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Six things to watch in BTCC 2024

Hybrid and turbo boost, a new qualifying system, a punitive tyres tweak… There’s a lot to get to grips with as the new British Touring Car Championship season looms. Here are six of the key themes to follow in 2024

Ashley Sutton, NAPA Racing UK Ford Focus ST, Tom Ingram, Bristol Street Motors with EXCELR8 Hyundai i30 N Fastback, Jake Hill, Laser Tools Racing with MB Motorsport BMW 330e M Sport

Photo by: JEP

A record-breaking fifth British Touring Car Championship title for Ash Sutton? Or indeed, for Colin Turkington? Or a second for Tom Ingram? Or how about a first for Jake Hill, Dan Cammish, or Josh Cook?

There are plenty of obstacles in the way. Fewer cars, yes, but there are more variables thanks to a raft of sporting regulation changes aimed at preventing exactly the kind of lights-to-flag Sutton steamroller victories we watched last year.

Time to run through what we're going to need to look out for in 2024, beginning this weekend at Donington Park. At least no one has to stress about which tyres to run at this one – unless it rains…

And, back to the title, how about another major tin-top crown - but first in the UK - for Rob Huff?

1. Sutton: winners could come from outside top 10

Sutton expects to face a challenge in defending his title

Sutton expects to face a challenge in defending his title

Photo by: JEP

Along with the changes to the push-button boost regulations and qualifying format, new tyre rules for BTCC 2024 have fallen somewhat under the radar. But they are significant enough for reigning champion Ash Sutton to believe that there’s a very real chance of the winner of race two on a Sunday coming from outside the top 10 on the grid.

For this season, anyone finishing in the top 10 in race one must use the hardest available tyre compound from their allocation for race two. That won’t impact Donington this weekend, where only the medium Goodyear is in use.

But it will come into play for round two at Brands Hatch, where it’s the medium with the soft as the option tyre. And it will hugely impact round three at Snetterton, where all three compounds must be used in the three races. Anyone using the medium or soft to finish in the top 10 in race one will therefore be forced onto the hard for race two.

Furthermore, while the construction of the Goodyears remains the same as in 2023, the compound has been revised to comply with new EU regulations on chemicals, and this has had the byproduct of widening the delta between the soft, medium and hard. This has brought joy to BTCC organiser TOCA, mindful that 11 of the 20 events since hybrid replaced success ballast in 2022 have featured the same winner in races one and two.

“Now that the hybrid is such a big difference, and we have that rule change where we have to go on the next hardest tyre available for race two, if you win race one you’re in a pretty rubbish position for race two,” reckons Sutton.

“If you’re in P11 you’ve got full deployment and a free choice of tyre, and suddenly you could have a win on the cards. If someone’s got the car underneath them and the deployment, you could be looking at up to a second a lap difference, and there’s no way you can overcome that.”

Sutton also predicts that the new IndyCar-style three-stage qualifying format will be tough to conquer, especially when mixed with the hike in boost. Only 12 will progress to the second phase, six to the final shootout: “Yes, 100%, and that’s the idea of it. It’s designed to make you struggle. There’s some [short] tracks that are going to be really difficult to qualify at – Brands Indy, Knockhill, Silverstone.”

2. Will the boost tweaks really work?

Hill expects the new boost rules will make a big difference in qualifying

Hill expects the new boost rules will make a big difference in qualifying

Photo by: JEP

A doubling of ‘overtaking’ boost is the headline tweak of the sporting regulations over the 2023-24 winter. Where during 2022 and 2023 the push of a button gave you roughly 30bhp extra from the hybrid, that’s now doubled by the addition of turbo boost.

West Surrey Racing BMW star Jake Hill believes it will make a big difference in qualifying – even more so on shorter circuits where lap times are closer, due to the boost being limited to 15 seconds per lap at all venues, deployed at a minimum of 115km/h (70mph).

“It is huge,” emphasises Hill. “It’s an easy five tenths we think. It’s going to make quite a big difference, especially in qualifying where we’re separated by a couple of tenths.”

In races, Hill reckons it will succeed in series organiser TOCA’s bid to allow drivers to clear a boost-less car in front, rather than just get an overlap.

