GORDON SHEDDEN proved that he will be the man to beat in this year’s British Touring Car Championship after making a fast start on Sunday.

The defending champion raced from the start line to enjoy what he described as a “brilliant” opening round at Brands Hatch that ended with him back on top of the standings after winning one and finishing second in two of the weekend’s three races.

Shedden, 38, is looking for his third successive triumph after winning the title in 2015 and 2016 and his fourth overall, matching the achievements of Andy Rouse, who won the championship in 1975, 1983, 1984 and 1985.

Ahead of the Brands Hatch opener ‘Flash’ said that despite feeling happy with his Honda Civic Type R in testing, he felt that “the difference between first and last on the grid this season could be the smallest it’s ever been”.

The Honda Yuasa Racing driver’s prediction looked to be accurate as Eurotech Racing’s Jeff Smith scored a sensational maiden pole position, with Shedden leading the sport’s big-guns in rain-plagued and red flag-interrupted qualifying by placing third.

The 32-strong field then revved into gear for the first race and Smith, overtaken by Tom Ingram, kept Shedden at bay until lap six when the champion made a superb move to take second spot, a position he held until the chequered flag.

That set him up nicely for race two and his first top spot of the new season which came in a frenetic second encounter that included a series of incidents that interrupted proceedings.

Pole-sitter Ingram had a problem with his car that led to an aborted start, which was followed by an accident at the restart involving Jason Plato, whose Subaru Levorg was turned into the pit wall off the line.

Eventually it was lights-out for a reduced 23-lap race and Shedden slipped by Ingram on the second lap to take the lead and, looking assured and confident, he went on to comfortably win the race.

He then mastered maximum weight and the less durable soft-compound tyres in race three to secure seventh position from eighth on the grid, and with it a six-point championship lead.

Shedden commented: “I’ll take those three results any weekend of the year – it’s been a brilliant start to the season. Qualifying was turned on its head somewhat due to the weather, but you have to try to make hay while the sun is shining and the Civic Type R felt great throughout.

“In fact, it was even better with the weight in race two than without it in race one, which was slightly random – but very encouraging going forward.

“To win with 66kg in the car was really special.

“In race three, starting in the middle of the pack with maximum ballast and on the soft tyres was always going to be a struggle. I was hoping for a little more action to kick off in front of me, but we made the very best of the situation. I think this must be my best ever start to a BTCC campaign, so we’re clearly going in the right direction. I’m absolutely chuffed – a very happy Scotsman heading back north!”

The results mean that Shedden leads the way on 48 points ahead of Ingram ahead of the second round of the championship, which takes place at Donnington Park on April 15-16.