British Touring Car Championship

Variety show

The opening shots of the 1989 national saloon racing championship have been fired with the same weapons as last year, but more of this year’s gunslingers seem to have the ammunition required to beat Andy Rouse in Class A. Which, as Mark Hughes reports, makes the title ever more likely to be won in one of the lower categories.

Aside from when Steve Soper and the Eggenberger team took time out from their European commitments last year to take in selected rounds of the British Touring Car Championship, the domestic series was a little dull. The combination of Andy Route’s Kaliber budget, the development engineering made possible by this and his frequently overlooked superlative driving ability tended to see his Sierra Cosworth disappear into the distance, leaving a host of almost identical-looking Cosworths breathless in his wake.

Largely as a result of this dominance, and fearing that the lack of close racing may have been endangering the cherished BBC Television coverage, some of those involved began to formulate plans for an alternative formula. Proposals for this two-litre, non turbo format have recently been released by the RAC MSA, the present intention being to introduce the formula alongside the existing one, next season.

In retaliation almost, the current formal has produced some very interesting races this far into the 1989 series, newly sponsored by Esso. The car to have in Class A is stil the Cosworth RS500, but the first six rounds have thrown up four different winners.

Rouse was the first to win more than one event, taking the spoils at Silverstone for round two and round five at Thruxton, but for outright speed he has this year met his match in the Sierras of both Robb Gravett, winner of the opening Oulton Park round and the sixth at Silverstone, and Dave Brodie, the round-three winner at Thruxton. Round four was a two-driver, one-hour endurance affair at Donington and was won by the Labatts-sponsored car of Laurence Bristow, partnered by Group C man Tiff Needell.

It would seem that there is still development potential within the Cosworth, with lap times from last year coming down by significant chunks, and tapping this potential very effectively has been the new NEC-backed Trakstar team, which was set up amid secrecy in record-breaking time shortly before the first race.

Gravett is one of the directors of the company, along with his team-mate Mike Smith and team manager Malcolm Swetnam. Their real coup was in securing exclusive British rights to the Australian Dick Johnson RS500 engines, the power-units which gave the European runners, including Rouse, such a fright at the Silverstone TT last year when Johnson’s car was the class of the field.

It was Boys Own stuff when Gravett took the opening win of the season following an off by Rouse whiles the lead. Since then he has scored a close second to Rouse at Silverstone, and second with Jeff Allam in the Donington two-driver race, before suffering a nasty accident lapping backmarkers at Thruxton while closing in on Brodie for the lead — a formidable record indeed for a totally new outfit.

Another exclusive by the Trakstar team is the use of Yokohama tyres, which has brought another new aspect to the championship this year — a tyre war.

Last year there was a Dunlop involvement in Class A but not on such a scale as to worry the dominant Pirelli. This year that has been stepped up and Rouse is hoping that Gravett’s victory on Yokohamas and Dave Brodie’s pace on Dunlops will finally sting Pirelli into an ongoing development programme.

Surprising those with short memories, Brodie was the one who was waiting to pounce when Rouse hit electrical trouble at Thruxton; burst tyres in the next two races probably cost him at least one victory, possibly two. Brodie was later threatened with disqualification from that Thruxton win, after samples of his fuel were found to be illegal, but, running without major backing, his has been an impressive Group A comeback, some time after his Colt Starion drive back in 1985.

Rouse’s early season bad luck, which saw him retire from the lead at Oulton and Thruxton and soon after the start at Donington, looks as if it may be starting to even out now. He won round two at Silverstone after being pushed all the way by Gravett but his second win, round four at Thruxton, was fortunate. Both Brodie and Gravett looked to have the legs of him, even his late-race third place looking under threat from Tim Harvey. But Gravett had his accident, Brodie his burst tyre and Rouse was in the lead, albeit a tenuous one. Then, the final stroke of luck, the race was stopped early as fuel spillage from the Gravett accident was adjudged to be dangerous.

Other Class A cars in the picture have been the two Labatts machines of Harvey and Laurence Bristow, both run by the Rouse team, and the Brooklyn car of former champion Chris Hodgetts. Running on a very restricted budget, Hodgetts has not enjoyed the reliability necessary to convert his and his car’s pace into solid results, having been denied two possible victories.

However, although there has been plenty of variety on the victory rostrum, there have still not been any epic battles for the lead, the sort of thing which really interests the television companies. Hopefully this will be just a matter of time. The cameras have instead sought refuge in Class B, for up to 2.5-litre cars. Here the Prodrive BMW M3s of reigning champion Frank Sytner and his new team-mate James Weaver have been providing action aplenty. Weaver won the first round relatively easily, but the story was very different at Silverstone for round two. After making contact with Weaver on several occasions, Sytner finally got past near the end by punting his team-mate over the kerbing in a self-confessed out-of-order manoeuvre. He got his just deserts on the last lap however when body damage from his muscular tactics caused a rear tyre to give out while flat-out round Abbey, victory again going to Weaver.

There was more of the Frank and James show at Thruxton, Sytner taking the class win after another dubious passing move, though his Donington win (shared with Will Hoy), was clean enough, the quicker car of Weaver/Steve Soper having fallen back with gearbox failure. There then followed an untroubled Weaver win at Thruxton and another at Silverstone, these giving him an overall championship lead.

Leading the championship until that point had been John Cleland, driving his Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v in Class C for 1600-2000cc cars. Though the performance of this little car has been breathtaking (usually up with the slower examples of the M3s), its points total is a little hollow in that the class is very poorly supported. Though Cleland has won four from six, he has usually only had to beat his own team-mate and a couple of less-powerful 16v Volkswagen Golfs.

His team-mate has been GM’s rally star Louise Aitken-Walker, and she has coped commendably, with the transition to racing, usually finishing second to Cleland and being round to take the class win in the first of the Thruxton races, where Cleland picked up a puncture, and at the second Silverstone race, where he lost a wheel.

Similarly the baby class, Class D for up to 1600cc cars, has been poorly supported with a sprinkling of obsolete Toyota Corolla GTs. Phil Dowsett has been the quickest of these, and therefore currently lies third in the championship.

So the national saloon racing series remains a bit of a mixed bag: in some ways a fabulously spectacular form of racing, with marginal handling, 550+ bhp and talented drivers making for very satisfying entertainment for the purist, but for the casual spectator (read television viewer) the dicing at the front could be more dramatic. In the meantime there’s always Frank and James. MPH