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…”  

Birmingham Superprix

Streetwise racing in Brum and the south of France

Dipping into one’s long-neglected photo archive it’s amazing what comes to the surface. This time it was a picture reminding me that in my 30-year-plus career, I’ve only ever been to three meetings on street circuits – and two of them were in Birmingham…

Birmingham Superprix 1986

Racing cars, traffic lights and 40mph signs – this was the Birmingham Superprix…

Run between 1986 and 1990, the Birmingham Superprix was something very different on the UK racing calendar and when the debut 1986 event was announced this young motorsports photographer knew he had to be there. At the time all the racing I had experienced had been at Brands Hatch and a brief visit to Lydden.

Having held a media pass for Brands Hatch circuits for just three seasons and not having a permanent outlet I knew I wouldn’t get a pass for Birmingham, which was an international event topped by a round of the FIA Formula 3000 Championship (for younger racing types, F3000 was then to F1 what GP2 is today – the final rung of the ladder to Grand Prix racing). So me and my mate John Newton went as punters on a grand day out.

Birmingham Superprix 1986, crossing

“Oi, you can’t park on the zig-zags…”

Arriving at a race circuit by Inter City train was novel, especially this was only my second time in Birmingham and the previous visit took me only as far as the NEC to see Genesis in 1983. John and I made our way to the circuit wondering what to expect – our only experience of street circuits was watching Monaco and US tracks such as Long Beach on the TV.

Well, Birmingham was no Monaco! The circuit was based largely around a dual carriageway, the cars charging down one side, around a roundabout and up the other side. It then dived through some tight roads hemmed in by towering offices and housing, bringing the cars back to the start line, opposite a pit lane in the frontage of a car dealership.

86 Birmingham Superprix, deck chairs

Get the deck chairs out, racing cars are on…”

Walking around, even in the public areas, it was incredible how close you were to the track, the cars powering by just the other side of a debris fence. But if you took too many steps backwards, you risked falling into the pocket-handkerchief-sized garden of a local resident’s council house, and they were hanging out their bedroom window getting a grandstand view of the action. Others were sat in front of their houses in deckchairs – there were tales of marshals being kept supplied with tea from the nearest locals, it was all very British.

F3000, Birmingham Superprix 1986.

For the F3000 boys the race was more about staying on the track than challenging rivals…

John and I found a great spot for the racing, sitting close to the top of a grass bank directly opposite that hairpin at the end of the dual carriageway – and then the rains came…

All those who were there remember how the tail-end of Hurricane Charley let rip on Britain that August bank holiday weekend, and it wrecked race day. The deluge was so torrential that John and I kept sliding down the bank on the mud. The F3000 race was stopped halfway through and a result declared and while they tried to run the saloon supports, we were so sodden and dejected we dragged ourselves to the train and home.

Rain-sodden 86 Birmingham Superprix

Conditions too sodden for even the saloons dampened our spirits…

Thankfully, the organisers didn’t let that put them off and a year later the meeting happened again, and this time in glorious weather. I went on my own to this one, still without a press pass, but being at Brands Hatch almost every weekend I had by this time got to know a lot of marshals. During the morning practice sessions my friends on the post just after the start line let me go trackside for a couple of sessions.

Birmingham Superprix 1987 Fiestas

One not very tall armco barrier, and racing cars, going rather quickly…

In all my time as trackside photographer I was never quite as inspired – and yes, mildly scared – as I was then. I was standing almost touching the inside of an armco barrier that only came up to just above my knees, and on the other side was the track – no grass verge or gravel trap, just tarmac, and racing cars going full pelt on it.

I became a huge fan of street circuits that day, and I would be disappointed that commitments elsewhere prevented me going back to the Superprix in any of the three more years it lasted. In fact it would be another 20 years before my next street race, and that was in the south of France.

1987 Birmingham Superprix F3000

F3000 cars make for the airport…

By the time I went to the round of the 2007 World Touring Car Championship at Pau, my trackside days were behind me, in fact I was no longer primarily a photographer but a writer, and at the time writing more about road cars than race cars.

WTCC Pau 2007

Pau – the traditional idea of a street circuit.

In fact it was testing road cars that got me to the meeting – Pau was at that time familiar to us, a favourite launch venue for the German brand’s performance road cars due to good roads in the district, a very nice hotel actually bordering the street circuit, and a proper race track just a few miles outside the city for us to try out the latest BMW M3s and M5s.

So a select few of us road testers with motorsport credentials were invited as guests of BMW to Pau – at the time the brand’s WTCC team was led by Brit Andy Priaulx who would claim his third successive title in 2007. I certainly had the motorsport credentials – on car launches to Pau I never needed a second invitation to show any driving partner who hadn’t visited the city before “where the race circuit goes…”

Priaulx WTCC Pau 2007

Andy Priaulx, the man to beat in 2007.

Now this was much more like a Monaco-style street track – really tight, climbing and descending its way between impressive architecture, and with the kind of weather one gets in a location much closer to the Mediterranean than is Birmingham. The only thing missing was a harbour with bronzed beauties sunbathing on mega-money yachts.

The track itself was everything I expected, especially as the World Touring Cars still climbed over every kerb they could find and constantly grazed the barriers. It was impressive stuff, but the dangers of street tracks were highlighted in no uncertain terms when Augusto Farfus rolled his BMW into a tyre barrier in qualifying, causing my mate Ian Lynas to dive for cover in a way a man of his years really shouldn’t be doing. It was sobering to think that had the Beemer been a foot or so higher it would have missed the barrier and kept on rolling…

Farfus, WTCC Pau 2007

A fellow journo got rather too close for comfort with the Farfus BMW…

We had a great weekend, especially on Saturday evening. The racing went on into the night which encouraged one of my fellow journos to stage an unofficial party in his room – beer, food and a grandstand view from his balcony! And on Sunday Alain Menu, one of my favourite acquaintances from BTCC Super Touring days, won the first race in his Chevrolet.

So yes, I like street circuits, though I don’t get to them very often. I still haven’t seen a race at Monaco, though I’ve walked the circuit and I’ve driven it – in the traffic jams of a typical Monegasque weekday morning… And to be honest, I’d be happy to go back to another Superprix in Brum, especially as now I live in Wales the city is at the other end of a direct rail line…WTCC at Pau, 2007

Pau WTCC, 2007

All photos in this piece by me! Andrew Charman