2022 – the BTCC steps into the unknown

The British Touring Car Championship opens this weekend at Donington Park with a real step into the unknown – and getting a handle on that unknown, according to many involved in the series, may take the entire season.

Much has already been written about the new hybrid powertrains that become part of the BTCC car DNA as of 2022, focusing mainly on the technical aspects of the system and how it is integrated into the car. But what remains far less clear is how going hybrid will affect the races – drivers and teams now have a whole new area of strategy to play with, but a lot more to think about as a result, so how soon will they really feel they are on top of the technology?

To recap. The BTCC hybrid system is built into the Xtrac gearbox and has no effect on the turbo engine or exhaust. It’s fed by a 48v battery mounted on the floor of the cockpit in its own safety cell – this battery will normally be recharged during a race by energy generated under braking, but should it need topping up between races this can be done in less than an hour using a standard 240v wall socket.   

Unlike most road cars where a hybrid system is used to save fuel, the system in a BTCC race car will be a performance element, giving drivers and teams an extra element of race strategy. By pressing a button on the steering wheel drivers will be able to deploy up to 15 seconds of hybrid power per lap, which is equivalent to a 15-metre advantage over a car running without hybrid. They will only be able to deploy the system when they are at a speed of 120kph or above, and the hybrid won’t work on the first lap of either a race or after a safety car restart.

The big strategy element is how much total hybrid assistance each driver will have to use. BTCC organiser TOCA has used the arrival of the system to get rid of the ever-controversial success ballast, which penalised drivers for strong race results by means of adding weight for the next race.

Now instead of being weighed down with 75 kilos of ballast, the championship leader will arrive at the next meeting knowing they won’t have any hybrid assistance in qualifying, whereas the driver in second spot will have 1.5 seconds a lap, in third three seconds, and so on down to everyone below the top 10 who will have the full 15 seconds a lap available.

Race success will also reduce the amount of hybrid you get to play with, not by time, but by number of laps. For example if a race is of 17 laps or less, the championship leader starting race 1, and the winners of race 1 and 2 going into the next race, won’t have any hybrid power available for 10 of those laps. The next in line will go without hybrid for nine laps, and so on down to 10th who will only be penalised one lap. Everyone below 10th will have their 15 seconds on tap every lap.

If the races are longer than 17 laps, then the top penalty will be 15 laps without hybrid, then 13 and so on down to 10th.

All or nothing?

While drivers will be informed how much hybrid they have left courtesy of a dash display, and a blue light on the side of the car will alert spectators to when the driver is ‘pressing the button’, what drivers and teams won’t know is just when and by how much their rivals have used their allocation. So a driver could be battling an opponent with anything from 15 seconds of advantage to none at all. And this is where the great unknown comes in, the new strategy to be worked out. 

Starting what he says will be his farewell season some 25 years on from his BTCC debut, with a record 97 race wins and two titles to his name, Jason Plato is the only active driver in the series to have raced the last four eras of the BTCC car – Super Touring, BTC Touring, Super 2000 and the current NGTC. And Plato, who having signed for BTC Racing will for the first time be at the wheel of a Honda built by the Team Dynamics operation headed by his long-time nemesis Matt Neal, admits that when the intended switch to hybrid was first announced in 2019, he was not a fan.

“I wasn’t that enamoured with it, I felt you have electric racing and that’s great, so let’s stay where we are,” Plato told me at the 2022 BTCC launch evening. “And I was wrong, because the whole industry has changed in those two or three years and having seen what Alan Gow, his team and the people at Cosworth have come up with, it’s a really clever idea because as Alan says, if something goes wrong it’s not going to stop us racing.”

He is a fan of the emergence of more strategy that the driver and engineer must master. “While the improvement in lap time and race distance time, and how it will change racecraft, is small, it will make a difference, and that’s going to be quite tricky to get that strategy right.”

Weather a factor

Plato believes how and where hybrid deployment is used will be different at every circuit, and will even be affected by changes in wind, both in direction and strength. Such factors will affect how much hybrid deployment is used in qualifying; “(this) will then determine where you are on the grid for race day, which will then dictate how you optimise your deployment, to attack, and vice versa, when you are at the sharp end of the grid, how you use your hybrid deployment to defend.”

Plato describes as exciting the fact that there are now so many new variables to master. “That’s going to require a lot of analysis and opinion, from a race driver’s perspective and also from an engineering perspective. There’s a lot to get wrong there but the sexy side is there’s a lot to get right.

“It’s all going to be small amounts – this is not a push-to-pass type system (as used in series such as IndyCar), but if people get it right I think it will play quite an important role over how the championship pans out. That’s going to be a challenge and therefore that’s going to be exciting.”