“If you enable it at the right time, you should quite easily clear someone. Races are going to be very difficult – there’ll be such a big difference between people with and without it. If we are going to be at the front, you’re going to struggle at times.”

Bearing in mind rear-wheel-drive cars tend to be relatively stronger on tyre grip later in a race, could this benefit the BMWs?

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“For sure,” agrees Hill. “Also in the long corners where you can enable it because the speed’s high enough. Coppice is a prime example here [Donington] – we can get on it [the boost] basically at the apex, whereas front-wheel-drive cars may run out of traction, so there are some benefits to being a rear-wheel-drive car. But hey, until we go racing we won’t know.”

3. Numbers are down for 2024

Power Maxed Racing has slimmed back down to two cars, while several teams are absent from the grid altogether

Power Maxed Racing has slimmed back down to two cars, while several teams are absent from the grid altogether

Photo by: JEP

British Touring Car Championship boss Alan Gow was happy for the field to reduce to 23 or 24 for this season, but financial realities mean that the season will kick off this weekend with 20.

BMW team West Surrey Racing was still working on a deal to try to get the highly rated Bobby Thompson onto the grid in its fourth car until the eleventh hour. He won't be on the grid at Donington, but all parties are still working on getting him out for a delayed start to the season.

After the collapse of Team Hard at the end of 2023, team principal Tony Gilham announced plans to return with a two-car team of Cupra Leons. This has now reduced to a one-car effort for Daryl DeLeon and morphed into Unlimited Motorsport under the direction of club racer Bob Sharpless, although Gilham was still in evidence at last week’s Donington test. Here, the team’s motorsport was anything but unlimited, DeLeon managing to get out for a sighter lap in the afternoon just as the heavens opened.

With One Motorsport on what owner Steve Dudman has described as a ‘planned pause’ for 2024, the other casualty is the third Vauxhall Astra from Power Maxed Racing, which expanded from two cars only last year.

“There’s no one out there with budget,” said PMR chief Adam Weaver. “The costs are runaway, and it’s nerve-wracking to be honest.”

Thompson isn’t the only driver sniffing around. Two-time race winner Senna Proctor was at Donington, but said the rise in budgets during the hybrid era – his last season was 2021, the final season before hybrid – is shifting his focus to working on a commercial package for 2025.

4. The other title race to watch

Pearson is expected to challenge for the Jack Sears Trophy

Pearson is expected to challenge for the Jack Sears Trophy

Photo by: JEP

The Jack Sears Trophy, for drivers who haven’t scored an overall BTCC podium finish, looks like a three-way fight in 2024 – between a driver who took a sensational rookie pole position in 2023 (Mikey Doble), one who actually scored a third place (Sam Osborne), and one who did stand on the podium on his debut weekend (Ronan Pearson).

Confused? Well, Pearson’s third place at Donington was taken away when his car failed the ride-height test and given to Osborne, who everyone was happy to be given a JST exemption for this year because he didn’t physically stand on the podium.

While Doble is given an ‘upgrade’ from his old 2017 Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra to the 2021 weapon raced last year to the JST title by Andrew Watson (a good omen?), Osborne and Pearson stay put in the Alliance Racing Ford and Excelr8 Motorsport Hyundai camps respectively.

Scottish youngster Pearson also gave up a third to team leader Tom Ingram last August on his home ground at Knockhill, and impressed everyone by earning his spurs in a juicy battle with Ingram and Ash Sutton the following month at Silverstone.

“There are things you’ve got to do for the bigger picture and that’s why we’re still here,” reflects the former Mini Challenge starlet. “At the time you’re full of emotion, full of adrenalin, but when you strip it back you think, ‘Who’s going to remember in a year’s time who finished third?’ Hopefully over my career in touring cars I’ll have many podiums at Knockhill, so it doesn’t make a difference!

“And the Silverstone race, when you’re in that pack you can show what you can do. When you’re in the ratpack if you like, it’s really hard to get out of. When you’re in the ruck and you’re getting knocked around left, right and centre, that’s the nature of touring car racing, and I wouldn’t change that, but it just means that we’ve got to do a better job to be at the front.”

Pearson adds that the JST is “the main aim. As long as we’re not eligible in 2025, we’ve done a good job. Mikey and Sam are quick guys, we’ve got a lot of respect for each other, and we raced doorhandle to doorhandle last year in that ratpack. Some of these guys taught me how much I can use the front and rear bumper last year if I’m honest. More of the same this year would be grand!”

