More than just a number

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Triple Eight Racing is one of the UK’s most prolific teams and earlier this year celebrated its 500th British Touring Car Championship start. It all began with a chance conversation at Brands Hatch…

We had no factory, no cars and no people,” says Ian Harrison, “but we did have a contract with General Motors…” That’s how life began for Triple Eight. It was late 1996, the year of Damon Hill’s Formula 1 world title with Williams, and had the dice rolled differently Harrison might have been at Hill’s side. He was tired of F1 by then, however, and had stepped aside to set up Williams Touring Car Engineering, running Renault Lagunas in the British Touring Car Championship.

“With hindsight,” he says, “I should have stayed in F1 for two more years – I’d have spent 1996 with Damon, which would have been great, but I’d already done 10 seasons and felt I’d had enough. The 1994 campaign was obviously stressful, with Ayrton Senna’s accident, and Frank [Williams] had asked me to take a look at touring car budgets, because he’d done a deal with Renault for the following year. I agreed, but told him I wanted to run the team. At first he said I couldn’t, because I was in charge of F1, but I found him a replacement.”

That was Dickie Stanford, whom Harrison knew from his earlier days with the factory Ralt F2 team. Stanford would go on to become a fixture at Williams, Harrison likewise in the BTCC paddock.

“I really enjoyed my new role,” Harrison says. “The series was good, although it soon became apparent that it was financially unsustainable. But I liked the fact you could wander around chatting to people from other teams. It wasn’t as up its own arse as F1 was, frankly. There were egos involved, but they weren’t as big as those in F1. Watching Grand Prix cars is absolutely fantastic, but the racing is often crap. Touring car races might last only half an hour, but it’s best not to blink if you don’t want to miss anything. That’s the bit I like and it has kept me interested over the years.” 

By mid-1996 Harrison felt a few changes were needed for WTCE to take the next step. “I wanted to sign another driver to partner Alain Menu,” he says, “but decisions at that level had to go through Patrick Head and Frank and I couldn’t get their attention. One day, at Brands Hatch, I bumped into Roland Dane, who was running Hondas. He was complaining that the engines kept blowing up, that he couldn’t get the drivers he wanted, and I said, ‘Bloody hell, if we had our own team we wouldn’t have these problems.’ Two weeks later he rang and asked if I was serious, so he, Derek Warwick and I had a meeting and started putting things together. 

“We were trying to sort a Honda contract, because Derek was the firm’s biggest UK dealer, but that didn’t happen. Derek then called Mike Nicholson at Vauxhall, just touting us around, and within 10 days it was all done. Having started the Williams thing I said I’d never go through all of that again, building a team from scratch, but there I was a couple of years later… and here we still are.”

The adventure began with past champion John Cleland and Warwick at the helm, but the team’s Vauxhall Vectra proved uncompetitive in 1997 and it wasn’t until the following year that Triple Eight registered its first victories, Cleland triumphing twice at Donington Park and Warwick later winning at Knockhill. Both would retire from the hot seat by the decade’s end, an illustrious opening partnership being succeeded over the years by some of the biggest names of the modern touring car era, including Yvan Muller, Jason Plato, Colin Turkington, Matt Neal and Fabrizio Giovanardi. The Vauxhall deal lasted until the end of 2009 (Dane and Warwick sold their share of the business to Harrison in 2002), after which Triple Eight ran Vectras independently for a couple of seasons before landing a deal to run factory MGs, most recently driven by 2013 champion Andrew Jordan and rising star
Jack Goff.

“We have had some very good drivers,” Harrison says. “If you take the top five, you couldn’t put a fag paper between them in terms of talent. Beyond that it comes down to how they conducted themselves within the team, knowing when to take things seriously and how to flick switches to get what they wanted. Giovanardi was probably my favourite. He couldn’t speak much English and it was all a little bit Fawlty Towers with him, but it was good fun and we grew together. He struggled in his first year with the Astra Sport Hatch, which was designed around Yvan, and then we built him what he wanted – the 2007 Vectra. All of a sudden it was a case of, ‘Bang! Check this out.’ The tension at the final meeting that year was unbelievable, with him and Jason going for the title at Thruxton.”

Plato was one point ahead going into the last of the weekend’s three races, but Giovanardi finished second and the Englishman fourth to swing things Triple Eight’s way.

