A new era that could draw me back to Touring Cars…

Two decades ago, it would be about this time that my year really started.

You see in March we have the British Touring Car Championship media day, when the entry for the coming season is announced in front of us hacks. Back in 1994, I was starting my third full year intimately involved in the series, at a time when the BTCC was moving into what has since been regarded as a golden era. The Super Touring formula had firmly established itself, and over the next couple of years would explode in popularity, stretching from the UK right around the globe.

1403BTCC01Indeed it was in 1994 that I came up with the concept of a magazine specialising in the sport, taking as my inspiration the superb French-based publication Grand Prix International that covered Formula One racing in the early 1980s. I spent much of that year persuading first my publisher and then BTCC organiser TOCA that a magazine was a good idea, and the first issue of Super Touring Magazine appeared at the start of the 1995 season.  I admit modestly that it was very well received, and the sad fact that it lasted only until early in the 1996 season had very little to do with the magazine but a lot more to do with internal politics at its now long-gone publishing company…

Your scribe would continue to cover the BTCC extensively until the end of the Super Touring era – I never missed a single round between 1993 and 2000, but it was the mid-1990s period when the series was really at its best. There were loads of manufacturers, loads of drivers of top international status, excellent action in the races and enormous crowds – in those days it could be a crush to move through the paddock even on qualifying day.

1403BTCC02Of course there were plenty of media too, but very special for me was being one of the only half dozen or so that were regarded as the core BTCC press – sporting our TOCA hard cards we could walk into virtually any pit at any time, no-one refused to talk to us from team principals down, while lunch was usually in one of said teams’ awnings. The Audi lunches were particularly memorable, among other things introducing this reporter to the pleasures of German Weiss beer, while thanks to Super Touring Magazine I was on first-name terms with Touring Car teams from America to Australia – they were truly remarkable times which I remember very fondly.

After I stopped working in the BTCC at the end of the 2000 season, I still produced a couple of features a year for various outlets, but as many know my main focus switched to my other motorsport passion, NASCAR. In truth I didn’t like what Touring Cars had become – back in the late 1980s the first series I ever specialised in, Thundersaloons (initially starring a then rapidly progressing young Scot called Cleland) had instilled in me a view that proper ‘tin tops’ were big saloon-type cars, and when the BTCC’s new BTC Touring formula started allowing in coupe-type machines such as Honda’s Integra and the Vauxhall Astra Coupe, followed by what were basically hot hatches, my interest waned rapidly.

The came Super 2000, following the lead taken by the FIA’s World Touring Cars. A BMW invite to Pau in 2007 had convinced me that these were indeed proper Touring Cars, so the BTCC adopting them was a good thing. My work started to see me attending the odd BTCC round again, and yes, the pre-season media day. And at these days I found myself beginning to get that buzz again, that feeling that perhaps I’d like to get back involved, until such thoughts were quickly wiped out by remembering just how much I enjoy my weekends these days.

1403BTCC04I’ve been this week to the 2014 BTCC Media Day, at Donington, and this time it’s different – I could tell that the moment I arrived at the circuit. Quite simply the BTCC is booming, and I now believe on the verge of another truly golden era.

Super 2000 has gone – costs started to spiral out of control, as any race series that is ruled by a combination of manufacturers and the FIA tends to do. Even those that don’t get on with the BTCC’s head honcho Alan Gow will agree that the man knows how to run a championship, and a few years ago he had the foresight to initiate the creation of ‘Next Generation Touring Car’ (NGTC) regulations, slashing costs in the process. And the result? This year’s series, the first to be run exclusively for the NGTC machines, will boast a record 31 entries – all of them committed to running the full season.

There’s much more than that. That entry consists of 14, yes 14, different types of car, from 11 different manufacturers. Yet there are only two so-called ‘works’ teams, Dynamics Honda and MG, and while they will no doubt win races, they will also be beaten during the year by teams across the grid, because the NGTC rules have leveled the playing field. Even if more true manufacturers were to come in and want to spend lots of money, it wouldn’t make them any more competitive because the rules don’t allow it.

