One of the BTCC's most easy-going drivers got on the 'phone to argue his case recently. Then he proved it on the track. Paul Fearnley eats a dollop of humble pie
Telephone conversations with Will Hoy are affable affairs. Usually. This one wasn't. Source of the ire was my assessment of his 1996 BTCC hopes in our sister magazine Motoring News. The wording was glib, I admit, but I wasn't the only pundit who reckoned that his second year with Williams Renault Dealer Racing would strengthen as it progressed.
For this was the shape that 1995 had taken. Ever the team man, Will made little play of it at the time, but as he stated his telephonic case, he referred to a piece of paper that listed the nine mechanical failures which had blighted his early races with the Laguna.
The second half of the season provided a marked contrast. Measured against Alain Menu, the man widely perceived as being the best BTCC pilot, he matched his Swiss team-mate point for point, scoring three victories. The turning-point was a hard-won success at'Brands Hatch Indy, in the teeth of unremitting pressure from the title contending John Cleland and Rickard Rydell.
"People underestimate the problems we had at the start of last year," asserts the Chelsea-based 43-year-old. "We were up against it in terms of time, and because of that the car ran with a lot of parts that were marginal in terms of reliability. I had misfires and drivetrain problems and, in a championship as close as this, a couple of tenths is all it takes to make you look bad.
The '96 all-Williams Laguna was not as late arriving as its predecessor, but track time was still tight: Will's call came the day after an engine failure had radically cut short some much needed running at Silverstone . . For once the verbal dead bat was stowed away.
He may be past master of deflecting awkward questions, but his body language can be a dead giveaway: the moustache will twitch, the eyes roll skyward and the shoulders will hunch when matters take a turn for the worse. His is a determination to bottle up problems within the confines of a team. During two years ('93 and '94) of trial and tribulation with the wayward TOM'S built Toyotas, out of the cockpit he would rather immerse himself in a crossword with super laconic team-mate, Julian Bailey, than bemoan his plight.
A consequence of this long-term self-denial was his out-of-character Serie A -type celebrations after the '95 Brands Hatch success. Caterpillar begat butterfly.
"It was a relief," he admits. "I've always had confidence in my ability that wasn't the problem. But winning does no harm. Its what people remember." And write about.
As one of the few BTCC drivers who admits to watching Unliversity Challenge well, he is a quantity surveyor by trade - Hoy is marked down as the paddock thinker. And he expects others to reciprocate. If things have to go unsaid, he expects the pun its to be on the ball, to read between the lines it necessary ...
"Sometimes you have to come to terms with your circumstances, make the best of what you've got. You get to know what a car will do, and if you achieve its maximum you can go home satisfied even if the journalists don't make much of it."
It would be an injustice, however, if this article did not stress his excellent relationship with the press. Always approachable, he will let bygones by bygones. That his rapport with Bailey improved after the former F1 driver had tipped him onto his Carina's roof and out of the lead of the '93 British GP support race, speaks volumes for his approach.
In those barren years, he never got desperate. He raced hard and passed more than most - to the point where rivals reckon he gets away with more than most in the door-handling department. It's true that his undemonstrative manner and fluent dicer babble may aid him when up in front of the BTCC's beak, but there can be no doubting that he's one of the best overtakers in the series.
Not that he was required to use this skill at Donington Park in the opening rounds of this year's championship. Still, it was an impressive performance, chasing the dominant Audi of Frank Bela home (at least that part of my MN preview was correct) in both races. In doing so, he outqualified Menu and kept him behind throughout the first race. He then indicated his told-you-so glee in a digital manner to the assembled throng at the post-race press conference. An action softened by the now regulation grin.
His time in the new Renault had been limited, but what time there had been had left him with a good feeling.
"I went out on Friday [in the official TOGA test] on very old tyres and did a good time on just my third lap," he recalls. "I thought, 'Hey, this is fast.' We have been limited on development, and so we limited the changes we would make in order to find a good set-up, and it worked...
"Work needs to be done, for sure, but a good car will show itself to be good straight away." Williams is strong in both departments. "What Williams has got is experience and knowledge in F! because of this it reacts quickly when necessary: it also has a depth of experience in knowing what makes for a good racing car. There are no compromises.''
Or bullshit. Politics are rife in motorsport, yet they play no part at this team. It simply gets on with the job. There was little fanfare upon its BTCC arrival. It had a lot to learn. It owned up to the problems that beset Hoy. It approved of his loyalty. And now both sides are reaping the dividends. If anybody is to take up Audi's challenge it will be the yellow and blue Lagunas.
"What was special about the Donington performance was that we had no knowledge of the strength of the car over a race distance," Will reveals. "It proved to be very strong. I know that there are a number of things to be done to make the car even stronger, and that gives me a lot of hope."
So can Audi be beaten?
"Yes. You have to think like that. I reckon that Frank [Biela] had a little bit left in hand at Donington, but there are circuits where I think the Renault will be stronger."
And I have to think now that Will coutd repeat his 1991 title success. Like Damon Hill, he's on a roll, he's relaxed and proving the doubters wrong. Me included.