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.

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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

 

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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…