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James Newbold

The national series enjoying a Super Touring-esque boom

There are numerous reasons for Super Touring being upheld as the British Touring Car Championship’s zenith over 20 years on. Close racing between cars that looked and sounded different, while bearing a similarity with those you might find in the supermarket car park, is surely a factor.

But another is the glut of big-name drivers who had proven their worth all over the globe and brought real prestige. For a few short years, the BTCC amounted to an international calibre national series as the likes of Roberto Ravaglia, Frank Biela and Laurent Aiello - who had already won their domestic championships and many more besides - came over to test themselves against the best that Britain had to offer.

The announcement that Raffaele Marciello would become the eighth factory driver on the British GT grid this year makes me wonder whether this is the championship’s Super Touring moment. Marciello, who joins John Ferguson at RAM Racing, will go up against fellow Mercedes ace Jules Gounon – the pair forming two-thirds of the winning lineup in last year’s Spa 24 Hours and claiming the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup for good measure – in what can only be described as a huge coup for British GT.

That Gounon, so effective with RAM in select outings last year, has switched to rival Mercedes squad 2Seas with defending champion Ian Loggie will add an additional subplot to what is sure to be a fascinating narrative.

German McLaren ace Marvin Kirchhofer also returns after finishing second on his sole British GT outing last year at Silverstone with Garage 59. He’s paired up once more with Alexander West, himself an accomplished amateur in GTWCE.

Add them to the host of home-grown factory talents racing McLaren (Rob Bell), Lamborghini (Sandy Mitchell), Aston Martin (Ross Gunn) and BMW (Dan Harper) machinery this year and it’s little wonder that Aston works ace and four-time series champion Jonny Adam – who will contest the majority of the season alongside James Cottingham in a 2Seas Merc – tells Autosport “the championship has become really serious now”.

Of course, there have been factory guns in the series before - take 2018 when Aston Martin fielded Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Maxime Martin alongside Adam and Darren Turner. And with Yelmer Buurman, who edged Marciello to win that year’s Blancpain GT Endurance title, also on the grid, sharing with Lee Mowle, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say the field has a more international flavour than ever either.

The presence of defending Spa 24 Hours winners Marciello (left) and Gounon (right) is a huge coup for British GT that underlines its competitiveness (Photo by: Mercedes AMG)

“I would say it’s similar to ’18 and ’19,” reflects Adam when asked to compare it to this year.

But whereas back then the influx could be largely explained by a British manufacturer that was keen to support customers of its venerable V12 Vantage GT3 in its final season on home soil, now the spread is more even across the manufacturers – a point Adam acknowledges.

“I think it does help the championship when you’ve got international drivers coming over and they all love it because the circuits are so unique in the UK,” he says.

For Gounon, currently in recovery after a big Nurburgring Nordschleife crash last weekend, the circuits are a core part of the appeal.

"This year when Ian asked me if I wanted to do British GT again it was not even a question, it was an absolute pleasure" Jules Gounon

“This year I was really lucky to choose the programme I wanted with Stefan [Wendl, Mercedes head of customer racing]. And the direction I went is to go back to those tracks that I love,” says the Frenchman, who is also contesting a full IMSA Sportscar Championship GTD Pro campaign in 2023.

“Doing British GT with Ian was something I enjoyed so much last year. Ian is an exceptional guy and I really enjoy spending time with him. So this year when Ian asked me if I wanted to do British GT again it was not even a question, it was an absolute pleasure. I enjoy being on those tracks and in the car with him so much.”

And the factory aces are only the tip of the iceberg. Adam is impressed not just by “the strength of not just the Pro side with eight factory drivers, but the guys that aren’t” on the 18-car GT3 grid (the healthiest since 2014). There’s quality in abundance including five previous race winners, a past GT4 champion and European Le Mans Series title-winner.

Gounon is back for more this year with 2Seas having been captivated by the UK circuits in 2022 (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

As Adam Carroll showed last year with his stout defence against Gounon at Oulton Park, not being in the car every week isn’t always a barrier to success. So don’t go thinking the factory drivers will have it all their own way.

“The number of factory drivers is massively impressive but there’s a number of guys as well who aren’t a full factory driver but are still bloody good,” agrees Bell, who will share an Optimum machine with Mark Radcliffe.

“Yes, factory drivers are pretty stacked, but the rest of them are pretty handy. Every car has got a threat in it.”

Is it better than it’s ever been?

“It’s phenomenally tough and I don’t remember seeing quite so many Pros who are at a top, top line doing it,” reckons Bell. “I’d say it’s probably the most competitive season I’ve seen in total.

“British GT has always been competitive. And sometimes underrated, actually. If you go back to when GT3 was first starting out properly, you still had Nick Tandy, [Richard] Westbrook, Phil Keen, Allan Simonsen, there’s always been good guys in it. The top, top sharp end hasn’t got better or worse, there’s just more volume of quality drivers. That then does have more kudos for us drivers because we want to beat other good drivers.”

“I do think this will be a special year and I’m really looking forward to racing against other factory drivers as I have done in the past,” says Adam. “It’s great for the championship that there’s so many nice stories that have been released through British GT in the last few months. The quality of those stories with the driver lineups has definitely brought something extra.”

British GT has had overseas talents before - here Thiim is chased by Dennis Lind in 2019 - but the depth in this year's grid is particularly impressive (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

And don’t forget that in pro-am racing both drivers share the responsibility of getting to the finish first. With the Pros usually evenly matched, the biggest difference will, as ever, be founded on who can extract potential from their amateur co-drivers.

“It will boil down to how you can get the best out of your Am driver, really. That will be the key and always has been,” says Bell.

It’s this emphasis that has been a key factor in Adam’s unparalleled success down the years, each of his titles coming with a different co-driver.

“[Cottingham’s] pace is just as important as mine and that’s something I’ve always dialled into,” he says. “It works so well in British GT because the Am has to drive 62 minutes in a two-hour race and it’s a combined qualifying in a lot of places.”

"The top, top sharp end hasn’t got better or worse, there’s just more volume of quality drivers" Rob Bell

One exception to that is the two Oulton Park sprints, where grids are set by the Am and Pro respectively. So this Saturday, all eyes will be on the battle for the race two pole – perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated quali session in years between some of the finest GT3 drivers in the world giving it the beans.

However long this peak period lasts, let's enjoy it. A Super Touring Festival at Brands Hatch in July is targeting some of the biggest names of yesteryear, but UK-based spectators will be treated to the modern-day equivalent six times this year. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.

Abba Mercedes racer Sam Neary (left) will be keen to benchmark himself against Aston factory driver Gunn and works BMW ace Harper (Photo by: Motorsport Images)
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