The best of British domestic motor racing emerges from beneath the dust sheets at Brands Hatch this Easter holiday weekend, gleaming with ambition and no little optimism for the home contingent.
The British Formula Three Championship, again proving itself a breeding ground for Formula One, flexes its muscles on Sunday and Mark Taylor, for one, believes he can bring the title back to these shores for the first time in three years.
The holder of the British Touring Car Championship is from Britain, but he will not be on parade when the tin-top fraternity resume hostilities at the Kent circuit on Monday. Jason Plato, vilified for his uncompromising driving and pay demands, has no seat this season and takes his helmet to the fledgling ASCAR series, based at Rockingham Speedway. Yvan Muller, Plato's team-mate at Vauxhall last year, is scarcely lamenting the defection. The Frenchman is looking forward to a more amicable partnership with another Briton, James Thompson. Vauxhall, who dominated last season, remain the benchmark and four other Astras – two sponsored by Egg, two run by Barwell Motor Sport – give the marque a formidable presence.
However, much trumpeted cost-cutting measures have provided a fast track to competitiveness for their rivals, holding out the prospect of renaissance for a show that was in serious danger of self-destructing.
MG have been encouraged by their times in testing, while Honda and Proton are confident their challenge will gather strength and momentum. A handicapping system, which imposes weight penalties for success, is intended to ensure an even contest in the later stages of the season.
Thompson, conditioned by a career of unfulfilled aspirations, is reluctant to play up his chances. He became the championship's youngest ever driver when he first entered, as a bumptious 19-year-old. He talked of titles and all the accompanying glitter. Eight years on, and with a best placing of third, he is more circumspect.
The Yorkshireman, who graduated from the Egg car, said: "Too much focus is put on winning the championship. People have tipped me to win the championship for a few years and it's never happened, for one reason or another. It's been very competitive and to finish in the top three a couple of times is pretty good.
"But unfortunately it's never come my way and the best approach is to try and win the races and not have non-finishers. If you do that you are going to be somewhere near at the end.
"It's going to be more competitive this year. It's the best grid since 1998 and the handicap system will play into the hands of other teams.''
Muller and the rest at Vauxhall would welcome a more harmonious atmosphere in their camp this time, although Thompson declines to condemn his predecessor. "Jason is a very good friend of mine so it's very hard for me to say anything about that,'' Thompson said. "There are lots of different personalities in the sport. He has a lot of admirable qualities – his desire and his determination to win. That ultimately brought him the championship. Ultimately it brought him his downfall as well.
Still getting to know the team is Birmingham's Matt Neal, who slots his considerable frame into one of the Egg cars. He is famed for his size – at 6ft 6in and 15st he is cited as the biggest driver in the business – and his victory in a privately-entered Nissan, three years ago, which earned a prize of £250,000. Now he is one of the big boys in every sense. His opponents will not be fooled by his self-deprecating demeanour. Under BTCC regulations, his bulk no longer represents a burden since car and driver are weighed together and his lap times suggest he is capable of capitalising.
Barwell have the improbable combination of Aaron Slight, the New Zealander more renown for his exploits on a World Superbike, and Surrey's Tom Chilton, who is lowering the "youngest ever'' marker to 17 years and 17 days. The teenager, who gained his international race licence through his exploits in saloon and sports cars over the past three years, is yet to pass his driving test on public roads. "I want to be able to drive myself to the circuits as soon as possible,'' he said.
A veteran by comparison, Anthony Reid remains as enthusiastic and hopeful as any rookie. He partners Warren Hughes at an MG team openly feared by Vauxhall. Reid said: "MG have been able to become competitive relatively quickly because of the regulations. It is a cost-effective championship and I am sure it will be a highly competitive and exciting one. These are difficult times, financially, for motor sport. Yet here is a championship that has come to terms with the situation.''
The competition in the British Formula Three Championship has long lured aspiring world champions from around the globe, their pockets bulging with sponsors' money. British drivers have tended to claim "foul'' and bemoan the lack of backing in this country. Not so 24-year-old Taylor, who embarks on his second season with Manor Motorsport. "The support is there for British drivers if you prove yourself. Foreign drivers come here because it is the strongest championship in the world. If Germany had the best championship I'd want to go over there," he said.
Team Avanti are endeavouring to buck the trend of foreign dominance by running a British-made Ralt against the established Italian manufacturer, Dallara. At the wheel is Matthew Gilmore, a 20-year-old from Northern Ireland who has all the confidence, if not yet the fame and wealth of his countryman, Eddie Irvine.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could win the championship,'' Gilmore said. "Then I want Formula One. You've got to keep looking forward.''
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