The F1 season with all its glitz and glamour might have started in earnest recently, with the running of the Australian Grand Prix; but for many motor-sports enthusiasts, the real thrills of motor-racing can be found much closer to home with the British Touring Car Championship (or BTCC), due to get underway at the end of March.
It's well known that F1 is a millionaire's sport - the cars are the result of millions of pounds of technical research; the drivers are paid a king's ransom, and both the teams and drivers are subject to multi-million pounds sponsorship deals by global corporations. Money talks in F1 and purists argue that the sport isn't competitive anymore, as races are now won and lost in the pit-lane, rather than on the track, while the larger teams such as McLaren and Ferrari spend the kind of money that the smaller teams such as Super Aguri can only dream about.
Recent years has seen the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) flourish in terms of both competing teams and spectator numbers.
The sport itself operates on a fraction of the budget afforded to the F1 world; yet what it lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in thrills! The BTCC season comprises of ten rounds - beginning and ending at Brands Hatch - held between March and September, and visiting nine different circuits. Each round consists of three races, making a thirty round competition.
The teams which compete in the BTCC are a mixture of manufacturers' works teams (currently SEAT and Vauxhall are the only manufacturer teams) and independent teams such as Team Halfords and Team RAC. The independent teams usually comprise of ex-works cars which have been purchased from manufacturer teams when they update their own cars' chassis. While this then might appear to give the 'new' cars an edge, as works teams can provide expert motoring advice about new developments surrounding their entries; there are in fact strict limits to modifications that can be made to any competing car in order to keep costs down and elicit an element of fairness in the sport.
For example, all competing cars have to use the same tyre - called a 'control tyre' - which currently is supplied by Dunlop. Cars can also be modified to use different fuel types, with recent cars having run on liquefied petroleum gas, bio-ethanol fuel and even diesel, which made its first appearance in a BTCC race in 2007.
Races in the BTCC calendar are normally run over a weekend.
Saturday comprises of two practice sessions, followed by a half-hour qualifying session which determines the first race grid for the Sunday. Like F1, the grid is sorted by time with the fastest driver lining up in pole position. Depending on the length of the racing circuit, each race will normally consist of between 16 and 25 laps, and the race result then determines the grid order for the next race with the drivers lining up according to their finishing position for race two.
For race three, starting positions are determined by a 'draw' which sees part of the grid reversed. This means that depending on the draw, drivers who finished in the minor placings could start in pole position. For example, if position 6 was drawn, the driver who finished in 6th place would be given pole position, with 5th place in second position and so on. Drivers who finished above the 'draw' result would occupy the position where they finished race two.
Also, at the end of the first and second races, the cars which finish in the major placings are handicapped by having additional weight - known as ballast - added to them for the next race at the meeting. Drivers' standings after the third race of each meeting also determine the amount of ballast to be carried in the first race of the following meeting.
There are some aspects of BTCC which are shared with F1; for example the safety car and pit lane speed limits. However, unlike F1, spare cars cannot be used, and teams can only use a maximum of 4 engines per season per driver. If additional engines are used, teams are subject to point deductions.
All this adds up to some fantastic thrills on the racetrack as the rules make racing much more competitive and open, with cars' technological advantages negated by additional weight or luck of the draw. Collisions are commonplace in BTCC as drivers push their cars - and themselves - to the limit throughout each race; it isn't uncommon to witness high-speed collisions involving multiple cars, while the attempts to equalise the cars means overtaking manoeuvres can occur anywhere throughout the race - even on the tightest of corners!
So, while the F1 world buys its thrills, motor-sports enthusiasts can rest easy; safe in the knowledge that BTCC thrills come free with the package. .
Matthew Pressman is a freelance writer and frequent flyer. When not travelling, he enjoys golf and fishing.