John Cleland is not in a position to retain his BTCC crown with the new Vauxhall touring car. Paul Fearnley finds out why
This time last year John Cleland had just completed a run of four consecutive victories that were to be the cornerstone of his second British Touring Car title. This was to be the apogee of his memorable six-season partnership with the Vauxhall Cavalier, for 1996 was to be the dawn of a brave new world with the car for the next millennium’, the Vectra.
Nobody close to this ultra-competitive championship expected this new car to win first time out, but there was no reason to suspect that its birth would be such a protracted, painful affair.
It has won, but only in exceptional circumstances that saw James Thompson leap from fifth to first in just one memorable lap at Snetterton, but a truly meritorious victory looks as unlikely as it did when the car was comfortably outpaced by the Cavalier in back-to-back tests in France last winter. Yet all the right ingredients are there Ray Mallock began a revolution within two-litre touring car racing with a handful of people working out of a cowshed. In the space of three short years he has won the works Vauxhall BTCC contract, been awarded the centralised build of GM’s worldwide Super Touring Vectra programme, moved into a huge new facility and surrounded himself with a wealth of CAD/CAM design talent. And the car they were to work with was on paper and computer screen easily the Cavalier’s superior, thanks to its improved suspension geometry, more slippery shape, bigger footprint, stiffer bodyshell and a bigger engine bay so vital for the repackaging of the motor behind the driveline that is en vogue in the BTCC.
But so far the ingredients have yet to blend. Cleland is the most outspoken of the BTCC drivers, but when it is put to him that the team has yet to recover from the hectic winter construction of 15 cars, he bites his lip. “I know that the team is working bloody hard to put things right,” counters the Scot.
Yet the recent building of two brand new shells in an effort to improve the Vectra’s BTCC fortunes is a tacit admission that some corners were cut during the winter. And even these shells have left the drivers tossing a coin in a scramble to race the older, softer T-car!
If Cleland won’t say it, I will Vauxhall Sport does not look as cohesive on race weekends as it did last season. Now that the war has turned against it, there appear to be a few more chiefs than is preferable. Chiefs who preside over rival camps within.
That its drivers have differing viewpoints should not come as a surprise one is massively fast youngster who, although still careful not to rock the boat too much, is gradually increasing his influence within the team, the other is at the top of his tree having mastered his saloon car craft over a couple of decades, a man who feels that his hard-earned title is slipping away from him. So how does this effect John Cleland, racing driver?
“I am not demotivated by this at all,” he assures one and all. “I am even more motivated than ever to win races because there has never been a touring car season gone by that I haven’t won a race, and I’m not about to create a precedent here. My only problem is I really can’t see us winning races at the moment.
With the Cavalier I could always be certain you could roll it out of the back of the pour some fuel in it and in a handful of you would be running right at the top of the page in testing times and this would relate to the results.”
The Cavalier is never far from his thoughts. For Cleland, his current situation is doubly frustrating in that he reckons, on the latest Michelin rubber and with some winter fettling, the old warhorse would have remained competitive into ’96. He rails, however, against the suggestion that he drove the one model for far too long
“I think that’s bullshit. If think that if I climbed out of the Cavalier and into a Ford Mondeo the same day as I climbed into my Vectra, I would have said that the Mondeo was not right, too If I’d climbed into a Renault or a Volvo, I would have given an objective view of that car. I can jump from a front to a rear-wheel drive car, left to right-hand drive – I am a professional driver. And that’s just what I’ve done As far as I’m concerned, I’ve effectively changed teams. It’s the same badge but that’s it it’s an all-new car.”
An all-new car that too much was expected of too soon?
Cleland: “Yeah. I think what happened was that the expectations were greater than the actual reality of it. The trouble was that Ray took a Cavalier that had won races every year since its inception. He then made it better, made it the most competitive car that you could have in touring cars (it won championships worldwide) and because of that think the expectation was, ‘Well, he’s got the new Vectra it’s low-slung, it’s aerodynamically better. . . ‘It’s all of those things and, therefore, with Ray Mallock’s expertise, his aerodynamicists and engineers, it was supposed to be a winner the day it rolled out of the back of the transporter. That was the problem everybody expected too much of it. Even the team.”
But after its success of ’95 it had reason to be confident, while complacency is not an accusation I would level at this outfit. Rather it is still finding its feet after an enormous transition, out of a race team has sprouted a major commercial concern that has perhaps momentarily lost sight of its roots. It will flourish again, but 43-year-old Cleland is impatient for success. His contract runs out at the end of the year.. . may we think the unthinkable?
“For us to come away from a test having been 15th fastest [on the Silverstone GP circuit] is a serious worry. I’m sorry, but that’s not what I really race for,” the Galashels-based driver admits “It’s nothing the team is doing wrong, it’s just that we’ve got something at the moment that we haven’t figured out yet.
“I want to win races, there’s no argument about that. You look at my record over the years and I think they speak for themselves. Look at Peter Brock in Australia, he’s 53 years old and he’s just signed a five-year contract, Klaus Ludwig’s just won two ITC races for Opel and he’s older then me. I can get more publicity than any other driver in the BTCC – I think there’s life in the old dog yet.”
And the Vectra?
“It will improve I just don’t when.”
But will he still be driving it when it does?