Touring Cars at Donington, August 2020

Quietly racing back to the new normal

So four months later than I expected, on Saturday I walked through the gates of Donington Park, to start a British Touring Car Championship season and to release the big pause button that has been pressed on the automotive side of my career for what seems like ages. Life is getting back to normal – but is it? Is it really?

The opening meeting was bound to be nothing like we were used to, with Covid-19 restrictions everywhere, all conversations conducted through fabric with the inevitable lack of understanding, or even hearing, on all sides, and of course significant restrictions on the number of people who would be present.

Two days before the event, all that ramped up further when the UK Government decided that Donington owners MSV would not be permitted to let in even a limited number of spectators. Nope, the order was no-one in, and this BTCC weekend (plus at least the following couple) would take place behind closed doors.

Qualifying restart, Donington BTCC

Pitlane restarts following practice session red flags remain as impressive as ever, but with no-one to see them…

I’ve no doubt that in normal times BTCC boss Alan Gow would have been delighted to have his championship designated ‘Elite Sport’ by the Government. But knowing as I do how much Mr Gow’s motorsport mantra revolves around entertaining the fans first, everything else after that, he must have been frustrated that there would not be any of the championship’s hugely passionate fan base at Donington.

A quick scan across the web emphasised the irony. These are truly strange times when the UK’s biggest motorsport series shares the same date as the British Grand Prix (the last time it did was in 1996, and then the Touring Cars supported the F1 stars at Silverstone), and a third major UK motorsport series, the British GT Championship, runs on the same day. And it was almost surprising that down at Oulton Park the GT boys, fond in the past of having a social media pop at the BTCC, didn’t tweet that their series had more spectators present than the Touring Cars or the F1…

So what was it like to be one of the few who were allowed to be there? Distinctly odd, right from the start… Traditionally being a member of the resident BTCC media pack has meant getting into the circuit at the crack of dawn on race day, unless you want to sit in a queue of traffic. Once inside every time you stepped out of the media centre to do an interview or get a story you usually have had to battle your way through hordes of fans milling around the paddock. You couldn’t even escape the crowds by posing on the grid before the start, which of course I’ve never done – much…

Donington paddock BTCC 2020

Back of the Donington pits – normally a heaving mass of activity…

On race day at Donington, I could have had a lie-in and rolled up to the circuit any time before the 11.10am start of BTCC race one. Once I arrived, well… There is nothing more odd than walking through a BTCC paddock in which the only presence is race teams doing their best to keep far apart from each other – no hospitality, no hangers-on, and of course no spectators.

In fact the scene took me back 25 years, to the Super Touring era, when I would attend a lot of midweek testing – this certainly felt much more like such a test than a race meeting… And as an aside, it got more confusing when I entered the media centre to find one Marcus Simmons sitting there penning words for Autosport magazine. The last time we both regularly worked in the same media centre was in the mid 1990s when we were part of a core BTCC media pack of less than a dozen…

If I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have gone on the grid – no-one could, aside from the five team members allocated to each car. The usual ‘tents’ on the pit wall from which the team managers would normally follow the action on monitors were not permitted, and when a car took the chequered flag for victory, there would be no cheering team members on the fence, or hugs of congratulation in Parc Ferme.

Donington BTCC grid 2020

Just five people per car on the grid, and no-one else, not even the ITV interview crew…

The slashing of numbers of course extended to the media pack, even us who are lucky enough to be considered eligible for TOCA full-season passes. The BTCC media is its own little family – everyone getting to know each other despite only meeting up for six months of the year. The media centre on a race weekend is typically a hive of journos, snappers, snacks of very wide varieties and a lot of jovial banter.

Not this time. Those of us who remained (and I was pleased and admittedly a little surprised to still be among their number), sat at tables that had all been separated up, with a maximum of two per each. We got on with our work, and it was oh so quiet.

In fact the whole circuit was quiet. No crowds obviously, which means no need for a commentator. On Saturday when the cars in each race disappeared behind the bank at Redgate corner we had no idea what was happening until they reappeared in front of us at the end of the lap – on Sunday we were very grateful for the ITV cameras.  BTCC pitlane reporter Alan Hyde did his best to fill in the gaps but he had no more resources at his disposal than the rest of us. Between races virtual silence reigned.

Don’t get me wrong, I was so glad to be there, back to work, watching the one thing that doesn’t change with the BTCC, superb racing. And I fully realise how lucky I was compared to the hugely frustrated fans (and indeed, fellow media) forced to watch it on TV at home – for one of my photographer colleagues it was the first BTCC race meeting he wasn’t at in 15 years…

BTCC Donington 2020, qualifying off

One thing that doesn’t change – the racing, and the extremes of fortune across the grid…

We all of course fully understand why there must be measures such as we saw at the weekend – nothing is more important than putting an end to the virus that has devastated so many lives in recent months and we must all follow any restriction that might hasten the demise of Covid-19.

You do, however, wonder at the sense of a rule that prevented Donington from spreading similar numbers of spectators around its 2.5 miles as were allowed at Oulton Park, simply because the cars at Donington were more recognisable, more ‘famous’. And all this at a time when people are allowed to sit on beaches and in pubs and restaurants at a lot closer distance than they could be at Donington…

Yes, I am so glad to be back writing about cars again – but I’ll be even happier when I do have to be out the door in the early hours to watch dawn break over the circuit, when I have to wait to interview drivers because fans are having selfies taken with them, and when a winner taking the chequered flag will be accompanied by roars from the spectator banks. That really will be back to normal.

BTCC podium ceremony, Donington 2020

At no point are the current strange times more keenly emphasised than in the podium ceremonies…