British Touring Car Championship

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That’s entertainment

Due to the vagaries of the scoring system the 1989 Esso British Touring Car Champion, John Cleland, has had things perhaps easier than any of the previous British saloon title winners. This is not to undermine the excellent, professional job that Cleland did in guiding his 16 valve Vauxhall Astra GTE to Class C victories in 11 of the 13 rounds comprising the championship, but his only opposition took the form of a couple of VW Golfs which were a good 30 bhp down on power and his own team-mates who were driving strictly to team orders. The two rounds that Cleland didn’t win due to a puncture and a wheel hub failure were picked up by his teammate Louise Aitken-Walker, a name more usually associated with rallying.

The scoring system which awards equal points for each of the four classes will probably be changed for next year when we should see the outright winner of the races taking the title. Which, most agree, makes a lot more sense. It is with the Class A cars the phenomenally powerful Group A Sierra Cosworths that most of the real interest lies. Upping the standard engine’s 200bhp to something well in excess of 500bhp in Group A trim in effect putting near F1 power levels into what was intended to be a road car makes for wonderfully spectacular viewing. There is far too much power on tap for the chassis to adequately handle and consequently the drivers’ skills are constantly visible.

However, had the new scoring system been adopted this year we would currently be in that odious position of not knowing exactly who the champion was until the appeal courts had sat. It will not be until January that we know for certain whether Andy Rouse or Robb Gravett has won the Class A category of the series. The uncertainty centres around Rouse’s disqualification from rounds seven and eight at Silverstone and Brands Hatch in July for alleged turbocharger discrepancies. If Rouse’s appeal is upheld, he will be crowned the class champion for the second successive year, after a season in which he took his Kaliber Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500 across the line first on six occasions.

Six victories is a little less dominant than Rouse’s 1988 score of nine and the main reason for this has been Robb Gravett and the new-for-this-year Trakstar team. Setting up as the only domestic runners to have a Yokohama tyre contract, it is the Japanese rubber which has on several occasions looked to have given Trakstar the “unfair advantage” over the mainly Pirelli-shod competition and Gravest usually won when Rouse didn’t, taking a total of four wins on the road. There is more to it than just tyres though. Starting out the season with Australian Dick Johnson engines, development was then taken up by the Essex-based Mountune company. Continuous work here has seen the units almost on a par with the Rouse Engineering equivalents, while Gravett’s contribution to the success should not be understated. In only his second season of Group A his speed has been blinding on occasions and some of his battles with Rouse, the acknowledged master of the touring car game, have been memorable. Unfortunately their rivalry ended on a somewhat sour note after they came together at the final round, Gravett spinning and Rouse going on to win, protests subsequently flying back and forth. Should Rouse’s appeal be turned down, then Gravett will be the Class A champion.

Of the three races not accounted for by Rouse and Gravest between them, two were taken by the Rouse customer Labatts Sierras, with Tim Harvey’s round 12 victory at Donington adding to the Laurence Bristow/Tiff Needell shared victory in the two-driver race at the same venue earlier in the season. After a patchy first half to the year when his car only occasionally seemed to be fully on par with the big two, Harvey really came on strong as the season drew to a close. Still on the way up, Harvey’s immediate future probably now lies in the Group C World Sports Car arena. Considering his relative lack of experience at this level, Bristow’s speed has been impressive, never very far behind Harvey and occasionally in front.

The only other Sierra that could have been considered a threat at any time was Dave Brodie’s. Returning to the championship at the end of last year some time after his previous exploits in a Colt Station, Brodie and his engineering partner Ken Brittan, had made their RS500 sufficiently competitive by the third round to win at Thruxton. The means by which they had done this then came under scrutiny and Brodie was subsequently disqualified from this and the round five Thruxton race which he had led convincingly until a tyre blew, for allegedly using illegal fuel. This decision too has gone to the appeal courts, but if this is not upheld, then Tim Harvey can add a second victory to his official ’89 tally. Significantly only Brodie crossed the line first using Dunlop rubber, all other wins being shared between Yokohama and Pirelli.

Dunlop did, however, have another competitive runner in the shape of former double champion Chris Hodgetts who was a contender for victory in the early rounds, but a lack of both budget and power from his Brooklyn RS500 blunted his challenge thereafter. All the indications were that, given the right equipment, Hodgetts would have been doing his share of winning. He made a one-off appearance at the final round in the JQF team’s car, qualifying it higher than anyone else had managed to, on the second row, before finishing a good fifth. The lack of outright pace from this car did much to damage the reputation of its erstwhile driver Gerrit van Kouwen, and the former Formula Ford Festival and F3 race winner and the team had parted acrimoniously before the year had ended, the team itself then going into liquidation. In all, an unhappy conclusion to a season in which much was expected, given the personnel and the budget involved.

Putting on a good show despite a paltry budget, Karl Jones in the Duckhams Sierra run by the Lee Asquith team was frequently wild in trying to compensate for the car’s deficiencies. The Welshman’s car control needs to be seen to be believed. The few good placings that he achieved were all that Jones could reasonably have expected, but his season ended on a high note when he started the final round from pole position following a wet practice session. Yet more confirmation of how well he could go.

Class B for cars of up to 2.5 litres was the exclusive property of the BMW M3. If it was not for some spectacular in-team dicing between Prodrive’s James Weaver and Frank Sytner early in the season, Weaver would probably have won the championship outright. As it was, he was Class B victor 11 times from 13, albeit without competition from a team orders obeying Sytner in the season’s second half. Alternating between this and a low budget Indycar season in the States, Weaver was predictably super-quick in the M3, but not sufficiently so as to be able to put a big distance between himself and Sytner in the early season races. As a consequence, Frank was close enough to try some pretty marginal manoeuvres — notably at Silverstone and Thruxton in rounds two and three when the pair made contact on countless occasions.

The privateer M3s were inevitably some distance behind the Prodrive machines, but John Llewellyn, Ian Forrest, Godfrey Hall and, occasionally, John Clark, proved remarkably evenly-matched.

The baby class — Class D for cars of up to 1600cc — was won by Phil Dowsett’s Toyota Corolla GT-16, but from the Grand Prix meeting on, this combination met its match in the form of the more modern Honda Civic Si of Ray Armes.

Next year the championship is due to become a two-class series, with the Class A cars — which continue unchanged — being backed up by a new 2-litre class introduced by the RACMSA. This was designed to encourage a greater diversity of manufacturer support, though at the moment only BMW and Vauxhall have given a firm public commitment to it. Lacking manufacturer variety it may have done, but no-one could criticise this year’s series on the grounds of lack of entertainment. MPH

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