GRR

5 talking points from a gripping 2022 BTCC season

15th November 2022
James Charman

The 2022 season was one of the closest fought campaigns in the 64-year history of the British Touring Car Championship. With no fewer than 12 drivers sharing the 30 race wins across the course of the 10 meetings, it was certainly one to remember as Tom Ingram placed himself firmly in the history books. We’ve already published our top ten drivers of the year, but now let's look back at some of the biggest talking points of the first ever BTCC season to feature hybrid technology…

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BTCC Hybrid system lacks a little spark

And let's get started with the elephant in the room. The hybrid boost – or Hybrid Energy Management (HEM) system to give it its official title – bought in for 2022 to replace the outgoing success ballast was supposed to add a whole new element of excitement to the championship. The more successful drivers would find themselves down on power compared to their rivals across the course of a race and would be sitting ducks as those behind them streamed past with their extra kick from the battery. Except they weren’t.

In years gone by, it was quite easy to tell who was running with the extra ballast in their car. You could see cars behaving differently or simply struggling as they carried the equivalent of a passenger in the front seat. Now, the only way you could tell who was using their hybrid boost was from the blue flashing light on their doors, which is fine, until you just see a train of cars with flashing blue lights on their doors as they all deploy their hybrid power in the same place, thus cancelling each other out.

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What about at the front, though, I hear you ask? Yes, in theory, the leading runners should have suffered as they were given a reduced number of laps of hybrid availability compared to those behind. But canny driving – such as compromising mid-corner speed for more on exit and down the next straight – meant you could effectively nullify some of the boost available and leave no real chance for the car behind to get past. Add in reduced opportunities for the cars behind thanks to safety-car interventions and the entire HEM system seemed to have very little impact once the lights went out.

It did seem to have an impact on single lap pace, though, when it came to qualifying. Take a look at the qualifying sessions from the final two rounds of the year and it’s clear that the drivers with reduced HEM usage struggled, as you’d hope when over half the grid had more than ten seconds of the power boost compared to the championship leader. It can be argued that HEM cost Colin Turkington a record-breaking fifth title. Heading into the penultimate round at Silverstone at the top of the points, his hybrid-affected poor qualifying performance left him down in the midfield at the Northamptonshire circuit, where he got caught up in a race one incident that tore his title aspirations to shreds.

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Reliability issues also plagued the system, particularly for the BMWs, with hybrid woes costing Turkington any chance of getting near the front of the field in the final qualifying session of the year, a sentiment that was echoed by Adam Morgan of Ciceley Motorsport.

What is clear, however, is that BTCC organiser TOCA knows that hybrid was not perfect in its first year and in truth it was never expected to be. Major changes to the way the system is used have already been confirmed for 2023, with the minimum speed at which boost can be used raised for those in the top seven, but reduced for those eighth or lower, meaning there should be much more of an impact from HEM from next year.

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Swindon Powertrains reigns supreme

If you were to pop the bonnet of champion Tom Ingram’s Hyundai i30 Fastback N Performance you’d see a badge all-too familiar to BTCC fans; that of Swindon Powertrains. Up until the 2022 season, Swindon had produced the ‘TOCA Engine’ – a standard unit available to all teams entering the championship.

With the move to hybrid power on the table for 2022, however, a new engine builder was chosen and Swindon made way for M-Sport, of WRC and Blancpain fame. However, potentially seeking a golden opportunity, Excelr8 Motorsport enlisted the outgoing engine builder to work its magic on an all-new power unit for the Hyundais in 2022, joining BMW, Team Dynamics Honda and Ford in opting against the TOCA engine. BMW and the Team Dynamics Hondas have their engines built by Neil Brown, while the Motorbase Fords, under the NAPA Racing UK and Apec Racing banners, use Mountune-built power units.

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Excelr8’s move appeared to be a stroke of genius in pre-season testing, as the Hyundais were the pick of the bunch, while those with the M-Sport engine seemed to lack a bit of grunt in comparison. Such was the deficit that the TOCA engines were given a boost ahead of the opening qualifying session of the season at Donington Park. Despite the helping hand, you had to look down to the fifth row of the grid before you could find a car fitted with the TOCA engine – under the bonnet of the BTC Racing Honda Civic of series legend Jason Plato.

The lack of straight-line speed was the downfall of Plato’s team-mate Josh Cook’s late-season efforts. The strongest driver by far at the start of the year, Cook looked almost a shoo-in to be fighting for the title at the Brands Hatch finale, but a sudden drop in pace for the second half of the season ruined any chance of that and he slipped down to sixth place in the final points.

BTC Racing’s lack of faith in the M-Sport power unit has led the team to reconsider its options for 2023, citing a potential return to the Neil Brown engines they stopped using in 2021, or even an entirely new car with bespoke powertrain options. Meanwhile, you can bet your bottom dollar that there were some smirks in Swindon as the ousted builders claimed a third straight BTCC title and, more importantly, the first of a new era.