Some will argue that the NGTC is not a proper Touring Car because basically you have individual body shells clothing what are the same parts for all. I don’t buy this – sounds a bit like NASCAR, which produces the best racing anywhere. And crucially, when the BTCC rule makers wrote the NGTC play book they took the opportunity to add a few vital inches to the minimum length regulations. So the cars in the pits almost all look like proper Touring Cars.

I say almost, because I struggle to see BMW’s smallest model line as a Touring Car, but I’m soon comforted by viewing the Audi A4, Volkswagen CC, Chevrolet Cruze in both saloon and hatch varieties, Honda’s quirky Civic Tourer (for Tourer read estate…). And all are prepared to very high standards – they look stunning, the best BTCC field in many a season.

1403BTCC05For the first time in some years, I was at the media day for a specific purpose, working on a feature for Race Tech magazine. And as I wandered the pitlane gathering what I needed the years fell away. Being welcomed into the pit of Adam Morgan to discuss his very impressive-looking Mercedes A-Class; five minutes of questions to BTCC Technical Director Peter Riches turning into a 25-minute conversation that provided me with the basis of a whole new feature; catching up with faces I used to deal with on a very regular basis – definitely topped by a chat with Alain Menu for the first time since that Pau WTCC round in 2007…

Being a UK-based NASCAR feature writer is often frustrating, because of necessity so much of the interviewing of crew chiefs, aerodynamicists and the like is conducted over Transatlantic Internet signals, the wonders of Skype. But here I was once again at the sharp end, in the middle of it all, and I very quickly felt back at home.

1403BTCC06I came away from one interview and ran into a wall of people. The pits had been opened to the fans who had been offered free entry from lunchtime to watch the testing. On a Tuesday in March when the weather offered regular drizzly showers and a cold wind, the numbers that turned up would not have shamed many a ‘proper’ race meeting.

Three days on the buzz is not subsiding – I’ve already checked the calendar and cursed the fact that there’s no way I can make the opening two meetings at Brands Hatch and Donington. Thruxton is a possibility however, and feature-pitching head duly screwed on – the BTCC is going to be huge this year, and I think I want back in…

Heading and grid photos courtesy Jakob Ebrey/BTCC

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Danica Patrick – give the girl a break

In the past couple of weeks the UK’s national press allowed itself a ripple of excitement over the news that the Williams F1 team has named Susie Wolff as effectively its fourth driver, and she will run in practice sessions at the British and German Grand Prix meetings.

“F1’s first female driver in 22 years” screamed the headlines. Never mind the fact that being fourth on the pecking order means that Susie’s chances of actually progressing from a couple of tests to a spot on the F1 grid are pretty slim – she’s a woman, and she’s in an F1 car, so that’s news right?

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Danica attracts the crowds wherever she goes… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Someone who is very used to this mass media attention purely due to her gender is Danica Patrick. Now many UK race fans probably won’t have heard of Danica, but in the US you don’t have to be a fan of any sport to know all about her, because she is everywhere.

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Strong performances at the wheel of 200mph-plus IndyCar single seaters.

Patrick competes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, America’s biggest race series. Before transferring to the big stock cars in 2012, she ran in the IndyCar Series – just about the fastest motorsport around, single seaters running at speeds up to 230mph on high-banked ovals, a series that includes the iconic Indianapolis 500. She came pretty close to winning the Indy 500 in 2009, eventually finishing third, and a year earlier had taken victory at Motegi in Japan to become the only female winner in the series.

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The big IndyCar win, at Motegi in Japan in 2008.

So Patrick was big news before she headed for NASCAR, but when she arrived there… In terms of profile, IndyCar is very much in the shadow of NASCAR, and when Patrick arrived, the sport was planted firmly on the front pages of every newspaper – she boosted the crowds at the tracks, many of which routinely attract attendances of more than 100,000 for what is basically a 36-race national series, and TV ratings climbed when viewers knew Patrick was on. It really was Danica mania, firmly based on the fact that this was a woman, racing the men, and yes she attracted many more female viewers to the sport.

