Today’s BTCC is great – but so was Super Touring…

Super Touring and NGTC – same makes, very different eras. Photos: Andrew Charman and BTCC

 

The British Touring Car Championship has been celebrating this season, looking back on 60 years of action and as I write these words I’m recalling the excellent Diamond Double anniversary race at Snetterton just a week or so ago. This was won so appropriately by Matt Neal, the only one of today’s BTCC drivers who competed throughout the period any look back inevitably focuses on – 1990 to 2000, the Super Touring era.

This is one era I feel qualified to comment on, because like a declining number of the personnel in today’s BTCC I was there, from start to finish. I feel it particularly in the media centre, because there I am in a club of one – today I am very much the ‘Old Fahrt’, amongst a press pack many of whom were not born when the Super Touring era began.

One other person who was very much there, of course, is the BTCC series director, Alan Gow. He is the man credited with creating Super Touring, and the global success story that it mushroomed into. So my attention was taken by a recent video interview in which Mr Gow effectively poured cold water on Super Touring, suggesting that the racing was not as memorable as we might think. Such comments had me searching in my desk drawer, finding my rose-tinted glasses…

To start with, I fully understand why Alan Gow makes such comments. He’s always been a man to look firmly forward rather than back, and it’s in his interest to big up the BTCC in its current form as much as possible.

In some, many, ways he’s right – never mind the controversies and moans we get at every meeting, that’s a sign of a successful championship, and the BTCC is a very successful championship. Yes costs are a concern, but Gow knows that, and he’s not going to do anything that runs the risk of damaging what is a very good product – you can see that in the fact that the BTCC provides many a British circuit with its biggest crowds of the season, and that the drivers are supported and slated in equal measure with an almost tribal mentality on social media (something we didn’t have in the 1990s).

Gimmicks? what gimmicks…

I find it hard to agree, however, with Gow’s comment that in the Super Touring years “the racing wasn’t great and eventually we had to introduce gimmicks to improve it…” The fact is, at the height of the Super Touring era we had good races, and poor races, and we still get that today.

Even now not every BTCC race is a classic, though they are generally more frenetic, yes, because the races are shorter – three sprints compared to one and later two races of significantly longer distance in Super Touring days – Knockhill 1994, two races of 32 laps each, Knockhill 2017 three of 24 laps each.

The grids are bigger too, so have a bad qualifying session, or previous result, today and you have to make your way through from the back pretty forcefully to get anything worthwhile out of your day. That inevitably means more aggression and more panel bashing, all caught by TV technology that has moved on a long way over the last couple of decades.

Today’s BTCC admirably fulfils the brief of entertainment overload in short, sharp segments – it is a child of its time.

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Today’s short races and big grids leads to frenetic action. Photo: BTCC/Ebrey

Gimmicks in Super Touring? They consisted of such things as having races of different lengths, introducing pit stops with tyre changes – so the same for everyone. Not until the very last year of the Super Touring era did race success mean being penalised by having lumps of lead ballast added to your car for the next one.

In Super Touring days you did not by winning a race run the risk of starting the next one several rows back courtesy of a numbered ball pulled out of a jar. And there was certainly never any thought of an extra hybrid-generated ‘push-to-pass’ power boost, something we are told is coming to the BTCC in 2022…

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We did, however, have plenty of action in the Super Touring era – here Toyota and Volvo clash at Snetterton in 1994. Photo: Andrew Charman

So clearly I have happy memories of the Super Touring years, and so no doubt I would prefer those times to what we have today? Not necessarily… To be honest, I don’t think the two eras can be directly compared, because they were so very different.

Today’s BTCC is a phenomenally successful championship, as I’ve already stated. But it is also by far the top national series in the UK, and certainly halfway into the Super Touring era I’m not so sure it could be described in the same way.

I consider myself very lucky to have been centrally involved in the series in those times, and looking back I contend that by the mid 1990s what we had was effectively an international championship that just happened to hold all of its meetings in one country.

The drivers, for example – right through the grid the cars were driven by pilots at the very top of their game, with previous experience of international sports cars, single seaters, even Formula One. In many cases they were earning the kind of money for running at Thruxton, Croft and Knockhill in one season that they previously had for a competitive year that included the likes of Spa, Monza and Le Mans.

