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…

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…