Return to splendour

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In the 1990s saloon car racing pulled in record crowds. Now enthusiasts for that dramatic era have fired up those staggeringly complex Super Tourers for the first race in 12 years, at Silverstone Classic

It’s a world of initials, saloon racing. ETC, ITC, WTC – and TOCA, which doesn’t stand for anything, but steered by laconic Aussie Alan Gow turned the BTCC into a marketing success only Formula 1 could rival. Gow’s 1990s masterstroke was Super Touring, a catchy name for a flexible framework that gave saloons mass appeal before popping its own bubble.

It’s 12 years since the hunkered-down four-doors elbowed their way through the last frenetic corner of the last race in this free-for-all frenzy. Yes, they were ‘just’ four-door saloons, but under its canny title, this relaunch swept the grid clear of classes, subdivisions and build targets and let factory teams loose with grinder and welding torch to build the fastest high street lookalikes they could contrive. With racetrack prestige and sales-grabbing marque loyalty as the prize, it blossomed into a gladiatorial games that had the crowds roaring in the stands and the TV cameras beaming every fender-bending argy-barging moment into homes across the nation.

Circuit managers beamed over bulging gate receipts, branded clothing highlighted the entry queues, and a new generation grew up driving Corsas and Clios, dreaming of being Cleland or Muller or Plato carving their way through a mirror-crunching pack.

Then the bills came in – and they over-flowed with noughts. Whispers of six, eight, 10 million for a season sent a chill through the paddock, shivering those who didn’t spend that much on advertising, let alone motor racing. Manufacturers got their coats and began to leave the party, until only the wealthy die-hards remained, having a great time and not noticing the room was empty…

At its noisy height there were an astonishing 10 factory teams, but latterly it was down to three, running an extra car each and cajoling GpN cars to ill grids like paid companions at a Hollywood premiere. After a decade of booming exhausts, Super Touring bust a gasket and coasted silently into the pits. Until this July, when Silverstone’s enormous Classic meeting hosts the first Super Touring race since 2000.

We’re sheltering under Silverstone’s Wing, Super Touring cars in among the melée of Media Day. It’s wet, it’s busy and it’s hard to talk as everything from Edwardians to an F1 Benetton ire up and set sail.

“That’s one of mine!” says Jeff Allam, famed saloon car wrangler, here to give us his assessment of three cars spanning the start and finish of the Super Touring adventure. He’s looking at a Cavalier, one of his mounts during his time as a works Vauxhall driver in the early ’90s. We’re not trying that one today, though; instead the menu includes a 1991 BMW M3 such as Jeff drove during the ’90 BTCC season, and a late-era 1999 Prodrive Mondeo, which should recall his year in a Mondeo in the Australian Super Touring series. The novelty will be the 1997 Nissan Primera squatting in front of us on its rubber-roller wheels. But Allam is gazing at a TWR Rover SD1.

“Loved those things. In fact I bought one. Ran it up the hill at Goodwood but blew it up and sold it to a guy in Belgium. Wish I hadn’t.”

Allam has great history with the bulky V8s: he hustled Tom Walkinshaw’s cars to GPA wins around Europe – including winning the TT here at Silverstone – and in Australia where in Rovers, Jaguars and Holdens he starred at his beloved Bathurst. He’s a car dealer now, hasn’t raced since 2004, but like all retired drivers he still has race suit and helmet. “I stopped at what felt like the top, after the years with Vauxhall,” he reckons. “Never wanted to return. Quit while struggling to marshall several examples of you’re enjoying it, I say. And I did. I felt race weekends were like a hobby, not work.”

Yet rather than get involved in historics he is closely allied with current BTCC racing: he’s the driving standards advisor, part of a panel who dish out the wrist-slapping when required. And saloons require a lot. That’s what happens when cars are closely matched and drivers wrapped in protective metal.

It was that question of close matching that bore Super Touring. Saloons had lagged in the 1980s, with patchy grids and a confusing class system, hugely dominated by homologation specials such as Cosworth RS500s. Super Touring swept that away, bringing a 2-litre limit, ‘first past the post’ winners and a lexible tech spec that allowed manufacturers to mix and match parts from their range as long as the engine used the same block and head and sat in the same place. Suspension had to keep the same
configuration, and limits on revs, tyre size and usage gave privateers a helping hand. No-one foresaw the extraordinary technical sophistication that a decade of Super Touring would bring – and the peak of it is here in front of us, rumbling in the pitlane.

To call it a Mondeo is unfair: tasked with winning the title for Ford, Prodrive took the V6 from the American Probe, canted it forward and slammed it so far down between the wheels that the drive shaft runs through the vee. You can barely see the block down there, the dry sump, ist-sized clutch and compact sequential ’box practically scraping the road, with gears hoisting the drive back up to the diff. Huge discs are gripped by six-piston callipers, and while it still runs MacPherson struts, you could never buy these ones from your dealer. The effort that went into the special parts and hand-built shell (1000 man-hours, they say) beggar belief, so the car is lucky to have an owner like Alvin Powell, who’ll be racing it in the Classic event.

