As the 2021 British Touring Car Championship returns to Thruxton to commence the second half of its season, the inevitable questions over title contention are starting to work their way into the feature columns; here’s what we think:

In any other year, I’d happily say that the focus needs to be on the leading six or seven, but as 2021 has already demonstrated, this is a title that might ultimately be won on points lost; and not just points lost to rivals, but points lost to teammates too.

Statistically, the most compelling set of figures I can produce is that so far, we’ve seen 17 different drivers appear on the podium; nine of these as winners, and nine on at least three separate occasions. This leads me to think that whilst I was once happy in suggesting that consistency would be the key to achieving title success, now it simply appears to merely unlock access to the next level. So for once, I’m not going to look purely at the title favourites; I’m going to consider the impact that their teammates might have too, because this year, I’m going to predict that this championship won’t be won by individual performances alone.

Ash Sutton knows that the best way to win in the BTCC is to lead from the front

Ash Sutton, P1 (and Aiden Moffat, P9): Laser Tools Racing

Week in, week out, I’m privileged to stand trackside and witness incredible feats of racing, and week in, week out, there’s no one as exciting to watch as Ash Sutton. OK, the rear wheel drive of the Infiniti plays its part, allowing a visual denied to the likes of Tom Ingram, Gordon Shedden and Josh Cook, but the absolute belief and commitment he takes into every corner, whatever the ballast or track conditions, is breathtaking; the confidence and arrogance of his approach bewitching observers with a denial that this year, he’s having to race harder and closer than ever. When he won in 2020, it was a supreme solo effort, based on raw pace and bullet-proof reliability, scoring points on 25 out of 27 starts. This year, he’s already endured one dnf (Oulton Park), and remarkably, has only achieved a 50% top-six finish rate. This is where his teammate is helping to make the difference.

In 2020, Aiden Moffat was still trying to adapt his style to not only rear wheel drive machinery but also that of a soon-to-be two-time champion. It looked to be soul-destroying, but to his credit, the young Scot just kept at it (as results this year will testify). Back to the statistics: Last year, after 15 races, Moffat had returned just five top-ten finishes; this year, he’s doubled that, and crucially, on seven occasions has out-scored Colin Turkington; meaning that to date, he’s taken points away from the BMW man on nearly 50% of race starts. It doesn’t mean that Sutton can relax for a moment, but with Moffat also notching-up five scores above Ingram, he knows that this year, if he focuses solely on the job in hand, he doesn’t need to worry as much about what’s happening elsewhere.

Verdict: Sutton is already in a stronger position than in either of his previous title-winning campaigns; the car is better, the mix of remaining circuits favours the Infiniti, plus we know it’s going to rain! With Moffat clearly enjoying his racing again, scoring well, and totally focused on team results, it has to be ‘Advantage’ to the reigning champion. Both Ingram and Turkington will be fully aware of this, so expect each to raise their game as they battle to overturn his lead.

Teammate benefit: 8/10

Moffat has turned his career around with a series of ever more impressive performances in the Infiniti

Tom Ingram, P2 (and Chris Smiley, P16): Ginsters EXCELR8 with

What a difference Tom Ingram has made to this still relatively new squad. I talked at length a few weeks ago about the changes I saw in the former Independent Champion (following his switch to the Hyundai). He’s always been sharp, determined and driven, but now more so in every way.

But as is so often the case with Ingram, the potential of his season is overshadowed by an accumulation of lowly-placed, out-of-the-points finishes. I love watching him race, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and whilst he’s not afraid to get his elbows out, it doesn’t always end well. Thruxton is possibly going to be his biggest challenge yet. He’s going to carry a lot of weight into Race 1 and with qualifying times through the grid getting ever closer, he needs to find a way to keep out of the midfield melee. If he can turn up and focus on his race, then the deficit to Sutton is doable, but he’s going to need to rely heavily on teammate Chris Smiley as they work through the free practice sessions to find the right balance in what should be very different conditions to the cool track temperatures in May.

To date, Smiley’s season has seen mixed fortunes, mostly frustrating and with incidents (such as his crash at Oulton Park) completely unavoidable. Having said that, when the planets align, we know he can qualify and score well. Of course, right now, unlike Ingram, he doesn’t have to worry about ballast, so the door is firmly open for a strong showing this weekend. When the red lights go out, there’s no denying that he’s going to have to trade-rubber, but as the season progresses and the stakes heighten, the Northern Irishman might just find his groove and a well-rewarded mission.

