Birmingham Superprix

Streetwise racing in Brum and the south of France

Dipping into one’s long-neglected photo archive it’s amazing what comes to the surface. This time it was a picture reminding me that in my 30-year-plus career, I’ve only ever been to three meetings on street circuits – and two of them were in Birmingham…

Birmingham Superprix 1986

Racing cars, traffic lights and 40mph signs – this was the Birmingham Superprix…

Run between 1986 and 1990, the Birmingham Superprix was something very different on the UK racing calendar and when the debut 1986 event was announced this young motorsports photographer knew he had to be there. At the time all the racing I had experienced had been at Brands Hatch and a brief visit to Lydden.

Having held a media pass for Brands Hatch circuits for just three seasons and not having a permanent outlet I knew I wouldn’t get a pass for Birmingham, which was an international event topped by a round of the FIA Formula 3000 Championship (for younger racing types, F3000 was then to F1 what GP2 is today – the final rung of the ladder to Grand Prix racing). So me and my mate John Newton went as punters on a grand day out.

Birmingham Superprix 1986, crossing

“Oi, you can’t park on the zig-zags…”

Arriving at a race circuit by Inter City train was novel, especially this was only my second time in Birmingham and the previous visit took me only as far as the NEC to see Genesis in 1983. John and I made our way to the circuit wondering what to expect – our only experience of street circuits was watching Monaco and US tracks such as Long Beach on the TV.

Well, Birmingham was no Monaco! The circuit was based largely around a dual carriageway, the cars charging down one side, around a roundabout and up the other side. It then dived through some tight roads hemmed in by towering offices and housing, bringing the cars back to the start line, opposite a pit lane in the frontage of a car dealership.

86 Birmingham Superprix, deck chairs

Get the deck chairs out, racing cars are on…”

Walking around, even in the public areas, it was incredible how close you were to the track, the cars powering by just the other side of a debris fence. But if you took too many steps backwards, you risked falling into the pocket-handkerchief-sized garden of a local resident’s council house, and they were hanging out their bedroom window getting a grandstand view of the action. Others were sat in front of their houses in deckchairs – there were tales of marshals being kept supplied with tea from the nearest locals, it was all very British.

F3000, Birmingham Superprix 1986.

For the F3000 boys the race was more about staying on the track than challenging rivals…

John and I found a great spot for the racing, sitting close to the top of a grass bank directly opposite that hairpin at the end of the dual carriageway – and then the rains came…

All those who were there remember how the tail-end of Hurricane Charley let rip on Britain that August bank holiday weekend, and it wrecked race day. The deluge was so torrential that John and I kept sliding down the bank on the mud. The F3000 race was stopped halfway through and a result declared and while they tried to run the saloon supports, we were so sodden and dejected we dragged ourselves to the train and home.

Rain-sodden 86 Birmingham Superprix

Conditions too sodden for even the saloons dampened our spirits…

Thankfully, the organisers didn’t let that put them off and a year later the meeting happened again, and this time in glorious weather. I went on my own to this one, still without a press pass, but being at Brands Hatch almost every weekend I had by this time got to know a lot of marshals. During the morning practice sessions my friends on the post just after the start line let me go trackside for a couple of sessions.

Birmingham Superprix 1987 Fiestas

One not very tall armco barrier, and racing cars, going rather quickly…

In all my time as trackside photographer I was never quite as inspired – and yes, mildly scared – as I was then. I was standing almost touching the inside of an armco barrier that only came up to just above my knees, and on the other side was the track – no grass verge or gravel trap, just tarmac, and racing cars going full pelt on it.

I became a huge fan of street circuits that day, and I would be disappointed that commitments elsewhere prevented me going back to the Superprix in any of the three more years it lasted. In fact it would be another 20 years before my next street race, and that was in the south of France.

1987 Birmingham Superprix F3000

F3000 cars make for the airport…

By the time I went to the round of the 2007 World Touring Car Championship at Pau, my trackside days were behind me, in fact I was no longer primarily a photographer but a writer, and at the time writing more about road cars than race cars.

