The Unknown Warrior

John Bintcliffe was Audi's surprise choice to partner Frank Biela in the BTCC. Here's why

You've no money. You have no karting experience or family background in motorsport to call upon. But you are ambitious.

You show some early promise: you qualify on the front row for your third race and win the fifth.

You take the plunge and spend every last bit of spare cash on preparations for a season of premier one-make racing. You are second fastest during your first morning of testing with your new pride and joy. You roll it to destruction in the afternoon.

You give up.

Not if you're John Bintcliffe you don't. By his own admission, here is a "sad man": this panel beater from Harrogate is obsessed by the British Touring Car Championship. But not for him the eagerly clutched and keenly proffered autograph book or obscure yet closely-guarded collection of programmes, videos and T-shirts. Oh no. He watched it on TV. Liked it. Thought he could do better. And so went motor racing.

And now, just four seasons after his first race, the Yorkshireman has landed the plum BTCC drive of '96, partnering World Champion Frank Biela at the returning Audi. This is the touring car equivalent of winning the National Lottery.

So dreams do come true, even in a sphere where budgets run into millions and the difference between success or failure is often determined by tenths, sometimes hundredths of a second.

The success or failure of Bintcliffe's career to date has had a more real, telling implication - house or cardboard box. The former fell victim to his continuing burning racing desire. As did his hi-fi and TAG Heuer watch in readiness for the 1994 season. This time he secured the Elf Renault Clio UK Cup title, a success backed up by winning last year's Ford Credit Fiesta Championship.

Along with fellow Yorkshireman James Thompson, the 21 -year-old who shone in the BTCC alongside John Cleland at Vauxhall last season, Bintcliffe stands atop a clutch of very useful one-make racers. But does this status qualify him as a BTCC driver? Its critics vilify one-make racing as the home of dodgy, rule-bending car. But there can be no denying its cut-throat competitiveness. To win back-to-back one make titles requires speed, cool judgment and a little bit of luck. Bintcliffe appears to be blessed in all these departments.

And then he waited. He made some tentative approaches, mailed off his cv here and there, but basically sat with fingers crossed. Here is a man convinced of his own talent, but one who is unwilling to blow his own trumpet. He'd done what he'd done. It was up to others to judge him. Meanwhile, his watch was still classed as an unaffordable luxury. But motor sport is rarely straightforward. Simply being quick is rarely enough, especially in a world where a manufacture's image is king. Bintcliffe is acutely aware of having the right face in the right place at right time. And in this respect the 29-year-old appears to possess an uncanny knack ...

A one-off Porsche race at Snetterton (he finished second) sparked off an impromptu chat with one Richard Lloyd, who eventually revealed himself to be the co-ordinator of Audi's planned BTCC attack in '96.

"Meeting Richard at Snetterton was an absolute fluke," John recounts. "I was there out of the blue because I was helping set a car up, and the only reason he came down to see me, believe it or not, was because I had the cleanest pair of overalls! He didn't know who I was, or what I'd done. I didn't know who he was either. At the end of the conversation, he asked me to send him my CV. I thought he was winding me up or something."

It is typical of his uncomplicated approach that he should raise a surprised eyebrow at a suggestion that Lloyd might have been covertly sounding out a potential employee. Indeed, this engaging naivety comes as a shock after seasons dealing with his street-wise colleagues. The usual rule of thumb would have him marked down as an easy target for the sport's many sharks. But he's had enough nous to fend them off and is now standing securely on Audi's welcoming shore.

However, the BTCC's racing Establishment can still smell blood. He may be well-liked by most who have dealt with him on and off the track, but there are any number of Audi wanted-to-bes who would gladly throttle him right now. And Derek Warwick discovered to his cost that this country's premier racing series is ferociously intense. Its unremitting, braying pack thrive on any weakness, and even the former GP driver's vast experience was not enough to stave it off. So what chance a man with less than 50 races to his name?

Bintcliffe certainly doesn't appear fazed about the prospect of learning the formula's most complex car the four-wheel drive A4 in the most competitive series of its type, or of dicing with his heroes. Blissful ignorance or consummate ability? A mixture of both that should see him right and surprise his critics.

"It's a massive opportunity for somebody like me and I mean to make the most of it. I'm here to push as hard as I possibly can. I can only do my best, and that's what I'm going to do. Every race I've gone into I've tried the hardest I can to do the best I can. So there's no reason why I should change the way I think or feel."

Can three seasons of racing hot hatchbacks possibly have readied him for is about to come?

"It's got to have prepared you in some ways, hasn't it?" You tell me. "It's a big step, but we're not going to know how big a step it is until we do it."

A big step? It's a huge leap into the unknown. Audi's arrival reminds me of the way BMW and Alfa Romeo began their title-winning campaigns in '93 and '94. There is a real fear that Biela and his total-traction machine may rush off into the distance. Angered by the lack of coverage its recent World Cup success at Paul Ricard received, the Ingolstadt concern is desperate to win this prestigious series and an enviable budget will undoubtedly ensue. So why gamble on a relatively unknown driver?

There is a strong suggestion that a flat calm pit garage is of high priority. Biela is Audi's titlist designate, and another 'name' making waves would perhaps be detrimental to this. Bintcliffe is not perceived as a threat to his team leader: this can be nothing other than a learning year; he can be nothing other than grateful to Audi for this chance; he will be nothing other than Captain Team Player.

But he's clearly a quick learner. He's not one to create and stamp his feet. Instead he will work quietly with the team, win them over with his commitment and, I predict, speed.

Audi has promised John equal equipment to his team-mate (he probably believes them), but if his car is a couple of tenths shy of Biela's it should still be sufficient for him to make a favourable impression. A handful of front row slots, perhaps a pole position or two, a fastest lap here and there, a win even, should be enough to set him on his way.

Three years ago he camped in the Pernbrey infield and towed his race car behind a Montego Estate . . .

"If Ron Dennis came up to me tomorrow and asked me to drive the McLaren in Formula One, I'd say 'No thanks.'

"There will be nobody trying harder than me. Nobody." You'd better believe it. You might not have heard about him until now, but he's good enough. And he wants it more than most.P T F