|The highly anticipated BTCC season begins in earnest this Thursday with the FWDs expected to perform well|
AOR is not afraid to step into the unknown. The governing body of league racing that is designed based on the self-proclaimed idea of close, clean racing has gone through a huge transition of uncertainty and change over the past year but has ultimately come out of it alive and, most importantly, still functioning with it's values intact. The tin-top category has not been down the smoothest route either. The BTCC represents another journey of discovery but - unlike it's RUF and Ferrari predecessors - looks to be one that is spectacular, hard-fought and (most importantly) in line with the AOR philosophy.
The standout appeal of the RUF Supercup was that the car was affordable to run and open to all in a spec class that was all about the driver making the difference. This worked to an extent but an unappealing field spread made this an unattractive venture. The Ferrari Challenge very much produced the same outcome, but possibly alienated even more competitors with the handling deficiencies that the street tyres provided (albeit providing some spectacular sideways action for the watching audience). Something had to change.
The BTCC brings in the best of touring car racing; six different manufacturers are providing chassis of varying characteristics and performances which is a proposition that has drivers and fans alike excited. Not only because there are many stories to tell such as intra-team battles and car performance controversy each week, but because it brings back one of the factors that has been missed in previous racing championships - unpredictability.
FWD vs RWD
The representation of so many manufacturers is a testament to the belief that no matter what car you are driving, you will be competitive. Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda, Renault and Vauxhall have all made entries this season and car performance will be the key headline maker this season as the stewards look to fine tune any flaws or indeed any advantages for the future.
This season is practically an eight-event test session in some ways and there will be teething problems along the way for everybody involved. As in any potential successful touring car championship however, a decent proportion of the grid will be driving rear wheel driven cars. One of the advantages of the rear wheel drive has already been eradicated completely with the removal of standing starts although that won't bother BMW and Audi too much - the 1M and the S3 appear to at the top of the speed traps and will surely be big hitters at some of the lower downforce configurations.
The front wheel drives will be easier to drive however and won't be afraid to lock horns, with the thought of close racing and early lap knocks maybe getting a bit too close for comfort for the RWD entries.
An intense title fight ahead
In terms of quality, one thing that AOR won't need to worry about is the roster of drivers participating this season. There boasts a huge array of talent behind the wheel this season and, after having a quick scan through the driver list, any one of seven or eight drivers could win a race this season easily. The new format allows this - with the grids expected to be more jumbled up from race 2 onwards than in previous formats, an opportunity could be thrown anybody's way and they will be further aided by the shorter race distances. Expect many pleasant surprises this season.
Ultimately though it will be down to speed, and qualifying still matters. Expect the usual quartet of xII robo IIx, x Shuffle, Kptk92 and McPhilen to be up there with oV xS4Mx Vo now on the brink of a major breakthrough following a sterling Ferrari Challenge campaign. Race 1 will often set the scene for the Championship battle this season and right now it is simply too close to call who will take the top honour come season's end. The top four Ferrari Challenge runners will all race for different teams this season although xII robo IIx will arguably have a team mate who has been a proven front runner and that may play to his advantage when push comes to shove in the closing weeks and points need to be taken off of his rivals.
xII robo IIx will go into this season as the Ferrari Challenge Champion against a near-identical grid to the one he won his title against. He may have benefited from unreliability from his closest competitors last time out but his speed is undeniable. x Shuffle probably has the outright speed but will need to be at the top of his game, with the Astra looking to trump the Civic on the straights. Expect the Road Atlanta event to be his defining event. Kptk92 will have his events too but has generally been inconsistent and not delivered a perfect campaign so far. He has made a safe choice with the Ford but could well struggle in the mixed-grid races. McPhilen has come of age in recent seasons and found his speed but needs to deliver it when it matters most in qualifying to set him up for bigger results on a more consistent basis. However the new format may play into his hands as qualifying well does not mean the end of the world anymore.
Expect these four to be the key title protagonists in what is expected to be a hard fought slog to the end.
The top of the standings may be where the key focus will be, but there will be many fascinating rivalries within the teams as they look to take their personal battles to the top of the Manufacturers Standings.
2015 Audi S3 Sedan - RickeeyC & wilDtub
From the outside at this moment in time, the Audi team looks to be made up of a driver that was 100% committed to driving for them, and one that has simply fallen into a seat after every other team tied up their deals and shut up shop early.
wilDtub was spotted at the test session in the Audi on a frequent basis and something has clearly clicked between driver and machine. Possibly the unluckiest man in the Ferrari Challenge series will be hoping that the tides have turned for him in a car that is probably very similar to the Ferrari in some aspects.
RickeeyC, on the other hand, is the only driver not to have shown his hand yet but he may well not have expected to be driving the Audi package for the coming season, which has demonstrated erratic handling at times but a very fast top speed.
Therefore it is very difficult to judge how this duel will end up. Audi will undoubtedly play the underdog role this season in a car that will be very difficult to pass and that could mean whoever holds on to the big results in the reverse races will have the lion's share of the points. Audi hope this rivalry will ignite and take them to shock results this season.