5. The car moving forward is a Toyota?

Cook has traded Honda for Toyota with a move into the LKQ-branded Speedworks outfit

Cook has traded Honda for Toyota with a move into the LKQ-branded Speedworks outfit

Photo by: JEP

Toyota team Speedworks Motorsport has created a lot of headlines with the quality of the driver line-up in its expanded four-car squad: 2012 World Touring Car champion Rob Huff joins reigning Jack Sears Trophy king Andrew Watson in the Toyota Gazoo Racing GB arm; multiple race winners Josh Cook and Aiden Moffat reprise their 2023 partnership from One Motorsport in the ‘sister’ LKQ effort. But what about progress on a Corolla GR Sport that was somewhat disappointing last term?

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“We’ve had a big focus on weight reduction, weight distribution, aerodynamics, so a real big push over the winter,” says Speedworks boss Christian Dick. “Early form in testing suggests we’ve made progress in every area. It’s hard to say quite how much until we know what everyone else is doing, but so far positive signs.”

Former lead engineer Paul Ridgway oversaw this development until December, when he parted ways with Speedworks. Taking up the cudgels are Andrew Sayer, who has joined from the Proton Porsche LMDh team and will look after Huff, long-time Speedworks man Jack Coker (who ran Rory Butcher in the second half of 2023 and now takes over on Watson’s car) and Dick himself. Bolstering the engineering strength are Mick Cook and Steve Brady, who have crossed over from One to respectively continue with the unrelated Cook and Moffat.

One area that hampered Speedworks in 2023 was straightline speed, on its first season with a bespoke Toyota engine produced by Neil Brown Engineering.

“We hamstrung ourselves a little bit with under-bonnet engine temperatures last year, so that’s given us more scope to push,” declares Dick. “Certainly over the winter NBE and ourselves have had a big knuckle-down and looked at all the areas we needed to improve and could improve.

“We haven’t got a weak link in the team. The drivers are strong, and have jumped in and adapted to the Corolla really quick, and are full of praise and positive feedback about the chassis that they’ve got underneath them.“

6. A Restart without a safety car

Several key figures from the BTC Racing team subsequently renamed One Motorsport are part of the Restart Racing squad

Several key figures from the BTC Racing team subsequently renamed One Motorsport are part of the Restart Racing squad

Photo by: JEP

Amid the declining grid, the BTCC has its first new team since 2019, even if it’s full of familiar faces. Hence the name, Restart Racing, is highly appropriate. Team chief Ben Taylor, lead driver Chris Smiley and backer Pete Jones have a relationship dating back several years.

Taylor engineered Smiley to his solitary BTCC race win in 2018 with BTC Norlin Racing, where Taylor’s father Bert was team manager. After the Taylors split with BTC at the end of 2020, they moved into TCR UK under the Restart name and Smiley won the 2022 title.

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The collapse of Team Hard made two Cupra Leons available, and Smiley’s 2023 team-mate Scott Sumpton has made the move into the BTCC to complete the line-up.

“It’s easy to see everything sitting here and think it’s all just turned up overnight, but it’s taken a lot of work,” says Smiley. “I’m very proud of the guys. We’ve only had the car three or four months, and we’ve completely rebuilt it.

“We’ve massively changed the front bumper and aero kit on the car. It’s definitely better; how much better we’re not sure yet. We’re not a million miles away time-wise. I haven’t driven one of these properly for a few years, so there’s a little bit of time in me as well.”

Under Taylor Jr, veteran engineer Geoff Kingston (whose CV covers Formula 1, Group C and Super Touring) and Tom Hunt have moved across from Team Hard, where they ran Nic Hamilton and Dan Lloyd respectively in 2023. Carrera Cup-bound Lloyd, another driver backed by Jones, is a helping hand behind the scenes, while among the staff are personnel from Hard and One Motorsport (formerly BTC).

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“The more experience we have, the better it’s going to be,” sums up Smiley. “I definitely think the potential’s there.”

Much has changed in the BTCC since Smiley was last on the grid with the Excelr8 team in 2021

Much has changed in the BTCC since Smiley was last on the grid with the Excelr8 team in 2021

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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