A right rivetin' championship

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Pop rivets. Yes folks, it’s all boiled down to tiny cylinders of soft metal that can be hammered flat at both ends 31 of them! lust one out of place and the balance of power in the Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship could swing dramatically it’s that close. And you thought it was a worldwide, multi-million pound, multicoloured, bumper-to-bumper, paintswapping extravaganza in which 10 manufacturers battled it out on a level playing field to prove the worth of their wares. Ha!

Unless you’ve been hiding under the stairs from the moment Hitler sauntered into Poland, or stuck in an A303 traffic jam on the way to Thruxton i by the way, you’ve missed the race and Tarquini won), you will have witnessed the furore surrounding Alfa Romeo’s rear wing and adjustable front airdam-cum-splitter. Before Alfa Corse arrived on these shores, downforce was a dirty word in the BTCC, but now there is talk of running in dirty air. Previously, race car builders were happy to minimise a saloon’s natural lift at speed, but when asked, Sergio Limone, Alfa’s peerless designer and homologation expert, stated that the first thing he looked for in the ’94 I 55TS Silverstone was ‘downforce’. Italian manufacturers have a long history of building homo(ogation specials lie. creating a specified number of cars with all the right facets to make it suc

cessful in competition), and its motor sport staff carry a lot of clout within the company. Apparently, Giorgio Pianta, the Fiat Group’s motor sport supremo, made a couple of calls to the top brass of Italy’s most influential industrial combine to get what he wanted a bigger rear wing and an adjustable front spoiler. Believe you me, not every manufacturer/ race car builder relationship works like this. They wish.

However, the success of the BTCC has been based on its ability to encourage new manufacturers to contest the series. This has been achieved by racing cars that look very similar to those used on the road, and by keeping the costs down so that competitiveness is not totally proportional to the size of your wallet. But this is not how the likes of Alfa Romeo work. Instead, it blew the series wide open with the best funded and most professional team the cham pionship has ever seen. It also triggered the first major spat in the fou the two-litre series existe

table has been kicked over.

Protest has followed appeal has followed protest throughout this ruckus Ford v Alfa. To be fair to Ford, other manufacturers have come out against the Alfa’s aerodynamic aids, but they have been happy to let the Blue Oval put its money where their mouths are.

Mondeo-preparer and four-time BTCC Champion, Andy Rouse, has been like a dog with a bone during this affair. His input was fundamental to the creation of this two-litre, two-wheel drive formula. And perhaps because of this, he is more passionate (almost Italian-like!) than most. He clearly feels ‘his’ rules are now being mismanaged by the FIA, which has taken over the running of the formula now that it has become international. and is adamantly opposed to homologation specials, stating that they have always been destructive influences. He’s right. His has been the clarion call for an adherence to the ‘spirit of the regulations’.

For some, this is the bedrock of the championship; for others, it is merely a woolly phrase. And as far as Alfa is concerned, it has a piece of paper from the FIA that trumps it.

The governing body passed its 155 as legal at the start of the year, and this is good enough for the men from Milan.

Surprisingly, external pressure forced this august body into making a partial admission of culpability when it issued a limp-wristed ‘rule clarification’ late-April (reportedly at the behest of its President, Max Mosley). But there was never any chance of it totally holding its hands up. Instead, the ball was gently looped back to the national governing bodies. To its credit, the RAC MSA caught the ball and tried to ship it on . . .

Alfa stowed its boot-sourced spacer brackets for the rear wing away for good, but dug its heels in over the front splitter it had compromised enough. The dramatically jacked-up rear wing had grabbed all the early headlines, but with a front-wheel drive car frontal downforce is much more important. Alfa had always stressed that its aerodynamic bolt-on goodies had little effect on the car’s performance, but its stubbornness to remove the front splitter emphasised its true worth. Its cars ran ‘under appeal’ for three races, but this, and the points gleaned from these outings, was lost when the RAC MSA’s Eligibility Appeal Panel discovered ‘materially different wording, layout and labelling of the technical instruction’ between two bulletins handed out to dealers concerning the fitment (remember the pop rivets?) of

cars. The Alfas out of scrutineering at the ay Oulton Park meeting and the team left the track in high dudgeon.

At this juncture the FIA clarified its original clarification after deciding its earlier effort was not terribly clarifying. Sigh. It didwant the front spoiler pushed back, but could see how Alfa had interpreted it differently. Its points were returned and the 155s rejoined the fray at Donington.

Howsoever this was dressed up, it was clear that a bargain had been struck; the spoiler was to be allowed to run fully extended until luly I the last homologation date but thereafter would have to be pushed right back. Alfa Corse acceded to this, so today we have the ironic situation that its splitter has receded as Renault and BMW have sprouted their’s.

Of course, there is a theory that the melodrama of the front spoiler was never much more than a smokescreen for the Alfas’ other go-faster bits. At the April Brands Hatch Indy meeting Giampiero Simoni charged through the field after a first corner mix-up, setting times regularly half a second quicker than the winning Tarquini despite being caught up in traffic, to pull back to seventh with a damaged front spoiler! Has it all been much ado about nothing? We’ll soon find out. Enjoy the race! PAUL FEARNLEY

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