“Nothing else has come close to matching that,” Harrison says. “There are hundreds of entertaining races, but the atmosphere that weekend was something else. We’d drafted in Alain Menu, to drive a third car alongside Fabrizio and Tom Chilton, and Matt Neal was in a Honda but had signed to drive for us the following season, so… I think Jason said on TV afterwards that he felt there had been four Vauxhalls out there. There were plenty of tactics, but nobody had anybody else off – it was just a rocking good race, after which we all shook hands and went for a beer. That’s how it should be.”

For all the highs, there have also been challenging moments.

“We’ve had a few struggles along the way,” Harrison says. “The whole thing could have gone down the pan circa 2010/2011, because everybody was struggling. Our previous contract with GM was so big that we didn’t really have a chance or time to do anything else. We were doing road cars, touring cars and there was a perception that we were part of General Motors. GM went bust early in 2009 and we finished with them at the end of that season, by which stage it was all a bit grim – recession central. I woke up one morning, decided I was probably unemployable anywhere else and that I’d better keep the thing going, which we managed to do.

“We cut back on staff – down from 40 people to about six – and the industry subsequently changed. We now have guys working a day rate a fixed number of times per year, and in between they go off and do other things. That wasn’t the norm at all before 2009. People always used to be on the payroll.

“We’re now a team of about a dozen, but then the technical side of the BTCC has completely altered. You don’t need a drawing office full of people, because there are so many control parts and you don’t design anything. You need some engineering support, but only one of our blokes is full time.”

Does that frustrate his inner engineer?

“It used to,” he says. “Some engineers would like to be designing parts that go on the car and make a difference but I can’t think of a series outside the World Endurance Championship or F1 where you can do that. The days of factories flying out new parts to a test session are gone. We used to go testing in Spain for five days at a time: we did that in 2014, admittedly, when Marc Hynes came on board, but that was to test him rather than the car.

“If a driver encounters a problem now, they have to tweak their technique and find a way around it. It is frustrating in a way, but still a challenge because if you get things wrong you’ll be at the back. The parts beneath the skin might be the same from team to team, but the cars all handle differently because of variations in wheelbase, weight distribution and so on. It has definitely made the BTCC more accessible for teams without experience: they can buy a car in much the same way as they could for the Renault Clio Cup.

“All things being equal, my engine bill will be £35,000 per season with no rebuilds required. In the World Touring Car Championship people are charging £100,000 just for the engine, then you have maintenance costs on top of that. You can run a car properly – and I mean properly – for £400,000 in the BTCC nowadays. In the mid 1990s there was one season when Ford spent about £10 million…” 

In addition to the BTCC, Triple Eight has diversified into GT racing – one of its drivers, Lee Mowle, became a Triple Eight director and co-owner in 2013 – and Harrison hopes this will allow the team to spread its wings.

“Primarily we’re an engineering company,” he says, “but you can no longer do much of that in the BTCC. The GT thing gives us added credibility, although this is only our third year and these things take time. GT racing helps expose our name overseas, whereas the BTCC takes place only on the mainland. We don’t even go to Mondello Park any more, which is a pity as I’m in awe of any track that has a pub in its pitlane. GT3 is global and we’re looking at a few options for the future. I’d love to make a few guest appearances, perhaps entering a GT for the V8 Supercar support race in Adelaide for instance. I’d also like to see other countries adopting the UK’s NGTC touring car regulations, so we could begin to export some of our expertise.”

Original partner Dane now runs the separate Triple Eight Race Engineering V8 Supercar team in the Antipodes, but his chance conversation with Harrison almost 20 years ago led to the creation of a team that has won BTCC races in all but one of its active seasons and taken a clutch of championship titles, with Jason Plato (2001), James Thompson (2002 & 2004), Yvan Muller (2003) and Fabrizio Giovanardi (2007 & 2008).

Did the landmark 500th race – at Donington Park in April – feel especially significant?

“I didn’t even realise it was coming up!” Harrison says. “It wasn’t something I really wanted to celebrate, because I just wanted to focus on the racing, but people kept mentioning it to me. We didn’t really have a target when we started. We just thought, ‘Great, we’ve got a three-year deal with Vauxhall.’ Then we renewed again and carried on, but our only objective was to win races.

“The 500 thing was very nice, though, and we should possibly have made more of it. Perhaps we’ll save that for the 1000th.”