WTCC Pau 2007

Pau – the traditional idea of a street circuit.

In fact it was testing road cars that got me to the meeting – Pau was at that time familiar to us, a favourite launch venue for the German brand’s performance road cars due to good roads in the district, a very nice hotel actually bordering the street circuit, and a proper race track just a few miles outside the city for us to try out the latest BMW M3s and M5s.

So a select few of us road testers with motorsport credentials were invited as guests of BMW to Pau – at the time the brand’s WTCC team was led by Brit Andy Priaulx who would claim his third successive title in 2007. I certainly had the motorsport credentials – on car launches to Pau I never needed a second invitation to show any driving partner who hadn’t visited the city before “where the race circuit goes…”

Priaulx WTCC Pau 2007

Andy Priaulx, the man to beat in 2007.

Now this was much more like a Monaco-style street track – really tight, climbing and descending its way between impressive architecture, and with the kind of weather one gets in a location much closer to the Mediterranean than is Birmingham. The only thing missing was a harbour with bronzed beauties sunbathing on mega-money yachts.

The track itself was everything I expected, especially as the World Touring Cars still climbed over every kerb they could find and constantly grazed the barriers. It was impressive stuff, but the dangers of street tracks were highlighted in no uncertain terms when Augusto Farfus rolled his BMW into a tyre barrier in qualifying, causing my mate Ian Lynas to dive for cover in a way a man of his years really shouldn’t be doing. It was sobering to think that had the Beemer been a foot or so higher it would have missed the barrier and kept on rolling…

Farfus, WTCC Pau 2007

A fellow journo got rather too close for comfort with the Farfus BMW…

We had a great weekend, especially on Saturday evening. The racing went on into the night which encouraged one of my fellow journos to stage an unofficial party in his room – beer, food and a grandstand view from his balcony! And on Sunday Alain Menu, one of my favourite acquaintances from BTCC Super Touring days, won the first race in his Chevrolet.

So yes, I like street circuits, though I don’t get to them very often. I still haven’t seen a race at Monaco, though I’ve walked the circuit and I’ve driven it – in the traffic jams of a typical Monegasque weekday morning… And to be honest, I’d be happy to go back to another Superprix in Brum, especially as now I live in Wales the city is at the other end of a direct rail line…WTCC at Pau, 2007

Pau WTCC, 2007

All photos in this piece by me! Andrew Charman

Super Touring covers, 1995

A quarter-century on, why 1995 was My year of Super Touring…

This weekend I should have been rushing around Brands Hatch, working at the second meeting of the 2020 British Touring Car Championship. Instead I’ve been at home, trying out my new film scanner – and it was only when I posted some pictures of the 1996 Peugeot BTCC team on social media and the surprisingly high number of comments on them included a reference to Super Touring Magazine, that it dawned on me…

Twenty-five years ago this weekend I was indeed rushing around Brands Hatch, at the second meeting of the 1995 BTCC, collecting material for issue two of Super Touring Magazine, while still enjoying the overwhelmingly positive reaction to our debut issue that had published only a couple of weeks earlier.

That magazine occupied just one year of a so-far three decades-plus career that has featured many and varied highlights. But 25 years on, I still regard it as the best thing I’ve ever done. Why? time to put the rose-tinted glasses on…

The seed that grew into Super Touring Magazine was planted when in 1991 I got my first motoring journalism job at Fast Car magazine as deputy editor. The editor raced in Thundersaloons, for which myself and my wife had since 1989 been producing Rolling Thunder, basically a fanzine for the series.

