Nissan’s top brass was unimpressed. Its guests had been fed and watered at not inconsiderable expense, before gathering at the front of its hospitality marquee on the outside of Copse to watch the touring car race that followed the British Grand Prix. Seconds later, having picked gravel out of their Pimms and strawberry soufflé, they witnessed the dust settle to reveal three very bent Primeras parked forlornly in the middle of the track.
At that very moment budgets were vociferously called into question. People have very short memories; 12 months ago Kieth O’dor and Win Percy scored a famous 1-2 in the very same race, but the pressure to perform is starting to mount in the BTCC. And this has already claimed its first victim – Mazda.
Its demise has long been predicted. The sleek V6 Xedos has bags of potential, but the team does not have the bags of money required to maximise it. It has promised to go away and undertake a concentrated development programme before returning for the last two meetings of the season. But believe it when you see it.
This leaves nine manufacturers still a very healthy state of affairs – as the series turns into the home stretch.
Alfa Romeo’s wings may have been clipped, but I’m afraid it has already flown the nest. The car ran with its front splitter pushed back for the first time at Silverstone, and Tarquini pushed the revitalised BMW all the way. Splitter or no, the key to downforce in a front-wheel drive touring car is to have a smooth undertray, which is something the Alfa has always possessed.
Another thing it is lucky to possess is a driver out of the top drawer. There are four or five BTCC drivers who would win the championship given the all-conquering 155, but none could make it look as easy as Tarquini has this season. The Monacobased Italian endured a heavy roll during testing at Snetterton back in May, but otherwise his year has been textbook. His driving style is measured, laid back, cool. He shuns the regulation Ray-bans and semaphorese body language for a checked cloth cap and English restraint. He has gained the unanimous respect of his rivals, and, to be honest, he looks a class above.
But he may have to play second fiddle for the remainder of the year, for BMW is back. The Munich manufacturer is a past master of getting what it wants out of the FIA. It doesn’t scream, wail or gnash its teeth, but loiters with intent in the corridors of power. There is no argument that its rear-wheel drive machinery is dynamically superior to its traction avant rivals, and but for the extra lead that the 318 is forced to lug around the tracks of Europe it would win every race.
The Munich manufacturer has been a long-time supporter of touring car racing, and for this it should be thanked, but how does it get its own way when outnumbered nine-to-one? When it was announced that the 318i was to shed 25 kg it had a “Weetabix for breakfast” effect on the frontwheel-drive brigade, which shrank visibly. Coupled with a new aerodynamics package a two-layer rear wing, larger front airdam, rear airdam and new front undertray that has improved the car under braking and in the fast corners, it has taken Jo Winkelhock to the top of the rostrum after an 11-month absence.
The lantern-jawed German won the illfated GP support race when only Tarquini offered any resistance. The BMWs look after the tyres far better than the front-wheel drive opposition, and in the heat that bathed Northamptonshire his car enjoyed a major advantage. As for Jo himself, he is a better driver when out front. His efforts back in the pack during the early part of the year told a story of overambitious moves. There were bent panels everywhere. Give him a little space and a car on the pace, he wrings its neck in a far more chilling, calculating manner. He will be the man to beat for the remainder of the season.
But what of Ford? The pre-season favourite appears to have lost its way. The Mondeo finished 1993 as the fastest two-litre touring car in the world, but has since been gazumped by Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Renault, and, at a push, last year’s Peugeot. Paul Radisich, the man who set the BTCC alight in the second half of last season, has found the car to be a tad temperamental. He is a constant in the top half-dozen in practice and regular podium finisher come the races, but this remains a disappointment. A general lack of grip is apparent, but a gamble on set-up at Silverstone saw him hop out of the car and report a step in the right direction. . .
The Renault Lagunas have also shown race-winning form. Both Alain Menu and Tim Harvey have demonstrated great speed during qualifying, but a tendency to tear up their front Michelins has caused the yellow and blue cars major headaches during the races. They have also been hindered by two homologation blunders that cost them their rear spoiler for the first half of the season, and a front, full-width undertray for the second. When budgets run into millions, such errors are difficult to accept.
In contrast, the Dunlop-shod Vauxhall Cavaliers have been the most consistent front-wheel drive cars in the races, but have suffered by a lack of speed in qualifying. When the car’s right, it’s a winner as demonstrated by John Cleland at Donington.
The undoubted revelation of the season has been the performance of Patrick Watts and Peugeot 405. The multiple one-make champion has always had the speed, but he has allied this to a tremendous consistency throughout his latest campaign to stun more up-to-date machinery run by better-funded teams.
This has made the Peugeot PR personnel’s year a comfortable one. But it cuts both ways.
Volvo has shown flashes of speed and TWR has always stated that this would be a learning year. But for a team with such a winning pedigree, the estate’s grudging dislike for slow corners has proved a big, and so far incurable, headache. It is simply stunning through the quicker corners and on the brakes, however.
The Toyota Carinas have given their drivers a torrid, pogo-stick ride so far, but looked to have turned the corner with a new suspension system. Nissan meanwhile has gone through more shells than an oystercatcher. The Janspeed team will be hoping that the Silverstone shunt was its nadir.
As will the BTCC. What should have been the championship’s showpiece event turned into a slapstick farce. But not everybody saw the funny side. . . P T F