Under the skin: Engines and how the BTCC regulations keep racing close

In a series where tenths of a second decide championships, every horsepower counts...

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The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) is known for one thing: bumper-to-bumper racing. Cars of all shapes and sizes battle it out in arguably the most competitive national championship in the world, but unlike the spaceships of Formula 1, these racecars are fundamentally road-going machinery.

Astra, Civic, Corolla, Focus – all names associated with your solid daily drivers. But in the world of the BTCC, these are the machines battling it out for the top step of the podium.

Throughout the 63-year history of the championship, the grids have been blessed with a spectrum of machinery, and even today this variety still stands. However, regulations put in place by TOCA, the FIA of the series, ensure that the racing remains close regardless of the badge on the nose of each car. And that starts with the engine.

Team Manager for eight-times Teams’ champions Team Dynamics (this year racing under the name Halfords Racing with Cataclean), James Rodgers explains how the beating heart of the team’s Honda Civic Type R is fundamentally the same as the road-going version. But with a bit more punch.

“The donor engine for the Halfords Racing with Cataclean Honda is the engine that is used in the road-going Honda Civic Type R. This is modified, within BTCC regulations, to optimise it and make it fit for our race series, and the championship guide for power is 350bhp.

“It’s transversely mounted in the same position as the road car and has the same capacity.”

Following the development of the engine, TOCA then ‘lock-in’ the configuration in a process called homologation. But despite this strict freeze to stop engines differing race-by-race and driving costs up, Rodgers reveals that the team are active throughout the season in an effort to eke out that extra bit of performance.

“When we first develop the engine, we have to ‘homologate’ it with TOCA and then the specification is largely locked down. Changes can be made to the specification within very tightly controlled parameters and processes.

“We develop our own engines, and we always have development plans in place to keep pushing the engine forwards. If you stop developing you go backwards! Tenths and even hundredths of a second matter in BTCC, so the development continues relentlessly.”

A decade ago, major rule changes brought about a new engine formula. The Next-Generation Touring Cars, or NGTC, could use a powertrain built by TOCA in an effort to reduce costs and keep the playing field as level as possible.

“In 2011 a shared engine was made available to teams that didn’t have the resources and/or ability to develop their own engine. All the engines are balanced by TOCA in terms of performance and generally they do a good job of ensuring a balanced grid of engines.”

Halfords Racing with Cataclean, however, decided that taking ownership of their engine and developing it within the established regulations was crucial in fighting at the top.

And since 2011, it’s certainly proved a worthwhile decision. Four Teams’ titles, four Drivers’ championships (three going the way of current driver Gordon Shedden) all have helped steer Honda to four Manufacturers’ titles, beating the likes of BMW, Ford and MG.

“We didn’t go down that route [using the TOCA engine]. We build our own with our engine partner Neil Brown Competition Engines.

“We keep control and information in house. We also have more adjustability within the operating parameters of the engines, and when we’re looking for small gains this can make all the difference.”

In BTCC terms, even a tenth can mean the difference between fighting for the win or scrapping to get into the points. For example, at the final round of the 2020 season at Brands Hatch, 19 of the 27 cars were separated by one second in qualifying.

But these cars aren’t just built for one lap on Saturday. If you’re unfamiliar with BTCC racing, the competitors take part in three sprint races on Sunday, with the third race featuring a lottery system that will reverse a proportion of the second race’s results to set the grid.

This means that performance is required to help battle through the pack and beat opponents in some of the most heated exchanges motorsport has to offer. In an effort to cut costs and stop teams from using one engine on Saturday to set the best time in qualifying, before dropping a new engine into the chassis on Sunday, teams are limited to only two per car across the season.

Halfords Racing with Cataclean is confident that their engines could go the whole 30 race season and by ensuring the power unit is running at its optimum every time the cars go on track, thousands of kilometers can be tallied on the odometer.

“We develop an engine to last a full season, including testing, which is roughly 5000km. But we change the engine mid-season as a precaution and the engine that comes out then becomes the spare.

“On a race weekend we have a dedicated engineer whose sole role is to ensure that the engines are running at the optimum for each session. This involves modifying the engine parameters for every session, be that free practice, qualifying or the races themselves, to ensure that every factor, such as weather or temperature, is taken into account.”

Through rules and regulations, particularly the introduction of the TOCA package, the BTCC brings everyday engines into a performance window that produces rollercoaster racing action every race weekend without fail.

Meanwhile, in facilities up and down the country, teams like Halfords Racing with Cataclean are working behind the scenes on the most minute of details to squeeze every last horsepower they can out of an engine designed for the road.

In a series where every tenth counts, the championship could be won or lost because of what’s under the bonnet.

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