Fast Car at the time included a monthly column, on the surface written by a BTCC driver, and part of my role was to meet up with each month’s chosen driver, have a chat with them and then ghost-write their column. I remember a particularly interesting lunch with Steve Soper in an Italian restaurant on London’s King’s Road – lesson learnt, don’t order tagliatelle when you are trying to do an interview at the same time…

Intro to the BTCC

One of the photographers Fast Car used was John Marsh, who was also known as a very good motorsport snapper shooting everything from F1 downwards, and early in the 1993 season the pair of us got a weekend gig covering the BTCC for a magazine so short-lived I can’t remember its title – by the end of that year it was gone. But as I turned up at Snetterton for the third meeting of the ’93 BTCC I never imagined I’d be at every one until the end of 2000…Super Touring opening spread

I quickly became immersed in the BTCC and soon I had an idea. A decade earlier I’d been a huge fan of Grand Prix International – this was a magazine that used in-depth features and huge, top-quality colour pictures to paint an entire picture of an F1 race weekend that went far beyond race reports. Could such a concept work for the now rapidly growing Super Touring formula?

I took the concept to my MD at Fast Car’s publisher and to my surprise he ran with it. We spent the second half of 1994 carefully planning every aspect of Super Touring Magazine, my aim being to take my readers deep beneath the gloss of Touring Cars, to tell them the full story, make them feel they were on the track side of the fence. To do this properly we felt we needed, and we got, the approval of the BTCC promoter – at the ’94 season finale I remember sitting in the TOCA bus nervously showing head honcho Alan Gow our first page concepts.

We launched the magazine at the 1995 racing car shows, and we had one of the ’94 Rouse Ford Mondeos on our stand. Our first issue appeared ahead of the opening rounds as a season preview, and the reaction was very positive indeed – I recall one of my fellow journalists commenting; “To be honest Andrew we didn’t expect it to be this good…” And this was despite my making a huge howler in that first issue, titling a feature about Scot Anthony Reid’s Far-East exploits “An Englishman in Japan…”

Such errors were not too frequent, but they were understandable because while freelances wrote features for us and we used pictures from the posse of photographers that followed Touring Car racing, editorially I was the only man in the office. I did several of the features and interviews, wrote all the news and the BTCC race reports, and I took some pictures at race meetings too. I was then responsible for editing and proofing it all after our art team Sarah and Melissa had turned the words and pics into something really attractive on the page.Super Touring alain Menu

The mag also included a data section, which detailed how every team got on at every BTCC round, right down to the last-finishing privateer. This required me to catch up with every team after qualifying, and again after the race action – race weekends for me were never dull!

1995 turned into a rollercoaster year which produced loads of highlights, right from issue one in which I published a pair of one-to-one exclusive interviews, with Alain Menu in a Brands Hatch hotel and with the today much-missed Will Hoy, in a coffee shop just round the corner from his London architect’s business.

I got to see Touring Car racing for real on the continent at Zolder, Paul Ricard and the Nurburgring, hallowed venues I’d only previously seen on TV watching F1. In Germany I was driven around the fearsome 14 miles of the Nurburgring Nordschleife by BTCC champion Smokin’ Jo Winkelhock, resulting in my all-time favourite feature (you can read it here).Super Touring logo

From mid-season I had the sheer pleasure of watching my magazine’s logos circulating on the BTCC Vauxhall Cavalier of slightly eccentric privateer Nigel Smith. I shared many a hilarious evening in hotel bars with drivers and teams. I got thrown out of the passenger seat of BTCC driver Richard Kaye’s road car when it was punted up the rear by John Cleland at Brands Hatch’s Druids bend (another story for another time…). The list goes on…

Darker times

Cleland leaving card

There were the odd less-happy moments too. Today I can smile at a certain champion Scotsman calling me an “amateur arsehole” down the phone for a mistake that wasn’t actually my doing, but it wasn’t very nice at the time (a year later when I left the company my leaving card was created by our graphic artist and showed Mr Cleland running me over in his BTCC Cavalier…).

