NEXT weekend, the eyes of the sporting world will be trained on North Yorkshire as the opening stage of the Tour de France winds its way from Leeds to Harrogate via the picturesque Dales. Before that though, the region plays host to an even faster group of racers, determined to put on an equally exhilarating show.
The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) might not have quite as high a profile as the world’s most famous cycle race, but the racing is just as frenetic and the potential for thrills and spills is enhanced.
Three races at Croft Circuit, near Darlington. Thirty-one of the most powerful and finely-tuned touring cars in the world, hurtling around the track at speeds in excess of 150mph. Seven former BTCC champions, tussling for the title in a series that is firmly established as the most popular and competitive in British motorsport. Little wonder that as it approaches its 60th season, the BTCC is in the rudest of health.
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“I’ve been in and out of the series since 2002,” said Colin Turkington, who tops the current BTCC rankings after winning four of the 12 races so far this season. “And it’s definitely moving forward.
“In all the years I’ve been involved, I’d definitely say this is the peak. We had 43,000 people at the last round at Oulton Park, and that’s incredible really.
“The interest just seems to be growing round by round and you can sense the excitement and anticipation whenever you roll into a new venue. From what I’ve heard, it’s going to be the same at Croft this weekend.”
So why is the BTCC continuing to grow its profile and support base when other motor racing series are struggling to attract the sponsors and investment required to stay afloat?
The competitiveness of the racing is surely one factor, with the regulations designed to ensure that no one team can move too far ahead of its rivals during the course of a season. Whereas the Formula One world champion is invariably the driver with the best car, and too many Grand Prix are little more than a procession from start grid to chequered flag, the technical restrictions in the BTCC mean that every car on the grid is closely matched.
The cars are also recognisable – Honda Civics, BMW 125is, Ford Focus STs, Volkswagen CCs – and while they have been modified to enhance speed and performance, they are effectively supercharged versions of what anyone in the grandstands might be driving to work the following morning.
That lends a sense of immediacy, but every sport needs its personalities, and that is where this year’s BTCC stands above a number of recent editions of the series.
The presence of seven former champions is unprecedented, and after a brief period where drivers drifted away from the British series to compete in the World and European Touring Car Championships, International Superstars Series or V8 Supercar event, a number of high-profile names have returned to the domestic fold.
Turkington is one such driver, and having failed to finish any higher than tenth in his four attempts at the World Touring Car Championship, the Northern Irishman appears to have concluded that the grass is not always greener outside of the UK.
“As a driver, you’re always striving to improve and perform on the biggest stages in the world,” he said. “But as time goes on, you appreciate just what a fantastic and well-supported series this is.
“A lot of the most recognisable stars of British Touring Cars are back on the grid this year, and that’s testament to the way the event is organised and marketed. It’s also made for some fantastic racing.
“The British racing public have grown up watching a lot of these guys battling for titles down the years, so to see them all together on the same grid, going at it hammer and tongs again, must be exciting.”
The likes of Jason Plato, Fabrizio Giovanardi and Alain Menu are Touring Car royalty, but they have had to play second fiddle to Turkington in the opening four rounds of the season, with the 32-year-old determined to reclaim the overall crown he last won in 2009.
Turkington’s eBay Motors team hit the ground running, helping to deliver a first and third place in the opening round at Brands Hatch in March, and after another victory was secured at round three at Thruxton, things really took off during this month’s most recent outing at Oulton.
Having claimed a well-deserved pole, Turkington won the first two races before finishing third in the other to open up a nine-point lead over Gordon Shedden at the top of the overall rankings.
With Croft marking the halfway stage of the season, it is a decent enough buffer, but with 18 races still to come, it is far too early to be taking anything for granted.
“The car is in a pretty good place at the moment,” said Turkington. “But it’s constantly evolving, and while we won’t be making any major changes with the set-up looking pretty good, we’ll be tweaking a few things ahead of Croft.
“Oulton was a big weekend for us because it showed that the changes we’ve made so far have worked and we cashed in with a couple of victories when the car was running well.
“It’s important to do that, and you always want to have the points on the board if you can. But you don’t win anything for being the Championship leader in June, and things can change very quickly if you have a bad weekend. I’m happy to be on top of the leaderboard, but that’s all it is at this stage.”
Nevertheless, with the presence of so many former champions in the field, would a title victory this season eclipse anything else Turkington has achieved in a career that has spanned more than a decade?
“I guess so,” he said. “There’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ title in the BTCC, so my victory in 2009 will always be really special because I had to fight so hard to get it.
“But you’re right that the quality of the field makes this year a little bit different to some previous seasons. I think we’d all see the title this year as something to be extremely proud of because you’re up against so many great drivers each week.
“Would it be even more special this time around? I’m not sure. But I’ll tell you something, I’d like to find out.”