Today the official in charge of playing the national anthem for the winning driver has it easy – “God save the Queen? – Check..” In 1994 they needed eight different anthems on hand, in 1997, nine…

The same was true of the teams that ran the cars – they were generally official manufacturer motorsport departments or international teams that would run their BTCC effort alongside their Le Mans and in some cases their F1 programmes.

The money flowed with seemingly little to stop it, and being amongst it was memorable way beyond the racing. Even on qualifying day the paddocks were jammed with fans savouring a taste of something that felt globally significant. This was a feeling shared by the core journalist pack, and not just because raceday Audi lunches in particular were legendary…

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The crowds were big in Super Touring days too, even in the paddocks on qualifying day. Photo: Andrew Charman

The fact is, the vast majority of the drivers, and the teams, that occupy today’s BTCC and feature at the top of the results would have been a mere sideshow in the Super Touring years. They would have been fighting out the privateers cup at the back of the grid, denied any greater success by resources – in terms of budget and the elite personnel both behind the wheel and in the workshop that such money buys.

No going back

Of course it was this rampant spending that almost killed the BTCC, and did kill the Super Touring formula. And that is why, despite looking back with those rose-tinted specs firmly on, I would not advocate a return to anything like the Super Touring era.

You see what Alan Gow and his team at TOCA have achieved with the BTCC in recent years is sustainability. There is very little chance of the championship ever returning to a ‘boom and bust’ era such as was Super Touring. The BTCC is in a far stronger position to react to the challenges that the changing face of motor sport and particularly today’s financial environment brings.

Today teams that in Super Touring days could only have run at the back as privateers can now compete with and beat the few surviving works squads that were there, such as West Surrey Racing and Dynamics (a team that in the Super Touring era was a privateer). This clearly demonstrates how radically the demographic of the BTCC has changed.

So yes, today’s BTCC is great. But don’t try to convince us that the Super Touring era was not. All involved with that short period should recall it with pride, particularly those such as Alan Gow who were responsible for creating it. That we still talk about it so reverently, two decades on, shows just how special it was…

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Peugeot works team at Knockhill in 1995. Peugeot was one of the first to be defeated by the costs of Super Touring, the kind of concept the BTCC could not go back to. Photo: Andrew Charman

 

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Ocean’s Obsession…

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Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The ShortAxle Blog returns! It’s been far too long and I intend to do something about it as I need somewhere to express my personal stuff in the way I can’t do in my various freelance activities. Expect more regular posts in future and a new look to the blog will be coming soon too. But at the start a warning – this first entry is a bit of an epic…

Quite a time to return after a weekend of pure sporting overload for this horsepower-biased writer. On Sunday I really needed one of those multi-monitor director’s consoles, trying to keep pace with the British Touring Cars from Croft (forced to miss being there this year due to other commitments), FIA WTCR from the Villa Real street track (with the inevitable mother and father of a shunt), NASCAR from the Sonoma road course, IndyCar at Road America, plus a World Cup football match in which England did rather better than anyone could have hoped…

My greatest attention yesterday, however, focused on a nine-month long race, involving just seven competing teams, with no horsepower and top speeds of around 30mph. You see, The Hague was the venue for a nail-biting conclusion to the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race.

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An exclusive race, but also an intense one, only for a special breed of sailor… Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The what? Yes, three weeks ago that would have been my reaction. I’m no sailor – I can’t even swim – and previously I have had no interest in the sport. Many years ago I watched an interesting documentary on the America’s Cup, followed it for a while but then lost interest, and on a couple of previous car launches I have had a ride on a catamaran in the Mediterranean and crewed with round-the-world sailing star Ellen MacArthur in the Solent. But the sport hadn’t exactly floated my boat…

And then the Volvo Ocean Race scheduled the stopover between legs 9 and 10 of an 11-leg schedule in Cardiff, and Volvo invited a few journalists down to see what it was about. There was some test-driving of the Ocean Race limited edition of the V90 Cross Country involved, and a chance for Volvo to promote its ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’ campaign fighting against plastic in the oceans, which thankfully the world now appears to be taking seriously. But basically, this was a Jolly – rare these days, at least in my bit of the motoring journalism world. So I gladly accepted.

