This weekend sees the return of what is probably my favourite of all the motorsports series I’ve followed in the 20 years since I was first exposed to four-wheeled fun – the British Touring Car Championship.
For those not aware of what the “BTCC” is, it’s a national race series for production-based cars, like this:
It’s been going for over fifty years now, and every round is shown live or almost-live on ITV4. Over the years some ex Formula One drivers have taken part – Gabriele Tarquini, Gianni Morbidelli, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Johnny Herbert, Julian Bailey and even Nigel Mansell – but it’s generally the local drivers that have made bigger names for themselves.
Whilst men like John Cleland, Matt Neal, Tim Harvey, Andy Rouse, Gerry Marshall, Rob Gravett, Win Percy or Colin Turkington may not be household names, to me and many like me they are known as Driving Gods and Tim Harvey. Only joking, Tim!
To do this preview I’m going to tell you the story of what I’ve seen following the BTCC for over twenty years. I remember my first BTCC race well, way back in 1992. That was the year that the aforementioned Tim Harvey took his only championship, beating John Cleland in an awesome final round at Silverstone. I watched the regular season on TV, aged 14, just as I had done for a few years by then – since about 1988 I think. It was shown on the BBC, with commentary by Murray Walker. That last race was particularly memorable – Harvey (BMW) and Cleland (Vauxhall) had gone into the final round separated by just a single point. I was captivated watching on TV – this was the days before the internet, I didn’t read any of the motorsport press at the time and Ceefax barely covered the BTCC so I hadn’t a clue who was going to win.
During the race, Harvey and Cleland ran together most of the time, behind the now late Will Hoy (left, with me in 1994). With two laps to go Harvey, ever the racer, made an attempt to get past Hoy, forcing both wide (Hoy onto the grass) and Cleland nipped up the inside of both of them – putting himself firmly in position for the championship. Harvey’s team-mate Steve Soper also got past so now it was Cleland – Soper – Harvey. Soper managed to pass Cleland, the fiery Scotsman Cleland showing his displeasure by making obscene hand gestures.
Cleland then tried to pass Soper back, but Harvey was close enough to make an attempt around the outside, which was blocked but he used his first pass as a dummy and sailed up the inside. Naturally, Soper then let Harvey through to give him a bit of a buffer. Cleland, now desperately in need of something big to happen to win the championship, dived inside Soper a few corners later – only for Soper to close the door, sending the Vauxhall onto two wheels. Cleland managed to get past – only for Soper to then dive back up the inside, cutting onto the grass and taking both out. It was as controversial as it got, and Cleland and Soper never got on again.
I loved it, and forced my Dad to take me to my first ever circuit race - as such, my entire motorsport watching passion is thanks to Tim Harvey. Eek. This first race was the 1992 TOCA Shootout at Donington, a non-championship BTCC race with incredibly complicated rules and completely artificial racing thanks to a safety car being deployed whenever the field spread out too much. I forget who it was won by, my biggest memory coming as a result another driver who’s no longer with us, Kieth O’Dor, flipping his car over the catch fencing right in front of where we were sitting. It was scary stuff, and certainly a great bit of excitement for a 14 year old. I was hooked.
In 1993 we only managed to make one meeting, the TOCA Shootout again. This time though, there were a few more people there thanks to one Nigel Mansell making a guest appearance. Frankly, it was hell. Mansell-mania was still sweeping the country, this was just after he added the IndyCar crown to his F1 title and I’d liken it to the feeling fans of lower-league football teams have should their team get to Wembley – the place was full of people there who didn’t care about the BTCC, confused by why Mansell’s car had a roof on it. It may have only been my second race, but I already felt a little bit of superiority over these beer-swillers since we’d been the year before.
Racing at this time was Tiff Needell, who at one time was a household name as a presenter on the original version of Top Gear and later Fifth Gear. Running just behind Mansell in the race, Mansell lost the car coming out of the Old Hairpin fishtailing side-to-side before clipping the front end of Tiff’s Vauxhall and spearing off into a bridge. The spectators collectively gasped as blankets were set up around Mansell’s car – even in those days, before the Senna/Ratzenberger F1 tragedies of a year later we thought something tragic had happened. In the end he was just shook up a bit, and we faced a mammoth 3 hour journey home. Not good considering we’re only twenty minutes away.
