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…

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.

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

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…

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

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…

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

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…

BTCC, British Touring Car Championship, ShortAxle blog

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