By the time I arrived at the dockside in Cardiff, however, I was slightly perturbed. The original invite had included ‘Transfer to M32 Catamaran for a short sail’ which sounded okay. Yet the final instructions told us to ensure we arrived with soft-soled, preferably white, footwear, sun cream and the like because while no sailing experience was required we would be ‘part of the crew in a competitive race’ that ‘may not always be an easy ride’…

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Dongfeng at speed in the final leg. Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

So what is the Volvo Ocean Race? It is basically what was once the Whitbread Round the World Race, and does what it says on the tin – the latest version started in Alicante last October, headed to Cape Town in South Africa, then across the Southern Ocean where the waves can reach 150ft high, to Melbourne in Australia. From there the route went up to Hong Kong and China, back down to Auckland in New Zealand, more Southern Ocean to Ilatjai in Brazil, up to Newport, USA, across the Atlantic to Cardiff, around the top of the UK to Gothenburg and finally a sprint to The Hague.

The sheer expense of such an undertaking ensured just seven crews would attempt the race, all in identical Volvo 65 monohull boats (i.e not the high-tech catamarans that are increasingly the norm these days). These boats really were identical, this a sailing version of a one-make series with dire consequences we were told even if you cut a rope shorter without permission…

The crews featured the great and the good of the sailing world – former Ocean Race competitors, Olympians and America’s Cup stalwarts, three of them seeking, ultimately unsuccessfully to claim sailing’s ‘Triple Crown’ by adding success in this race to America’s Cup victory and Olympic Gold. Interestingly how many crew were on each boat depended on their gender, the emphasis on encouraging as many women as possible to join the men on board. All-male crews could number no more than seven, an equally mixed crew 10, all women 11. And at least two crew members must be aged under 30.

At Cardiff we were first shown around Volvo’s ‘own’ boat, Turn the Tide on Plastic, hosted by navigator Brian Thompson – his CV includes being the first British sailor to break the round-the-world record twice, and becoming the first to sail non-stop around the world four times. We were also given an insight to what it is really like to be an Ocean Race competitor by Annie Lush, a London 2012 Olympian who had started this year’s race with Team Brunel.

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Turn the Tide on Plastic navigator Brian Thompson at his station deep in the not very deep bowels of the boat. Photo: Andrew C

First impression – these boats are tiny! As the name suggests they are 65 feet long at the point where they sit on the water, and this means pretty cramped conditions. This was especially true below where Brian’s navigator station and two laptops were squeezed between tiny bunks for off-duty sleeping, with just the carbon-fibre hull between you and the slapping waves. Not that there was much sleeping, according to Annie. “You are supposed to have four hours on deck and four off, but it doesn’t really work like that,”  she told us.

“In your four hours off you are doing other jobs, just not required on deck. In a good 24 hours you will maybe get three lots of two hours’ sleep. When it’s bad maybe two hours total if you are lucky, and that can happen for several days in a row.”

Sleep deprivation is the worst of what are extreme conditions, wet, hot, cold, and Annie added that there is generally a lot of illness on board. No surprise really as bunks and sleeping bags are shared, exhausted crew climbing into them in their wet clothes – just one change of clothes is allowed on board.

Leg 3, Cape Town to Melbourne, day 01, start on board Brunel. Photo by Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race. 10 December, 2017.

Annie Lush in action on the Team Brunel boat in December 2017, before she was injured. Photo: Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race

As for food, no weight-adding tins are allowed so it’s all freeze-dried Pot Noodle-type rations, which Annie reckoned tasted like chicken curry no matter what it said on the packet. Proper washing is out, of course, and as for the toilet facilities – you really don’t want to know…

“At the end of nine months you can barely walk but you are still trying to race each other,” Annie added. “The team become your family, you know more about them than you ever want to…”

Annie is indicative of what drives the sailors in this race. Yes, she started in the Team Brunel boat, but by the time the fleet reached Cardiff she was reduced to an on-shore role, having been hit by a freak wave in the Southern Ocean, breaking two bones in her foot and one in her back. As they were in the middle of nowhere she had to spend five more days on the boat – the first two she was down below dosed up on painkillers, the rest she was back on deck, trying to carry on her duties and convince everyone she had only sprained her back. “The doctors when we reached Melbourne were not impressed,” she smiled…