“I’ve got another 2000 Mondeo and Paul Radisich’s 1993 World Touring Cup winner too. Luckily I’ve got a Prodrive guy who worked on them at the time who does the engines, and I do the rest.” Alvin reckons he raced Super Touring longer than anyone, among 40 years of racing, and while he has a Tiga C2 car and an F40, it’s the Mondeos he wants to race.

“Trouble is, there hasn’t been a series. I’ve run in Formula Saloon and various Welsh series” – Alvin is volubly Welsh – “but like any thoroughbred they need proper exercise.” Beside me I see Jeff hold up his helmet and blow dust off it. He catches my eye and grins. “Just dug it out of the loft!”.

He slides inside and yanks the sequential ’box into irst. “It’s not easy to move off,” comments Alvin. “It needs 4000 revs but if you go to 5 or 6 it buries itself in the tarmac.”

But with a confident blare Jeff is off down the new pitlane to a track much changed since his last run. When he gets back he’s grinning, despite the mucky weather. “I had to remember which way the corners went! It’s all a bit tighter than my day,” he shouts over the exhaust, squirming out. It may be a four-door car – as the rules demanded – but that seat is way down on the floor, inside that cage of steel tube. “That was an eye-opener – irst time I’ve sat in a late-model Super Touring car. Plenty of torque in it, not peaky at all, but boy you’d have to be committed to stay on the limit in that.”

We turn to the Nissan, a works Primera from two years before the Ford. Dave Jarman is another serial owner: he started out racing Datsun 240Zs – his company DJR prepares them for historic events – and has had two racing Primeras before including David Leslie’s 1999 pace-setter. “But I had to race them in club events, and it doesn’t seem right to risk something with history in that arena.” And history this does have: one of the 1997 groundup new builds by RML for either Anthony Reid or David Leslie (Dave’s still digging), it went to leading privateer Matt Neal for 1998 and, re-shelled, gave him a string of privateer wins.

Again the motor is barely visible, the 320bhp straight four pressed against the bulkhead (you were not allowed to cut the metalwork exceptto enlarge the arches internally) behind the drive shaft. And the intakes face straight ahead, unlike the standard car: for the racer Nissan reversed the head to give intake room. There’s also extra piping to the double-caliper brakes, for these are water-cooled, with a little radiator underneath. Suspension mimics the original but is all fabricated, a nightmare for restoration.

Where Powell benefits from Prodrive’s stock of spares, Jarman had to make new parts to get it running again. Luckily, he says, he has help from a man who built these at RML.

“And it still has the data logging, so I’ve got Neal’s times as a target!”. He points out that the best Super Tourers remain 3sec quicker than today’s cars, which meant that redundant cars were a cheap way to win club races, but the result was that many were bodged about to keep running. There’s a reason why Neal showed so well in this car: up to ’98 the works machines copied the independent rear suspension arms of the 4WD Primera, but then were told they had to revert to the 2WD’s beam axle. Independents in a year-old car could remain independent.

Jeff returns from his stint. “It’s amazing how far back you sit – behind the B-pillar! I suppose that’s because Matt Neal is 10ft tall [he’s 6ft 7in].” Dave laughs. “You have to sight the apex through the side window.”

Before we download Jeff we have to rush him to the last car, the oldest and the simplest, an E30 M3 BMW which gave Steve Soper four wins in the BTCC in ’91, the first full year of 2-litre Super Touring. The German firm had the easiest task in complying, with a 2-litre engine to hand and endless previous success with the M3. That year produced fierce rivalry between BMW and Vauxhall, with a dramatic season closer, crowds of 40,000 and new entries from Toyota and Nissan. Super Touring was getting on cam.

While Jeff is out making waves, the car’s owner Mark Smith repeats the same frustration – there’s been nowhere to race these cars. He drives a string of Munich racers in different saloon and marque series, but he hasn’t been prepared to waste this one, which he found in the States. “It’s a proper Prodrive car with the six-speed Hollinger gearbox and three wins with Soper.” So it’s suitable that Steve Soper has just arrived to look over his old car, and here’s Dave Brodie, another tin-top star who will race his Cosworth RS500 at the Classic. Lots of hand-shaking when Allam reappears.

“Now that BMW felt like a true touring car, a saloon made to go racing. Simple and straightforward, not radically reengineered. You could have great fun with that, whereas the Super Tourers would be hard work to get the times. Alain Menu told me how tricky they were, the hours they’d spend tuning the car to each track.” Something tells me Allam is a traditionalist.

“Those two are far more technical than my era,” he muses. “I’m amazed how much difference the two years between the Nissan and the Ford made. And the budget: the Mondeo build quality is sharper, it feels more hi-tech, and the V6 is very strong. In the Nissan you have to use the gearbox all the time, whereas in the Ford you can back off, then put your foot down and it’s right there. They tell me it’s got 320bhp; I couldn’t feel that on this damp track, but my Cavalier had just shy of 300, so these aren’t so much more. They’re just much more sophisticated.

