Motor racing: Menu still the man to beat

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The Independent Online
LAST YEAR'S dominant partnership of Alain Menu and Williams-Renault will be the combination to beat again, when the British Touring Car Championship swings into action at Thruxton on Easter Monday.

This time, however, the competition is much better prepared with four of the other seven manufacturers involved already able to match or beat the Renaults in pre-season testing.

The Series organiser, Toca, has also introduced a raft of rule changes, which bring with them compulsory pit-stops and Indy 500-style qualifying sessions. Add in a handful of appearances later in the season from Nigel Mansell and the mix looks appetising.

The man most likely to beat Menu, on pre-season form is Honda's James Thompson. The 23-year-old Yorkshireman is the youngest driver in the field, and he is not afraid to tip himself for the drivers' championship.

Thompson's confidence is based on more than the impetuousness of youth. The Honda Accord which he drives has been one of the best cars in the BTCC for the past two seasons and now, with Prodrive - the team which took Colin McRae to the World Rally Championship - in its second year of running the project and fully settled in, it promises to become the title aspirant's weapon of choice.

Joining the Renaults of Menu, and his aggressive young team-mate Jason Plato, and Honda at the front of the field is likely to be Volvo where regular race-winner Rickard Rydell has a new team mate in a refugee from the high-profile world of Formula One, the Italian Gianni Morbidelli. Rydell said: "We've been testing together quite a lot and he's been good to work with."

Their S40s look to have hit top form just in time for Monday's race. The gap to the rest is small though and Nissan, Audi and Peugeot have all shown the potential to win races, while Vauxhall and Ford both also look in much better shape than they did last year. In short no one can be dismissed out of hand.

Sheer speed will not be the only factor. As Thompson says: "This year, even if you have the quickest car, you might not win the race." That is because of the new rules, which make big changes to the race formats. As before there will be two full-points rounds at each meeting (26 rounds in all), but the first race each weekend (the Sprint) has been shortened and will have a grid decided in the One-Shot Showdown, an Indy-style one at a time single-lap shoot-out.

The second race (the Feature) will be longer and have a grid decided conventionally, but during it each driver must pit and change two wheels.

The idea is to shuffle the pack, so that the same names are not always at the front, and to introduce an element of strategy to the races. That will be further encouraged by a modification to the points system which gives every driver who leads the race an extra point (only one per driver, per race).

The chances are that it will be Renault, Honda or Volvo drivers who triumph in Monday's races, but it is no foregone conclusion. If the rule changes have the desired effect they will really have to work for their glory and the spectators will be the real winners.

1998 ENTRY LIST: 1 Alain Menu Renault Laguna; 3 Jason Plato Renault Laguna; 4 Rickard Rydell Volvo S40; 5 James Thompson Honda Accord; 7 John Bintcliffe Audi A4; 8 David Leslie Nissan Primera GT; 9 Tim Harvey Peugeot 406; 11 Paul Radisich Peugeot 406; 12 Yvan Muller Audi A4; 14 Gianni Morbidelli Volvo S40; 16 Mark Lemmer Vauxhall Vectra; 17 Roger Moen Honda Accord; 19 Jan Brunstedt Opel Vectra; 20 Thomas Johansson Opel Vectra; 21 Tommy Rustad Renault Laguna; 23 Anthony Reid Nissan Primera GT; 29 Robb Gravett Honda Accord; 32 Will Hoy Ford Mondeo; 33 Craig Baird Ford Mondeo; 50 Peter Kox Honda Accord; 55 Nigel Mansell Ford Mondeo; 56 Nicola Larini Alfa 156; 57 Fabrizio Giovanardi Alfa 156; 77 Matt Neal Nissan Primera GT; 88 Derek Warwick Vauxhall Vectra; 98 John Cleland Vauxhall Vectra.

1998 RACE DATES: Rounds 1/2 Thruxton April 12/13; Rounds 3/4 Silverstone International April 25/26; Rounds 5/6 Donington Park National May 3/4; Rounds 7/8 Brands Hatch Indy May 16/17; Rounds 9/10 Oulton Park May 24/25; Rounds 11/12 Donington Park National June 13/14; Rounds 13/14 Croft June 27/28; Rounds 15/16 Snetterton July 25/26; Rounds 17/18 Thruxton August 1/2; Rounds 19/20 Knockhill August 15/16; Rounds 21/22 Brands Hatch Indy August 30/31; Rounds 23/24 Oulton Park September 12/13; Rounds 25/26 Silverstone International September 19/20.