The first years of the 21st century marked a turbulent time for the BTCC. Several companies – chiefly the US-based Octagon Group – attempted to lead it according to the new so-called ‘BTC-spec’ technical regulations devised under Alan Gow who, having led the series to household fame in the Nineties, decided to sell TOCA and take a ‘sabbatical’. The regulations, introduced as a measure to slash costs, took hold in 2001 and the season produced a small grid of BTC cars, boosted in numbers by the addition of the GpN-based Production class.
Vauxhall and Peugeot were the two manufacturers to field official teams, and the former was the dominant force in the top flight BTC category with its new Astra Coupe. The Triple Eight-engineered car won 25 of 26 races and in a dramatic final round at Brands Hatch – after a season of bitter rivalry – Jason Plato beat team-mate Yvan Muller to achieve his first title.
In 2002, the Astra was again untouchable, although manufacturer entries from Honda (Civic) and MG (which achieved victories with its WSR-prepared ZSs) kept it on its toes. James Thompson this time beat Muller to the laurels. Vauxhall would win the next two titles with Muller and, again, Thompson, the latter’s second crown in 2004 being achieved by a margin of just one point from his French team-mate – thanks to setting the fastest lap in the season’s very last race. Two significant developments had occurred during this two-year period, however…
With Octagon announcing its withdrawal from the UK, Gow was lured back in mid-2003 by the British Automobile Racing Club’s Dennis Carter to reassume control of the championship. There was a sudden new energy about the BTCC and Gow took no time in announcing that from 2004 onwards, cars complying with the same Super 2000 technical regulations raced in the FIA European Touring Car Championship would be permitted into the BTCC. This spelt the end of the GpN-based Production class, but opened the way for new teams and manufacturers to enter the championship and fight for outright honours with cars already available to use.
It was a masterstroke, and SEAT became the latest manufacturer to enter with its S2000-spec Toledo model. Having left the series after his 2001 title, Plato was back on board to make it three champions on the grid (along with Thompson and Muller). Furthermore, Gow had also altered the sporting rules – now there were three rounds at each event for the crowds to savour and Plato was able to triumph for newcomer SEAT on the first day of the season. Ultimately, though, after going 12 mid-season races without reaching the top step of the podium as the competition intensified, Vauxhall’s Astra Coupe again ran out the winner in its final campaign – the car remains one of the most successful in BTCC history with an incredible 62 victories from 96 starts in the manufacturer’s hands.
Another all-time great was to follow in 2005 and 2006: the Honda Integra which, run by Team Dynamics, would achieve 26 wins from 60 starts. Dynamics (under the Team Halfords banner) developed the car and, with driver Matt Neal, made history by becoming the first privateer team/driver combination since 1991 to defeat the might of the manufacturers and clinch the outright crown in both seasons. Neal’s chief threat in 2005 was Muller in Vauxhall’s new Astra Sport Hatch and in 2006 Plato in SEAT’s new Leon. It was in 2006 that the BTCC welcomed seven-time (and three-time European) touring car champion Fabrizio Giovanardi as a replacement for Muller at Vauxhall. Up until Knockhill that season, Vauxhall had – almost unbelievably – gone a year without a victory but then came along two in a row. There was notably its landmark 100th when Giovanardi also broke his BTCC duck and then, next time out at Brands Hatch, the 101st.
For 2007, the BTCC took on another new guise as the championship effectively went fully S2000 (although some smaller teams continued to run the older BTC cars as they were gradually phased out). SEAT with its Leon was joined at the front of the field by S2000 cars from Vauxhall, BMW and Honda. Vauxhall’s new Vectra was a superb machine and, in its first season of development, enabled Giovanardi to win his first BTCC title in the most dramatic of final round showdowns against Plato. The BMW (320si) and Honda (Civic) efforts were entered by privateer teams who were also able to mount serious championship challenges thanks to the BTCC’s equivalency rules that, unlike those of other championships, remained untouched throughout the whole of 2007 and undoubtedly helped result in regular grids in the mid-20s (the biggest seen since the early 1990s). Vauxhall’s Vectra and the Honda Civic run by Dynamics were classic examples of teams using the BTCC’s own ‘local homologation’ regulations to enter unique shapes of S2000 machinery not seen in other series.
Giovanardi and Vauxhall would claim a second consecutive crown in 2008 ahead of Plato and SEAT, whose Leon was now using turbodiesel power (Plato having given the technology a first-ever BTCC win at Donington Park earlier in the season). The man from Modena, though, was foiled in his bid to become the first driver since the early Eighties to make it three titles in a row as Colin Turkington in his WSR/Team RAC BMW hung on to take overall glory in 2009 just ahead of Plato (now in a Chevrolet Lacetti) and Giovanardi. In fact, Plato won all three races on Finals Day in a season that netted him seven triumphs in all – the first for the Chevrolet name in the BTCC in 25 years and also successes that took him to 53 career victories (just seven shy of Andy Rouse’s all-time record of 60).
Plato would equal Rouse’s record in 2010 as he finally collected a second title, having been the bridesmaid so often in previous years. Notably, he took the championship in Chevrolet’s new Cruze model – the first time a Chevrolet had won the BTCC since Frank Gardner’s Camaro in the early Seventies.
While Chevrolet and – for the first time since 2000 – Honda (with Dynamics) fielded official factory teams, 2010 also witnessed the advent of new liquefied petroleum gas engine technology that enabled the Ford name to return to the winner’s circle as the Arena-prepared Aon Focuses, driven by Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole and using LPG-turbo power, challenged for outright glory. Onslow-Cole was one of an unprecedented four drivers who went into the season finale still in with a chance of winning the championship…
Significantly, the BTCC’s new ‘Next Generation’ turbo engine was also trialled by several teams and won twice in the Pirtek Vauxhall Vectra of Andrew Jordan – this ahead of full-blown NGTC cars (chassis and engine) being eligible to compete from 2011. Before the season was out, TOCA’s NGTC prototype car, based on a Toyota Avensis, had been demonstrated before a record 42,000 crowd at Brands Hatch to offer a hint at the shape of things to come. The universal praise received from the industry, media and fans served to underline the BTCC’s reputation for setting the standard. Little wonder its NGTC regulations – that drastically reduce running costs – are attracting so many potential new teams as well as being seriously studied by a number of other high-profile touring car series elsewhere in the world.
NGTC is now the firmly established format in the BTCC. In 2012 more than half of the competitors had made the transition, and in 2013 rules ensuring parity with older S2000 specification cars were removed. With S2000 cars no longer comparable in performance, every car on the capacity 2014 grid is set to be NGTC.
The huge success of the NGTC regulations has ensured that the series’ commercial and media partners have remained committed. The series’ contract with ITV was extended at the start of the 2013 season, meaning that the BTCC is guaranteed to be broadcast until the end of the 2016 campaign – ensuring at least a 15-year relationship with the broadcaster, while the Goodyear Dunlop group celebrates its tenth year as championship title sponsor in 2014, with its premier Dunlop tyre brand.