The whole point of the BTCC is to deliver a spectacle of motor sport unlike any other; closely harmonised regulations, world class driving talent and mostly short & tight circuits, all combined to pitch cars into packs in a hard, sometimes brutal fight for the line… only nobody seems to have sent the memo to BMW.

Recent years have seen record numbers of teams and drivers competing for honours and often, half-term reports (such as this one) would most likely focus on the battles ahead and the opportunities to be won. This time it’s different.

The roll-call is, if anything, more impressive than ever, yet the statistics tell a singularly brutal truth: The new BMW 330i M Sport of West Surrey Racing has won nine times from the fifteen starts, or put very simply, it has won 60% of the races held thus far.

There’s no single reason behind this success but rather a culmination of years of effort and investment by both the German marque and Dick Bennetts’ squad, firstly in developing then refining the previous 1-Series model, and then skilfully adapting the new 3-Series to allow this knowledge to be transferred over. In particular, the exceptional performance and handling with added ballast, and the surety of grip from the Dunlop tyres has allowed both Colin Turkington and Andrew Jordan to deliver commanding performances for race, after race, after race.

It was after the opening rounds at Brands Hatch that I remarked “..from what I’ve seen from testing and this past weekend, I’ll already happily say that this car could well prove to be the greatest of the NGTC era, ready to usurp Honda’s exceptional FK2 Civic Type R.” And after Donington, I added “..Turkington is in his element, and the new BMW 330i M Sport looks set to be a most capable of partners. There will be challenges ahead but I have no hesitation in predicting that this could very easily become one of the finest touring car combinations ever.” I stand by each and every word.

Here are twenty of our favourite images featuring our top-rated drivers, teams and cars from the first half of the 2019 BTCC season.

    Much has been said about the exceptional car that BMW and West Surrey Racing have produced this year and not enough about the two champions who lead the squad. Had Jordan not been caught-up in that huge race 1 shunt at Donington, he would now, most likely, be the championship leader. From the other twelve starts, Jordan leads 7-5 and with some of his favourite circuits still to come, there’s every chance that he’ll bring the fight ever closer to his teammate.

    But it’s the way that both drivers have managed their tyres under the duress of success ballast that has been particularly impressive. Though down from 75kg for the lead car, an additional 54kg is still a lot of weight to carry and both Turkington and Jordan have been superb in the way that they’ve controlled races, leading from the line, steady nerves and keeping lighter, more aggressive cars a mere blur in their mirrors.

    Both are hungry for more success and both know that this is the year that matters. To have two great champions leading the charge is a rare sight these days and whichever one emerges in front at the Brands Hatch finale will not only see their career reach new heights, they’ll also have thrilled hundreds of thousands of fans along the way.

    It’s a couple of years since I said that there was a new wave of talent about to claim the BTCC bragging rights and this year, Josh Cook and Ash Sutton are both, once again, thrilling crowds with some of the hardest and closest racing you’ll ever see. I don’t think that anyone will forget last year’s stunning finale where the two went wheel-to-wheel, lap after lap around the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit. Sutton won that encounter by the slightest of margins but this year, it’s Cook who has the edge, thanks mainly to his switch to the BTC squad and the Honda Civic Type R; a move that has finally helped him to unleash more of the potential that sees him rated so highly by so many.

    Sutton has yet to claim a win in 2019 but any lack of pace is all about the car and not about a driver who has fought from start to finish to claim seven top five finishes (including four podiums).
    Like Cook, Butcher is a driver brimming with talent, and was only waiting to get the right car beneath him. And as we have seen, year after year, there are few better tin tops than the FK2 Honda Civics that just keep-on giving the platform for real stars to shine. Twelve top ten finishes (from fifteen) is testament to not only the speed but also the maturity of Butcher’s trade; and likewise with Tom Chilton. The Motorbase man knows he has a hard fight against the budgets of the works teams but his years of experience have given him the presence to place his car and command his space. I spoke to him at length during pre-season testing and he’s absolutely focused to lead his squad forward, winning where he can and scoring well when out-paced.

    This is a crucial year for both of the Toms. For Oliphant, having secured a drive in the best car, he now has to prove his worth, and there’s no doubt that he’s already ticking the right boxes. Both podiums (to date) have been well earned and it’s only a matter of time before he climbs to the top step.

    Tom Ingram faces different challenges. Everybody knows how hard he races and how much speed he can carry. He’s a winner and a champion in waiting, but this year is about getting the new Corolla working as he needs it to. It’s not just a season-long campaign, it’s his future and whilst the crowds might yearn to see their favourite rise back to the top, he knows that he can only deliver his best whilst his engineers strive to do likewise.
    Whilst most of our list of top drivers concentrates on newer talent, it’s only right that the BTCC’s two great stalwarts make it into our top ten. Things still aren’t going completely right for either Matt Neal or Jason Plato, but what I’ve seen this year is a gritted determination to prove that their days aren’t over, not by a long-way. To date, both might have only scored a single podium but Neal is still mostly out-racing his teammate whilst Plato has taken his Vauxhall into the top ten eleven times from the last twelve outings.

    It’s ten years since Stephen Jelley last starred in the BTCC. How good it is to see him back in winning form! I often talk about gritted determination; well there’s no better example than that of Stephen Jelley and Team Parker Racing, never saying never and each spending relentless hours to prove that they’re winners through and through.

    Jake Hill was nearly that man; so nearly a winner last time out, but a heat of the moment error saw the glory end in a post-race penalty. Nevertheless, what he has proved, time after time, is that given the right car, he can race with the best and take them-on, measure for measure, wheel to wheel.
    It’s fair to say that this hasn’t yet been the season that Chris Smiley and Dan Cammish either expected, or perhaps deserved. Both are better than their results and both have been plagued with unavoidable contact and sheer bad luck. Nevertheless, the podiums scored prove that on the day, they can race to win and win they will.

    Rounding-off our list of top drivers are two very different men, both with very different results, but both absolutely driven to succeed.

    Sam Tordoff has struggled to find a home since losing-out to Gordon Shedden in 2016, but finally, as with teammate Rory Butcher, the move to AmD’s Hondas appears to have renewed his zest. Yes, he’s had more than his fair share of lost battles but seeing the way he commands his Civic, you know that he’s back in a good place with great pace and presence.

    Michael Crees has so far only managed a single points score (at the opening round) but never have I seen someone so happy to be racing in the BTCC… and the fans see this too. He’s cheered all the way and for anyone who suggests that he’s only making-up the numbers, let me stress that last year, he raced to the Am-Class title in Ginetta GT4 Supercup, and now, he’s often beating drivers with better cars and more experience. Of course he wants better, and better is what he deserves.

    As well as shouting-out to the BTCC’s top drivers, it’s also important to recognise the work by the teams, and this year, one team has worked harder and achieved more than most.

    BTC Racing is everything that the BTCC is about. Passion, speed, hard work and great people. The addition of Steve Dudman to the management team has been pivotal in allowing Bert Taylor’s squad the freedom to build for the future and already, after just half a season, they not only head the Independent Teams’ standings but on nine out of fifteen starts, its drivers have beaten the works Honda team that they are measured against. The future is bright; the future is no longer orange!
    And we sign-off with a final tribute to the car that has already proven to be ‘simply the best’: Will it now go on to become one of the greatest touring cars ever? Only time will tell.

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Images: Steve Hindle (The Black Stuff) and Pete Walker (PAW Photography)..