1994 was when I was 16 and my Dad and I started to go racing more regularly. We took in other championships like the DTM (Germany’s faster Touring car series) but the BTCC remained close to our hearts, taking in both rounds that took place at Donington that year, which is remembered for two cars – the awesome Alfa Romeo 155, which re-wrote the rulebook on aerodynamics, and the Volvo 850 estate… which also was something to do with aerodynamics, and bricks. I was completely an Alfa fan, loving their cheekiness of having special aerodynamic bits in the boot of the car when it was being “homologated” (the design was registered inside and out with the organisers so that it wouldn’t be changed during the year and you could only use what was on or in the car itself), and with ex-F1 driver Gabriele Tarquini being a driver from the seminal Microprose F1GP game I loved their dominance. In fact, in that picture of me at the top of the page with Will Hoy you can see my Alfa cap – signed by Tarquini, his team-mate Giampiero Simoni and, um, Tim Harvey. Oh and Jackie Stewart. I wish I knew where it was now.
My Alfa devotion didn’t last long though. Since by now my Dad was driving a Vauxhall, I was supporting them in 1995. The Cavalier that year was an awesome car, and I recorded every race off the television – and still have that tape put away to this day. We managed to attend both Donington rounds too (and the DTM again). Another big story for me that year was Kelvin Burt driving for Ford – I knew him to say hello to, thanks to him helping out at a local kart track I spent too much time at, and some work he did at Donington of which I was a member of the supporters club by then.
Vauxhall had decided to scrap the Cavalier for 1996, and introduced the Vectra which was a bit of a dog – especially when up against the four wheel drive Audi A4 of the German Frank Biela that dominated the championship that season. To be honest, it wasn’t that memorable a season, what I remember most was hearing of Kieth O’dor’s death in Germany, which was unbelievable. But I was there for the Donington rounds as usual, still loving it.
1997 though was very different. It was the first season that I had my own car (a red Ford Fiesta) and finally had the independence to go and see what I wanted. I didn’t go to any circuit other than Donington, but now I was there for both days, I went to pre-season tests – the works (even going to most other events at Donington, including the Bike Grand Prix which was amazing). It was the year that Jason Plato made his debut, I remember him taking pole in the qualifying session for the first race whilst I was sat on the roof of my car down by the Spitfire on the circuit.
By the following year I’d got a proper job and the motorsport bug really hit – with of course the BTCC at the centre. I’d now got enough money to get a reasonable car, and it was no coincidence that I bought myself a Vauxhall Cavalier – white, just like the cars that won the title in 1995. I loved that car, a four-door saloon that was far too big for a young driver like me. Having that car I of course joined the Vauxhall fan club to show my support. I actually won a competition early that year to spend a day in the pits with the team at a test, but my nasty old boss wouldn’t let me go, so the Vauxhall team graciously allowed me to have some tickets in hospitality at the Donington rounds – I’d done some hospitality at some club events the season before but this was another level, which I’d love to do again (but probably won’t!)
This was the season I really followed the BTCC around. I made it to Silverstone twice, Donington both times as usual (including a great performance in the wet from a returning Nigel Mansell) and took my longest journey at that point to Thruxton for a couple of mid-season races, even parking next to reigning champion Alain Menu on race day, who was happy to stop for a chat.
In 1999 I again did the Donington and Silverstone rounds, but it was apparent that at this point the cars were starting to get just a bit too fast and the series too professional. Nissan dominated the year, Frenchman Laurent Aiello and the late David Leslie taking a one-two in the standings. This was also the first season without Tim Harvey, who I’d labelled a bit of a crasher at this point – whichever race I went to, he seemed to crash off at the first corner.
