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50 not out…………

The British Touring Car Championship clicked-up its first half century when the new season got underway at Brands Hatch in March. It’s seen a few changes during that time, as was amply visible when inaugural champion Jack Sears and his Austin Westminster posed on the grid with reigning champion Fabrizio Giovanardi’s Vauxhall Vectra at the pre-season media day.

For a start, the venue – Rockingham – didn’t exist in 1958, and there weren’t too many Italians man-handling unwieldy ‘50’s saloons round the predominantly ex airfield British circuits. Not that they wouldn’t have been welcome, just that it was very much a British affair. Actually, aside from the odd passing antipodean, foreign drivers did not impact upon the British scene, or the British Saloon Car Championship as it was originally known, until the days of Super Touring in the 1990’s.

That Austin Westminster seemed a slightly unlikely racer even then, looking more at home at vicar’s tea-parties and the like, but at the time Britain did actually have a motor industry and so the grid was full of home-grown products like the Austin A35, Riley 1.5, Ford Zephyr and Jaguar 3.4, just the occasional Borgward Isabella or Volvo Amazon to liven things up. Although the series went through various incarnations over the years, there was a class structure in place all the way through to the end of the 1980’s – only with the advent of Super Touring did it become single class. Consequently the variety of cars racing was huge; pick your class carefully and it was quite possible to achieve success with a tiddler. John Whitmore took overall honours in 1961 at the wheel of a 1-litre Mini, for example.

By 1963 things were getting a bit more serious though. John Cooper talked BMC into producing the Mini Cooper, the little rocket storming both the race and rally worlds. Ford were not to be outdone, Walter Hayes and Colin Chapman put their heads together to come up with the Lotus Cortina, again a car that achieved succes on both road and track. After starting the season with a Willment-prepared Cortina GT, Jack Sears switched to a Lotus version once it was ready, to scoop his second title. The year was notable for the arrival of the ‘big bangers’ from the ‘States though. Graham Hill won the over 3-litre class, using a 7-litre Ford Galaxie as well as a 3.8 Jag.

The following year, 1964, is remembered as the year Jim Clark swept all before him in a works Team Lotus Cortina – and remember, he was reigning Formula 1 World Champion at the time! Don’t quite see Kimmi Raikkonen fitting-in an Italian national series in an Alfa 156 between Grand Prix commitments this year, do you? It is slightly amusing that one of the most- often published pictures of that season depicts Clark three-wheeling at Brands Hatch; the factory records show that he actually lost a wheel during that race!

Clark and Hill were not the only Grand Prix stars to grace the saloon car grids either. Clark was regularly partnered by Peter Arundel and also Trevor Taylor whilst Roy Salvadori was a Jaguar exponent, Jack Brabham and Jackie Oliver drove Mustangs and South African John Love was an early Mini Cooper pilot. Vic Elford even raced a Porsche 911 which became a touring car by dint of its’ internal dimensions meeting the criteria! Stirling Moss is remembered for his exploits in big Jaguars early in his career, but how many of you recall him teaming-up with Martin Brundle in a pair of Richard Lloyd-run Audi 80’s in the early  1980’s?  More recently Jonathan Palmer had a stab at racing a BMW but is mostly remembered for receiving a very public ear-bashing from Swedish “lady” racer Nettan Lindgren! Jan Lammers arrived with Volvo in 1994 and Derek Warwick was lured into the fray by Alfa Romeo in 1995 but did not meet with huge success. Others to have tried F1 include Jo Winkelhock, Christian Danner, Gabriele Tarquini, Johnny Cecotto and David Brabham.

It took until 1965 for one of the big V8’s to win overall, Roy Pierpoint doing the honours in a Ford Mustang in what was to be the last season run to Group 2 reulations. The introduction the following year of Group 5 led to slightly more standard-looking machinery but with greater engine modifications allowed. Consequently John Fitzpatrick claimed the crown that year in a Broadspeed- prepared Ford Anglia 1000cc screamer, before Aussie Frank Gardner dominated for a couple of seasons with various Alan Mann-built Fords. A mighty 4.7-litre Falcon did the job in ’66 giving away initially to a BDA-engined MK2 Lotus Cortina the following year, switching to the then-new Escort Twin Cam during the season.

It was back to the ‘baby boomers’ after that. Alec Poole was champion in 1969 with a Cooper S, whilst Bill McGovern locked-up the next three seasons with the diminutive rear-engined Sunbeam Imp prepared by George Bevan down on the south coast. He benefitted from the more intense battles in the bigger classes but things switched back to Gardner in ’73, armed with a 7- litre Camaro, before the rules changed yet again.

