THE Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship is always renowned for its competitiveness, but even by the series’ hard-fought standards, this year’s title battle is shaping up to be especially exciting.

From the moment that seven former BTCC champions were confirmed on the starting grid for the opening three rounds at Brands Hatch, it has been all-but-impossible to identify a likely champion.

Northern Irishman Colin Turkington boasts a ninepoint lead as the field heads to Croft this weekend, with his two victories at the most recent meeting at Oulton Park underlining the strength of the set-up that his eBay Motors team is currently operating.

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However, with the four rounds so far having produced six different winners, there is the potential for considerable chopping and changing at the top of the rankings before a champion is crowned at Brands Hatch in mid-October.

Back in March, it was reigning champion Andrew Jordan who flew out of the traps quickest, with the Pirtek Racing driver claiming victory in two of the opening three races.

Jordan’s wins in his Honda Civic were both lights-to-flag affairs, but Turkington’s victory in the third and final race at Brands Hatch confirmed that last year’s victor was not going to have things all his own way.

Newcastle-born Jason Plato claimed two podium places to confirm his wellbeing for the 2014 season, while Matt Neal made history when he claimed the first ever BTCC podium for an ‘estate-style’ car when he guided his Honda Civic Tourer to third place in race one.

“It’s the first time an estate car has scored a podium and we really peppered the top step of the podium, even though we didn’t quite make it there,” said Neal, who remains in fifth place overall in the current rankings.

The series moved on to Donington in April, with three different names making it on to the winners’ roll. Having qualified quickest, Plato claimed the honours in the first race, pulling half-a-second clear of Sam Tordoff.

The Northern Echo:
PODIUM AIMS: Jason Plato in action at Oulton Park last year

Tordoff gained his revenge in race two, turning the tables to finish a second clear of Plato as the speed of the pair’s MG6 GTs became clear.

Both drivers would have been fancying their chances in race three, but Gordon Shedden displayed some fearless skills to claim the first win of the season for his Honda Yuasa Racing team.

Shedden’s success owed much to a breathtaking finalcorner overtaking move that enabled him to squeeze past Turkington as both drivers briefly left the road.

“With five laps to go, I was six seconds behind,” said Shedden. “But what a last lap that was. The tourer just came alive on the soft tyres.”

Thruxton staged round three at the start of May, and Jordan was initially in the ascendancy, qualifying fastest and leading from start to finish to claim the opening contest.

He looked like winning race two for a long way, but Shedden eventually stretched three-tenths of a second clear to win yet another closelyfought affair.

The final race of the weekend was one of the most comfortable of the season so far, with Turkington finishing three seconds ahead of Mat Jackson as his BMW finally clicked into top gear.

“We started the weekend with a really tricky car to drive, so to have been so fast in the race was a big reward for the team,” said Turkington.

Even better was to come last month as Turkington claimed two victories at Oulton to move to the top of the overall rankings for the first time since he was crowned BTCC champion in 2013.

The 31-year-old dictated from the outset, claiming pole position in damp conditions before holding off eBay Motors team-mate Rob Collard in a somewhat processional opening race.

Turkington doubled up in commanding fashion to claim his fourth win of the season, with Rob Austin reaching the rostrum for the first time this year finishing in second place.

The final race of the weekend was staged in treacherous conditions after a torrential downpour, and saw Irishman Aron Smith claim a maiden success for Team BMR in his VW.

“We’ve done a three-day test at Croft – it was actually the first time I drove the car – so we’ll have a fighting chance there too,” said Smith.

As for Turkington? The aim this weekend will be to defend his lead at the top of the rankings, but with six rounds still to go, the former champion insists it is far too early to be talking about reclaiming the overall title.

“It’s obviously great to be winning races and picking up points, but there’s a long way to go and a lot of races to negotiate,” he said.