2000 was a watershed year for the championship. Although I’d started my love affair with Shrewsbury Town by this point, I was still committed to the BTCC and managed to get to the Donington and Silverstone rounds again. Grids were down at this point, the series had just become too expensive – resulting in a “Class B” being added. The organisers tried to innovate though, and the last round at Silverstone was held as a night race. This was the only race event my brother ever came with me too, and whilst I loved it he didn’t get bitten by the bug!
The following year it was all change, as new regulations meant much lower costs and smaller cars. Vauxhall now ran the Astra, and it destroyed the field in a manner not seen since the late 80s when the Ford RS2000s were running. To be honest, I didn’t really like the new cars – Super Touring, as the previous regulations were called, were in their heyday a much more exciting prospect. I still managed to get to the Donington rounds, but that was all that year – I’d discovered women.
2002 only saw me do one round at Donington, and it was another season of dominance for the Astra. It was a year that I started to have loads of personal problems, and by the end of the year I was unemployed and on the verge of bankruptcy so touring cars were the last thing on my mind. I still watched on TV, but I honestly remember nothing about it, or the next few years.
It wasn’t until the end of 2004 that I managed to see a race again, and even then that was a special one-off. They’d announced there’d be a “BTCC Masters” race after the last round at Donington, with loads of older drivers returning and my Dad made sure we went. It was really enjoyable and I wish they’d done it again.
But that was it for a few more years – life got in the way. I had very little money and by this time was in a committed relationship so I didn’t go at all. Then last year my Dad had a crazy idea to go and see the DTM once more, now at Brands Hatch. In the months leading up to it, I wasn’t bitten by the bug again but I was certainly intrigued enough to see what it was like now - and when my Dad won tickets to the “A Question of Motorsport” Honda event before the BTCC at Silverstone we just had to go. It was a fantastic evening in the company of ex-F1 driver Johnny Herbert and – of course – Tim Harvey. At the end of it there was a raffle, including multiple pairs of tickets to the races at Silverstone the next day.
Little did I know that this would be such a turning point. I really fancied going to the race, and put all my hopes on winning. When we didn’t, I was despondent. I’d noticed though that the gentleman two rows in front of us’s son had been given tickets by Tim Harvey just for being a kid, but they were already going the next day so offered them to the people behind them, who declined since they were already going too. As soon as the raffle finished, I was straight up to the bloke and asked him if I could buy the tickets off him. He refused, and gave me them for free – a fantastic bit of generosity. I was overjoyed, deep down I knew that the old fire for watching motorsport was back and made plans with my Dad for the next day. When we got back to the car another chap came up to us, and asked me if I wanted his tickets he’d won in the raffle since he was already going. If I was religious I’d say it was God’s way of making sure I put my life back to where it was. But I’m not, so what a fantastic coincidence.
The next day at Silverstone was amazing. We just slipped back into it so quickly – walking round the circuit, trawling through the pits… just like we used to. The racing was great and it was as if we’d never been away. In the years I’d stopped doing everything I used to do I’d been to Shrewsbury matches probably a dozen or more times (not that I admitted to that on Blue and Amber – they like to see me as someone who never goes, and that suited the TMLS character), but it didn’t feel as right as this. I’m a motorsport fan first and foremost, not a football fan. As we sat on the grandstand, watching the Belgian Grand Prix on TVCatchup on my iPhone, we looked forward to the DTM at Brands Hatch that was the following week. We were doing an epic three days there, and I knew then that it wouldn’t be the last race I went to. And when we were at the DTM, we decided it definitely wasn’t.
We were back at Brands within a month for the BTCC finale. We’d missed a round at Rockingham in the middle due to being elsewhere, and due to fatigue from a stupidly early drive (we weren’t staying over) we stopped at the car all day on the hill facing the paddock. The atmosphere was amazing, and equal to ten Shrewsbury matches (not sure if that says something about the Shrewsbury support – probably does if we’re talking about the new ground). It just felt so natural to be there, and we were treated to some great racing and my pick for the title, Colin Turkington, prevailing.