Verdict: From the shouts and screams I hear behind me, if it were down to the fans, Ingram would already be wearing the crown. He’s in a good place with his team and at last he has a competitive teammate to share data with and work on set-ups. The deficit to Sutton is only 14 points and there’s not a circuit to come that he hasn’t previously excelled at. He just needs help to carry more qualifying speed and then in the race, if he has to, find the right position to impose himself more (an art of which Sutton is the master). I said at the start of the season that I wouldn’t bet against Ingram; I’m certainly not going to start now.

Teammate benefit: 6/10

Ingram is very clearly at one with the Hyundai
Smiley's side of the garage is working well with Ingram's to unlock more pace

Colin Turkington, P3 (and Tom Oliphant, P14, Stephen Jelley, P8) Team BMW

 If ever there was a masterclass in the bounceback, Colin Turkington delivered it at Knockhill. Leaving Oulton Park, the scene of many previous triumphs, he found himself in an unusually lowly P9 in the standings. Two disastrous weekends had taken their toll, but then came the return to Scotland (he studied nearby at Stirling) and he was straight back into the game, nailing a remarkable pole position, followed by a sure-footed romp home in Race 1, and one of the most sensational duels (with Ash Sutton) for the lead in Race 2. To me it was a true race of champions, Sutton throwing all he could muster whilst Turkington, fully-laden with winners ballast, positioned his car perfectly for lap after lap until finally, his tyres could give no more. I think that Turkington knew that Sutton would eventually win through, but this was an exercise in defence. It won’t be the only time this season these two go head-to-head and both will now know that if Sutton is to get past, he either needs a lighter car or a new playbook.

This one excellent weekend has seen the former champion propelled right back into contention, standing just 34 points behind the leader and only 20 points away from Ingram in P2 (remembering that both deficits can be overturned by 2 good races for one and two poor races for the others).

And what about his teammates (Tom Oliphant and Stephen Jelley)? Have they helped? Can they help? Will they help? These are three very different questions. Despite Oliphant’s win and podium at Brands Hatch, like Turkington, he’s struggled at times for pace, and then found himself being turned around at Oulton Park before facing a barrage of hits broadside. It’s left him sometimes out of sorts, sometimes simply unable to race. Nevertheless, I’ve seen him outpace Turkington, including at Thruxton last year, so whilst his contribution to the effort appears to have been mostly as a result of his results in Kent, look a little closer and you’ll find a number of races where he’s followed his leader home, rather than going it alone.

Stephen Jelley on the other hand, whilst currently placed higher than Oliphant, is a little less (or more) predictable with outcomes. He’s always had strong natural pace and appears to be relishing his time back with West Surrey Racing, scoring two podiums in consecutive weekends. However, when wheel-to-wheel with either of the leaders, unlike Oliphant, he doesn’t seem to have the drive to make it stick. What, of course, does link Oliphant and Jelley is that they both bring a substantial budget to WSR and if the opportunity to race against Turkington for a podium place exists, they’re far more likely to take it than, say, Moffat or Smiley. I’m not suggesting that the latter are there to simply make up the numbers, far from it. Simply that there’s a bigger picture to each’s involvement with their teams.

Verdict: Colin Turkington is one of touring car racing’s all-time greats: Full-stop. Right now, he’s clearly not where he’d like to be, and whilst he’s not as young as his rivals, his professionalism remains unchallenged. I don’t know if he’s as quick as the Colin Turkington of 2014, but I do know that he knows how to win from every conceivable angle and position. He’s got an exceptional car and probably the finest team in the paddock; he shouldn’t have to be playing catch-up. His race craft against Sutton at Knockhill was nothing short of majestic, yet Sutton won through. Moreover, whilst I don’t doubt that at the Brands Hatch finale, if he’s still in contention and his teammates aren’t, he’ll get all the help they can muster, I also won’t rule out the possibility of Oliphant & Jelley not only taking points off Sutton and Ingram but at times off Turkington too.

Teammate benefit: 5/10

Turkington's strength lies in his depth of experience and ability to garner the very best from Dick Bennetts' squad

Finally, we can’t ignore drivers from three other teams, each looking likely to play a key role in the championship outcome: –

Gordon Shedden, P4, & Daniel Rowbottom P7 (Halfords Racing with Cataclean)

First of all, NEVER write-off Gordon Shedden: The man is a winning machine. And secondly, NEVER write-off Daniel Rowbottom either.

