The first round of the 2019 BTCC saw drama, surprises and close racing in abundance in all 3 races throughout raceday on Sunday.
On Sunday morning as fans packed into the natural bowl of Brands Hatch, they were met with atypical British gloom. It was cold, wet and very, very foggy. So much so, that there was the potential for the opening race of the season of being postponed due to the thick fog. Luckily, this wasn’t the case.
Race 1 already had drama before it began. The fog and precipitous atmosphere meant the track was wet, but it was in a state where teams had split between wet and dry slick tyres. For the teams that chose wet tyres, it was a costly error. As the race began is quickly became clear the track was drying much quicker than expected and by Lap 8, the expected front runners, all running on Wet tyres were struggling for grip & traction.
The cars starting on slicks cut through the field, the factory teams and drivers were helpless against the slick shod cars of Josh Cook, Jake Hill, Tom Chilton and a few others. Jason Plato dived into the pits early on to change onto slicks. Josh Cook & newcomer Jake Hill took primacy in first and second and roared away from the struggling pack. Lap 14 saw spots of rain returning, hope for the cars running on wets. Around Lap 15 Chris Smiley tangled with Dan Cammish and Mark Blundell at Turn 3, making contact with the barriers but his Civic limping away unscathed. Shortly after, Sam Tordoff’s Honda Civic expired just after Druids and pulled off the track.
Lap 18 saw the rain start to intensify, and the slick shod cars were dropping 3 seconds a lap to their previous pace but were still quicker than the cars running on wet tyres. Josh Cook who was running an astonishing pace and started lapping the back of the field made contact with Nic Hamilton whilst putting a lap on him.
At the close of a dramatic race, it was Josh Cook who took a surprise win, followed by rookie Jake Hill, the experience of Tom Chilton and the 2 Mercedes A class’s of Aiden Moffat & Adam Morgan rounded out the Top 5. The one thing the top 5 had in common, unsurprisingly was they all started on slick tyres.
Race 2 started in similar conditions to Race 1, but with a track that was drier than Race 1 everyone had elected to run on slick tyres, to do otherwise would be folly. At the head of the field Josh Cook, now carrying success ballast following victory in Race 1 gapped the field in the early on. The chasing pack though didn’t want to keep things quite so staid. Ash Sutton, Andrew Jordan, Bobby Thompson, Aiden Moffat, Adam Morgan, Jake Hill, Tom Chilton and eventually Stephen Jelley were reading a different script and proceeded immediately to battle tooth and nail. The crowds at Brands Hatch were treated to Touring Car Racing at its absolute finest. As the furious battle raged on, Josh Cook eventually fell into the clutches of the chasing mob of cars; the additional success ballast in Cook’s Civic saw a greater drop off in performance compared to the chasing pack and there was little Cook could do, stark contrast to the first race where Cook ran away from the field. Andrew Jordan would eventually overhaul Ash Sutton, and in his new BMW 330 didn’t look back and left the chasing pack in his wake. At the end of another climactic race, Andrew Jordan took his first 2019 victory and the first victory for the new generation BMW 330, a sign of things to come? Behind, Ash Sutton & Adam Morgan were separated by .022 of a second. Sutton was struggling as the tyres on his Subaru Levorg cried enough and put in a champions drive to fend off a hard charging Adam Morgan. Rookie Jake Hill finished fourth in another stellar drive for the youngster who was closely followed by Tom Ingram in the factory Toyota Corolla. Race 1 winner Josh Cook finished up in seventh.
Race 3, you’d think by this point the drivers, teams, crowds were worn out from the 2 stunning races that had taken place; oh no, the best is saved till last. Race 3 saw Stephen Jelley catch the cars in front napping and as they rounded Druids, he had leapt from sixth place into the lead. Matt Neal in the factory Honda had elected to start the race on the soft option tyre and suitably gave his head a wobble and chased down Jelley, who was unable to fend off the quicker Honda, Tom Chilton in his Ford Focus RS also overtook Jelley and gave chase to Neal. Disaster struck shortly after as Jake Hill mauled Ash Sutton at Graham Hill bend, sending Sutton into the barriers and ending both their races.
Matt Neal began to struggle on his soft tyres, the initial speed advantage a distant memory as Chilton had Neal on the ropes. Chilton would get past Neal, but his overtake was a little too ‘robust’ as he made contact with Neal, something he would come to rue later on. Neal by this point was a sitting duck. The soft tyres were well past their best as Stephen Jelley caught Neal, shoulder barged him out of the way with a sideways Neal off line along with Jelley which let Rory Butcher through. Jelley and Neal would continue to duke it out this way for the rest of the race, delighting the crowds at Brands Hatch before a wheel problem for Neal in the dying moments of the race plunged him down the order. Initially, Tom Chilton was declared the victor, until his move on Neal mid-race and his subsequent failure to give the place back saw a time penalty. This time penalty, dropped Chilton to second and gave Rory Butcher his first BTCC win. Stephen Jelley, ever the underdog took his first podium since 2009 and gave Team Parker Racing their first BTCC podium. Josh Cook, Race 1 winner came home in fourth followed by 2018 champion Colin Turkington in fifth.
At the end of play, the championship standings look like this:
- Josh Cook – 44 points
- Tom Chilton – 40 points
- Stephen Jelley – 35 points
- Rory Butcher – 34 points
- Adam Morgan – 31 points
- BTC Racing -51 points
- Team Shredded Wheat with Gallagher – 39 points
- Cobra Sport AMD with RCIB Insurance – 34 points
- Team Parker Racing – 34 points
- com – 32 points
The big takeaway from the above, is that not one of the top 5 drivers or teams is a factory manufacturer entrant, a testament to the depth of quality in the BTCC field.
The next round of the BTCC will take place on April 27th-28th at the high speed sweeps of Donington Park.