“At the limit I think both will do a good job – though if you took a few kerbs in that Mondeo you’d tear pieces out of the bottom of it! Today’s cars can plough into the gravel and out the other side, whereas the Super Tourers would be beached.”

No doubt about it, Allam is not in awe of this era. He’s impressed by the technical achievement in the cars, but not what they did for saloon racing. “I thought Super Touring would be expensive and separate the works from the privateers, and it did. There was a massive difference between works and privateer cars – two or three seconds a lap, whereas today a second can cover 12 cars.”

All this became true, of course, but there was a hugely successful period irst, the new rules bringing razor-edge racing and tempting in Mazda, Peugeot, Renault, then Alfa and Volvo, then Honda and Audi. But budgets and professionalism soared too, involving TWR, TOMs, Schnitzer and Williams GP to run manufacturer teams, and bringing in F1 drivers such as Derek Warwick and Nigel Mansell. After Alfa forced a rule change by introducing wings and splitters in ’94, costs hit a new plane. It’s said Nissan spent £8m on its title charge in ’99, and Ford threw in an extra £2m for the final year of the era, before new cost-cutting regs led to smaller, cheaper machines in 2001.

Not that Allam is suffering from nostalgia: he reckons today’s BTCC racing is better than ever, especially with the NGTC machines – New Generation Touring Cars with standard-spec 2-litre turbo engine and suspension packages which will by 2013 supplant the Super 2000s.

“You can buy an engine from Mountune or Neil Brown and they’ll be the same, which has brought viable economics and closer racing. A privateer with reasonable backing can race with the leaders. It’ll still be your Neals and Platos and Gordon Sheddens who take the championships, but there are drivers out there who can compete like they did in the early ’90s. They’re relatively close, which is healthier. They could be a bit faster, but they look fantastic, and the crowds are coming back.”

Jeff never liked the double-header sprints of Super Touring, so he’s extra impressed by what today’s drivers face. “We had endless testing; they’re straight into qualifying after one practice. They have to dial themselves into the track immediately. And three races on Sunday! I never had to do that. That’s intense.” In time, though, the NGTCs will become period pieces too and people will be running historic races for them, but it may not be quite as hard as this Super Touring project. For every Powell and Jarman who have prepared their cars ‘in case’, there are many more Super Touring owners who need to be tempted, according to one of the people who have hauled this ield together.

Johnny Westbrook is passionate about touring cars: he’s chief mechanic for Frank Wrathall’s Dynajet Toyota Avensis in BTCC, and owns a ’95 Super Touring Cavalier which Wrathall will drive in the race. He and Jarman, backed by Powell, have driven the scheme along, and he too laments the club racing fate of many cars. “A lot of people don’t comprehend their importance, and it’s so hard to return them to spec. The guys who built them are around, but they’re still involved in BTCC! People just see a saloon, but with the unique parts they’re as hard to run as a Group C car.”

For this first revival Westbrook and his coterie are inviting genuine ’75-on Gp2, DTM and GpA machines as well – even RS500s.

“They’ve got 200 more bhp but narrower tyres and inferior brakes, so I don’t think the gap will be too large.” But they are determined to have ‘proper’ cars, with history and without tweaks.

“Let’s face it, the Super Tourers are so sophisticated there’s nothing we could do to make them faster, but modern electronics would let you run more boost on a Cosworth, so we must crack down on that now or lose credibility.”

That matters, because these guys want to see a small series next year, beginning a Super Touring resurgence.

“I see crowds of 20,000 at BTCC races and it’s the same people who watched these cars 15 years ago,” says Westbrook. “We want to appeal to them, people who wouldn’t normally go to a historic meeting but who still remember and love these cars.” It’s that level of loyalty Allam recalls fondly.

“It’s about crowd support. They followed Plato, Cleland, Neal, wearing the colours like football fans. That’s the strength of it.” He’s optimistic that NGTC will attain the same level, without the complexity of what he’s driven today.

“I’ve really enjoyed sampling all three, and I’m impressed by the effort these guys have to put in to keep them going. These cars are so specialised – even the engine mounts are Rose joints. They cost £300,000 apiece to build, yet I remember seeing Mondeos advertised at £35k!”

Could he be tempted to race a Super Tourer? “If you asked which did I want to race, the Ford offered more contact and balance than the Nissan which felt very busy. You’d work harder with the Nissan. If you said ‘there’s a spare Mondeo’ I’d give it a bash. But that M3 just lit my face up. An H box, everything where you’d want it – I could have spent an hour in that car! That could make me want to get my race licence again.”

So if you’re reading this after Silverstone Classic, and you saw a blue, green and white helmet, newly polished, inside an M3 you’ll know what happened…

Silverstone Classic – July 20-22. Super Tourers race Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call 0871 231 0849 or visitwww.silverstoneclassic.com

Gordon Cruickshank