Whilst Shedden’s return to the BTCC has yet to deliver an edge of the seat classic, had he not had that disastrous first lap shunt in the season’s opening round, I’m sure he’d be somewhere between Sutton and Ingram now, but then that’s touring cars. Some drivers have bad luck in Race 1, some wait until Race 30 (just ask Dan Cammish), others have it all season long. Right now, I see Shedden and Rowbottom as pretty evenly matched. Shedden is a remarkable former champion but his time away in WTCR means that he’s having to learn the strengths of new opponents. Rowbottom is simply loving being in a fast car but he’s also having to learn to race the front-runners. Oulton Park was a perfect example of this, pole-sitter Rowbottom losing out to Shedden at the start, only for the race to be red-flagged due to Oliphant’s crash with Smiley & Parfitt. Then, at the restart, Rowbottom, having learned his lesson, holding his line, keeping the lead and going on to secure his maiden BTCC win. If Shedden was paired with Matt Neal, I could imagine Neal playing the team game here, especially as the loss of Honda’s sponsorship puts even more value on a title, but as it is, Shedden and Rowbottom are set to square-up a few more times yet and whilst it’ll be brilliant for us, I think that both will take points from each other.

Verdict: Both drivers ought to find more consistency, both drivers ought to be right up at the front and in the mix; it could get messy.

Jake Hill, P5 (MB Motorsport accelerated by Blue Square)

We’ve all seen how quick Jake Hill can be in anything from a touring car to a classic Mustang to a Chevron. Building on his success with the Honda FK2 Civic last year, he now has a real chance to show his genuine pace in a new for 2021 Ford Focus ST. A hat-trick of podiums at the opening rounds saw Hill immediately grab the championship lead, but then a series of uncharacteristically poor finishes has seen him slip down the order whilst others have climbed. I cannot, therefore, overstate the importance of this weekend in Hampshire. ‘Yes’, he’s been unlucky, but it’s partly been of his own making, driving as if sometimes pursued by the spectre of that lone reverse grid win two seasons ago. Six podiums in 2020 and four already this year tell us that his time is near, but he’s got to let his head do the driving and not his heart.

Verdict: Given the right backing (and staying with a top team), he will not only go on to win many, many times in the BTCC, he will no doubt also emerge as a habitual title contender too. But for now, he just needs to take a measured step back in order to take one giant leap forward.

Hill might easily become one of the standout drivers of this era and next

Josh Cook, P6, & Senna Proctor, P12 (BTC Racing)

Whilst Josh Cook was winning the first two races of the season, Senna Proctor was sat at home, wishing he was Dan Cammish. Ironically, I now suspect that Dan Cammish sits at home, wishing he was Senna Proctor.

When Cook arrived from Clio Cup (as runner-up to Mike Bushell in 2014), he stood out as being one of the brightest new talents on the grid. With ten BTCC career wins now to his name, he’s proved that he can race the best and beat them, with or without ballast, in rain or shine. He should be right up there, right alongside Sutton, just as he was in that memorable final race of 2018, but he’s not. For whatever reason, there’s no inbetween with the BTC Honda, it’s either full-on, or wanting, and we know that Cook wants more.

Meanwhile, his late-arriving teammate, Senna Proctor, only needs to look at the points tally from his last nine races to imagine what could have been. Like Hill, we’ve always known that Proctor was quick, but a disjointed season with the Hyundai last year, where he took the car one way and Chris Smiley took it another, bore just a single podium, whilst his efforts during the previous season with the Levorg were even less rewarding. Now, finally, he’s in a team that can deliver a car he knows how to drive and despite both a late and then slow start, he’s currently one of the most in-form of all BTCC drivers.

Verdict: I have no doubt that both Cook and Proctor will continue to score podiums, and maybe even more. But I worry that the inconsistencies will ultimately hold them back, and as both seem very evenly matched, they’re likely to spend more time taking points off each other than building a title-winning campaign.

Of course, this being the British Touring Car Championship, literally anything can and will happen over the second half of the season. I haven’t even mentioned Adam Morgan or Rory Butcher, Ollie Jackson or, God help me, Jason Plato. They’re not in the frame just yet, but there’s no saying that they won’t be.