Plato – still holding court 25 years on, and looking forward to the new strategies at play

Dan Cammish, who in 2019 was robbed of his first BTCC title by a brake failure half a lap from the end of the final race of the season, returns to the BTCC after a year out, alongside reigning champion Ash Sutton at the wheel of Motorbase Fords boosted by backing from US auto part giant NAPA. While he thinks the workings of the hybrid system are quite easy for a driver to get on top of, he too sees the races as complete unknowns.

“From a driver’s point of view there’s a little bit to understand and learn about the hybrid,” Cammish told me, “but I think that very quickly we will get to understand whereabouts on the track is optimum – to be honest it’s almost common sense, you are going to know the most obvious places to press the button.

“But while it’s alright using it for a fast lap in qualifying, you can’t judge when someone else uses it around you in a race, how you are going to use it to defend, how many people have got it, who doesn’t have it…”

It is here where Cammish says there are lessons to learn. “While previously you knew if a car was carrying success ballast, you might not know now how many laps of hybrid they’ve used, how many laps they’ve got left – you could be caught unawares but ultimately you might catch someone else napping as well.” 

Desiring a diet

Cammish is among those that believe tyre wear could also play a bigger factor in races – installing the hybrid has added 75 kilos of weight to the cars, making them effectively react as if they were carrying the full success ballast of last season. “I think it’s a shame the cars are so heavy – as a driver you feel that extra, it’s like having a passenger. It will lead to more tyre wear, mean that the cars aren’t quite on their toes like they were previously. They’ve lost a little bit of sparkle and it’s not like they were that light to begin with.”

Making the tyres work is the concern of Goodyear racing manager Mickey Butler. But he told me the challenge is not so much about the weight, which is a known factor from cars in previous seasons running maximum ballast, but how the hybrid system will put torque bursts through the tyres.  “They can’t use the torque until they get into third gear, and in a straight line,” Butler said. “It will be a big learning curve for them, for us, for everything.”

Slightly easing the complexity is the lack this year of an option tyre of either softer or harder compound, which in previous seasons each driver had to choose in one of the three races at a meeting. According to Butler the plan is to run with a 2021 specification medium hard tyre, but Goodyear will need to use the year as a learning curve like everybody else.

“We’ll assess the wear at each track, what we need to change and we also have a mid-season test planned where we can adapt, maybe change things for 2023. But I think people really need to realise it’s a clean slate for the teams, the drivers, but for us as well. 

“We are all going through the same pain barrier  and I look forward to the challenge. Is it going to be easy, no. Is every race weekend going to be a test event, yes.” 

Every day a school day

Butler believes the circuits will dictate how long it takes to really get across the hybrid from a tyre point of view, but everyone will be learning all season long. “Some of the most aggressive circuits are in the first half of the season, such as Thruxton, Brands Indy, but we won’t be going to Silverstone until September and Silverstone has its own issues. You can’t evaluate a tyre from one event, you have to look at the picture over the course of the season.”

Dick Bennetts, owner of West Surrey Racing which has taken Colin Turkington to four BTCC titles, believes his team is effectively working through the “few new surprises” the hybrid system is throwing up, and he is looking forward to the new and very different race strategy – while still bemoaning the fact that rear-wheel-drive cars must be 30 kilos heavier than their front-wheel-drive rivals. 

As to how much of the season it will take before everyone is comfortable with the system, Bennetts said, “normally TOCA reviews things after three meetings, that’s nine races, so we will see how we go up to then.”    

Plato, however, believes it will take longer than that, and there will be no quick handle on the hybrid. “I think teams will be learning right until the end of the season, I really do.” 

And if he has a good season with the hybrid, boosts his current 97 race wins to 99, and at the end of the year Matt Neal announces he is returning in a Honda in 2023, will retirement still be an option? Jason smiles and adds; “well we’d certainly have a conversation…”  

Rekindling my passion for a raucous pocket rocket

More car manufacturers these days are staging drive days for journalists, not attached to the launch of a specific model but instead gathering all the most recent new cars together for the invited hacks to drive as many as they need, or wish, to.

I like these events, because from one day out of the office you can get a lot of potential copy, and sometimes you get some major extras too…

1405VX220cSuch was the case with a day organised this month by Vauxhall. Tooling all the way down from mid Wales to Luton doesn’t exactly excite me – it’s a long way to travel to drive in a part of the country where there’s too much traffic on generally unexciting roads. But this day was to be based at the heritage centre – I’d never been there, and it sounded interesting.

A half-million pound car...