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Danica is of course much in demand by the photographers… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Two things about Patrick – it’s fair to say that she knows how to market her actually not that unique status in the sport – there are other female NASCAR drivers, some running as high as in the second-division Nationwide Series, but it is Danica you will find starring in the swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated…

Secondly, just starting her third season, she is yet to really set the sport alight on the track. She didn’t charge to glory in her first season, or even her second, and that has simply stoked the views of the nay-sayers, and a growing backlash amongst some fans.

Part of my role involves me following the in-race Tweets of various members of the US media who cover the championship. There are 43 cars in the race but it’s when Patrick gets lapped by the leader that loads of media Tweet the fact. If Patrick has a crash, you scroll through the various Tweets yelling “DANICA IN THE WALL!”  – the sort of all-embracing coverage otherwise only reserved for title contenders.

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Danica’s early NASCAR career has been blighted by accidents, by no means always her fault… Photo courtesy NASCAR

The NASCAR season starts with the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. Last year Patrick went out and snatched pole position for the race. Oh how excited were the conspiracy theorists! This was of course a NASCAR put-up job… Nope, she is at her best on the superspeedways such as Daytona and on this day she got it right more than the rest did.

We see such views in the Charman household – number one son, himself a rookie motorsport journo, never fails to offer me the view that “she’s never won anything and she’s only there because she’s a woman.”

Well the facts speak differently. Don’t get me wrong, Patrick is not the best racing driver in the world, and she’s likely not champion material. But neither is she any worse than a lot of the drivers around her.

Patrick is into her second full-season in the top-level Sprint Cup, with no wins yet. Her highest place was a fourth in the Nationwide Series, in 2011, when she was combining her IndyCar racing with some toe-in-the-water NASCAR outings.

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Another wrong place to be, this time at Daytona. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But this is NASCAR, where stats simply don’t tell the full story. Martin Truex Jnr, for example, came to Sprint Cup in 2006, as a two-time Nationwide champion. He won a race in his second season, not his first, in 2007. He then had to wait until last summer to win a second – a 218-race winless streak. And he is considered one of the hotter Sprint Cup pilots.

Aric Almirola, running for Richard Petty Motorsport, has been in the Sprint Cup full-time a year longer than Patrick. He hasn’t won yet. David Ragan, a firm fixture in the Cup, won his first race in his NASCAR career at Daytona in 2011 – it was his 163rd start. And he’s only won one more since. Yet the microscope is not on these or the many others for which statistics can be made to tell any tale you want. And these are generally drivers that have been racing stock cars since they could walk, not the single seaters in which Patrick got her education.

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Team boss Tony Stewart can clearly see Patrick’s potential. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But these drivers will secure the odd top-ten finish on a regular basis, say the detractors – Danica hasn’t… Not yet, maybe. But look at her first full-time year in the Cup. Her Stewart-Haas team, the 2011 champions, for much of the season struggled, not helped by team-leader Tony Stewart taking himself out of the running by breaking his leg mid season in a Sprint Car race.

Thankfully, the drivers who race with Patrick are generally more switched on to her abilities than are some of the fans and certain sections of the media, not least Tony Stewart. He’s not known for hiding his opinions, and if he thought Patrick did not deserve to be in a seat with his team, he’d come out and say it. But she’s still there, I remind everyone starting only her second full season in NASCAR’s top formula.

So far, some might say, it doesn’t look good. Three races in, Patrick lies 33rd in points, with not a top-ten finish to her name. But neither have her team-mates Kurt Busch or Tony Stewart, both former champions. Fact is Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling, only new recruit Kevin Harvick seeming to be able to make the car work right now. Patrick did have two strong performances in the opening two races, however, only to get caught up in accidents.

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In 2014 Danica Patrick needs to be adding good race finishes to performances such as the pole award she earned at Daytona in 2013. Photo courtesy NASCAR

At Las Vegas last weekend, she out-qualified Busch and Stewart, found in the race that the car was terrible, worked on it to make it better, and while she finished 21st, it was five places ahead of Busch, 12 up on Stewart. With Harvick retiring, Danica was the best finisher for the entire Stewart-Haas team.

There’s no denying it, Patrick needs a better 2014 than 2013. This NASCAR follower thinks she will have a better one. But whatever happens throughout the rest of the 2014 season, it will be because Danica Patrick is a racing driver – not just a female racing driver…