The darkest time was the passing of Kieth O’Dor. A Nissan BTCC driver the season before, for 1995 he had gone to race for the brand in Germany’s rapidly growing STW Cup, and I’d signed him up as a columnist. He sent me in his latest column, phoned me from the departure lounge of the airport to check I had received it and went off to Avus in Berlin. I went to Oulton Park for the BTCC, where on the Sunday I sat in the delightful little motorhome that Alfa Romeo provided for us press that season, and watched the accident that killed Kieth live on TV…

By far the majority of my memories of ’95, however, are happy, of a very special time. While there were many photographers chasing the BTCC around the country, I was a member of a core journalist pack that numbered only around half a dozen, and included such luminaries as Laurence Foster of Autosport and Paul Fearnley of the then Motoring News. We were at the centre of a BTCC that was the pinnacle of a global motorsport phenomenon – effectively an international championship that just happened to have all its rounds in one country, and one where even on qualifying day the paddocks were packed. And we journos were globally known too – I never did get used to being able to phone front-running teams in places such as Australia and them immediately knowing who I was…

Effort rewarded

I ended the 1995 season with a trip to France for what became the final FIA Touring Car World Cup at Paul Ricard. I produced a season-review issue that I modestly considered the best one we’d done yet, and then I won the first of to date three Guild of Motoring Writers awards for best motorsport coverage – I still get goosebumps as I remember being at the Guild’s annual dinner as master of ceremonies Murray Walker, addressing a room filled with the country’s leading motoring journalists and car manufacturer PR teams, said “And the award deservedly goes to Andrew Charman for Super Touring Magazine…”Super Touring season review

So what went wrong? Well while very highly regarded, Super Touring Magazine actually never made much money. While the BTCC’s fan base had exploded, the vast majority were non-core motorsport fans drawn to the series by the panel-bashing action portrayed in the tightly-edited highlights packages shown on the BBC on a Saturday afternoon, and they didn’t need the stories behind the action as well.

Crucially, as 1996 began there were boardroom traumas at my publisher, that resulted in the departure of the MD who had made the magazine happen. It’s fair to say that the new MD did not have the passion for the magazine that his predecessor did, and issue 10, our first of 1996, was also our last.

Would we have survived had we gone a second season? Possibly but probably not. A year later I made the mistake of trying to do it again, joining my former MD in his new company to launch Touring Car Worldwide magazine. But by then the odds were stacked against us.

A rival magazine launched as we did, at a time when fuelled by the constantly inflating spending of the manufacturers, the BTCC, and the Super Touring formula with it, was beginning the downward trajectory that resulted in its implosion at the end of 2000. Our rival lasted half the time we did, but we didn’t see out the year – having been effectively head-hunted at the start of 1997, at the end of that year I was made redundant.

I went back to my pre-1991 career of regional newspapers, while continuing to freelance in the BTCC until I called it a day at the end of the 2000 season. With a young family, and having experienced the glory years, I was ready to have my weekends back.Super Touring 1995 spread

Thereafter I occasionally dipped back into the series to write the odd feature, until in 2015, with my eldest son now covering the BTCC for one of the many websites that had sprung up, I was drawn back in again. I started writing more features, before long I again had a TOCA media season pass and was going to every round, with the delightful flexibility that comes with producing features and not having a race report deadline. Mind you last season I gained some deadlines, adding the role of Honda’s media reporter to my role and writing releases on the exploits of messrs Neal and Cammish. Seems I can never escape the BTCC!

Of its time

So could a modern-day version of Super Touring Magazine happen? Part of me wants to say yes but immediately gets shouted down by the sensible part of me that knows it would be a non-starter. Today’s BTCC fan gets all they require from the whole day of live TV coverage ITV4 devotes to each race weekend, and the instant gratification offered by a host of free online and social media content. The only way a printed magazine would work is perhaps as a contract publication, with each team taking a number of copies to use for marketing, to give to their hospitality guests and such like. It’s a nice idea but it will never happen.

No worries – I’m happy with my current BTCC involvement, and I have my memories of a very special time. Because while Super Touring Magazine was not around for long, the times while it lasted were good – really good…

  • I’m currently in the process of updating my website http://www.andrewcharman.co.uk and in the plans is a page recalling Super Touring Magazine, with some of the content reproduced. Watch this space…