Racing should be even tighter in 2022, if that’s possible
The BTCC is undergoing its biggest technical change for a generation. We look ahead with former champ Tim Harvey
Are we looking at a British Touring Car Championship GOAT?
That’s the question that series watchers are asking when it comes to reigning champion Ash Sutton. The greatest of all time? Well, three titles in just six seasons sure is a stunning return for the 28-year-old, and now he bids for a record-equalling fourth not only with a new team and car but also having switched from rear-wheel to front-wheel drive. That’s a tall order in itself, without also factoring in the biggest BTCC technical shake-up in a generation as hybrid power comes to Britain’s top motorsport series. It’s a giant season all round for the BTCC.
The 2022 action will begin on 24 April at Donington Park, the first of 10 rounds. Three bump-and-grind races in a day featuring the cream of Britain’s best tin-top talent remains a huge crowd-pleaser, either in the metal at the circuits or remotely via ITV4’s excellent live TV coverage.
Ahead of the red lights going out, we called on ITV4’s co-commentator, 1992 BTCC champion Tim Harvey, to guide us through the major talking points – and there are plenty of them, too, following a winter of surprise driver and team switches.
In rude health
A grid of 30 cars carrying the colours of a bountiful mix of sponsors is a sure sign that the BTCC has emerged from the pandemic in fine fettle.
“If you look at the number of genuine commercial sponsors, it has never looked better,” says Harvey, who admits that he was worried what effect Covid would ravage on the series. “I was sceptical to say the least. To attract commercial partners when you can’t offer any tickets to events or hospitality, purely relying on the TV and specialist press media coverage, was tough.”
The BTCC ran behind closed doors in 2020, with full crowds only returning partway through last year.
“We’ve weathered that storm,” says Harvey. “Certainly, when crowds were allowed back, you could see enthusiasm for the BTCC hadn’t diminished. And over the winter, that has translated into commercial partners for a lot of people. It’s always good when the BTCC brings in high-street brands and well-known names.”
The new hybrid system
As ever, the BTCC has kept a beady eye on costs as it joins the hybrid era. Cosworth was commissioned to develop a spec system for all the cars, powered by a 60V battery and producing at peak 50bhp. The system will be plugged directly into the heart of the series as a performance boost, available to drivers for so many seconds per lap in qualifying and for so many laps in the races. How many depends on how successful they have been.
Gone is the old success ballast system of added weight, replaced by a sliding scale of what’s known as Hybrid Energy Modulation (HEM). For qualifying from the second meeting, the top 10 in the championship will have fewer seconds of boost to play with, from zero per lap for the points leader to 13.5 seconds for the driver in 10th and 15 seconds for all those thereafter.
5 seconds for all those thereafter. In the races, success will be penalised by a reduction in the number of laps allowed with the hybrid power boost. The HEM deployment for race one will again be based on championship order: in a race of 17 laps or fewer, the points leader must complete 10 without hybrid power, while the driver in 10th loses just one lap of it. Those outside the top 10 can use it for the race’s duration. In races two and three, the same sliding scale will apply, but the lap reduction will be based on the result of the previous race.
The loss of success ballast, plus the decision to drop Goodyear’s ‘option’ tyre, means the new HEM system is the biggest performance variable drivers and teams will have to work with.
“It’s the major talking point of this year,” says Harvey. “The drivers have the same tyre all the time, and without success ballast, the HEM system is the only form of success handicapping. It has got to work, basically, and we don’t know how effective it will be.
“Cosworth was running a development car last year that Andrew Jordan raced at Silverstone, so it has been in development for some time. But inevitably with teams fitting it to their own cars, there will be issues.
“Still, there’s no better arena than motorsport to sort out problems quickly. I’m more interested in how it will affect the racing.”
What it means for the action
The introduction of the Cosworth hybrid system represents a complete reset, for the racing spectacle as much as for the engineers.
“First, the cars are heavier [on base weight],” explains Harvey. “The front-drive cars weigh 1340kg and the rear-drive cars 1370kg, so there’s still a 30kg difference. But to put that into perspective, last year a rear-drive car running with maximum success ballast would have been 1375kg, so it’s almost exactly the same as cars fully loaded from last year.
“Then factor in what the hybrid boost is going to be in horsepower terms: something between 30 and 40bhp, but it can only be deployed once the cars are going faster than 120kph [74.56mph]. It can’t be used in a traction zone, otherwise that would give too much advantage to the rear-drive cars.
“Once the cars are doing 120kph, that extra 30-40bhp isn’t enough to make a car just drive around another in the length of a straight at somewhere like Brands Hatch Indy or Knockhill. It might be enough to put a driver under pressure and force him to defend, so that opens up racing options. But don’t expect to see cars just driving past rivals like they’ve got a Formula 1-style drag-reduction system [DRS].”
M Sport vs Swindon
Along with the hybrid system, a new version of the spec engine has been introduced, built by M-Sport, which has replaced Swindon Powertrain as the supplier. Half of the grid use the so-called TOCA engine, but “the only real internal combustion engine story”, says Harvey, “is that Excelr8 and Hyundai are doing their own – with Swindon. It’s a bit of a masterstroke, because if anybody has all the data of what the previous engine did, it’s obviously Swindon.” And what better response to losing the TOCA deal could there be than handing Excelr8 a power advantage?
Sutton’s giant leap
Beyond the tech, the big talking points are the driver-team switches, and chief among them is Sutton’s shock move from the rear-drive Laser Tools Infiniti Q50 in which he won back-to-back titles to the front-wheel-drive Ford Focus run by Motorbase.
