With more cars switching to the low-cost turbocharged engine this season, we saw a greater variety in terms of lap times and speed at Brands Hatch. So who's got the best car for this year?
There are two obvious pieces of data to look through; lap times and speed traps. Looking into the data from the first round of the 2011 British Touring Car Championship wields some interesting discoveries, as well as some obvious ones.
Firstly, it's important to set out this disclaimer. The late arrival of the full NGTC-specification car means there's little to be learned from looking at the two Toyotas at this point. With Speedworks not picking up their car until two weeks ago, and Dynojet Racing's first laps taking place at the weekend, it's safe to say we've not seen the real performance capability of the cars as yet, though they are included here for the sake of completeness, plus there were some good signs for the new car.
First, looking at speed. I've taken each drivers' best captured speed through the start/finish line speed trap (the fastest of the two traps) for the weekend. You can see there's an obvious pattern to start with. The top 11 drivers are all Super 2000 cars fitted with the Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) specification engine (S2000/NGTC).
It's probably not much of a surprise that a turbocharged car would clock the highest speed of course. It's more interesting here to look at it by driver.
The Honda Civic of Gordon Shedden was actually the fastest car through the speed trap all weekend. In fact, both Hondas set their fastest speeds during the races. Matt Neal's fastest speed clocked in qualifying was 129.8mph, whilst he went through at 130.6mph during the second race…did the Honda have even more in reserve for the race even after that record breaking qualifying lap?
The oddity in the 'S2000/NGTC' class of cars was the AmD Milltek Racing VW Golf of Tom Onslow-Cole. The Golf's best speed put it 21st of the 22 cars, with only the untested NGTC Toyota of Frank Wrathall any slower. Considering Tom Boardman's SEAT has exactly the same engine, there's an obvious issue for the team there.
It's also worth noting the respectable top speed clocked by Tony Hughes in the other Toyota, as he was as fast as race three podium finisher Paul O'Neill, at 124.7mph.
If we take the data and average it by car, and compare them against each other you can see clearly the top speed advantage of the NGTC-engined cars over the normally aspirated ones.
The Honda is out on top with its Neil Brown built engine, with the Mountune-engined Ford Focuses collectively second.
Interestingly, the Vauxhall Vectra (discounting the VW & Toyota for reasons already given) is the slowest of all the NGTC-powered cars with its Swindon Engine, even though the car was one of the most competitive all weekend, particularly for Andrew Jordan and James Nash.
The top speed of the Chevrolet Cruze 2010 (RML's cars) is almost identical to the average top speed of the BMW 320si. The older Cruze is a little further back. Averaging the speed of the Toyota drops it right down to last, but if Hughes' speed alone was used it would sit between the BMW and the 2009 specification Cruze used by Tech-Speed.
However, speed only tells you how fast the car can get to down the straight. Any driver can just point the car and push the pedal to get to the speed trap? The question is how does the driver use this power along with the handling of the car and his own skill to convert that into a competitive lap time?
Looking at the laps, and most of the fastest laps unsurprisingly come from the qualifying session, with just a few exceptions. This is the only session of the season where the cars carry the same amount of penalty ballast (that is, none), so it's quite an important one.
Matt Neal's pole lap was almost three-tenths of a second faster than Andrew Jordan's, who pulled a great result from the ageing Vectra to secure the front-row in qualifying.
It's not a straight list of NGTC-engined cars this time, with Jason Plato putting the newer Cruze up there in third with Alex MacDowall less than a tenth behind in fifth.
Paul O'Neill and Rob Collard were also able to produce good times from their cars and position themselves ahead of a number of the NGTC-powered S2000 cars.
Tony Hughes managed to set his best lap in race two in the full-NGTC Toyota Avensis after issues in qualifying, which was faster than Chris James in the tried and tested Chevrolet Lacetti, who'd also set his best time in a race rather than qualifying.
Grouping the average lap time per car, and again keeping the two Chevrolet Cruze-running teams separate as there was a marked difference in performance between the two, we can see how they compare.
Last year's World Touring Car Championship winning Cruze is within a very respectable time of the Honda Civic. Tom Boardman, being a one man average as the only SEAT actually pops the Lehmann-engined Leon into third, just ahead of close pairing of the Swindon-engined Vauxhalls and the Mountune-powered Fords.
The BMW 320si, despite comparable top speed times to the Cruze is losing ground in the corners, with a notable gap back from the leading five cars. The older Cruze model is just behind the three BMWs, with Onslow-Cole's struggling Golf just within striking distance.
Chris James is the sole represented Chevrolet Lacetti, and his inexperience sees the ex-RML car quite a bit behind the leading pack, but ahead of the average of the two Toyotas.
So, what can actually we actually conclude from this? Well, firstly it's important to point out that all of this ignores reliability, tyre drop off and other smaller factors, so only generally summarised conclusions can be made in any case.
It appears as though Honda certainly have the quickest package over a single lap as well as down the straight, definitely fixing what was their Achilles Heel from last season. If Matt Neal hadn't have been knocked out of race one, it's entirely possible that Honda could well have won all three races at Brands Hatch, and we could have a different championship leader.
The Chevrolet however, clearly has a very balanced car, despite its top speed disadvantage. The ideal scenario for them is what actually happened at Brands Hatch, with a strong grid position and good placing out of the first corner thanks to the fast starting nature of the normally aspirated Chevrolet.
With Plato able to fend off the turbo cars of Nash, Jackson and Shedden in each of the three races, he was able to take a lot of points from the weekend, but the question is how much can that Chevrolet overtake? His only chance to demonstrate this was in race three, but as he was weighed down with 45kg of penalty ballast, that would certainly have been a factor in slowing him down. If this was gone, could he move up the order past the turbo cars?
The Fords have got definitely got speed, but appear to have work to do on the chassis. The Vauxhall teams appear to have the opposite issue, and could use more top-speed from Swindon to improve their already strong package.
The SEAT seems to be a safe all-rounder, and if you can't have a Civic, you probably would want the SEAT. It'll be interesting to see how much closer the Golf can get as well once they resolve their issues.
The ageing BMW is struggling on power and handling, and the results of the car are resting on the skill of the drivers rather than the ability of the car.
It's not fair to judge the performance of Chris James' Lacetti until the newcomer gains more experience. Similarly with the full NGTC Toyotas, which are at the beginning of a long development cycle.
All in all, at the moment, it looks good to have a Honda Civic for now, it'll be interesting to see the Fords develop. Plato and RML are still going to be very strong just because they are Plato and RML.