The 2017 British Touring Car Championship gets underway at Brands Hatch this weekend, with Colin Turkington, Aròn Taylor-Smith and Chris Smiley all gearing up for a full assault at the coveted BTCC title.
The 10-round, 30-race calendar remains unchanged, although there are two main changes heading into the season.
Dunlop has created a new, wider compound of tyre which is set to make the cars 0.5 seconds a mile quicker than last year. Also, all of the 32-car grid will now use the RML kits on the cars, which only a handful of cars run with last year, a mandatory upgrade on the old GPRM components.
One of the leading teams in the BTCC West Surrey Racing have been involved in two of the biggest stories from the off-season. Firstly, BMW have returned as a manufacturer after a 21-year absence from the Championship. Secondly, they’ve resigned Colin Turkington to lead their title assault. Turkington, who won both of his BTCC crowns with WSR in 2009 and 2014, has immediately been thrust with the favourites tag.
“It’s really special and it’s a great feeling to welcome BMW back to the championship after 21 years,” says the Portadown driver, “I can remember as a fan of the championship watching Jo Winklehock and Steve Soper and our own Tim Harvey as well. It’s a huge honour for me to step into their shoes and carry those iconic BMW colours. West Surrey Racing is where I started my BTCC career, 14 or 15 years ago, so you can say it does feel like home.”
The 35-year- old has been testing in Spain with the team in preparation of the new season, as well as attending the official pre-season test at Donington Park.
“It felt great going out to Spain and getting reacclimatised with the team again and the car. The BMW feels as good as I remember, it’s definitely moved on and the guys have done a really good job of developing it. We’ve a new engine for this year so I think we have all the tools for a competitive year. I’m here to win!”
PREDICTION: Turkington is heading into the opening rounds of the season as one of the favourites to lift the title. Back home at WSR, the double champion was one of the front runners before the announcement about BMW’s manufacturer backing. Back in a familiar territory in a car he knows well, aided by BMW’s backing, he’ll have only one thing in his mind. You would be unwise to bet against him being in contention heading into the final round at Brands Hatch.
Árón Taylor-Smith is back in the big time. Having caused upsets for Team BKR in a Volkswagen CC last year, Taylor-Smith has secured manufacturer backing for the first time as he has signed to drive a MG6 for Triple Eight racing.
“It’s an iconic brand in British Motorsport and it is a huge opportunity to have a manufacturer behind me,” he admits, “It is the first time in my British Touring Car career that I’ve got this chance. It has been an unusual off season as I didn’t realise how much of an input that MG themselves would have. It’s so enthusiastic to meet a team that are as driven as we are as drivers to get the most out of this programme. I hope I can deliver for them but I’m really, really proud to represent MG.”
Taylor-Smith’s performance for debutant squad BKR, which included a victory at Rockingham, undoubtedly brought him back into the spotlight and it allowed him to enjoy his racing again.
“Going back to last season, I loved every second of it,” says the Dublin driver, “what Nico Ferrari did within that team is second to none and he has still been instrumental heading into this season.”
The 27-year- old has undergone a rebrand as he got married to longtime girlfriend Lauren.
“I have an encyclopaedia down the side of the car for a name,” he jokes, “The ‘H’ is a small bit cut off, it was part of the decision for moving to MG as there is a bigger rear window!”
PREDICTION: After proving his worth driving for midfield teams, this could be Árón Taylor- Smith’s big chance at showing his talent in a front running car. Ash Sutton and Jack Goff have proved once you get dialled in with the MG victories are possible, and with the added boost of the RML kit it could help lift the MG 6 to a consistent race winner.
Chris Smiley is back in the championship after running a part campaign last year. Returning with BTC Norlin Racing, Northern Ireland’s first BTCC team, the Carrickfergus driver is ready to show the championship what he’s capable of.
“It’s great to be back again, especially with the effort that we have put in to be back on the grid,” says Smiley, “Last year was a difficult year for a lot of reasons but it is fantastic to be here.”
“This is my learning year, whatever we get is what we get. We want to be as close to the front as we can but we’ve made a big effort and we want to make it worthwhile.”
Smiley will be working closely with race winning team mate Dave Newsham.
“Dave’s just pretty much the older version of me, he’s the same height as me and even has the same motorhome as me,” laughs the 24-year- old, “Me and Dave are getting on very well, together we’ll be able to find some improvements in the car and we’ll work together on the data and we’ll hopefully be near the front somewhere!”
PREDICTION: Smiley has admitted that this will be his learning year, but he could still run up near the sharp end of the grid. A win will probably just be out of reach but plenty of top-10s and a potential podium could be on the cards. If he gets lucky with a reverse grid draw he could surprise a few people and he’ll be determined to show off his undoubted talent.
Ireland will also have a number of talented racers in the BTCC’s support categories. Charlie Eastwood is gunning for the Porsche Carrera Cup title after securing the Rookie Cup with ease last year. In the second year of his scholarship deal, he will be one to watch in the series. He’ll be joined in the series by Naas driver Karl Leonard.
Daniel Harper was one of the stars of the 2016 Ginetta Junior Series as he won the Rookie Cup, along with taking overall race wins throughout the year. The late nature of the deal to secure his return to Douglas Motorsport means he has lacked preparations compared to some of his rivals, but Harper’s raw talent will shine through.
Lucca Allen is also set to compete in the British F4 series with Falcon Motorsport. In his debut year, he could pick up some strong results.