“There’s absolutely no doubt Ash can drive front-wheel drive extremely well,” says Harvey. “Remember his debut year in the BTCC in the MG 6 in 2016? Plus he has been fantastic when he has occasionally jumped in a TCR car.
“But he will be up against a lot of front-wheel-drive experts, none less than new team-mate Dan Cammish.
“The other element is he has taken his engineer, Tony Carrozza, and his number-one mechanic with him from Laser Tools, and the question is whether his unique set-up of a soft, pitchy car will work on a front-driver. That’s a big and interesting engineering thought. They had something special between them in terms of set-up and how Ash drove the Infiniti that no one else was able to replicate, so much so that it drove WSR and Colin Turkington down a blind alley trying to replicate it. Will it translate? We will have to wait and see.”
What about that GOAT question? “If he can replicate the results, skill and the number-one status he currently holds, with front-wheel drive and in a different team, we will all have to say he’s the greatest of the moment and could become the greatest of all time,” answers Harvey. “He has already said that he wishes to remain in the BTCC. If he continues at this level, yes, he could be.”
Comeback for Cammish
Here’s another potential fly in the ointment for Sutton. Cammish was forced back to the Porsche Carrera Cup last year after losing his Team Dynamics Honda drive pre-season, frustratingly for financial reasons. Now he has been handed a deserved BTCC return with Motorbase.
“He has never looked forward to a season more,” says Harvey, who advises Cammish on an informal basis. “He has won his drive purely on merit; the team wanted him, and that’s a lovely feeling for a driver. He hasn’t got the hang-ups of whether he’s worth it or having to bring money – all these issues that, as a bit of a dour Yorkshireman, have troubled him in the past. He has nothing to lose. As I said to him: ‘If Ash Sutton beats you, no disgrace at all.’ But if he beats Ash, huge kudos. He’s up for the fight.”
Turkington out to hit back
Deposed BTCC king Turkington will fancy his chances of breaking the record that he shares with Andy Rouse by winning a fifth title as he remains with WSR for the new era, driving the BMW 330e M Sport.
“Colin and West Surrey will be absolutely delighted that they aren’t fighting Ash Sutton in a rear-wheel-drive Infiniti,” points out Harvey. “It makes Colin the de facto number-one rear-wheel-drive exponent on the grid. One of their biggest competitors, and one they really didn’t have an answer for, has gone in terms of the same car and driver set-up. For Colin, his biggest competitor has to start again and has lost the advantage that he had.”
Hill on the climb
But Turkington has his own fly to bother him, as Jake Hill switches from a Motorbase Focus to a WSR BMW, still with support from Mark Blundell’s MB Motorsport.
“Jake is the only thing that could upset Colin,” says Harvey. “While he hasn’t got Ash Sutton in an Infiniti to worry about, he now has a very quick driver in exactly the same car. In the same way as Cammish against Ash, Jake has nothing to lose going up against Colin. If he gets beaten by him, no disrespect. But if he beats him, massive respect.
“Jake has a championship in him. He has matured fantastically into a really good all-round BTCC driver. He knows when to fight his battles, he’s a good qualifier and he’s probably the fastest in inclement conditions on slicks – although Cammish would argue about that. He has a real gift, which is actually one of Colin’s weaker points.”
A strong cast of contenders
Strength in depth is increasingly an asset of today’s BTCC. Among the other front-runners who could tilt for the title in 2022 are Tom Ingram (fourth last year), who remains at Excelr8, and the man who replaced him in the Speedworks Toyota Corolla, Rory Butcher.
“The problem with Tom was always carrying the ballast,” says Harvey. “Obviously that’s not an issue now; the cars will run at the same weight all the time and the teams won’t be changing set-ups depending on how much success weight was in the car and also for option tyres. Now you will literally fine-tune your set-up, and that has got to be in Tom’s favour. And when he gets in the zone, he’s unbeatable.”
As for Butcher, “Rory wasn’t consistently on the top pace last year, and annoying issues set him back, whether that be ‘finger trouble’ in the team or mechanical issues,” says Harvey. “They need consistency and they all know it.”
Josh Cook overperformed in BTC Racing’s Honda Civic last year, finishing an excellent third in the points.
“Josh is a fantastic racer and isn’t just a Thruxton specialist,” is Harvey’s verdict. “If he can have the confidence to do it everywhere and not be under pressure from the team with financial worries, he can be a championship contender.”
Team Dynamics signed Dan Rowbottom to replace Cammish last term, as three-time champion Gordon Shedden returned to the BTCC after a largely frustrating sojourn in the World Touring Car Cup, and both were winners last year
“Dan proved his speed; it was no fluke,” says Harvey. “He certainly put Gordon under pressure. Gordon I think struggled to reacclimatise to the BTCC but finished the year really strongly. Starting off with the same two drivers, they will obviously push each other very hard and that’s good for a top driver and champion like Shedden. When drivers are under pressure, that’s usually when you see the best of them.”
Watch the cream rise
So who will be champion? That’s an unfair question, apparently…
“I stopped making predictions years ago because the BTCC has got so competitive that any one of 10 or 12 guys could step up to the plate,” says Harvey. “This year, with so much change, it’s even more difficult to predict. All we do know is that the cream always rises to the top, so the top drivers, all those we’ve mentioned, will be in the mix.”
Bring it on.