Sensible season

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I was ready. I wasn’t going to be caught out. I’d heard all about it, the backhanders, the back biting more moves than the Kasparov/Short epic, they said. I bought a brand new notebook, sharpened my pencil, and waited by the ‘phone for the inevitable cacophony of calls. . .

Nothing. And lots of it.

And I was so looking forward to silly season; it was not something I had come across in three years of covering club rallies. Was I missing something? I rang one of my sources.

“Has silly season started?” I inquired.

”Not really. All the top boys are waiting on the Mercedes-Benz announcement.”

Of course, the chances of earning megabucks with the Three-Pointed Star was a sizeable carrot for the current top-liners. And so we waited. And waited. All the sides concerned prevaricated, and the drivers started to get itchy feet as rumoured political infighting at Mercedes concerning the continuation of its involvement in Class 1 put the BTCC project on the backburner.

Many could wait no longer, and suddenly Silly Season became Sensible Season.

Better the devil you know . . . Ford stuck by Andy Rouse and Paul Radisich, Renault clung onto Tim Harvey and Alain Menu, while John Cleland and Jeff Allam were retained by Vauxhall. The options for those still hanging on were narrowing quickly. All professional drivers face this dilemma; to play it cool and dig your heels in for more money, or stay where you are, sign on the dotted line and give you and your family a relaxing Christmas. For the incumbents there is the added worry that touring car racing now offers the only European escape route for Formula One drivers who have outlived their usefulness in the highest echelon of the sport, and former sports car drivers who have outlived their echelon. Tin-tops are no longer frowned upon by the single-seater superstars; they might not like them, but beggars can’t be choosers. Tough!

But this exodus also puts extra pressure on the BTCC’s team managers. If they want someone who until very recently was a just over a second off the pace in an active suspension, automatic gearbox, traction control, ABS endowed flightless aircraft, they will have to pay through the nose for him. For example, when Mazda UK approached former World Champion, Alan Jones, to drive its Xedos 6 at the FIA Touring Car Challenge, the brusque Aussie demanded a fee greater than the entire budget for the race!

Better the wage packet you know. . .

Drivers’ CVs have been winging all over the country and landing on various desks, but at the time of writing it would appear that Toyota will stick with its combination of Will Hoy and Julian Bailey, Ecurie Ecosse will again run David Leslie and Harry Nuttall (budget permitting), Robb Gravett will be retained at Peugeot and Kieth O’dor by Nissan. There was a brief flurry of excitement concerning the latter’s team-mate, when it was revealed that he would be joined by talented Belgian F1 refugee Eric van de Poele, but the conjecture proved to be a little premature.

My only hopes are Volvo and Alfa Romeo; two new teams, ergo new drivers. The BTCC circus is a small community full of gossip, but TWR is impressively watertight. A host of drivers have been linked with Tom Walkinshaw Racing’s return to touring cars – David Leslie, Armin Hahne, Ralf Schumacher, Geoff Lees, Will Hoy, John Cleland, David Brabham but this has never been more than speculation. The underlying theme is that Tom is on the scout for some new faces in the Paul Radisich mould, a couple of young, lower formulae single-seater types who are prepared to toe the line, who do not command a huge signing-on fee, but who could shake up the establishment with some blinding pace. But I must admit, I haven’t got a clue who he will eventually plump for. There has been a suggestion, however, that the Volvo’s ballast will be in the shape of a couple of black labradors; one presumes that they will have to lie down and be pressed hard up against the rear seats in an effort to centralise the weight and lower the polar moment of inertia!

At Alfa, Gabriele Tarquini has long been pencilled in as the number one driver for its BTCC effort, but he is now being linked with possible F1 resurrection at Tyrrell. It is understood that two Italian drivers will drive the Alfa Corse cars, although exactly who they will be has yet to be revealed, and that a third 155 would be run by Prodrive for a British driver. However the latter team’s boss, Dave Richards, is master of telling you the bare minimum, so there’s no rich seam of rampant speculation there.

It has yet to be confirmed that victorious BMW combination of the Schnitzer team and Jo Winkelhock will return to defend their titles. It’s 99 per cent certain that Charly Lamm’s men will be back, and that Steve Soper will be one of his drivers, but there are doubts over Winkelhock’s presence. Recent rumours have linked the chain smoking late braker with the recently formed ONS-ADAC Class 2 series in Germany, as well as the Italian Championship. The latter theory has some credence, as last year’s CiBiEmme pairing, Roberto Ravaglia and Johnny Cecotto, struck each other off their respective Christmas card lists after a couple of internecine accidents mid-season. So, Winkelhock may be partnering Ravaglia while Cecotto partners Soper.

Elsewhere, there have been some definite changes. After a nine-year association Vauxhall Sport dropped Dave Cook Racing Services and switched to those of Ray Mallock, who ran this year’s Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall Cavaliers with great success on a limited budget. This wasn’t a major surprise, but the news that the Ecurie Ecosse Cavaliers would continue to be run out of Mallock’s Milton Keynes base was. Ray insists that they will be two completely separate teams, but that they are to be based in the same workshop and be overseen by one man makes you wonder. . .

There has, however, been some silliness amidst all the common-sense contractual negotiations.

It would appear that each round of next year’s championship may be graced with Noel Edmonds’ allegedly funny, pink and yellow TV creation Mr Blobby. Steve Neal, the man who controls the vestiges of what was Team Dynamics, has apparently clinched the deal, and his son, Matthew, will drive next year for Crinkley Bottom Racing . . .

I hate to think what his overalls will look like. P T F

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