SEASONAL REVIEW - BRITISH TOURING CAR CHAMPIONSHIP

Alfa's man, Alfa’s biscuit.

Twenty minutes beforehand he had looked like death warmed up, ensconced in his Alfa Romeo swathed in so many coats that he resembled Michelin's Mr Bibendum. Now he and his mechanics were celebrating with the euphoria that the hapless Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio Italy's World Cup Final penalty-fluffers must still dream about. Gabriele Tarquini had defied a chronic stomach upset to secure the British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone, and to ice the cake he promptly scored his eighth victory of the year in the second part of the double-header around the GP circuit.

From the moment Alfa Corse had wheeled out its be-winged 155TS on a very wet April Fool's Day at Thruxton, the ex-Formula One driver from Giulianova had been the man to beat in this country's premier racing series. He wasn't. Amidst the maelstrom of Alfa's aerodynamic aids, he had been the personification of calm as he remained totally focused to score five wins on the trot. This run was halted when he was pushed out of the lead at Silverstone, but his first truly serious stumble was when Alfa Romeo left Oulton Park in high dudgeon after its cars had been refused their scrutineering tickets.

This was the high point of the wrangle surrounding their wings and splitters. This heated debate dominated the early stages of the championship. But in pure racing terms, the ultra-professional Alfa Corse had caught its rivals on the hop by building homologation special for this series - it being the only manufacturer to do so - and the car's raised rear wing and extended front airdam the - latter in particular - gave the 155 a distinct grip advantage over its rivals. After numerous discussions, the Milanese team was forced to lower its rear wing, but was allowed to run with its splitter extended until July 1 - the next homologation date - whereupon it would have to be pushed back. However, it soon became clear that these were only a part of the reason for Alfa's early season dominance, as it was still on the pace after its wings had been clipped and its rivals had sprouted theirs.

Another major contributing factor to it success was the car's "open loop" electronically-activated differential. This brought a lot of huff and puff from its aggrieved rivals, but it had been declared legal by the FIA as early as February, and those hoping to win next season will have to be so equipped. The Alfa Romeo often appeared to be running softer and have more body roll than most, but it was rarely short of grip while looking after its Michelins, better than the rest. Its engine - which suffered a run of failures mid-season - was not the strongest along the straights, but it had excellent torque, and the acceleration it was able to generate out of mid-speed corners was its big plus. At times, the car gave the impression of running to a different formula - it was that good.

Alfa Romeo was also blessed with the best driver in the series. It was only after he had clinched the title that Tarquini made the vestige of a mistake. His approach was completely measured and he always appeared to have a little in reserve.

Giampiero Simoni was the surprise choice to partner Tarquini, but after a patchy, incident-filled start, he settled down to become an excellent foil for the champion. At times he was quicker than his team leader, but he always played the dutiful number two. His win in the final race of the year was highly popular, and if he returns to these shores next year he is ready to be a regular winner.

Two slips of the pen may have cost Renault a real shot at the title. Days before the opening race at Thruxton, GB Motorsport discovered that its Lagunas would have to race minus its rear spoiler because of an administrative bungle. On July 1 the car's Airflow body-kit was homologated, but another red-tape blunder prevented the team from fitting the vital front undertray.

In spite of this, the car was a regular front runner, notching up three wins in the hands of Alain Menu and Tim Harvey. It never looked as stable as the Alfa, being particularly twitchy under braking. And it harboured a vociferous appetite for front tyres at the outset of the season. But a very strong engine ensured that it was usually a very potent force.

Menu continued his sparkling form of last year to be second overall. At times he was untouchable in qualifying, and he possesses the priceless ability to push hard on cold tyres. On this occasion, however, he did not put his team-mate, Tim Harvey, so totally in the shade as he did in '93. The former BTCC champion suffered the bulk of the team's misfortune, but showed pole-setting and race-winning form towards the end of the season.

Third in the series was a major disappointment for Paul Radisich, the pre-season favourite. His consistency ensured that Tarquini had to be on his mettle for much of the season, but Andy Rouse's Mondeos were rarely the cars to beat. In contrast to Alfa Romeo, Rouse had chosen to divest the Mondeo of its rear wing, as the low road spoiler served no real purpose. Thus the Blue Oval was lacking in the aerodynamic department, and in the middle of the season the Mondeo suffered from a lack of traction. However, by general consensus, its Cosworth-tended V6 was the strongest of the lot, and Radisich's cool, unhurried style kept him in the hunt longer than most would have managed.

