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…

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