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.
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…
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…
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…