After two years of Vauxhall domination, the experts were predicting the 2003 Green Flag Motoring Assistance MSA British Touring Car Championship to be a much tighter affair. With Honda's pace at the end of their debut season in 2002 and MG's increased competitiveness last year, they had every reason to believe that the renamed VX Racing squad would not have it all their own way in the marque’s centenary year.
Vauxhall would retain the same driver lineup from 2002, with the top two drivers from last season being joined by Paul O'Neill for his second year in a Triple Eight prepared Vauxhall Astra Coupé having driven for satellite team Egg Sport in the previous campaign. Honda lost Andy Priaulx to the European series, but gained a big name driver in Matt Neal and the raw talent of Tom Chilton, the youngest works driver in the BTCC's history, to pilot the Civic Type R alongside team regular from 2002, Alan Morrison. MG added to what was on paper, a seriously strong team by giving their third ZS to young Ulsterman Colin Turkington, who had shown flashes of his ability in the Team Atomic Kitten version of the car last year.
However, at the halfway point in the season, we are looking at an all too familiar tale. Vauxhall drivers Yvan Muller and James Thompson head the standings followed by Paul O'Neill in third place and the teams and manufacturer's tables make similar reading. Eight wins from the ten races makes Vauxhall seem like a dominant force, but in truth they have been there to pick up the pieces on at least several occasions when Matt Neal lost what looked like certain wins as a result of pitstop problems, punctures and engine blowups. He did win at Brands with a controversial last corner move on Paul O'Neill at Brands Hatch and led home a 1-2 finish from teammate Alan Morrison at the series' first visit to Rockingham. It's a testiment to the much improved reliability of the VX Racing cars and their slick pitwork that they were there to collect valuable wins at Honda's expense.
MG made a slow start to a year which promised so much, partly as a result of adapting the car to work with the new for 2003 Dunlop control tyres and being caught up through no fault of their own, in other drivers accidents. They had a disappointing Thruxton meeting where the team worked overtime between races to repair the heavily damaged cars of Warren Hughes and Anthony Reid and were eventually rewarded for the excellent morale within the team that Hughes and Reid gave their best performances of the season at Rockingham, where the drivers felt clearly aggrieved that they didn't win the second race after what was an enthralling four lap battle at the end after a safety car period. They did manage to take second and third, but it was little consolation for them following such a display of increased competitiveness. Colin Turkington has performed well when the engine hasn't let him down, claiming MG's first podium of the season at Silverstone and giving reigning champion James Thompson a run for his money at Brands Hatch before they clashed acrimoniously.
Including Turkington, this season has seen the current crop of young talent develop further and put on more than a few impressive displays which shook up their more experienced competitors. Paul O'Neill put a bad Mondello Park behind him - when he had a pitlane clash with Phil Bennett's Proton - to claim four third places on the trot at Brands Hatch and Thruxton. O'Neill appears to have stepped onto another level this year and has shown his vastly experienced VX Racing colleagues that he is not just there to follow them around the track. At Honda, Tom Chilton started off the season with a podium at Mondello Park, but that was quickly followed by a bad accident in qualifying at Brands Hatch, which ruled him out for the rest of that meeting. Since then, he has notched up consistent top ten finishes while still learning his trade at this level.
Another young driver attempting to make a name for himself is Scotsman Gavin Pyper. Despite driving his GA Motorsport Vauxhall Astra on a shoestring budget, he has not let this deter him from showing his usual fast and very spectacular driving style, regularly mixing it with the works cars and leading the Independent's Trophy at the halfway stage with more wins than his nearest rival Rob Collard. Pyper was criticised for his involvement in a car wrecking shunt for Collard at Thruxton, but came back to answer his critics in style with a double class win at Silverstone helped by his new teammate for that meeting only, Gareth Howell. The ex Atomic Kitten MG man backed up Pyper while putting on his own impressive display, which showed that he deserves a fulltime drive in the BTCC, but for the rest of the season the second GA Astra will be driven by Production class graduate Paul Wallace.
Collard and Pyper's battles have been the key feature of the Independent's Trophy this season, which has attracted six cars from the GA and Collard Vauxhalls to the Synchro Motorsport run Honda Civic - which picked up several wins in the class - and the most intriguing entry of all, the VLR run Team Halfords Peugeot 307s. In an ambitious project designed by reknowned Formula 1 designer Sergio Rinland, the two cars were designed, built, then appeared in the garages at Mondello Park within a matter of a few months. Far less than the normal design and build time of a new racecar. Carl Breeze and Dan Eaves have struggled at times with teething problems and have been unable to get the test mileage on the cars that they need as a result. It doesn't help that most of their development work has to be done in race conditions, which is what the Proton team have had to do this year with their Impian saloons. Team PSP debuted a revised suspension at Thruxton and after a couple of meetings, appear to have the car handling much better than it did before, with a very impressive showing at Rockingham from David Leslie and Phil Bennett taking a points finish in what must be their best outing of the year so far.
The BTC-Production class has been much smaller than the previous two seasons, with only six regular cars on the grid a few driver withdrawals. However, it still has had it's entertaining moments, with the rear wheel drive battle between Michael Bentwood's BMW and the front wheel drive Honda and Peugeot of Luke Hines and Tom Boardman respectively being the main highlight. The class could well disappear at the end of the season with European spec cars being allowed into the BTCC for 2004 and the teams will do their best to bow out on a high note.
As for the BTC-Touring class, anything could happen in the second half of the season. Honda and MG have shown that the Vauxhalls are beatable, but whether they can be improve their reliability - in the case of the Hondas - and MG can get some more outright speed remains to be seen. What is for sure is that Yvan Muller will be going all out to preserve his championship lead. The Frenchman is more determined and more confident than at any point in the past two seasons. At the halfway stage last-year, it was eventual champion Thompson who enjoyed a 24-point lead – Muller’s advantage currently stands at 31 points.
With ten rounds remaining, however, it is still early to be talking titles. In the past two seasons, the championship has gone down to the wire, not being decided until the final race of the season. Starting at Croft, North Yorkshire on 12-13th July, there is still plenty of high-speed racing to come. And whatever happens in the second half of the season, you can be sure that the action won't stop until the chequered flag falls at Oulton Park in late September.
Words: Iain Wells. Photos: Andrew Jackson & Peter Still.