REIGNING British Touring Car champion Gordon Shedden says that retaining his crown this year will be tougher than ever.

But the Knockhill-based star believes he has all the tools at his disposal to challenge for what would be an historic fourth title of his sparkling career.

Shedden, 38, brought the BTCC trophy back to West Fife for the third time in October when he came from behind in the standings to pip leader Sam Tordoff in a thrilling final race of the last weekend of the season.

A dramatic third place at Brands Hatch allowed Knockhill’s business development manager to pop open the champagne and celebrate a second successive triumph, adding to his inaugural success in 2008.

‘Flash’ and Honda Yuasa Racing team-mate Matt Neal are eager to confirm their pre-season potential when the new season roars into life around Brands Hatch’s short indy circuit this weekend and both are bidding to match the achievements of Andy Rouse, who won the championship four times in 1975, 1983, 1984 and 1985.

Their Honda Civic Type R has undergone a comprehensive development programme over the winter months, with particular attention being focused on the new Dunlop Sport Maxx tyre that will be introduced this year.

Shedden and Neal have been on-track at various British circuits and at Parcmotor Castellolí in Spain in recent weeks for testing.

The champ has been pleased with how preparations have gone, and commented: “There has been plenty of learning with the new Dunlop tyres but I think we’re getting our heads around it all and I’m in a reasonably happy place right now.

“The week in Spain was really beneficial and highlighted a few things we needed to work on early in our preparations. That ensured we were on the right track by the time we got back to the UK and the car feels good. It actually feels different to last year – the tyres have had more of an effect than I’d expected, to be honest, but we seem to be increasingly unlocking the little Civic Type R’s potential.

“We don’t know at this stage how quick everybody else will be but what’s for sure is that it’s going to be insanely close in qualifying at Brands Hatch with the whole field on zero ballast – you’re going to need to absolutely nail your lap if you want a good starting position.

“I really believe the difference between first and last on the grid this season could be the smallest it’s ever been. The quality stretches further down the field than in recent years, meaning it will all come down to hundredths – if not thousandths – of a second.”