Over the winter I started to make plans for a 2010 of motorsport. For a few months I planned to go to every round, something I’d never done. When I finally sat down and worked out that meant 2500 miles of driving I soon changed my mind, but we’ve worked out a plan to do about half the season. This year we’re going to Thruxton this weekend for the opening round – staying over on Saturday night so that we can go to qualifying earlier that day (and meaning a very mad rush back to the hotel to catch the new Dr Who series). It feels great to be back, now let’s hope for an awesome season!
The first thing that catches your eye looking at the entry list is the lack of a car number 1, as Turkington isn’t defending his championship thanks to lack of sponsorship – hopefully he’ll be out later in the year though. As such, the man to beat this year once again will be Jason Plato. He’s racing a Ray Mallock Chevrolet under the Silverline name once again, but this time it’s the Cruze rather than the “reasonably priced” Lacetti. The Cruze has been a great car in the World Touring Car Championship, and has looked quick in testing. Certainly one to beat. Team-mate Alex MacDowell is new to the series, but was runner-up in the Clios last year so shouldn’t be too far off the pace.
The team most likely to challenge Plato are “Honda Racing Team”, who really are Team Dynamics, but now under a works banner. Matt Neal returns to drive for his father’s squad, and should be up there from the start - he's always done well in the team, thriving in the family atmosphere. His biggest problem has always been his tendency to be a bit over-aggressive, but he knows how to win a championship so can never be discounted. Alongside him is the fast but under-funded Gordon Shedden, finally back in a full-time drive after a stop-start year in the previous season driving for the Cartridge World team. "Flash" Could be a dark horse for the championship, and race wins should be a certainty.
The third of what are probably six front-running teams this year are Airwaves BMW. Mat Jackson’s heading the squad, and surely must be up at the front after proving himself a fan favourite last year in the Chevrolet. Jackson’s performances in the BMW in 2008 were fantastic, and he’ll be front-runner for sure. Alongside him is Steven Kane, the former BRDC Autosport Young Driver of the Year. Kane put some in some good showings as Jackson’s team-mate in 2008, and the renewal of the partnership should see him build on that. Might take the odd race win, but he’s got a learning curve having been out of the series last year.
Also in BMWs are the pair driving for West Surrey Racing, who last year competed as Team RAC – taking Turkington to the title. Rob Collard moves over from the Airwaves team, and proved himself to be a front-runner last year and could be a true contender this time around. West Surrey's pedigree cannot be argued against - they were the team that took Ayrton Senna to the British Formula 3 title nearly thirty years ago. Collard could well be worth a punt. Alongside him is Andy Neate who's making a long awaited debut. Neate was meant to drive for the team last year, but a massive accident in the 2008 BRITCAR 24 hours at Silverstone (the one which BBC Top Gear entered) left him with a broken neck and he had to spend a year out. He showed a lot of promise before the injury.
Next up, Triple Eight Race Engineering - the former works Team VXR Vauxhall team have been up at the front for years, but without the Vauxhall backing this year they could drop a little pace. Add in to that an inexperienced lead driver in Phil Glew apparently leading the team and they might not be quite at the top of the timesheets straight away. But the team are sound and shouldn’t be too far off come the end of the season. Formula Renault champion Dean Smith has tested with an eye on the second seat, but with so much single-seater promise it might not be the right thing for him to do at this stage of his career. Could the seat be begging for Turkington?
The last of the expected front-runners, Team AON, were without doubt the most improved team over the season last year, and with Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole returning to drive the Ford Focuses they should be able to finish where they left off. Chilton could be a decent shout for a winner on the long straights of Thruxton, the power advantage the Focus enjoys was evident down the long straights at Brands Hatch last year. Onslow-Cole has been one of the BTCC nearly men of the last couple of years, and has the pace – he just needs to now take this opportunity to underline it.
