Of classic cars and very mixed memories

This week took me to the Silverstone Classic media day. It’s the second time I’ve been but I haven’t yet made it to the event itself at the end of July. I hope to change that this year because it really has become one heck of a festival, with huge, quality grids right across the historic spectrum.

The media day gives me a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues in the business, while getting up close – as in wandering through the garages and standing on the pit wall as DFV-powered 1970s F1 cars howl past – to some glorious historic machinery, all in a very relaxing environment.

The Lister Storm - how old?

The Lister Storm GT car – is it really that old? Photo: Andrew Charman

However the day does also provide the odd sobering moment – I find it hard to believe that the Lister Storm GT car that I’m looking at is now considered historic, as it doesn’t seem yesterday that I was writing about its British and International GT appearances. But then I am informed that Julian Bailey won the FIA GT Championship in it in 2000, and that was 14 years ago…

Time we can’t forget

On a much darker note, conversation amongst journalists at Silverstone inevitably turns to events two decades ago. The media day marks the exact 20th anniversary of the death, in practice for the San Marino Grand Prix, of Roland Ratzenberger – a tragedy that many believe was totally overshadowed by what happened the following day. I, like some others, am in the opposite camp – would people still talk about Roland, if Ayrton Senna hadn’t died too? Possibly not – we don’t hear so much these days about Elio de Angelis, Patrick Depailler, Tom Pryce…

Still, in motorsport we all remember where we were on 1st May 1994 – it is our President Kennedy moment. For me, it was Snetterton, qualifying day for the British Touring Car Championship. And it was slightly surreal to observe how the mood at the circuit changed as the news filtered through from Imola – mind you a feeling very similar to that I would experience seven years later, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, on the 11th September 2001.

On race day at Snetterton, the mood was even stranger, people wanting to enjoy the meeting but still in shock at what had happened the day before. The Alfa Romeos, then dominating the BTCC, had black stripes painted on the corner of their noses, and when a two-minute silence was held, you could have heard a pin drop – at a race circuit.

Senna in action at Brands Hatch in 1981, and below making a rare mistake. some of my earliest motor racing photos. Sadly in the time available I was unable to locate my pictures of Ratzenberger, they are in the archive somewhere...

Senna in action at Brands Hatch in 1981, and below making a rare mistake – some of my earliest motor racing photos. Sadly in the time available I was unable to locate my pictures of Ratzenberger, they are in the archive somewhere…

I remember too how personally odd the Imola tragedies felt, because both Senna and Ratzenberger were drivers I had first-hand watched climbing the earliest stages of the career ladder, photographing them making their name in Formula Ford races at Brands Hatch.

Senna arrived in 1981, the year after I started building my career at the circuit as initially a photographer. Except that then he was known as Ayrton da Silva – he generally was at the front of each race he ran in, won the championship and then at the end of the season went back to Brazil and we thought we’d never see him again. But he was back the following year, dominating FF2000, and the rest, as they say…

1405Classic02Roland came later, at the end of the 1985 season when he starred at the Formula Ford Festival – in those days a meeting with a far higher-profile than is the case today. He endeared himself to UK audiences with his innocent lack of knowledge as to why everyone laughed at his name. When he found out, what did he do? Got sponsorship from TV-AM, home of the Roland Rat puppet. Class…

Two very different drivers, but still two lost talents, and today we still have fond memories of them both.

Super Touring – it’s back…

To end on a brighter note. A major reason for being at the media day is to keep an eye on progress in the Super Touring Championship – a historic series invented as a guest race at the Silverstone Classic a couple of years ago, and which this year has become a full-blown historic championship for the first time.

Super Tourers - back on the track where they belong, here at Thruxton on Easter Saturday. This and the following picture are courtesy of Peter Still, PSP Images, a superb photographer and strong supporter of the Super Touring series. For more of Peter's work go to http://psp-images.photoshelter.com/

Super Tourers – back on the track where they belong, here at Thruxton on Easter Saturday. This and the following picture are courtesy of Peter Still, PSP Images, a superb photographer and strong supporter of the Super Touring series. For more of Peter’s work go to http://psp-images.photoshelter.com/

Partly thanks to the eldest offspring covering the series for touringcartimes.com, a couple of weeks ago I saw my first historic Super Touring race, as part of a clubbie at Thruxton (can’t remember the last time I went to a clubbie…).  Now you could argue that I’d be a tough audience – after all I was right in the thick of things for almost the whole of the true Super Touring era, I remember just how big that time was, so surely a collection of used Super Tourers driven by little-known drivers won’t be much to write home about…

Actually, it’s great. For starters there are plenty of cars, with more emerging from the shadows all the time. They are generally very well prepared, with authenticity the key – they look and sound just like they did back then, which is not easy as getting parts for them is still not a cheap process and today’s drivers don’t have anything like the budgets the manufacturer works teams did back in the 1990s.