A half-million pound car…

As indeed it was. Vauxhall clearly takes its history seriously and crammed into an innocuous building are many historic cars and just as much memorabilia. PR Man Simon Hucknall clearly loves talking about the heritage centre, and he eagerly pointed out the pre-WW1 Prince Henry (“that’s a half-million pound car…”) and the 1913 30-98, described as the first 100mph production car – not sure I’d like to go 100mph in it…

Possibly just as exciting for many of us was the fact that outside, lined up with the current Cascadas, Mokkas and Merivas, were a host of heritage machines for us to drive. Not the really old stuff, but stretching back to the 1950s with names such as Cresta, Viva and the like…

1405VXR220cFor me, however, the big attraction was much younger – I remember writing about its launch, and I’m not THAT old… It’s called the VXR 220, and the various incarnations of Vauxhall’s go kart on steroids have over the years given me some very distinct memories.

The original VX 220 was launched in 1999. Vauxhall intended to get away from the dull image conjoured up by such cars as the Vectra, and mercilessly stoked by that man Clarkson on Top Gear. The answer was a stripped-down roadster, developed and built in Norfolk by a firm that knew all about building such cars – Lotus…

1405VX220a

The VX 220 – first of a memorable line…

I loved the VX 220 the moment I drove the thing. It had almost 150 horses but weighed just 870 kilos. This was an adult go-kart and even Clarkson admitted it was a better bet than a Lotus. When, around three years later, I was invited to the launch of the Turbo version, I was seriously excited. Closer to 200bhp, 4.7-second 0-62mph time, what was not to like? And the launch was to be held in Spain, with track driving on the Jerez GP circuit, and British Touring Car Champion Jason Plato there to offer speed tips…

And then the day before the launch I was driving to work and the phone rang. It was Maureen from Vauxhall. “Are you nearly at Luton airport?” “But it’s tomorrow…” “No, today…” I – was – seriously gutted…

And then the stories began to emerge. Stories of accidents, wrecked VX Turbos. Several wrecked VX Turbos, into double figures. Even today Vauxhall’s brand guy Stuart Harris appears to shake a little when recalling the firm talking to he had to give the gathered journos. And I had missed all this…

Then just a year later, Vauxhall launched its performance sub-brand, the VXR that we have come to know and enjoy. And the first VXR model was a special edition version of the VX Turbo, dubbed the VXR 220 and just 60 examples of it built. It had another 20bhp, shaving that 62mph sprint to 4.2 seconds in something as stiffly suspended and corner carving as a race car. I had to have one on test…

It was delivered to my office in Orpington. Vauxhall’s delivery driver departed with a cheery “Have a fun week, they all come back crashed…” And I proceeded to drive it home.

1405VXR220bFive miles from my house, there was a Focus in the mirror, manically flashing its headlights. Must be something amiss I thought, so I pulled into a layby and Focus pulled in behind. Out of it stepped a young female who proceeded to run over to my car, bend down and gush excitedly; “I’ve got one of these! I thought mine was the only one in the south of England…”

In the ensuing explanation and conversation, it transpired that she and I actually lived only a few streets from each other. Eventually bidding a cheery farewell, I escaped and drove home, parking the car out the front of my house and thinking no more of my encounter.

Half an hour later and Rosemary, Mrs C, was calling me, with a suspicious expression on her face. “There’s some woman at the door asking for you…” Said woman had gone home, got her VXR 220, and brought it round to show me. You couldn’t make this up…

I did have a fun week, and I didn’t crash it, so several years later, back at the Vauxhall drive day, rekindling my relationship with this particular car was a must. I did all the work-related duties, driving the modern stuff, in the morning, deliberately leaving the expected pleasure to close to the end of the day…

1405VXR220eInitially, it was humbling. It’s not that long ago since the VXR 220 was a production model, and I haven’t got that much older, but getting in and out of the thing, across the wide monocoque sills, is not at all easy, and very undignified. Too much good living in Wales? Possibly…

I briefly forgot how to start the thing, until I remembered that this car was one of the first to have an adrenalin-fuelling start button, rather than a turn key. Said button is an an innocuous little chrome dot on the dash rather than the big ‘Engine Start’ moniker we see on cars today. Still, at least I didn’t set the alarm off, unlike an esteemed national newspaper colleague…

Out on the road, and the car was everything I remembered – basically evil. Its throttle was point, squirt. Braking was face squashing, the ride bone-jarringly stiff. The fat tyres followed every bump, mound or indentation in the tarmac, ensuring that one’s hands stayed very firmly gripped to the squat little steering wheel just to keep the thing pointing in a straight line – this was not a car you could cruise in, concentration needed in large amounts at all times.

1405VXR220dBut you know, it was every bit as much fun as I’d remembered, and I’m only disappointed I’ve never had a chance to drive a VXR 220 on track – there it would no doubt be even more memorable, and I promise I wouldn’t crash it…

No matter – if ever I get my dream garage, there will always be space in it for Vauxhall’s pocket rocket…