Currently reading: A new era: Behind the scenes at BTCC's hybrid race debut
Britain’s top racing series will introduce a mandatory electrical element next season. We took a closer look at its first outing

When people look back at the results of the British Touring Car Championship event at Silverstone in September 2021, the headline will be an impressive weekend for Rory Butcher, who put his Toyota on pole position and then backed it up with a pair of wins on race day.

However, arguably the biggest story from the weekend was the appearance on track of another Corolla GR Sport, as the BTCC’s hybrid test car joined the series regulars in the latest stage of the ongoing development programme for the new electrical system that will feature from 2022.

It was back in August 2018 that the BTCC first announced its plan to introduce hybrid technology, before a tender process was opened the following April to determine who would provide a system that would not only spice up the action on track but also ensure that the series remained relevant in the ever-changing wider motorsport landscape. Later that season, Cosworth was named as the company responsible for producing the system. It set to work on the initial design and build and soon the first BTCC car fitted with hybrid technology hit the track to ramp up the testing process.

A 60V gearbox-mounted electric motor complements the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine that has become a fixture of the BTCC and provides drivers with an additional 40bhp power boost that they can use on track over the course of a race weekend.

Track running has been carried out by M-Sport, the World Rally Championship powerhouse that will provide the latest incarnation of the Toca engine that will also come in next year, with a number of drivers – including experienced GT racer Darren Turner and veteran BTCC front-runner Andrew Jordan – taking turns behind the wheel.

“Testing of the hybrid system has gone very well, and we’ve been able to complete a season of running with the car as part of the development programme,” said Neal Bateman, Cosworth’s head of support. “Hitting that mileage was the first target we had, and we’ve achieved that without any major problems and things have run largely to plan.

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“Developing the system in Covid times hasmade things challenging to an extent, because we weren’t able to go out and test while in lockdown and we had to learn to work in a different way, but it didn’t have a negative impact on the programme.

“We completed the miles we wanted to complete and had the chance to cycle different drivers in the car to gain their feedback, which has been important.”

The system has been designed to be as simple and straightforward to use as possible, with the battery pack positioned where success ballast is currently located in the car to make it easily accessible and the electric motor incorporated into the Xtrac gearbox that’s used across the grid. 

That allows cars to run on electricity only when leaving the pits to start a session and ensures the system is easily incorporated into any car, regardless of which engine is under the bonnet.

“As the gearbox is a spec part, it made sense to incorporate the electric motor in that way,” explained Bateman. “It means that the engine isn’t a big factor, and the only real difference there will be for teams is that the installation will be slightly different for a front-wheel-drive car compared with a rear-wheel-drive car.

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We now have a BMW 1 Series that we’re working with alongside the Toyota, and the two will continue to test so we can provide teams with all of the information they require when it comes to preparing for next year.”

A button on the steering is used to deploy the electrical power as and when the drivers wish for a maximum amount of time per lap, and this will eplace the existing success ballast system. That will add a different element of strategy into a race weekend, putting the emphasis on the driver behind the wheel rather than on the engineering team in the pits.

“I’ve really enjoyed the experience of being part of the testing programme and the work that has gone in has been hugely important when you consider that there will be a full grid of cars using this system next year,” said Jordan. “We’re now at the stage where the system is reliable and working as it should do, and we know there’s more to come in terms of performance, because we’re still running safe at the moment.

“As a driver, the system is very simple, as it’s a case of pressing a button when you want to use the extra power, and I’ve no doubt it will spice up the racing. It isn’t like DRS [drag reduction system] in Formula 1, where you can just drive past people, as that isn’t the aim, but more of an exaggerated slipstream where you can get alongside someone to attack.

“If you have a good driver in a good car that’s well engineered, you can work out how to deal with running ballast, but you can’t do anything when it comes to horsepower, so it will be interesting to see how [the hybrid tech] impacts the racing and how drivers decide to use the extra power available.

“For me, I think it’s important that the fans watching don’t see anything different compared with what they see now. There will be something to indicate when the hybrid tech is being used, but as far as fans are concerned, it will still be a touring car and it will sound like it always did.”

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“It will hand control back to the drivers a bit more,” adds Bateman. “Whereas now people try to engineer a car around any ballast they’re carrying, with this system it will come down to the drivers to work out where they want to use the extra power and whether they want to use it to defend or attack.

“People will have to take a different approach depending on the circuit, and we believe it will make the racing even more exciting that it is now.”

Arriving at Silverstone with a system that was “85-90% there”, the aim wasn’t to chase a headline-grabbing lap time but to gain more valuable knowledge about the operation of the technology in an environment different to that of the previous tests. Saturday’s running was focused on set-up work and collected further important data before Jordan took part in all three races on Sunday – albeit starting each from the pit lane so as not to interfere with the ongoing championship fight.

With 15 seconds of hybrid boost available, he set the third-fastest lap of race one and the fastest of all in race two, where he secured a best result of 20th place and was able to run well in the main pack. Although an exhaust manifold issue (not related to the hybrid system) resulted in retirement from race three, this latest test was another successful step towards the introduction of the new tech ready for the 2022 season opener at Donington Park in late April.

“This weekend wasn’t about performance; it was more of an operational exercise to allow us to run the car across a race meeting and to follow all of the different processes that a team will have to follow,” concludes Bateman.

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“It was nice to see the car running with the pack in the second race in particular, and although performance wasn’t our focus, we can go away from this weekend in the nice position of having had one of the fastest cars. Crucially, Andrew has also been happy and enjoyed the extra boost of power he got out of the corners, so it has been a very positive exercise.

“We are really pleased with how the test has gone and have been able to run the car in race conditions without any issues with the hybrid system. There that have been various things we’ve learned from an operational point of view, and that will all go into the installation manual that we will provide to teams when we start to push the system out to them later in the year.”

Other times the BTCC used alternative fuels

The new hybrid system being introduced into the BTCC for 2022 won’t be the first time that the series has moved from a traditional ICE running solely on petrol or diesel. Back in 2004, Mardi Gras Motorsport joined the grid running a Honda Civic Type R on liquid petroleum gas (LPG). However, it struggled to get the car down to a competitive weight so swapped to a Peugeot 406 Coupé mid-season – although driver John George would still fail to score a point.

Tech-Speed would then introduce bioethanol fuel for 2005 on Fiona Leggate’s Vauxhall Astra, and both Kartworld Racing and WSR would run the fuel in their MG ZS pairing in 2006. LPG returned in 2010 in Arena Motorsport’s Ford Focus STs, with Tom Onslow-Cole and Tom Chilton both winning races and the latter claiming the Independents’ Trophy. A more sustainable fuel will be mandated alongside the hybrid system from next year.

Matt Salisbury

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