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A legend bows out

Ever since he doorstepped Frank Williams in a bold move cemented in BTCC folklore, Jason Plato has been a near constant presence at the sharp end of the field – only missing three seasons in his 26-year career in Britain’s premier tin-top series.

Jason himself would be the first to admit that his twilight years were far from his best, having never really got to grips with the Subaru Levorg during his Team BMR days and then having a less-than-competitive Vauxhall Astra at his disposal. The last time we truly saw Plato on full-form was back in 2015.

Whatever you say about Jason, though, his impact on the championship is second to none. Even when not at the front he’s still one of the most popular drivers in the paddock, and one that’s never been shy of speaking his mind. It’s a crying shame that we never got to see a final win in 2022, let alone the first ever driver in BTCC history to score 100 wins, his record standing at 97. Plato bows out with grace, and we’re sure it won’t be the last we ever see of him – he’s a dab hand in a Corvette Stingray around a certain former airfield in West Sussex, for one.

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Is Colin Turkington over the Hill?

The smart money going into the 2022 season was on Colin Turkington. Not since 2016 has a front-wheel-drive car taken a driver to championship glory, and with Ash Sutton switching from the Infiniti Q50 to the Ford Focus during the winter, Turkington seemed to be in prime position to become the first ever five-time BTCC champion.

You could argue the aforementioned hybrid woes were a factor in Turkington’s failure to come away with a fifth title, but there was also a general feeling that perhaps this just wasn’t the year for him. Only three wins for the Northern Irishman made it his least lucrative season since 2007 (excluding 2018 where, despite only taking one victory, he still came away with the Drivers’ Championship at the end of the year), and while there were regular trips to the podium, there was that overarching feeling that the elder statesman was only just about holding on to the youngsters coming up through the ranks.

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Rather than Turkington getting slower, however, it’s more that those around him are getting quicker. When it was announced that Jake Hill would be driving the third West Surrey Racing-run BMW in 2022, everyone was understandably excited at the prospect of one of the best drivers on the grid sharing a garage (albeit with his car in different colours) with one of the hottest prospects on the market. For the first time since 2019 Turkington found himself with a team-mate that could regularly push him to the absolute limit and it showed from day one. Jake Hill got the edge in the first qualifying session of the year and the door-to-door racing between the two in the opening laps of race one would have had the hearts in the mouth of all WSR employees.

At least 11 years older than all three of those that finished ahead of him in 2022, time is not on Turkington’s side. There’s no denying that he is still very much a class act in the BTCC, he will rightly go down as one of the greatest drivers to ever line up on a British Touring Car grid. But as the old adage goes, every dog has his day and you have to wonder whether the sun is starting to set on this particular hound.

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Will Toyota stay in BTCC?

Toyota had its eyes on the BTCC ever since Tom Ingram started to squeeze some results he had no right to after getting behind the wheel of the ageing taxi that was the Avensis. The car that formed the prototype for NGTC regulations served the Speedworks team well over the years, and thrust the future champion into the spotlight as one to watch. That momentum seemed to falter, however, the moment Toyota officially stepped into the ring and switched plans across to the Corolla.

While it provided a much-needed update to the Japanese manufacturer’s presence on the BTCC grid, the fact that Ingram went from being a runner-up in 2018 to sixth in 2019 showed there was plenty of work to be done to get the Corolla up to the heights seen with the Avensis. Of course you can make the argument that the Avensis had benefited from eight years of data, but the fact that Ingram was unable to achieve much better one year later spoke volumes. For context, 2022 was only Ingram’s second year with Hyundai machinery and he came away with the crown.

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Meanwhile, Toyota and Speedworks are still struggling to become regular front runners. Rory Butcher has now had two full seasons in the Corolla, and while he was able to finish fifth overall this year against seventh 12 months later, he could only manage one victory in 2022 compared to three in his debut year in the Gazoo Racing UK colours.

There has also never been a truly competitive second car in the Speedworks squad, meaning all hopes for Toyota success has rested on the lead driver alone. For this reason, Toyota has never managed to finish higher than rock bottom in the manufacturers’ standings, and there were never any hints that the Japanese brand might be able to claw its way up the table at any point. Rory Butcher is a very good driver, and Tom Ingram’s credentials now speak for themselves, and if neither of these have been able to make a competitive car out of the Corolla in four years of competition, questions must surely have started being asked in Toyota’s budget meetings.

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Having Toyota on the grid is great for the championship, particularly with the two Corollas proudly displaying the red, white and black company colours seen dominating at Le Mans in recent years. But you just have to wonder how long the UK arm will be prepared to foot the bill for an entry into a championship it’s shown no real potential in.

And with that, the BTCC 2022 season can finally be put to rest as attention turns to what 2023 might have to offer. We’ve already mentioned changes coming to the hybrid system, while option tyres are set to return along with the implementation of a top-ten qualifying shootout at half of the meetings next year. All of these changes make it nigh-on impossible to predict exactly what’s going to happen in 2023, but then, that’s what makes the BTCC so popular, and why we keep wanting to come back for more.

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