We're now 70 per cent of the way through the 2011 British Touring Car Championship season and in many ways the year has been a success. Crowd figures are up, there have been some entertaining races, and seven different drivers have taken wins for six different teams.
The NGTC regulations have helped to bring new squads in and the 27-car entry for Rockingham this weekend is the biggest since 1994. The rise of Frank Wrathall, who could well be an exciting title contender in future years, has also been excellent to see.
Plato is a big critic of the performance gap between turbo and NA cars © LAT
Unfortunately, though, there is still an underlying problem, one that was understandable at the start of the season but has not really improved: that of engine parity.
Reigning champion Jason Plato has been labelled as a moaner by many for his outbursts concerning the equality - or lack of it - between his normally-aspirated Chevrolet Cruze and the new turbo cars. The timing of some of his comments (within minutes of winning at Oulton Park, for example) might not always have been ideal, but that should not detract from the fact that he has a point.
In 2009, Plato qualified an average of just 0.09 seconds off pole in his RML Lacetti. Last year, when he took his second crown, it was a 0.42s deficit, but that increase was partly a result of the controversial LPG-powered Arena Ford Focuses that tended to dominate on Saturdays. Take them out of the equation and the figure was 0.25s, and even less for the latter part of the year when he and RML really got the new Cruze into the groove.
So far this year, the figure is 0.42s. Now remember that by and large this is against the same drivers run by the same teams with the same chassis. It seems unlikely that RML and Plato have suddenly fallen away in competitiveness with a car that won last year and is mopping up in the World Touring Car Championship, so the only change is that the opposition is now turbocharged. And whereas last year it was just the Arena Fords with the edge, this season most of Plato's opposition has the extra grunt.
Plato might only be 35 points behind Honda driver Gordon Shedden - who leads the championship - but he'll need more than a slice of good luck to get that back, particularly with Silverstone's power-dominated National circuit hosting the finale. As he has pointed out many times, the turbos are still well ahead through the speed traps, despite the various boost reductions that have been imposed on them during the season.
NGTC cars were slow and unreliable at the start of the season © LAT
If the BTCC was a true 'free' formula then this wouldn't be a problem. RML and Plato would just have to accept the fact that rivals had found a superior technical solution. But they were promised parity and committed to the NA route on that basis. Now they are left with the likelihood of binning their engines and going turbo just to be competitive in 2012.
Rivals and series boss Alan Gow can point out that Plato's groans are based on an assumption that the RML-Cruze-Plato combination should be the pacesetting combination. Is that so unreasonable? I can't help but feel that if the engine regulations had stayed the same in 2011 as they were last year, then Plato would have scored a lot more than the five wins he's taken so far (three after Honda delays and one when he helped Matt Neal off the road at Snetterton).
It's not the only engine rule that has affected the order of things in 2011 either. The Team Dynamics-run Honda squad is understandably miffed that the Civics of Neal and Shedden have been made to run 0.1bar lower than the other turbos for most of the year. They had been running lower initially anyway, but to put it in the rules did appear to penalise a turbo team that had simply put together a better package than the other similarly-engined squads.
More recently, the pace of the NGTC entries has also raised a few eyebrows. Despite the 0.05 bar reduction for the cars ahead of this weekend's Rockingham round, they are still running more boost than the turbocharged S2000 cars. Given that they are heavier - and are the future of the series - that is perhaps not surprising. But when Wrathall and Rob Austin qualified third and fourth at Knockhill in cars that still seem a tad off in the handling stakes, it was easy to see why some teams felt things had gone a little too far.
That's not to take anything away from Wrathall's Dynojet squad or Austin's eponymous outfit's efforts. They've both worked very hard to improve a new concept that was unreliable and off the pace at the start of the year, but would they - on a totally level playing field - be qualifying among the works Hondas and Chevrolets?
Wrathall took the first NGTC podium at Knockhill for Dynojet © LAT
The point is this: are the various equalisation measures aimed at finding genuine parity between the different sets of rules, or are they being used as handicappers to try and make as many people competitive as possible?
Gow and his technical team is in a tricky position - he doesn't want to see the Hondas and Chevrolets disappear down the road - and it's easy to see why the TOCA chairman welcomed the news that Chevrolet is considering switching to turbos. Having no NA machines will at least remove one big headache for 2012.
In the meantime, how much of a part Plato can play in the 2011 title fight is very much in the hands of the rulemakers. And that doesn't seem quite right.
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