The Speed Merchant of Venice

The saloon car driver of the '80s has something to prove in the '90s. Can Roberto Ravaglia meet the challenge of the BTCC head on? Paul Fearnley talks to the only man ever to be officially crowned the World Touring Car Champion

Roberto Ravaglia collects touring car titles like Rupert Murdoch does media outlets. In the second half of the 1980s the Venetian was the undisputed saloon car king, winning consecutive European, World, European and German titles in Team Schnitzer-run BMWs. But such rampant success brings with it attendant stresses.

"I want to be honest I feel some pressure," he explains in a lyrical tone that proves hard to decipher from the resultant cassette tape. "It's much easier when you are winning championships. When you don't win anymore people start to say, 'Why don't you win any more?' I feel that it is more difficult to stay on the high level than to get on the high level. When you are on the high level you must be careful not to fall off.

"I feel that in '94 I was doing a good championship because I was fighting with Audi and Biela [in Germany's inaugural Super Touring series]. The only season I was not doing so well was last year in Germany [he finished sixth overall]. This is something that doesn't help my position going into this championship."

Without a title since 1993 (the Italian), his crown is deemed to be slipping. And this season could provide the coup de grace to a wonderful career. So for the upcoming fight for survival he is gathering his most loyal troops around him. And he will need them, for he is facing perhaps his toughest foe yet.

Alter several seasons with Italian BMW teams Bigazzi and CiBiEmme, Ravaglia is back in the bosom of Team Schnitzer. A "homecoming" that was an astute stipulation in his contract.

"I wanted to go back with Schnitzer," he grins. "I say wherever Schnitzer is going, I will go. I think if the team was going to Japan, I also would be going to Japan."

Instead the ultra-successful Bavarian touring car outfit is BTCC-bound.

And its loyal marques honour is at stake. Last season, BMW's once-dominant 3-Series provided little more than cannon fodder for the BTCC's front-wheel drive racers. This in a year when it won titles in Australia, Belgium, France, and Germany.

Britain clearly will provide its focus for '96: to the chagrin of many, its motorsport division has aligned itself with McLaren and moved into the UK's "F1 valley"; the latest 320i has been tailored to suit the UK's medium-speed, high-downforce, bumpy tracks; its top team and fastest driver (Joachim Winkelhock) have been designated with the task of restoring pride.

But what role for Ravaglia?

In spite of his impressive curriculum vitae, the vultures are circling. Many pundits had expected the impressive Peter Kox, the Dutchman who finished second to team-mate Winkelhock in last year's German Super Touring series, to contest this season's BTCC. Extremely quick and with an in-depth knowledge of the British tracks, his case was a strong one.

Kox's hard-charging attack or Ravaglia's racing nous and experience? Now we know that the former will test McLaren's BMW in '96, and that the latter will race. Would it have not been better for Ravaglia to be handed the testing duties?

This is to underestimate his racing instinct. If he is being seen simply as a back-up to Winkelhock's title aspirations, Roberto certainly doesn't view it that way. His World and European successes were testament to his stickability. Sure, he was Schnitzer's chosen man, but not without good reason. The speed could be turned on when necessary, but it was his great good sense that made him a stand-out. When he crashed while practising at Bathurst in '87, the team stood aghast. Such things simply didn't happen.

Yet in 1989, when he switched to the sprint format of the German Touring Car Championship, he was not found lacking in the doorhandling stakes. He can stand his own corner: in '92, a much-publicised falling out with Johnny Cecotto in the Italian series saw the Venezuelan shunted sideways to BMW's German CT programme. Ravaglia is ready for all the BTCC can throw at him.

He certainly made a big impression in the three races he tackled in '94 as a stand-in for Steve Soper; he left Donington Park condemning British driving standards; he liked OuIton Park but labelled it dangerous; at the Silverstone Grand Prix meeting he qualified on the front row, only for his engine management system to suffer heatstroke as he waited on the line. He did not seem enamoured with the UK, to say the least. He insists, however, that he did not need much convincing to return.

"I feel it is the most competitive championship. Not you could say because of the level of the driver or the teams, because in Italy, for example, you have just the three teams, but also they are very competitive with high level. I feel it is the most competitive because you have many of these teams with good drivers."

And the tracks?

"I feel that the English circuits are the most difficult circuits in Europe. All the circuits are very, very difficult for me, especially where I have never done races - Thruxton, Brands Hatch, Knockhill and Snetterton."

And the driving?

"I have watched some races of last year, and I don't see so much crashing as there was before," he grins unworried.

He can dish it out. Appearances can be deceptive. In possession of a racing driver's piercing, nerveless eyes, Ravaglia otherwise cuts a rather unprepossessing figure. Anyone desirous of an Italian supercar, only to curse its off-kilter driving position could lay the blame at Ravaglia's feet: saggy-kneed and round-shouldered, he lopes around the paddock, usually drawing heavily on a cigarette. He would have made a great gunslinger. At the wheel he adopts a high-wristed, long-armed, shoulder-rolling style. His speed is deceptive. Unlike Winkelhock's, which is screamingly obvious.

"We are quite different," affirms Roberto. "I feel that Jo is a driver who just gets in the car and goes; I am the driver that needs to work more in the car."

And there's plenty of work needing to be done.

"I think this year is a rebuilding year, and I think the good year for BMW will be '97. But I feel that Schnitzer can do a good championship. It is not the first time that it comes to England. It has some experience of the championship in '93 and '94. For this you could say that they have an advantage that the team [BMW Motorsport Team] did not have in last year's BTCC. So I am sure that the combination of BMW, Schnitzer and McLaren will be a strong one.

Ah, Schnitzer...

"Schnitzer is a team with a lot of experience. And the combinations of the mechanics, the engineers, Charly Lamm and these people are working so well it's a very good combination. At the end of the day I know everybody, and I feel that Schnitzer has something that the other teams haven't."

For Charly Lamm, its team manager, the 635 CSI-sharing days of Ravaglia and Gerhard Berger are among his fondest memories. But the days of powerful rear-wheel drive "lorries" have long been numbered. Super Touring's rhythm is beaten out now by the likes of Williams, TWR and now - for BMW - McLaren.

Ravaglia: "This can be only good. With the experience of a team like McLaren or Williams or Volvo with [Tom] Walkinshaw, they can bring technology from Formula One and give it to touring cars. This is very good for the image of touring cars."

Image is all in a formula so obviously linked to a manufacturer's market share. So will benefit the most from on-track success in '96?

"I feel that Opel and Renault are the favourites. I think that John Cleland and Alain Menu are the favourites," Ravaglia answers.

What about Audi?

"I forgot about Audi."

An instant reassessment. "I think Audi will be the best car in this year's British championship, because in England you haven't got a really quick circuit, you have very bumpy circuits, and the weather is always, you could say, more rainy. Audi was able to win the Italian championship, and they were very competitive in Germany where you have completely different circuits. And on the circuits in England they will impress a lot of people."

Can BMW and Ravaglia make an impression, too?

"For me, yes. Otherwise BMW would not go"