As for Rouse, it was a case of one season too many behind the wheel - just - although he was happy to give his team-mate the sole benefit of most of the year's developments. Perhaps because of this, the New Zealander was able to successfully defend his FIA Touring Car World Championship title at Donington Park.

Initially, a pronounced shortage of wings saw the usually dominant BMWs languishing in the, pack, a scenario Steve Soper dealt with better than the reigning champion, Jo Winkelhock. But on July 1 it homologated a new aerodynamic package and was also awarded a weight reduction by the FIA. The former was perhaps the more important as the Munich marque re-established itself at the front of the grid.

Give Winkelhock some clear track and his late-braking speed can be awesome, but, at times, his methods in traffic are questionable. Soper split his time between Britain and a full-scale attack on the Japanese series; he was usually edged out by Jo in qualifying, but he raced cleaner and extracted more from the car when it was struggling. He remains a true saloon car hero. Roberto Ravaglia was Soper's capable stand-in, and when the 318i was on the pace, so was he.

It was an up and down season for Vauxhall; the Ray Mallock-built car could be untouchable, witness John Cleland's two wins at Donington Park, but it could also be surprisingly off the pace. Along with Dunlop, the team was never able to come up with a workable qualifying package, while the chassis was affected by high-speed oversteer.

Cleland remains the hardest of the BTCC's hard-chargers, but this no longer enough in this series. However, if he and Mallock hit the bullseye early next year there is no doubting that Cavalier can still be a force in its sixth straight year of competition.

As last year, Jeff Allam played little more than a second string to Cleland's bow. The amiable Epsom car dealer is liable to become downhearted if circumstances are not au point, but equally, there is no doubting that Cleland got preferential treatment.

Patrick Watts and the '93 Peugeot 405 were the revelations of the season's first half, the Tonbridge driver's flamboyant style putting him up at the sharp end on numerous occasions. The 405 had a strong engine and was a tour de force over the bumps, but its poor aerodynamics were a drawback. We waited in vain for much of the season for the new car, but when it arrived it was not the step forward the team had hoped for.

Eugene O'Brien was again Peugeot's number two, and his efforts to cast off the sobriquet of general accident were not helped with a major shunt in the first race of the season. Occasionally he showed genuine pace, but he has yet to alter many of his rivals' damning view of him.

Both Julian Bailey and Will Hoy, the former especially, drove excellently all season for little reward in the recalcitrant Toyota Carina. There is little doubt that Yokohama suffers in comparison to Michelin and Dunlop when it comes to developing front-wheel drive rubber, but there remains something fundamentally awry with the Carina's suspension. A new suspension system from japan and a reverse-head engine helped matters, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. ,

It is fair to say that TWR did not expect to win races in its first year with front-wheel drive, but equally, the season proved tougher than it might have reasonably expected. The 850 Estate a huge success in publicity terms was highly advanced with its engine pushed hard against the bulkhead so that the diff could be mounted between it and the radiators; under braking and through the fast corners it was almost unmatched, while its five-cylinder motor did not lack for power or torque. But in the slow corners it stubbornly remained an unholy terror.

Rickard Rydell was the team's undoubted star. He was often brilliant in qualifying, although the car's understeering qualities usually prevented him from a matching these performances come the race. In contrast, the highly experienced Jan Lammers struggled like hell to get to grips with front-wheel drive; he sparkled at Brands Hatch, but was generally a disappointment.

As was Eric van de Poele. The talented Belgian's mysterious lack of pace with the Primera was, however, indicative of a disastrous year for the Janspeed Nissans. The team was blighted with innumerable accidents - the dust usually settled to reveal a very bent Nissan - but the bottom line was that its engine lacked the power and torque required to be a front runner. Kieth O’dor remains a very capable pilot, but he spent most of the year hitting cars parked at right angles to his line of travel. The unluckiest man in the series.

Mazda was the final manufacturer, and both David Leslie and Matt Neal struggled with the now uncompetitive Xedos 6 until the latter rolled his to destruction at Silverstone, and the former was left on the sidelines when the team ran out of money. PT F