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BTCC Season Preview

The 1999 Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship kicks off once again at Donington Park on Easter Monday, 5 April. This year the driver line-up is superb, and includes no less than six works teams - each fielding two cars. Donington Park hosted quite possibly one of the best races of last season. This weekend's bumper bank holiday crowd and the millions enjoying the action live on television will be hoping for a repeat of last year's drama. With all the cars so closely matched, it is sure to be an extraordinary struggle as teams and drivers fight to record the first points of the 1999 season.
Rickard Rydell won his maiden championship drivers crown last season. His excellent early season form helped him to pull through the very tough challenge which was put to him at the end of last year. He will certainly be feeling the pressure in this years campaign. No driver has ever retained the title in the modern super-touring era. Rydell faces some stiff competition. Nissan produced the most dominant and reliable car in 1998 and got their title for all the hard work. The Primera's dominance of pre-season testing, as we spoke about recently suggests that it will again be the car to beat this season. Scot David Leslie is in his third year with the champion manufacturer. Nissan won twice at Donington last year and that would be a great way to open our account in 1999.
The 1999 Volve S40 to be driven by Rickard Rydell and Vincent Radermecker Photograph provided by Volvo
Leslie will have a new partner for this season. Laurent Aiello, who is one of a major influx of new driving talent hoping to claim Rydell's crown. Aiello must first learn the British circuits, but the former German and French touring car champion (he also won Le Mans last year), is sure to be a potent force in this year's campaign.

Honda enters the new season with the all-new Accord and early indications are extremely promising. Young gun James Thompson topped the timesheets on both days of the last test at Brands Hatch and, having finished a best ever third in 1998, he will be looking to start a consistent challenge for the title. Honda are the only team with a brand new car but Thompson insists that the Accord has been very quick straight "out of the box", but the reliability is always a question for a new car.

The 1999 Honda Accord. This drivers are James Thompson and peter Kox. Photograph provided by Honda UK
Among the independents is the surprise package of the year so far has been the Nissan Primera of Team Dynamics racer Matt Neal. A red-hot favorite for the Michelin Cup for Independents, Neal recorded the fastest overall time at the Silverstone pre-season test to put him in the frame as a potential winner of the proper championship. TOCA has offered a 250,000 prize to the first independent driver who wins a round of the 1999 BTCC and Neal will be looking to grab the cash at the first opportunity at Donington next weekend. With the top 13 drivers separated by just three-quarters of a second in last week's test, picking a possible winner for Donington is an almost impossible task. I personally would fancy Thompson for the sprint and Leslie for the feature.
Of Vauxhall's three race wins in 1998 two were recorded at Donington by John Cleland. The Vectra seems to be well suited to the Derbyshire circuit, so either Cleland or new partner Yvan Muller could figure among the leaders. Williams-Renault will not be as competitive in my opinion as their 1997 winning season as they have lost star driver Alain Menu to big budget Ford and the rest of the pack have caught up to them in 1998 anyway. They have also been hampered by the late delivery of their new car, but with Jason Plato and Jean-Christophe Boullion at the wheel, the '99 Laguna will figure up there. Wins may be scarce.
And here we are with Ford doing what they always do best; hire the good drivers, the best preparation company and away we go! Ford's high profile, high-finance switch to Prodrive has seen the Mondeo set some competitive times in the hands of '97 champ Alain Menu and last year's runner-up Anthony Reid. So if the rate of progress can be maintained and if they can hopefully increase that tally of one single win from last season the blue oval could well be the dark horse of a wide-open championship. However, I think that it will be Nissan's year with David Leslie lifting the crown, Thompson not far behind, and if they don't win the manufacturers as well it will be Volvo or Honda. The action gets under way with
Renault's Laguna will be driven by Jason Plato and Jean-Christophe Boullion Photograph provided by Williams Touring Car Engineering
qualifying on Easter Sunday, with the first two rounds of the 1999 Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship taking place on Easter Monday. We just can't wait for it!!!! Yet more to write about.....

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