Priaulx returns to the BTCC

BTCC

It seems like every year we’re told that the new BTCC season will be the most exciting and unpredictable to date, and there’s usually every chance that it will be. But most years you can figure out who’ll be at the front of the grid by the time the cars hit the track at Brands Hatch. 2015, however, might actually live up to the hype

First of all, the driver market has seen a sizeable shift for the first time in a few seasons. The only stable line-up at any of the top teams is at Honda, where Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal remain. Shedden’s at the top of his game and Neal is still quick enough to win, but with the third iteration of Civic in three years – they’ll be using a hatchback again, although the model hasn’t been announced –  the team might lack the continuity it needs to be consistent across all circuits.

West Surrey could spend its whole season looking for an identity. It’s lost champion Colin Turkington – who never did have much of a budget – and title sponsor eBay. But what they have got is Andy Priaulx. I managed to speak to him just after his first run in the WSR 125i at Thruxton yesterday, a venue he hasn’t seen for 13 years.


Jakob Ebrey Photography

“This is a big moment for me,” he said. “It’s been a long time, but it feels like yesterday. It was nice, I just got straight in and it felt really quite normal.”

Last season Priaulx raced BMW’s Z4 in sports cars, but the NGTC-spec 125i is a different beast altogether.

“Coming back from the GTE car, with a lot more downforce and power, to this, the transition’s something I’ll have to work on,” he said. “But it felt fairly good straight away.



Priaulx at the 2015 Daytona 24 Hours

“They’re a lot heavier and they roll a lot, so it feels more like a road car to be honest. I think I’m lucky that these guys have had a few years with this car and the set-up’s good. I can just concentrate on my driving, trying to get the lap time out the car and understand what it does. I think Thruxton’s one of those places with such high tyre degradation that it’s not easy to set the car up. So I’ll take the next couple of days with a pinch of salt and when we get to a more conventional circuit we’ll be able to do more detail work.”

Turkington’s departure leaves a void in that number one spot in the team, with Rob Collard good for a win or two and the quick-but-raw Sam Tordoff in the third car. But Priaulx doesn’t feel the pressure to lead at this stage.

“I’m not really bothered about all that. If you just do your job and you’re winning races then the team will follow. If you’re not then they won’t. Rob’s great and Sam seems like a really nice kid. I don’t envisage any problems at all, there are no big egos here.”

Priaulx will miss a round this year to race the Z4 for BMW and is still resolutely a factory driver, which proves he’s in the BTCC because he wants to be.

“I’m still very much focused on my factory commitments. I’m racing in the ELMS this year, which is BMW’s only works programme in Europe. So it’s a very serious commitment for me, hence why I have to miss a race here to honour my obligations. I’m still a factory driver on a German contract… except for here. I think the BTCC’s really strong at the moment and I’m pleased to have the chance to come back and spend a few years here. Let’s see what I can do.”

Elsewhere, Andrew Jordan made an unexpected move to Triple Eight during the off-season, leaving the family Eurotech team for a works MG contract. The move was surprising, although when you consider that former team-mate Jeff Smith has bought a large chunk of Eurotech, it looks like a savvy move. With his old team potentially weakened, he’s jumped into the car in which Jason Plato has finished in the top three for the last three years running.


Jakob Ebrey Photography

Plato (below) finds himself at BMR (Buntingford Motor Racing) alongside incumbent Árón Smith and last year’s champion Turkington. This team could be the one to watch. The Volkswagen Passats have been rapidly improving since their lowly Team-HARD inauguration, enough for Smith to take two reverse-grid wins at mid-season. Whether or not Scott’s team can challenge for championship honours is another thing, but it’ll be fascinating to see them get there. Plato hasn’t had a team-mate of this calibre since Yvan Muller in 2001 and we all know how that went. Turkington can’t let Plato’s forceful personality or his experience with FWD cars (or, indeed, his aggressive nature on track…) relegate him to number two status.


Jakob Ebrey Photography

The rest of the grid is still up in the air. Infinitis will be there for the first time with Support Our Paras Racing, although with an untested team and two drivers with zero current BTCC experience, no-one will be holding their breath. And Motorbase has signed GT racer Alex Martin to race one of its Fords, but there’s no word as to whether Mat Jackson will be back.

So in other words, nobody really knows how this season’s going to turn out. Which is just how it should be.

 

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