Just outside what I’d expect to be the “big six” are the Techspeed drivers, once again backed by sunshine.co.uk, John George and crowd favourite Paul O’Neil. George tooled around at the back for most of 2009, and the years before it, and has the reputation of being a bit of a gentleman driver – being in charge of a successful mobile phone company called JAG Communication certainly lends weight to that theory. But the Techspeed cars weren’t far off the pace last year, so he’s got a good opportunity in front of him. O’Neil, winner of the BTCC.net Fans’ Trophy last year, is best known outside of racing as being the former Sporty Spice’s half-brother – and she’s turned up occasionally to support him. We saw quite a few times last season though that he’s a decent racer, undoubtedly his best performance coming at Snetterton when he took a fantastic third place. He’s also one of the nicest racing drivers you could meet.
As usual, there are a number of Independents who’ll make up the rest of the field, able to benefit should the reverse grid be favourable in the third race. Newcomers Forster Motorsport have proven to be a popular team during the pre-season, having an interesting Twitter account and keeping potential fans updated. Another of the crowd favourites, Dave Pinkney, returns in his own team once again after driving for Team Dynamics last year. Tom Boardman rejoins the grid in a SEAT Léon for Special Tuning UK after driving in the WTCC, and Martin Johnson is back in an Astra coupe again. Lea Wood steps up from the Welsh Sports and Saloon Car Championship in a Honda Integra for Central Group racing; Matt Hamilton’s back in a Honda Civic for TH Motorsport.
The other two cars are probably the more exciting of the non-front running independents. Andrew Jordan’s back racing for his father’s new team Pirtek Racing in a Vauxhall Vectra after a season in the works model. Jordan proved himself to be fast, and his Dad knows how to prepare a winning car. They won’t be up at the front too often, but could well spring a surprise or two. Finally, the last entrant is Shaun Hollamby and the AmDMilltekRacing.com team – on paper that’s no more special than the other independents, but as the car’s a Volkswagen Golf that hasn’t been seen in the series before it could prove very popular. The pictures of the car from the pre-season show it to have been immaculately prepared and even if it’s not on the pace it should be good to look at.
As for the circuit… Thruxton is hailed as “The Fastest Circuit in Britain” and there’s no doubt about that. Since my Grand Prix track previews based on my computer gaming knowledge have proven popular, here’s a look at it in detail:
Heading over the start-finish line, the first corner is a sweeping right hander that often causes opening lap collisions as the exit isn’t open enough for cars being two or three wide. There’s then a flat-out left-handed kink, which doesn’t see too much drama as that’s already happened.
The third corner is the first part of the chicane famous for plenty of panel-bashing over the years. The first part is a ninety-degree right, but there’s no time to think as you’re straight into the almost ninety-degree left afterwards. Then it’s a right kink that the cars can take flat if they’ve got the right line accelerating all the way. If you’re on your own, it’s an important part of the circuit as a good exit sets you up for the best speeds for the straights that make up most of the rest of the circuit.
The first straight isn’t overly long, but it feeds into a fast left hand-right hand combination that you might need to drop a gear for – depending on what sort of grip your car’s got. The right hand part of it is constantly turning, if you have lifted for the first part it’s taken flat out under acceleration. The interesting part of the circuit here is that no spectators are allowed around this section – it’s just too fast and dangerous, there have been some absolutely massive crashes over the years. Once you’re finally through the right hander, there’s a short straight and another right kink – into the fastest part of the circuit.
One of the things you notice from the track map is that the straights really aren’t all that straight – but they’re smooth long turns, that are as good as a straight. At the end of this main straight though is the difficult and very slow chicane – made all the more awkward by the straight having a tighter right hander at the end of it right in the braking zone for the chicane. This is where the main spectator grandstands are, and where we’ll be on Sunday. Plenty of overtaking here, and plenty of mistakes too. After the chicane, it’s back onto the curving pit-straight and round you go again.
Well that’s it – if you’ve managed to read all that, thanks a lot! Here’s to a good weekend of racing. Don't forget you can watch the all the racing live on ITV4 - this Sunday from 11am. Commentators are Ben Edwards... and of course Tim Harvey.
Until next time…
All photos are (C) Daniel Francis 2010. None may be reproduced or used in any way without permission.
Thruxton diagram and corners reproduced/amended under the Creative Commons 3.0 licence. Original file created by Will Pittenger.