By now the Middle East war and the attendant oil crisis had made itself felt and the governing body, the RAC, adopted Group 1 rules in an effort to reign- in costs (sound familiar?). Again smaller cars came to the fore, with Bernard Unett taking the title three times (1974, 1976-77) with Hillman/Chrysler Avengers. Richard Longman followed suit with a self-prepared Mini 1275GT in 78-79. The interloper was Andy Rouse in ’75 with a Broadspeed Triumph Dolomite Sprint. The ‘Yank Tanks’ were effectively legislated out by the end of that season, former ‘bike racer Stuart Graham being the last to win the big class with a Camaro. After that 3-litre Capris were as big as it got, and pretty entertaining they were, in the hands of such as Gordon Spice.

Things seemed to go in threes after that, the extremely popular Win Percy taking the title in 1980-81 with a rotary-engined Mazda RX7, before switching to a Toyota Corolla in 1982. By now the big class was all about the Rover SD1, initially in 3500 form before becoming the Vitesse at a later date. Jeff Allam and Pete Lovett were the successful pilots of the gorgeous-sounding V8’s initially. Following on from Percy it was Rouse’s turn to pick-up a trio of titles, remarkably in three very different cars – Alfa Romeo GTV6 (1983), Rover Vitesse (1984) and Ford Sierra Turbo (1985). Rouse is the BTCC’s most winning-est driver with 60 victories to his credit.

After winning the small class in 1985 at the wheel of a Ford Escort RS1600i Chris Hodgetts  - who really was the fastest milkman in the west  - took the honours over the next couple of seasons with a Toyota Corolla GT before Frank Sytner claimed BMW’s first title at the wheel an M3. By now the car to have in the top class was a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and although John Cleland set-off his touring car career by winning the title with a Vauxhall Astra GTE, the writing was on the wall, Robb Gravett getting the best of the Sierra tussles in 1990.

All change from 1991 onwards however. Feeling they could do a better job themselves, a group of team-owners got together to form an organisation called TOCA to oversee things. Aussie Alan Gow, who at that time was working for Rouse, was given the job of administering things – and what a job he has done! After the much-missed Will Hoy took the single-class championship in 1990 with a Vic Lee Motorsport BMW M3, the Super Touring formula for 2-litre cars took over from 1991 onwars and battle commenced in spectacular style. The title went to Tim Harvey’s BMW 318is, again run by VLM, but only after his main rival Cleland was very publicly torpedoed out of the final race at Silverstone by Harvey’s team-mate Steve Soper. The massive crowds the series was now attracting loved it!

The series took another step forward in 1993 when the BMW factory sent along the crack Schnitzer team to run a pair of 318i’s for Jo Winkelhock and Steve Soper. Despite being new to the circuit Charly Lamm and his boys quickly adapted to things in Britain, to the extent that ‘Smokin’ Jo ran out a very popular champion at the end of the year.

The invasion didn’t end there though. Alfa Corse arrived in 1994 with a pair of blood-red 155’s (series’ PR Jonathan Gill used that line so often during the season it’s still ingrained on the mind!) with which F1 refugee Gabriele Tarquini and Giampiero Simoni cleaned up, the affable Tarquini winning eight out of 21 races, whilst Simoni won the last race of the year after playing faithful rear-gunner all season. Tarquini finished the year 76 points clear of nearest rival Alain Menu despite the Italian team withdrawing from one meeting altogether. It was a controversial season though...

It wasn’t just the snow that shocked the Alfa Corse team when they arrived at Thruxton’s season opener, for they weren’t quite prepared for the frosty reception that greeted their interpretation of the rules. Giorgio Pianta and Ninni Russo headed the operation and they are seasoned campaigners on the world stage and so naturally had read the rule book very closely before embarking on a new challenge, even though it wasn’t written in their native tongue. Consequently they worked-out just what they had to do to make the 155 competitive. The result? One special-edition model available from your local dealer complete with an adjustable front and rear spoiler kit packed away in the boot!

That didn’t go down at all well with the good ‘ol boys who had been caught napping. Rouse in particular was very voluble on the subject, not helped by the fact that he had been struggling to make the Ford Mondeo truly competitive. There was a certain irony as those with long memories recalled that the some of the components on the self-prepared Alfa Rouse won his title with ten years ago wouldn’t have borne too close a scrutiny.... Whatever, the matter rumbled on for a while until compromise was reached and the Alfa’s front splitter was run in a fixed position. Through it all Alfa won many fans, sold a few cars, and Tarquini was a popular champion.

By now things were at fever pitch. Almost overshadowed by the Alfa saga was the fact that Volvo also arrived on the scene. Accepting that it was going to take a while to turn the big 850 into a front-runner, the TWR-run oufit accepted the public perception of the previously staid Swedish marque by racing an Estate. They might not win many races but they got plenty of publicity! And by 1995 they were one of ten manufacturers represented on the grid – Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, Vauxhall and Volvo. Alfa left at the end of ’95 to be replaced by Audi. Nissan came and went too.