For the same reason, you don’t – generally – see the panel-bashing racing that made the BTCC of the Super Touring era a favourite of audiences both at the track and particularly on the BBC. But that’s okay, you don’t expect that in historic racing. These cars are still raced hard, and it’s brilliant to see them back where they should be – on the track.

Watts and Cleland – former stars back in their cars. Photo: Peter Still, PSP Images.

Watts and Cleland – former stars back in their cars. Photo: Peter Still, PSP Images.

Oh yes, one more aspect. Among the new breed of drivers racing these cars, there are a couple of names that sound familiar – Cleland and Watts…

John bought back his 1997 Vectra, and Patrick the last BTCC Super Touring Peugeots, that had gone all the way to Australia. And they are having a ball – they are not outclassing the field but they are making some headlines, both on the podium (Cleland’s Easter Saturday win at Thruxton was widely reported amongst those at Donington for the rounds of the current BTCC) and in more traditional fashion. Patrick’s heavy impact with the barriers at last year’s Classic is in all the publicity for this year’s event, while one of Cleland’s Thruxton rivals muttered darkly that John had bumped him out of the way on route to that victory…

Superb Touring Cars – one reason to be at the Silverstone Classic in July – and Oulton Park next month... Photo: Andrew Charman

Superb Touring Cars – one reason to be at the Silverstone Classic in July – and Oulton Park next month… Photo: Andrew Charman

There are rumours of more past Touring Car stars jumping into their old cars, while more cars are definitely set to appear – apparently the going rate for a used Super Tourer has mushroomed in recent months. This is a series on the up, but before it fulfills a no-doubt starring role at the Silverstone Classic on 25th-27th July there is a possibly bigger challenge.

On the weekend of 7th June, the Super Touring Series will be at Oulton Park, as a support event to – the British Touring Car Championship. What will today’s BTCC crowds think of these stars of yesteryear? I think they’ll love them…

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A new era that could draw me back to Touring Cars…

Two decades ago, it would be about this time that my year really started.

You see in March we have the British Touring Car Championship media day, when the entry for the coming season is announced in front of us hacks. Back in 1994, I was starting my third full year intimately involved in the series, at a time when the BTCC was moving into what has since been regarded as a golden era. The Super Touring formula had firmly established itself, and over the next couple of years would explode in popularity, stretching from the UK right around the globe.

1403BTCC01Indeed it was in 1994 that I came up with the concept of a magazine specialising in the sport, taking as my inspiration the superb French-based publication Grand Prix International that covered Formula One racing in the early 1980s. I spent much of that year persuading first my publisher and then BTCC organiser TOCA that a magazine was a good idea, and the first issue of Super Touring Magazine appeared at the start of the 1995 season.  I admit modestly that it was very well received, and the sad fact that it lasted only until early in the 1996 season had very little to do with the magazine but a lot more to do with internal politics at its now long-gone publishing company…

Your scribe would continue to cover the BTCC extensively until the end of the Super Touring era – I never missed a single round between 1993 and 2000, but it was the mid-1990s period when the series was really at its best. There were loads of manufacturers, loads of drivers of top international status, excellent action in the races and enormous crowds – in those days it could be a crush to move through the paddock even on qualifying day.

1403BTCC02Of course there were plenty of media too, but very special for me was being one of the only half dozen or so that were regarded as the core BTCC press – sporting our TOCA hard cards we could walk into virtually any pit at any time, no-one refused to talk to us from team principals down, while lunch was usually in one of said teams’ awnings. The Audi lunches were particularly memorable, among other things introducing this reporter to the pleasures of German Weiss beer, while thanks to Super Touring Magazine I was on first-name terms with Touring Car teams from America to Australia – they were truly remarkable times which I remember very fondly.

