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MN’s MJ talks 2018 and the announcements so far

Matt James, Editor of Motorsport News, spoke to btcc.net from MN’s BTCC Anniversary stand at Autosport International to preview the season ahead after a memorable 2017 campaign, and talk through the jigsaw pieces that have fallen into place so far…

“The BTCC gets bigger and bigger every year and there’s more and more interest and it shows no sign of slowing down,” said James. “Last year, we had a record number of race winners and we had goodness knows how many drivers scoring a podium finish. The TV numbers were as high as they’ve ever been and went through the roof again and we had more manufacturers join in, the snowball just keeps getting bigger and bigger – where it’s going to stop, nobody knows!

“I just love the competitiveness of it all, I think the drivers are right at the top of their game and there are no easy victories in the BTCC – nothing’s a gimme and everybody’s got to work for it. Even if you have the best car, you’re not necessarily going to win all of the races. There are reverse grids, success ballast and tyre strategies to think about and there’s a whole lot of elements that go into being successful in the BTCC – that’s why it’s so great.

“I think a lot of championships at a lower level than the BTCC can focus a little too much on what the drivers may want. To make a successful series you’ve got to look at what the public wants – they want overtaking, cars racing side-by-side, competition between the drivers, a different result now and again and you get all of that from touring cars. It’s an outward looking championship.

“Ash (Sutton) was the standout performer last year and he won the championship as a result of it. I think it was Paul O’Neill who christened him the Max Verstappen of touring cars as he’s young, quick and he’s tearing up records. Whether he’s up against Jason Plato or the likes of Matt Neal, he doesn’t mind. It’s great to see him back and the Subaru is a great car to go along with that.

“I spoke to Dick (Bennetts) from West Surrey Racing about their pre-season and they’ve been out testing already. They were out at Silverstone and I think Brands Hatch at the end of last year and they’ve got an upgraded engine, tweaks to the engine installation and changes to the suspension settings. They’re already raving that it’s better than it was at the end of the season. They’ve got more coming up, too. The driving line-up’s strong and their car was the second best out there last year, so where’s it going to finish up this time?

“The new Team Shredded Wheat Racing with Gallagher Ford Focus ST looks really, really good. David Bartum (Motorbase Performance Team Principal) is very, very excited about it as a former Ford racer himself and it’s an interesting line-up in Mat Jackson and Tom Chilton – both multiple race winners and Tom a former Independents’ champion. Mat doesn’t like me saying it but now he’s the racer in this championship that’s won the most races without securing a title. He’ll be desperate to put that statistic to bed.

“Alfa Romeo’s back, with HMS Racing. It’s a great brand with a strong heritage in the BTCC going back to the 155 and Gabriele Tarquini and the Giuletta is gorgeous. It’s nice and compact as well, reminiscent of a Honda Civic in terms of its dynamics and we know how well that goes. If it performs anything like that, then it would be great. It’s a big step for the team with a brand new car for the very first time. They’ve got to get some data under their belts and that’s why Rob (Austin) is keen to get going.

“(Josh) Cook is back home with Power Maxed Racing, the place where he started his racing career in the Chevrolet Cruze a couple of years ago, where he also got his maiden podium. I think it’s a really good fit. Josh gets on well with the team, he knows them, they’ve improved in the meantime and so has Josh with his time at MG and in the Ford last year. He’s ready to win races too, that’s the one thing that’s missing from his CV and with the Vauxhall-backed outfit and great engineers and Josh’s level of experience, that’s one combination I’m tipping for wins this year.

“There’s a host of Honda Civics on the grid at Eurotech, with Jack Goff announced and at Norlin, with Chris Smiley returning with another and at Simpson Racing with Matt Simpson. If you look at the way Jack was performing last year with three poles and a win, too as well as regular podiums – it’s looking promising for him. That car and engine will be strong and on top of it, nothing’s materially changing for him heading into the new season – he’s a dark horse for the championship.

“There’s going to be a more to come at Team Dynamics as well. Even when they designed the estate car a few years ago now, it was winning races within two or three rounds. Dynamics know how to produce a race-winning car. How many times have we seen them arrive at Brands Hatch with the paint still drying and they’ve gone out and got a win? You just can’t write them off.

“There were frustrations with Gordon (Shedden) last year and he’s desperate to get back to the front. Matt (Neal) said of his team-mate that he’s the guy keeping him quick and that without a very fast Scotsman alongside him, he may have tailed off in terms of pace. He’s also hungry to build. He’s got 60 wins now, why not 70?

“It’s an interesting twist making the Jack Sears Trophy for those who haven’t yet finished on the podium. I spoke to Jake Hill and asked if it was a deliberate thing last year not finishing on the podium to get a crack at the JST this year! He said every cloud has a silver lining… You’ve got a very strong set of contenders for it – Bushell for one alongside Hill. I need to go and tick off the whole list of those who haven’t made the podium but I know it’s going to be a strong pool.

MJ is more than excited to see just how the BTCC’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Double race at Snetterton unfolds.

“That race is going to be amazing,” he said. “The different strategies people are going to put out – are you quick to start then do you nurse the tyres as the race goes on or the opposite, slower out of the blocks and speed up towards the end? It’s going to make things very interesting. Nobody knows what will happen and it’ll be great.”

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