Harvey triumphs in three-way title fight as British touring car regs point the way for the rest of the world
Such was the success of the Esso British Touring Car Championship in ’92 that the two-litre rev limited formula has now been adopted by FISA as an official international touring car category. For 1993 Italy has already confirmed that its domestic touring car series will run to this formula and the likelihood is that France and Japan will be joining them. In Europe only Germany has bucked the trend with its expensive 2.5-litre formula but there are now severe doubts over whether this will go ahead in light of withdrawals from BMW and Audi.
While the rest of the world cottons on to the suitability of the two-litre concept, the BTCC has just completed its second season as a one-class series for such cars and, like ’91, the title battle developed into a final round thriller. This time, however, there were three title contenders from three manufacturers in with a shout. The pattern of the season, in fact, can be split conveniently into three stages belonging in turn to Vauxhall, Toyota and, latterly, BMW.
Vauxhall’s John Cleland dominated the opening two rounds of the season, his works Cavalier GSi enjoying Yokohama tyres for the first time after switching from Dunlops and emphasising, more than anything, just what a walkover year he could have enjoyed in ’91 had the change been made earlier.
But the rest were catching up. By round three at Oulton Park the Toyota Carinas of Will Hoy and Andy Rouse battled for the lead throughout, the race apparently going Will’s way until an electrical problem intervened to give victory to team boss Rouse. This was the second year of the Rouse/Toyota collaboration, building upon a strong development ’91 season. The extra cutting edge of ’91 champion Hoy – who had transferred over from the VLM BMW team – helped establish the Toyotas as the class of the field from Oulton until mid-season, Hoy setting five consecutive pole positions.
Hoy won comfortably at Snetterton but Brands next time out proved the pivotal point of the championship. The Toyotas were again the quickest cars in the place but in arguing over exactly which one was quickest, Hoy and Rouse tripped over each other, ending their races in the Westfield banking with heavily damaged cars. Cleland – who moments before the shunt had taken advantage of the Toyotas’ squabbling to take the lead – thus took a third win for Vauxhall, against the run of play.
Were it not for the Brands shunt Hoy would have taken the title reasonably comfortably, even allowing for the later season form of the VLM BMW 318is Coupes. It had been a nightmarish start for the VLM and Prodrive teams as they each struggled to sort the new car, the latter outfit further hampered by not enjoying the benefits of Yokohamas. This was the Coupe’s first season of competition anywhere, replacing the classic M3 which – in destroked two-litre form – provided the basis of the new car, sharing engine, gearbox and very similar front suspension. However, the ‘Z-axle’ rear suspension was completely new and initially proved the bugbear of the car, hellishly difficult to set up and giving the drivers a frightening ride, the car’s handling particularly evil over bumps, its new sophisticated ABS brakes scant consolation.
By the time of the first double-header meeting of the season at Donington, the Vic Lee team had got to the bottom of the Coupe’s problems and from this race on Tim Harvey and Steve Soper had a super-competitive car at their disposal. Hoy won the first heat but Harvey caught and passed the Toyota in the next one to give the 318 its first win. Although the BMWs were on the pace at the Silverstone GP support race, Harvey found that in a race situation the weight penalty of the rear-drive 318 and its consequent lack of straightline speed made it very difficult to race against the front-drive Vauxhalls and Toyotas. Jeff Allam won the race, his first for Vauxhall Sport in a season in which he increasingly came out of Cleland’s shadow. Immediately after, 25 kg of the BMW’s regulation 100kg rear-wheel-drive weight penalty was dropped.
The timing of this was perhaps unfortunate, for after Allam again won in the first heat of the Knockhill double header that followed the GP, Harvey took the first of five consecutive victories. From nowhere in the title hunt, Tim’s wins at Knockhill, Pembrey, Brands Hatch (twice) and Donington brought him right into play. He was aided in his cause after Pembrey by superb back-up from Soper who had appeared only when his German Touring Car commitments allowed but whose BTCC season was characterised by early lap incidents and stunning comeback drives.
After such a superb and dramatic lead-up the title was actually decided in a somewhat unsatisfactory way. A single rained-out qualifying session left all three contenders away from the front of the grid. While Rouse, Allam and David Leslie’s Ecosse Vauxhall fought it out at the front, Hoy quickly fell out of contention with a down-on-power engine. Initially Cleland ran on-course for the crown, but soon came under big pressure from the BMWs, Harvey coming through from his troubled qualifying position, Soper recovering after his customary incident-packed opening lap had left him at the back. With just over a lap to go Harvey passed Cleland, but the Vauxhall driver needed to be demoted another place to lose the title. Soper passed but immediately the Scot retaliated, the two rounding Brooklands side-by-side. . . and with Cleland on two wheels. Neither made it round the following corner, ending their races in the gravel trap and the arguments over whose fault this was have raged ever since. Harvey was the champion.
A strong case could have been made for any of the three – Harvey, Hoy or Cleland – as worthy champions. Harvey had come from behind against seemingly impossible odds – including the B-movie type script of the team owner being arrested for alleged drug smuggling – and had held his own against a team-mate many reckon to be the world’s number one saloon ace. As far as Hoy was concerned, there shouldn’t have been the need for a finale shoot-out, had his team-mate behaved more like a team-mate. Cleland, aside from his usual incredible determination and car control, had injured himself in a testing accident before the penultimate race and, at a time when he should have been lying down in a hospital bed, was finishing a heroic third at Donington. His upper body was still heavily strapped-up at Silverstone.
Behind the three-marque dominance, there was much promise of future front-runners. The Ecurie Ecosse team did a superb job in consistently having David Leslie running near the front in the latter half of the season in an ex-works Vauxhall running on Dunlops. The Janspeed Nissan team regularly demonstrated the excellence of the Primera’s chassis in Kieth O’dor’s hands, but lacked in the torque department. The Shell Mazda 323F’s competitiveness improved in its first year of competition, the spectacular Patrick Watts at the wheel. The Peugeot 405 Mi16 of Robb Gravett struggled for most of the year, but in the last two races with new lowline chassis and much improved engine had the car looking like a match for the Cavalier.
The TOCA Privateer Award was won by the impressive James Kaye in Park Lane’s ex-works Toyota Carina, just seeing-off the BMWs of Matthew Neal and Sean Walker.
At a time when the recession is hitting racing hard, there is now unprecedented interest in the BTCC. Now under the aegis of TOCA Ltd – a company comprised of key team owners – rather than the RAC, the razzamatazz is now increasingly apparent as the series makes a concerted effort to capitalise fully on its regular TV slots. 1992 saw it establish itself without a doubt as the country’s premier racing series with crowds of over 20,000 commonplace – and now the formula looks set to catch on worldwide.
But it will be to Britain that the touring car world will be looking in 1993. Aside from the confirmed works entries from Toyota, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Nissan, Mazda and Renault (new for ’93, and with Michelin tyres to challenge the previously dominant Yokohamas), BMW will almost certainly be represented in some form (probably through the crack German Schnitzer team, with Soper and Roberto Ravaglia behind the wheels) and rumours continue to circulate about Ford, Alfa Romeo, Hyundai and, possibly, even Mercedes-Benz.
That might just be sensational.
M P H