Trans-Europe Express

The presence of 10 manufacturers in the 1994 British Touring Car Championship is extraordinarily appetising, but how long will such interest be sustainable?

The chairman of the FIA Touring Car Commission resembled an expectant father-to-be. For two days he paced nervously about the pit lane, and as the lights turned green I half expected him to pull a fat cigar from his jacket pocket. For Class 2 touring car racing gave birth at Monza recently. After a three-year gestation period, the two-litre category took its first European breath and was pronounced a healthy, bouncing formula.

The occasion was the FIA Touring Car Challenge and the nervous individual was Jonathan Ashman. As one of the catalysts behind the formula he had reason to be proud; 43 cars represented by 10 manufacturers (five of whom featured in the top six after a practice session which saw the whole grid covered by less than four seconds) took the start, and provided a memorable spectacle on the long drag to the Rettifilo chicane. In the event, neither race provided a thrilling battle for the lead – Paul Radisich winning both from pole position in the Ford Mondoe – but no matter how much Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo trumpet the more technologically advanced Class 1, Monza did enough to prove that Class 2 is the way forward for touring cars.

On the same day Alfa Romeo’s motorsport supremo Giorgio Planta, a man who has put his corporate neck on the line by backing Class 1 to the hilt, staged a major show of strength: all nine of the stunning GTCC Alfas plus four of last year’s Gp A turbocharged cars took part in a demonstration race in an effort to show the Class 2 cars to be the repmobiles Pianta clearly considers them to be. However, not even Germany can hold back this formula’s tide, and the creation of such a series in the bastion of actively suspended, ABS endowed, 400bhp, total traction supercars looks likely to split the country’s motorsport body as rival power brokers – ADAC and AvD – vie for supremacy. The organisers of the GTCC have offered to run races for the two-litre cars during race weekends, but ADAC has recently stated that it feels this would not provide the right structure for the formula to flourish, and has announced plans to run a series of its own. Both BMW and Audi are committed to Class 2, but would be unwilling to play a supporting role on the GTCC card – the ADAC series would give them a platform, however. Rumours have been circulating for some time that the M-B board took a lot of convincing to commit to Class 1 for five years, to a series where it does not race against its main market rivals and instead is given a good seeing-to by Alfa. Many German pundits feel it is only a matter of time until the three-pointed star has a presence in Class 2 it would be the icing on the cake.

Despite Class 2’s inexorable spread around the globe, Ashman is keen to play down the calls for a European Touring Car Championship; he doesn’t want his baby to grow up too quickly and would rather it enjoyed another couple of years in the bosom of its national championships. Spain, Australia and, more importantly, Japan will run a two-litre formula for the first time next year, and these will need some time to come up to the strength of the current French, Italian and British series. It has already been decided that the climax to the 1994 season will be another one-off event in October, at a venue yet to be decided.

His caution is well founded. Undoubtedly, this formula is riding on a crest of a wave, but it is a wave that may leave it high and dry. The strength of the British series may be clouding our overall view. Even its organisers recognise the threat inherent in the growth of manufacturer support – the arrival of Volvo and Alfa Romeo on the scene next year will take the manufacturer count to a remarkable 10. Of course, such support cannot be turned away – the works teams set the tone of the championship, the TV coverage and major sponsorship deals – but their presence is forcing out the privateers, who for many years have been the backbone of the series. And such championships tend to follow cycles of manufacturer support, with those who become brassed off at pouring money into a programme which is not bearing fruit pulling out at short notice. The chances of all 10 manufacturers winning races next year are minimal, and a mass exodus is a possibility.

Creating a European series would make it a certainty. No works, no privateers, no championship.

Such pessimism.

On the plus side, if any formula can break the above cycle it is this one. Six manufacturers tasted the celebratory champagne this season, and at Monza no single championship or manufacturer dominated. So far the straightforward regulations have prevented any one make from stealing a march on its rivals, and grids are regularly covered by two seconds or less. True, costs are on the increase, and a top team will be sourcing a budget in excess of £3M for a two-car team in next season’s BTCC, but in big league racing terms this is a drop in the ocean.

What’s more, the presence of TWR in the Volvo camp and Abarth with Alfa can only step up the technological pace. The Swedish company has chosen to race its 850i; this is apparently 17 inches longer than the minimum required by the regulations, and will take the trend set by the Mondeo, which benefits from a wider track than any of its current rivals, to the extreme. But it would be highly surprising if the ultra-successful TWR outfit did not turn into a front-runner. In contrast, Alfa Romeo will use its proven 155TS, which has won races in France and Italy. In entering the BTCC, the Milanese company has gone against its previous statement that a works team will not contest a Class 2 championship. A home team will be involved in its attack on the British scene, but it would appear that Prodrive’s Banbury base will provide little more than a “garaging” role.

Next year is therefore eagerly awaited, and must be savoured, for it is highly unlikely that the series will be able to support so many manufacturers for more than one season. The weak are bound to be weeded out and what remains after the cull will decide the formula’s future. One hypothesis is that the privateers who survive may be given manufacturer junior teams to run while the works concentrate on the would-be European scene. This would ensure the continuation of the national championships while providing the grass roots support and driver breeding ground for the bigger championships. Whether the manufacturers view this as being viable waits to be seen.

Whatever happens, next year’s BTCC will be the best yet and a revival of the ETCC looks only to be a matter of time.