Damien Smith's Off the line
Headed down to Brands Hatch at the beginning of June to catch the British Touring Car Championship, out of curiosity more than anything. I hadn't seen the BTCC for a couple of years and wanted to see what, if anything, I had been missing.
The racing has looked good on TV this year, but pitiful grid sizes and small crowds make for tough comparisons with the heady days of the mid-1990s Super Touring boom. So was I underwhelmed or encouraged by what I saw at Brands? Well, against the odds, the latter.
Just 14 cars made the entry of what is supposed to be the highest-ranking UK circuit championship. A sign of the times — and clearly unacceptable. But at least 'the show' holds up. The current 2-litre coupés and saloons are a little 'maxed-out' for my tastes, but they do allow for the intense hurly-burly action that the BTCC should deliver by law, a point missed by the last of the high-tech, high-downforce Super Tourers.
The three-race format works a treat too and, judging by what I saw, the drivers brilliantly fail to hold back and play conservative to ensure they make it to the final race, which is given a spicy twist with a reversed grid. Gimmicky, yes, but this isn't supposed to be racing for the purist.
The driver line-up is a cocktail of crowd favourites (Matt Neal, Jason Plato), relatively new faces (Dan Eaves, Colin Turkington) and even a token 'exotic foreigner' (Yvan Muller, who consistently proved at Surtees that you can drift a low-powered, front-wheel-drive saloon). But at times this mix overstepped the mark. There's nothing wrong with a bit of panel rubbing, but the blatant punts and rams made the rough stuff at last year's Goodwood Revival look tame. Worryingly, these slipping standards have spread to the supporting one-make championships. One Renault Clio rolled as a result of a push, although at least the perpetrator was excluded.
But back to the positive stuff. Jonathan Palmer's staff at Brands are working hard to promote every meeting at MotorSport Vision's four circuits, and it is clearly paying off. An estimated gate of 18,000 for the Brands meeting bodes well for every club, as does a respectable figure of 3000 which welcomed the VSCC back to Oulton Park in May.
The next big one for Brands is the HSCC Superprix at the end of July on the Grand Prix circuit: it deserves a touring car-size crowd, and with national and local promotion it might just get it. Small turnouts at most British circuits have been a headache for too long. Is the tide finally beginning to turn?