugely improved year by announcing a comprehensive six-car line-up for next season.

Along with Yvan Muller, the two Alfa refugees will join Rickard Rydell, Jordi Gen? and Peter Terting in the Le?n, a car which debuted towards the end of the season and caused significant ripples in the championship.

The year started conservatively enough in the ageing Toledo, with Rydell finally getting the Spanish manufacturers' championship challenge underway with a comfortable victory at Silverstone, a win that was further compounded by BTCC ace Jason Plato playing the ultimate supporting role in second place. Terting then went on to add to SEATs tally of wins with a surprise victory in Mexico, but it was Gen?'s triumph in the new Le?n that has got many predicting that they will be able to challenge BMW next year.

The win came in just the cars second appearance and, together with a podium for Rydell in Macau, proved that the new car is set to prove a worthy successor to the faithful Toledo. Consistent scoring helped Rydell maintain his position as the number one driver in the team, taking SEAT to sixth in the championship - their highest placing yet -, while Gen? and Terting were just outside the top ten in eleventh and twelfth place respectively.

The most high-profile newcomer to the championship, Chevrolet, may not have been able to challenge the likes of BMW, Alfa Romeo and SEAT overall, but an improved showing over the year is a clear indication that the Lacetti could be something of a force to be reckoned with next season.

Having started the year at the back of the field, Chevrolet were starting to challenge for podiums at the final race of the year, with Alain Menu even managing to grab a third place, only for a technical infringement forcing him to be disqualified. Still, a fourth and fifth in Macau was clearly evident of Chevrolet's rapid progress through the year.

Nicola Larini and Alain Menu showed that experience counts at a number of races, scoring consistently towards the end of the year, the Italian taking that fourth place, with the Swiss driver managing a best of fifth place, while Rob Huff may have ended the year with just the three points he earned in Mexico - but he will go down in history as scoring the teams first top eight position. The young Brits fourth place on the grid in Spain was also the best qualifying effort of the year for the series newcomers.

The fifth manufacturer in the championship Ford experienced a difficult year but one that showed promise towards the end of the season. Along with Chevrolet, the Hotfiel squad struggled to make its new car, the Focus, work initially but following a lengthy break between Imola and Spa, emerged as the stars of the German round at Oschersleben.

However, having set the pace in testing, a disappointing qualifying session prevented Thomas Klenke and Michael Funke from challenging in the first race. Their disappointment was heightened further when Klenke retired from a potential fifth place in the second race.

Indeed, Ford, who had started the year with Klenke and Thomas J?ger initially, failed to score any drivers points, with their best result coming courtesy of Patrick Bernhardt in Macau when he managed ninth place amid all of the second race carnage. Nonetheless, Ford have committed to another year in the WTCC and with the team possibly swapping to a Focus Saloon, there is hope that they will be able to challenge for points more consistently this time around.

Away from the main drivers' and manufacturers' battle, the Michelin Independents Trophy also witnessed an exciting year, eventually ending with Marc Hennerici grabbing the title at his first attempt for the BMW Wiechers-Sport team. The German driver was the model of consistency throughout the majority of the year, but it was his tally of 54 points from the first six races that helped him to control the championship from the opening meeting.

His nearest challenger was arguably Tom Coronel, the 2004 Independents champion. Having switched to a GR Asia run SEAT Toledo, Coronel endured a slow start to the year before reeling off four wins in six races mid-season, including a third place overall in Spa. However, the Dutchman went on to finish just one of the final six races, leaving him down in fifth place overall, even if his 14th place in the drivers' standings overall got him ahead of Chevrolet and every other independent runner.

Instead second and third place the championship went to Proteam BMW duo Giuseppe Cir? and Stefano D'Aste, the latter Italian having made the headlines at Spa when he was initially given a shock victory, only for it to be taken away when he was accused of cutting the final chicane. Carl Rosenblad in another BMW managed fourth place, while Adriano De Micheli got his JAS run Honda Accord into the mix for sixth.

As far as debut seasons go, the World Touring Car Championship had it all - intense competition, a multitude of different winners, a grid full of cars and a very tense final round. All of these factors have combined to establish the WTCC immediately as a worthy global event.

2006 is expected to build upon the first year too. New rounds in the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic and possibly Brazil could appear, while Brands Hatch will replace Silverstone as the venue for the British meeting.

New teams are expected too, with Lada surprising many by confirming their desire to participate next year, while Mazda and Toyota, as well as the long-postponed Brilliance effort, have also been thrown into the rumour mill.

Whatever happens though, Priaulx will remain the driver to beat because if he has shown anything this year, it has to be that race wins are not paramount to necessarily being the best and most successful driver in the championship.

Priaulx is clearly the master of that...



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