Things sort of returned to normal in ’95 when Cleland clinched the crown in Cavalier fashion, the Vauxhalls now under the control of Ray Mallock and his highly respected RML oufit. There was another rude awakening the following year in the shape of the all-wheel drive Audi A4 quattro,  Frank Biela cruising to the title in a controlled manner. Alain Menu had been around since the beginning of Super Touring after being rescued from a hand-to-mouth single- seater existence by Prodrive. His first season was disrupted by a leg- breaking quadbike accident but when Renault arrived for 1993 the Swiss- French driver was a shoe-in, together with Tim Harvey. Bit of a poisoned chalice in a way as the narrow-tracked Renault 19 was a pretty evil device, only really coming into it’s own at the soaking wet Grand Prix meeting at Donington. Cleland for some reason was a bit suspicious of Menu, but after following the wayward Renault round Brands during a qualifying session he gave him some grudging respect, commenting to me that whatever Alain was being paid it wasn’t enough!

Whatever, the 19 eventually gave way to the Laguna and a switch of team, preparation being taken on by Williams Grand Prix Engineering no less, a measure of the regard that BTCC was being held in those days. That led to Menu winning the title in ’97, a feat he repeated in 2000, back with Prodrive but this time driving a Mondeo. Ford rather did the rounds of the preparation outfits in an effort to achieve success with the Mondeo, but it was a long time coming. The 1998 season finally fell to Rickard Rydell and Volvo, the 850 having long since been replaced by the more compact S40, The century ended with another success for RML, but this time it was with Nissan and Frenchman Laurent Aiello, ably supported by David Leslie.

Jason Plato courted controversy almost from the day he first arrived in the BTCC as Menu’s team-mate and even though he took the title for Vauxhall in 2001 he was politely (or not!) shown the door by boss Mike Nicholson at season’s end! Incidentally, Super Touring had run its course by this time, massively escalating costs having frightened most of the manufacturers away. Something of a hybrid formula was introduced designed to appeal to independent teams, but with the rules being peculiar to Britain (ST had become a worldwide phenomenon) the series rather lost its way, not helped by a turbulent period in TOCA management which saw Gow off the scene for a while.

Vauxhall remained loyal to the cause however and that paid off with a further three titles – James Thompson in 2002 & 2004, sandwiching Frenchman Yvan Muller  - with facory opposition being limited to a relatively low-key Honda effort. The BTCC has always had a strong contingent of privateers, none more so than Matt Neal. Like Thompson, his height effectively ruled him out of a single-seater career, and remarkably he has raced in BTCC since 1992, usually at the wheel of a car run by his family outfit, Team Dynamics, headed by father Steve, himself a former Mini driver. Neal was always very much the fan’s favourite, none more so than when he claimed a £100,000- prize put-up by TOCA for the first privateer to win a race outright, this in the heady days of multi-manufacturer involvement. Since then he has won back- to-back titles in ‘05/’06 with Dynamics-run Hondas. After being beaten by Vauxhall last year he joins reigning champion Fabrizio Giovanardi in the works team for this season. It will be interesting to see how he gets on, for he has tried this before – once with Vauxhall and once with Vic Lee’s Peugeot 406 Coupe squad, but never met with the success he has had with own team.

This season sees the biggest entry list for a while, and with Gow firmly at the helm together with extensive ITV coverage things are looking healthier than for a while. On the manufacturer front, Vauxhall have fought-out the manufacturer title with  SEAT over the past couple of seasons and the Spanish company have made history by bringing diesel power to the BTCC for the first time this year – winning a race as early as the third meeting of the season.. We have already seen experiments with LPG and bio-ethanol as the search goes on to find alternative fuel sources.

My apologies for getting carried away with the Super Touring era, but I was there and it was fun! When I first got involved in freelance race reporting I rather concentrated on F3, Formula Ford etc, but having covered the early exploits of David Coulthard and Dario Franchitti for The Glasgow Herald they asked me if I could do something on touring cars, as at that time Scotland was well-represented by Cleland, Leslie and Ian Forrest. I quickly got hooked and even though the Herald lost interest after a couple of years I had other outlets. We really were one big happy travelling circus for a few years – in effect a world championship, albeit with the races all in one country. If you look at the entry lists of the re-invented World Touring Car Championship of the last year or two you will see amongst others the names of Gabriele Tarquini, Alain Menu, Rickard Rydell, Jason Plato, James Thompson and Yvan Muller, all former BTCC champions.

My memories go back a lot further though! As an 11-year-old, I remember patiently waiting for Jim Clark to sign my autograph book as he changed out of his overalls in the back of a Cortina at Snetterton – no motorhomes then! I remember seeing my first Ford Mustang, practically a life-changing experience and still one of my favourite cars. Best of all was that magic season in 1994 when Gabriele Tarquini and Alfa Romeo swept all before them, but then there are those who will say I am biased!

John Elwin, June 2008

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