Pressure is on as Chilton gets his motor running
As the British Touring Car Championship powers into action at Brands Hatch tomorrow, Derick Allsop looks at the drivers Vauxhall are relying on to win back the title
Saturday 08 April 2006
They're back, snarling as aggressively as ever, barging for position, and that's before they've lined up on the grid for the first race. It's a sure sign that all is well with the British Touring Car Championship.
The nation's most popular domestic series now has such a loyal viewing public that ITV are to televise all 10, three-race meetings live, and the participants in this soap opera on wheels could never be accused of being camera-shy.
Matt Neal was the leading man last year, striking a blow for the independents, and his Honda is likely to be jousting at the front of the field again in the coming season.
Seat, who pleaded they were unfairly restricted by weight penalties, feel that they can cope with the burden of expectation this time. They have, in Jason Plato, James Thompson and Darren Turner, perhaps the strongest driver line-up. Thompson, twice champion, competes at only six meetings because of world championship commitments, while Turner stands in for the other four.
The MGs and private Hondas will not be underestimated either, confirming the depth of competition in the series. But much attention will be focused on Vauxhall, who were toppled from their long, stable perch in 2005, and are anxious to re-assert themselves. Two new drivers, Britain's Tom Chilton and Italy's Fabrizio Giovanardi, supported by Ireland's Gavin Smith, have been entrusted with the task of winning back the championship.
Chilton, though barely 21, will be embarking on his fifth season at Brands Hatch tomorrow. He has undoubted pace and ambition, but has yet to convince everyone that he can produce the consistency of a genuine title challenger.
Giovanardi is 39 and an undisputed grandee of tin-tops. He has a string of European, Italian and Spanish titles and maintains that he is here to win, rather than to amuse himself in the autumn of his career. But he must acclimatise to the circuits and the culture - and time is a luxury no one can afford.
Not that he arrives totally unprepared or intimidated. He has banged wheels and doors with a few of the other BTCC drivers already and they will vouch for his ability to look after himself. He had close encounters with the legendary combatant, Plato, in the world championship last season and is undaunted.
"I met Plato at Silverstone because he pushed me out at the second corner," Giovanardi recalled dryly. "I said to myself, 'Mmm, I have to be careful of this guy'. I just hit him back at Spa. He is a driver like all the other ones. I don't care."
Anyone with Giovanardi's pedigree has to be tough. He has also to be good - good enough to drive for one of the best teams. He has no doubts about the calibre of Vauxhall, who signed him following the departure of Yvan Muller. "I think it is the best team," he said. "They needed an experienced driver to replace Yvan and I have a long experience. For me it is a new challenge but not just to race.
"A driver like me, after so many years in the sport, would rather stop than just race. I have to fight to win. I am just a little worried about the English circuits. They are typically English - no reference points, only grass. So I have to be careful."
Smith, the only driver of the Vauxhall trio not new to the team, believes that Giovanardi will soon find his way across the English landscape. "After 10 laps testing at Snetterton, he was right on the pace," the man from Dublin said. "You can see he's a class act."
Some - among them Plato - question whether Chilton can be a class act or at any rate, emerge as a championship contender. But Vauxhall's youngest driver clearly has no intention of being subordinate to Giovanardi.
"Fabrizio is probably regarded as the best driver of front-wheel-drive cars in the world," Chilton said of his team-mate. "He's got a great record and I can learn from him. Then again, he might learn a bit from me about UK circuits. Along with Gavin, we make a fantastic team.
"Hopefully we can change it around for Vauxhall this year. There is a massive determination right through everyone in the team to do that. The boys are hacked off, they didn't finish first last year. They've told me how much they want to win. I've told them not to jump on me, but they will put pressure on me and that's fine. I love the challenge."
Chilton steered away from single-seaters and the lure of Grand Prix racing at an early age and has no regrets.
"I'm happy I've gone the right route," he said. "Only 22 drivers can compete in Formula One, so tin-tops and sports cars are the way forward for me. I've progressed well and now, at just 21, I'm with Vauxhall. It's a fantastic drive, so I can't complain, can I? Now I have to make the most of this opportunity. It's going to be really close between Giovanardi, Plato, Thompson, Neal and myself and I believe I can do it," he added.
The closer the racing, the more likely there will be collisions and recriminations. But then BTCC drivers accept they are in the entertainment business and know they have to pass the screen test.
"There is a fair bit of contact and that's what the public wants to see," Chilton acknowledged. "Sometimes there is too much contact from certain individuals. Plato spun me at 140 mph at Silverstone last year. He did quite a few things that were out of order. But I'm sure we'll have great racing again this year and long may it continue."
Tomorrow Brands Hatch (Indy circuit)
23 April Mondello Park
14 May Oulton Park (Island circuit)
4 June Thruxton
16 July Croft
30 July Donington Park
13 August Snetterton
3 September Knockhill
24 September Brands Hatch (Indy)
15 October Silverstone (National circuit)
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