After I stopped working in the BTCC at the end of the 2000 season, I still produced a couple of features a year for various outlets, but as many know my main focus switched to my other motorsport passion, NASCAR. In truth I didn’t like what Touring Cars had become – back in the late 1980s the first series I ever specialised in, Thundersaloons (initially starring a then rapidly progressing young Scot called Cleland) had instilled in me a view that proper ‘tin tops’ were big saloon-type cars, and when the BTCC’s new BTC Touring formula started allowing in coupe-type machines such as Honda’s Integra and the Vauxhall Astra Coupe, followed by what were basically hot hatches, my interest waned rapidly.

The came Super 2000, following the lead taken by the FIA’s World Touring Cars. A BMW invite to Pau in 2007 had convinced me that these were indeed proper Touring Cars, so the BTCC adopting them was a good thing. My work started to see me attending the odd BTCC round again, and yes, the pre-season media day. And at these days I found myself beginning to get that buzz again, that feeling that perhaps I’d like to get back involved, until such thoughts were quickly wiped out by remembering just how much I enjoy my weekends these days.

1403BTCC04I’ve been this week to the 2014 BTCC Media Day, at Donington, and this time it’s different – I could tell that the moment I arrived at the circuit. Quite simply the BTCC is booming, and I now believe on the verge of another truly golden era.

Super 2000 has gone – costs started to spiral out of control, as any race series that is ruled by a combination of manufacturers and the FIA tends to do. Even those that don’t get on with the BTCC’s head honcho Alan Gow will agree that the man knows how to run a championship, and a few years ago he had the foresight to initiate the creation of ‘Next Generation Touring Car’ (NGTC) regulations, slashing costs in the process. And the result? This year’s series, the first to be run exclusively for the NGTC machines, will boast a record 31 entries – all of them committed to running the full season.

There’s much more than that. That entry consists of 14, yes 14, different types of car, from 11 different manufacturers. Yet there are only two so-called ‘works’ teams, Dynamics Honda and MG, and while they will no doubt win races, they will also be beaten during the year by teams across the grid, because the NGTC rules have leveled the playing field. Even if more true manufacturers were to come in and want to spend lots of money, it wouldn’t make them any more competitive because the rules don’t allow it.

Some will argue that the NGTC is not a proper Touring Car because basically you have individual body shells clothing what are the same parts for all. I don’t buy this – sounds a bit like NASCAR, which produces the best racing anywhere. And crucially, when the BTCC rule makers wrote the NGTC play book they took the opportunity to add a few vital inches to the minimum length regulations. So the cars in the pits almost all look like proper Touring Cars.

I say almost, because I struggle to see BMW’s smallest model line as a Touring Car, but I’m soon comforted by viewing the Audi A4, Volkswagen CC, Chevrolet Cruze in both saloon and hatch varieties, Honda’s quirky Civic Tourer (for Tourer read estate…). And all are prepared to very high standards – they look stunning, the best BTCC field in many a season.

1403BTCC05For the first time in some years, I was at the media day for a specific purpose, working on a feature for Race Tech magazine. And as I wandered the pitlane gathering what I needed the years fell away. Being welcomed into the pit of Adam Morgan to discuss his very impressive-looking Mercedes A-Class; five minutes of questions to BTCC Technical Director Peter Riches turning into a 25-minute conversation that provided me with the basis of a whole new feature; catching up with faces I used to deal with on a very regular basis – definitely topped by a chat with Alain Menu for the first time since that Pau WTCC round in 2007…

Being a UK-based NASCAR feature writer is often frustrating, because of necessity so much of the interviewing of crew chiefs, aerodynamicists and the like is conducted over Transatlantic Internet signals, the wonders of Skype. But here I was once again at the sharp end, in the middle of it all, and I very quickly felt back at home.

1403BTCC06I came away from one interview and ran into a wall of people. The pits had been opened to the fans who had been offered free entry from lunchtime to watch the testing. On a Tuesday in March when the weather offered regular drizzly showers and a cold wind, the numbers that turned up would not have shamed many a ‘proper’ race meeting.

Three days on the buzz is not subsiding – I’ve already checked the calendar and cursed the fact that there’s no way I can make the opening two meetings at Brands Hatch and Donington. Thruxton is a possibility however, and feature-pitching head duly screwed on – the BTCC is going to be huge this year, and I think I want back in…

Heading and grid photos courtesy Jakob Ebrey/BTCC