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Took me a while to twig why this notice was mounted upside-down… Photo: Andrew C

“In the Southern Ocean the closest person to you is in space – if say you don’t sort out a capsize, no-one is coming to get you,” she added, and as if to prove that point then played us a video, showing just what conditions were like down there. Most remarkable in this viewer’s opinion are the waves that can routinely crash over the boat when conditions are at their most competitive, all the crew on deck getting routinely soaked by walls of water every 15 seconds or so…

At the end of the film, a short note dedicated it to John Fisher, Annie quietly explaining that he had been caught by a wave that knocked him off the Scallywag team boat, in an area of the Southern Ocean where even with full protective gear you would only survive 10 minutes. Sadly a full search failed to find him.

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You can’t have any qualms about getting wet when taking part in this race… Photo by Martin Keruzore/Volvo Ocean Race.

So why do it? Annie was clear in her reasons; “It’s a sporting event but a lot more, adventuring and racing at the same time, it’s epic…”

Remarkably after that, I found myself not more nervous about going out on a boat, but surprisingly enthused – while absolutely convinced that even if I was a lot fitter (and could swim) crewing in the race itself is something I could never do.

Our Pro-Am challenge would not involve catamarans but the actual Ocean 65s contesting the main event, and would see the seven boats compete against each other in two 40-minute races in Cardiff Bay. Each would be manned by six of the regular crew plus 10 guests, who would fill the missing crew roles – yes, we were expected to work.

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The jostling at the start is manic… Photo: Pedro Freitas/Volvo Ocean Race

Our journalist party was split up and colleague Robin Roberts and I found ourselves assigned to the Chinese boat of Dongfeng Racing, which just happened to be leading the race as they reached Cardiff. Our fellow guests included a father and daughter team of knowledgeable sailors and several from the boat’s home country, while in charge for the day was not skipper Charles Caudrelier but watch captain Daryl Wislang, a character of a New Zealander and a veteran of four Volvo Ocean races.

It’s difficult to sum up my impression of the race except that it was the most epic experience I have had in a long while – from the manic jostling of the boats before the start, missing each other by inches as they tacked around trying to be as close as possible, but not over, the line when the starter pressed go, through the speed we zipped along the water at what appeared a crazy leant-over angle (until I saw the angles they reach in the real race), to the amazing way in which the boats turned on a dime round the markers at each end of the course.

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How far over? The horizon is level… Photo: Andrew C

It was truly exhilarating as we fought our way to third at the finish of our race, and was followed by an equally fascinating close-up view of the action from a rib (a high-speed powered inflatable). We were transferred to this at sea, and then zipped in and out of the boats watching the other half of our guest party help take Dongfeng to victory in the second race.

Yes it was a superb day out but as my family will testify it also had a lasting effect – in the three weeks since they have got somewhat bored of my constant mentions of the Ocean Race, my religious following of the live tracker on the website as the final stages of the race played out. One thing this event does extremely well is its media, each boat having an onboard photographer alongside the crew and employing drones and helicopters to provide endless photos, videos, live reports, TV shows – keeping in touch has been very easy. Have a look here to see what I mean.

After Cardiff, of course, Dongfeng was very much ‘my’ boat. And going into the final short, 700-mile leg between Gothenburg and The Hague it was in a remarkable three-way tie at the head of the points with rivals MAPFRE and Team Brunel – it would be winner-takes-all at the finish.

And in the end a tactical decision at the end of the penultimate day, which saw Dongfeng choose to take a path close to the shore of Holland while its rivals searched for stronger winds further out to sea, saw my boat come home first to a rapturous reception – just 17 minutes in front of MAPFRE, after nine months and 45,000 nautical miles of racing…

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Final sprint to the final line – and success for Dongfeng. Photo: Jen Edney/Volvo Ocean Race

Leg 11 from Gothenburg to The Hague. Finish at The Hague. 24 June, 2018.

Reward for nine months of effort… Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

So if you’ve reached here, well done for sticking with me! My name is Andrew Charman and yes I am now a passionate fan of the Volvo Ocean Race. My only regret is that I got into this nine-month long event three weeks before it finished, with three years to wait before the next one…

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Not my comfort zone but you know what? I didn’t care… Photo: Pedro Freitas/Volvo Ocean Race