2011 BMW 1 M Series Coupe - Alehud42 & I RickyTan I
A veteran of touring cars is up against a completely unknown entity this season. Alehud42 has previous knowledge of a BMW touring car and therefore should have the edge at the start. His speed has gradually improved as the seasons have progressed and the BMW should mean that he is a difficult car to pass. He didn't feature at the test session so there was no chance to gauge him against his new team-mate but expect solid performances and perhaps the odd opportunity for race victories in the reverse grid races.
Rookie I RickyTan I landed a drive in the eleventh hour and has already expressed his elation at getting a seat so quickly. He has rightly kept his expectations in check but he has a fine and experienced team-mate to measure himself against. He made some great progress in testing but will need to polish up on his race craft to ensure he survives some brutal encounters in the midfield, especially with a car that will swap ends a lot easier than most of those around him.
2013 Ford Focus ST - Kptk92 & Relezy
Ford boast two drivers this season with big campaigns ahead of them. Kptk92 and Relezy have both had their run ins (sometimes into each other) in previous championships but will need to work together to achieve big points this season.
Kptk92 is expected to be up there fighting for the title but will need to cut out the costly mistakes that have hampered previous bids in championships gone by. On his day he can be the benchmark but a car lacking in speed or getting pushed about could be enough to trigger the red mist. He must play the long game this season and keep his head up.
Relezy on the other hand faces a defining season. His results in the Ferrari Challenge were improving steadily and that bodes well for the BTCC in a car that should be a more pleasurable experience to drive. First he must improve his lap times in qualifying, and then the results will come. He found himself in some decent positions in the Ferrari Challenge but did not capitalise on them - this is something that will happen more frequently in the BTCC format and Ford will pin their hopes on him to learning from past experience to take home valuable points in what looks like a very tight Manufacturers battle.
2007 Honda Civic Type-R - x Shuffle & oV xB4RDx Vo
Honda surely must fancy their chances in the Drivers Championship but two very contrasting seasons for their driver's in the Ferrari Challenge will mean they could face an uphill climb in the Manufacturers Championship. x Shuffle finished near the summit of the Ferrari standings, with oV xB4RDx Vo languishing down the order 2 points from the bottom.
Honda's stomping ground at Road Atlanta hosts the fifth event of the season and that will surely be the defining moment of the season. If x Shuffle is in a position of power by that stage then the title will surely be a formality. What he does in the opening half of the season is crucial - he has all of the ingredients to take a stranglehold of this Championship and he rarely shows a weakness. A few uncharacteristic errors in the Ferrari Challenge will be quickly resolved, and a trouble-free run in terms of reliability is all he will need. Expect him to be challenging for pole positions and setting fastest laps. It will take a monumental effort for him to be toppled this season.
oV xB4RDx Vo on the other hand rarely represented last season and did not feature at the test session. He will surely be under a huge baptism of fire in the intra-team battle, but he can use his team-mate as a benchmark for improvement and that will be key as the season progresses and Honda may find itself in the mix for top honours.
2010 Renault Megane RS 250 - McPhilen & FisiFan91
There is a well balanced line up at Renault with the potential to go on and produce good things this season. McPhilen will surely lead the Renault charge and getting top results in qualifying and the first race will surely be at the top of his wishlist. His race performances have generally been inconsistent and often unlucky in the past - the expected tighter field spread will surely teach him a harsh lesson if he falls off guard this season. This is a defining season for McPhilen.
His team-mate FisiFan91 however has not at all been comfortable in tin tops but a podium in the final race of the Ferrari Challenge must surely keep him optimistic of an improved turn in fortunes in the touring cars. The speed has quite clearly been proven in the past and he needs to explore what he can do to pick up the top results once again. The Megane will provide him with a strong and reliable base to build upon and hopefully by season's end he will be sniffing the tail end of the frontrunners.
2012 Vauxhall Astra VXR - xII robo IIx & oV xS4Mx Vo
Vauxhall enter the season as the team to beat with regular frontrunners xII robo IIx and oV xS4Mx Vo taking the reins of the Astra VXR. xII robo IIx enters the season as one of the favourites following Ferrari success and will be incredibly tough to beat. He is almost notorious for storming through the field in the reverse grid races in a matter of moments and this will be a key strength of his once again in the title race. He is always up there in qualifying too - he will be a tough adversary to beat.
His team-mate made an important step in the Ferrari Challenge. oV xS4Mx Vo learned the lessons from the RUF Supercup and converted that into podium finishes and stunning qualifying performances, especially towards the latter stages. His pace has improved with every race event and will be one of the drivers to watch this season as he looks to take the fight to the top four. With the Astra at his disposal, he could well spring a few surprises at the front too.
The x Shuffle/Kptk92 rivalry will reignite following a stuttering squabble in the Ferrari Challenge. xII robo IIx and McPhilen will be right there to pick up any pieces though. Expect McPhilen to capitalise on his practice pace and secure at least one pole position this time out. oV xS4Mx Vo will continue to surprise and could well score some victories. Also keep an eye out in the reverse grid races, as the midfield runners compete for victories too. And expect Troggy to try and make some attempt of a comeback as the season progresses.
1. x Shuffle
3. xII robo IIx
5. oV xS4Mx Vo
10. I RickyTan I
12. oV xB4RDx Vo