I mentioned in an earlier blog that I’ve been involved in motorsport in one shape or another for around 25 years. That’s a fair old time to be out at circuits in all weathers watching cars go round and round. Invariably in Britain that usually results in some very wet clothes and/or a wind burnt nose
Luckily I have a family - particularly grandparents - who were hugely supportive and quite partial to a bit of racing themselves so we decided to become fans of the BTCC during it’s most iconic period - the super touring era. It was kind of fitting. My grandfather had a Volvo 850 estate though it’s hard to imagine Jan Lammers hammering around Knockhill with a giant elk hound rolling around the boot!
Back in the mid-nineties the BTCC consisted of some of the biggest manufacturers of rep-mobiles going head to head around the UK in a multi-million pound campaign to knock the stuffing out of each other. Of course in those days it was packed full of international names like Beila, Winkelhock, Rydell, Menu and more. It was just epic to watch, like Formula One but with personality and the ability to pass.
As a little side-note it’s important to point out that I benefit from living in the South West which is famous for bringing the world multiple Touring Car Champion, Andy Priaulx, F1 Champion Jenson Button, F1 and BTCC legend, Derek Warwick and reigning ELMS Champion, Harry Tincknell among others. This is quite astounding considering we have basically no race tracks here!
(Not strictly true as we have top class karting facilities in the form of Clay Pigeon in Dorset and Dunkeswell in Devon which is owned by Nigel Mansell no less!)
One of the nearest race circuits is Thruxton in Hampshire - which just also happens to be Britain’s fastest. As a congratulations for passing my exams my family took a buzzing eleven year old to the BTCC meeting. I’d never seen anything like it! We got there a little late so Warm Up was already happening, the car parks were packed full as was the extensive banking that follows the circuit from the final chicane right round to the Campbell, Cobb, Seagrave complex.
The soon to be champion Frank Beila flashed by in his A4 Quattro resplendent in it’s silver and red livery closely followed by the yellow Lagunas of Menu and series debutant Jason Plato. When you’ve never seen a car doing over 100mph before it’s an image that really sticks in the mind.
In between the on track action we ventured into the paddock area to have a look at the cars more closely - something else you can’t do in F1 - and hopefully meet some drivers. Sure enough within minutes I was getting Derek Warwick’s autograph! Well, when you’ve never been to a race before what else do you do?
At the same circuit the following year my Nan - bless her - befriended people close to the Peugeot drivers, Patrick Watts and Tim Harvey and they sort of adopted her for the weekend! I also ended up eating a plate of chips sat next to my childhood idol, James Thompson who then was driving for Honda.
Everything about a BTCC paddock (certainly back in the super touring days) was open and friendly. The drivers wanted to meet you, the teams were accommodating despite the often packed schedules and even more packed paddocks and the whole atmosphere was special.
The cars were absolutely spectacular. The underpinnings bore little resemblance to the visual shell. Flared wheel arches, big wheels, huge wings and astounding noise and speed gave the game away that these were special machines.
At Thruxton in particular where the speeds were consistently high the Super Tourers really looked the business hopping kerbs at the Club chicane or flying through Church at 145mph. It was an amazing time to be a fan of the sport. In 1998 eight works teams fielding two drivers apiece plus a raft of independent teams saw grids bulging with cars and talent. Ford even managed to draft in Nigel Mansell for three rounds including one of the most memorable races in touring car history at Donington Park on a drying track.
However, as with all things, there was just no way it could last. With teams such as Audi Sport, TWR, Prodrive and Williams came F1 style budgets and the money flowed in through the mid to late nineties. Eventually priorities changed and the manufacturers moved away from the series to where in 2000, with only Ford, Honda and Vauxhall holding the fort, time was called on the Super Touring era.
Many fans, myself included, look back on that period as a Golden Age of British motorsport. Crowds packed into circuits to watch. Teams and drivers from all over the globe fought to be a part of the championship and the on track action spoke for itself!
It’s not all bad of course. The BTCC is definitely back to full strength and while the big brands and international drivers aren’t there to the same degree that hasn’t diminished in any way the quality and diversity of the championship. If anything it’s allowed new British talent to rise to the top faster than may have been the case in the Super Touring days. Big manufacturer driven campaigns perhaps meant their ‘works’ drivers took priority over local talent. We are now in the era of the Independent. Home grown teams with limited ‘works’ support is the way forward and the action speaks for itself. It’s not bad at all it’s just different. The common RML components have no doubt reduced costs for competitors and made the series more accessible. The NGTC regulations have played a massive part in the rejuvenation of the championship and under Alan Gow it has gone from strength to stength in the last ten years.
Of course there is some solace for those of a certain age who fondly remember the Super Tourers. The Silverstone Classic holds a pair of races for these iconic cars as well as the fantastic Super TCC which is run by the HSCC here in the UK. Check out www.supertcc.com/ for more details on that series. It’s safe to say that touring car racing is ingrained in my DNA now. It’s been a staple form of racing for me for so long. It is tough to think of cars of my youth as ‘classics’ though! Does that mean I’m officially old?
Whatever, my first racing experience will stick with me forever and if you’ve never been I urge you to get trackside and feel the difference between supporting from the sofa and supporting from the stand. Head over to www.btcc.com to find your nearest event in 2017. You’ll not regret it. (Though you may suddenly develop a sizeable pile of race day programmes)