There are those who remain unconvinced by front-wheel drive's suitability for competition use, and this lobby has a strong case at the moment – the Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship.
The Schnitzer BMW 3I8is of Steve Soper and Jo Winkelhock are currently lording it over Britain's premier racing series with four wins from five races. A pattern has developed. The fwd cars are able to match, even beat, their Bavarian rivals in qualifying, but, prior to Brands Hatch, where Will Hoy broke the chain, a BMW had yet to be beaten into the first corner of any race, and the first lap had usually been completed with a sizeable Schnitzer lead as the front-wheel drive opposition struggles to put some heat into its rear tyres. Such an early break is vital in these sprint races.
This has been a remarkable achievement by the German outfit, which is widely regarded as being the best in the business, as it only discovered it would be contesting the British series last December after BMW's late decision to withdraw from its home championship because of a disagreement over the new Class One rules. Consequently, a time and motion man would be horrified by Schnitzer's current schedule; its personnel commutes regularly between the permanent workshop at Freilassing and a unit at Silverstone, which does not provide the comprehensive facilities it is accustomed to. And yet. A new car, new circuits (except Donington), one new driver (Soper), a new championship, the same old success story; this team has definitely upped the BTCC ante and has brought with it a taster of the professionalism, know-how and budget commonplace in Germany. Team manager, Charly Lamm, is too shrewd to underestimate his opposition, and is the first to compliment them on their qualifying performances, but come race day there is only one winner at the moment.
Well, two winners.
Thankfully, the team is blessed with a brace of top liners in Soper and Winkelhock, and there is no sign of team orders so the pair should ensure the series will not be decided until the twilight of the season. When it was announced that the former would be contesting his first full home series since his time with the TWR Rover Vitesses, he immediately became the favourite to win the title, and this belief was re-affirmed when he stalked his team-mate before pouncing at Silverstone and Snetterton. However, two successive lights to flag victories saw Jo take the points lead before Brands Hatch, and the spectacular German is clearly enjoying the positive response he has received from the huge crowds that have packed in this year. He will be a tough nut for Soper to crack, though the latter edged back ahead after Winkelhock fell foul of the Brands Hatch gravel on June 13.
The purer racing responses of the BMW (simply put, the front is for stopping and the rear is for going), is in sharp contrast to the compromise faced by the front-wheel drive cars; one engineer likened it to being inside a triangle, the nodes of which were power application, steering and braking, and the problem was being exactly where you placed yourself in that triangle. Qualifying has shown that these cars have the outright pace with Nissan, Vauxhall, works and Ecurie Ecosse, Toyota (who at last made real progress at Brands Hatch, after a turbulent start to the season) and Mazda fighting it out with the BMWs at the sharp end of the grid, but, frustratingly, this has not been translated into race success.
The new lowline cars, a trend begun last year by the Janspeed Primera and taken a step further by the widespread use of the more compact sequential gearboxes, and their intricate rollcages are moving touring cars closer to single seater responses than ever before, and this has brought problems as well as advantages. In theory, the stiffer a car and the lower its centre of gravity, the better it should turn in and change direction, but the lateral cornering forces of a touring car are not great enough alone to heat the tyres, and, consequently, a touch of roll has to be dialled in to force some weight down through the tyre to heat it up. Basically, a touring car driver wants a car to dip as it turns into a corner and maintain this attitude right throughout to avoid washout understeer. The TOM'S Toyota Carinas are probably the ultimate specification front-wheel drive cars at the moment. The team has brought a host of F1 technology into its first touring car campaign, and an engine that is almost dragging on the ground, but at OuIton Park its times were slower than the Andy Rouse-prepared cars of last year, despite the best efforts of former champion Will Hoy and former Grand Prix man Julian Bailey. Andy Rouse's yet-to-race challenger, the Ford Mondeo, features a more straightforward cage and its builder has suggested that perhaps the recent breed of touring cars are a little too stiff. Certainly, some drivers appear to be having trouble adjusting to the fact that small suspension alterations make major changes in the car's attitude.
The works Vauxhall Cavaliers of John Cleland and Jeff Allam have emerged as the nearest challengers to the BMWs with second places at Donington and OuIton Park, and if anyone can close the gap it is the tigering Scot, for whom the word "can't" does not register. The Cavalier car is now entering its fourth year of competition, but is very different under the skin from its predecessors, its engine some four inches lower than the '92 car. Nissan has flattered to deceive during practice, although Kieth O'dor has been swept innocently along by other people's accidents often enough to be considered the unluckiest driver of the year. He finally made amends at Brands, with a brace of second places behind Winkelhock and Soper. The Primera is still the best handling front-wheel drive car, but if its line is compromised in a race situation it appears to lack the power to compensate. The lovely Mazda Xedos 6 of Patrick Watts has done wonders on a small budget, while Renault scored a surprise 1-2 at a very wet Donington with its 19 16v, when Michelin's superb wet weather rubber provided this new team with a much needed boost. This car is by far the most spectacular as Tim Harvey and Alain Menu manfully cope with its handling vagaries, but such is the pace of development in the BTCC that it is already lapping quicker than Tim's 1992 championship winning, ABS-assisted BMW.
And with Mercedes looming on the horizon (expect an announcement soon), that pace is about to step up a gear. P T F