Forever growing bubbles
It has often been said that the BTCC bubble would have to burst sooner or later. But that won't be happening in 1996...
The newly crowned British Touring Car Champion has had his holiday – a fortnight in Australia that included finishing a Holden Commodore-mounted sixth in the 'Great Race' at Bathurst! As you read this, he will be in South Africa contesting a Kyalami invitational race for Opel. But his real work has already begun.
John Cleland has seen the future. As Vectra takes GM's all-important fleet car market attack into the next millennium, so its on-track cousin prepares to take up where the redoubtable Cavalier left off. In front. The Galashiels-based driver had his first taste of the Ray Mallock-tended car at Pembrey this month the beginning of an arduous winter of testing. He came away suitably impressed. If Cavalier was the ultimate example of what is to be replaced, Vectra is – currently – the ultimate example of what is to come. Of course, we still await the latest Williams-built Renault Laguna, TWR's Volvo 850 and Audi's '96 four-wheel drive contender. Gather nine manufacturers in the claustrophobic confines of a single championship, and the furnace of development is bound to be stoked to the gunwales.
Even at this early stage, I can guarantee that the above four companies will be the front-runners in next year's series. It will come as no great surprise that Renault, Vauxhall and Volvo – the leading lights of this year's championship – were the manufacturers to give their teams a crystal clear remit and adequate budget to go motor racing. The rest were cluttered with internal politics of varying degrees and/or financially beleaguered.
As I write, the '96 BTCC's plans of BMW, Ford, Peugeot and Toyota are shrouded in mystery. Teams with pieces of the motorsport jigsaw still languishing under the settee of boardroom sluggishness and disinformation – unless it has the capability and focus of Williams, which are few and far between – are doomed to 1996 disappointment.
In particular, Ford is in disarray. Announcements have been postponed, while parties rumoured to be involved in the expected shake-up remain in the dark, and are ploughing ahead with their current programmes that could act as fail-safes if required. The recent furore surrounding Toyota's World Rally Championship future has dropped its subsidiary European Super Touring programme into the melting pot, although Toyota GB has definitely withdrawn its support. Meanwhile, the marketing opportunities provided by the arrival of its latest model, the 406, will probably be Peugeot's skin-of-the-teeth return ticket to the BTCC after four winless seasons.
BMW provides a slightly different scenario. This season the Munich manufacturer won championships in Australia, Belgium, France, Germany and Japan the latter thanks to the efforts of Steve Soper. It was, however, an also-ran in the British series. The German company's long association with this form of racing has enabled it to sniff on the breeze the direction this category is about to take, and it plans to streamline a widespread operation that pitpropped the two-litre formula in its early stages. A radical version of the 318 is on the cards, apparently, and Britain is believed to be one of the titles to have been targeted for next year.
BMW had hoped to have the wing regulations altered for next season, feeling as it did that they mitigated against its rear-wheel-drive layout, but the recent FIA World Council gave the aerodynamic aids a season's grace, while promising that change in this respect would definitely come for '97.
Audi is another German manufacturer expected to lose out regulation-wise next year. In the regular manufacturers' committees the Ingolstadt manufacturer often pushes for the increased use of hi-tech suspension and drivetrains in this category – oft quoting a subtle difference between 'electric' and 'electronic' in an effort to get its way. Its A4s dominated the recent FIA Touring Car World Cup, where it was rumoured that they were switching to rear-wheel drive on the faster parts of the circuit to reduce power loss through its total traction drivetrain. But for next season the only things running to and from a car's differential will be its driveshafts. It will be interesting to see how the model fares in Britain next season with three 'mechanical' diffs whirring away. My guess is that it will still be a race-winner.
If only Vauxhall is testing its '96 challenger, then the silly season is well underway, almost over even...
The recently-crowned FIA Touring Car World Champion, Frank Biela, has been confirmed as Audi's number one in the BTCC next season. A British driver is expected to join him, and this has been narrowed down to Julian Bailey or Derek Warwick.
David Brabham has been told that he will continue to play a part should there be a British BMW programme next season, and he has a number of potential team-mates: my guess is that Peter Kox, a star in his first year of Super Touring in Germany, and a driver very familiar with the British circuits, will join him. I also expect Team Schnitzer, the very impressive outfit that took Jo Winklelhock to the title in '93, will return to these shores next season.
Long-time F3 team West Surrey Racing is favourite to run the works Mondeos in '96, with Reynard building a more technically advanced machine. But the spectre of Andy Rouse refuses to go away. Even should he lose the works deal, the four-times champion is likely to run a couple of Fords. With backing from his perennial sponsor, ICS: and perhaps with Top Gear presenter Tiff Needell, who has put together a tidy financial package for next season, in one of the cars. Team Dynamics, this year's winning team in the privateer Total Cup, is another planning to go its own way with a couple of Mondeos, with technical input coming from ex-Formula One and World Sports Car designer, Tony Southgate.
This is a prickly time for Ford, which is currently holding a three-year review of its touring car involvement. And two-times Touring Car World Champion, Paul Radisich, has found himself painted into a corner with it. The New Zealander looks set to stay with the nominated works outfit, while last year's Ford Fiesta headliner, John Bintcliffe, may be the surprise choice to partner him. I hope so, because the Yorkshireman looks like a major talent in the making.
The Honda deal is all done and dusted, remaining unchanged from '95 with David Leslie and James Kaye driving the Motor Sport Developments-built Accords.
If Peugeot is represented, the spectacular Patrick Watts will once again lead its campaign. His team-mate will depend on the budget made available on the team.
Like Honda, Renault will maintain its continuity with Williams providing Lagunas for Alain Menu and Will Hoy.
Toyota GB maybe out but TOM'S GB, builders of the Carina E that showed such promise in the last three meetings of this season, is desperate to maintain a toehold in the championship. I expect the marque to be represented next season, but by how many cars, and in the form of a works or privateer outfit has yet to be confirmed.
As for the 'V Formation': James Thompson is expected to partner Cleland in the second Vectra, although there is modicum of doubt over the eye injury that still lingers from the youngster's huge testing crash at Knockhill last July. Kelvin Burt, meanwhile has replaced Tim Harvey at TWR, where he will drive a Volvo 850 alongside Rickard Rydell.
On top of all this Chrysler, which is committed to the nascent North American Touring Car Championship for '96, may contest some of the latter rounds of the BTCC with its Stratus/Cirrus model. Hyundai is being linked to a similar programme.
Add on the three works '95 Cavaliers, a host of Mondeos and perhaps a third '96-spec Laguna, all in privateer hands, and the series looks set for another healthy year.
The bubble has yet to burst. The BTCC's viewing public now numbers in the hundreds of millions, and we can't be far away from the day it becomes a self-perpetuating entity à la NASCAR. It has been a remarkable transformation.