Jason Plato, double-BTCC champion and one of the most experienced (and controversial) drivers in the series, leads the way after three rounds in his brand-new MG. (Overdrive.com)

The 2012 British Touring Car Championship is back on our screens again and it’s been quite a start to the new season. Weather played its part in making the last round, at Thruxton last weekend, a thrilling occasion, but the curtain-raiser at Brands Hatch and second meeting at Donington Park also delivered plentifully in the entertainment stakes.

Being something of a motorsport nerd, I sorely missed whole-day BTCC coverage on ITV4 over the winter, and was somewhat saddened to have missed the first three rounds of the season due to pre-planned absense. Having now watched all of the races I missed thanks to the wonder of YouTube (thanks a lot, dmadey08), a few things are standing out so far which set this season out from last year’s unforgettable campaign.

1) The title fight will be even closer – and less hostile – than before

Last year’s BTCC season was somewhat marred by the ongoing dispute between various teams and drivers, but mostly RML Chevrolet’s Jason Plato and Yuasa Honda’s Matt Neal, over how best to balance the older naturally aspirated cars (like the Chevy) with turbo-powered vehicles running under newer regulations (such as the Honda). Not only that, but there were the first of the NGTC (Next Generation Touring Car) vehicles, such as Frank Wrathall’s Dynojet Toyota Avensis, although these were mostly uncompetitive for the majority of the season.

The war of words was increasingly heated, and organising body TOCA’s attempts to balance the dispute basically wore down to weekly rule changes limiting or increasing the turbos’ power output allowance. This meant that the advantage swung wildly back and forward all season – entertaining for the fans, but infuriating for the drivers.

Now, all cars are running turbo-powered engines, and the engine concerns appear to have mostly died away. This can only be good news for all sides – the ugly disputes which polluted last season’s action are gone for good.

The smaller field of the 2012 series, combined with the new points structure, means that most drivers should be able to complete a full season. (3d-car-shows.com)

2) Smaller field = better racing

Late in the 2011 season, BTCC grids featured as many as 30 entries, the peak coming at the penultimate round at Silverstone. With points on offer for only the top 10 finishers, this meant that the majority of entrants didn’t score in any given race, and only about half the field were picking up points over the three races held each weekend.

Now, though, TOCA has re-structured the points system to allow the top 15 to score, while the field has shrunk to 22, albeit with more planned. Not only does this guarantee more intense racing further down the field; it all but ensures that all competitors will score points each meeting, thereby improving their payouts in reward money and – hopefully – allowing each team to complete a full season.

3) NGTC cars look pretty impressive

This season, around half the field are running the NGTC rules which will become mandatory from 2013. The two manufacturer teams – Plato’s new MG entry, and Yuasa’s new-generation Civic, are running NGTC rules along with several customer teams. The looks of the cars have helped to somewhat modernise the look of the BTCC, which three years ago was lagging far behind its rival DTM and WTCC series in terms of design.

4) Mat Jackson’s title challenge last season was no fluke

After a superb 2011 season which saw him finish as best of the rest, Mat Jackson is aiming for a genuine title challenge this time around. (3d-car-shows.com)

The 2011 season was a breakout year for Matt Jackson and Team Airwaves, who specialised in securing strong Race 3 results (aided by a part-reversed grid) and put together a genuine title challenge which survived until about three races from the end of the year, although in reality terrible reliability issues at Knockhill essentially knocked Jackson’s chances on the head.

Fast-forward to this season, and Jackson is the lead independent driver and continuing to win races in his re-branded Redstone Racing team. He proved at Thruxton that, despite his non-NGTC car having slightly thinner tyres, he is capable of mastering the toughest of conditions, and the Ford’s pace over small bursts has been enough for Jackson to race either the Hondas, Plato’s MG or the BMWs of Rob Collard and Tom Onslow-Cole. With two wins to his name already this season, Jackson will be hoping he can sustain his title challenge that little longer in 2012.

5) Jason Plato is fast in anything

Wily old Plato has driven several different cars over the course of his chequered but celebrated BTCC career – Renault, Vauxhall, Seat, Chevrolet, and now the brand-new MG6, in its first season of competitive motorsport. The MG was never supposed to be an instant challenger, and in the hands of Plato’s teammate Andy Neate, it isn’t. Plato, however, is proving his ability once again by consistently placing the MG near the front of the pack, and winning the third race at Brands – the car’s very first race meeting. One of the series’ most successful drivers ever, Plato looks set to do battle with fellow legend Neal once again in 2012.