The British Touring Car Championship

A Place in the Sun

One thing is certain after the first three rounds of the British Touring Car Championship this year – the BMW M3 reigns supreme despite the best efforts of Vauxhall in particular, but also of Toyota, Ford, Nissan and Mitsubishi. It has helped, however, that there are over a dozen of those Bavarian machines entered in the championship whereas the other marques are represented by only a couple or singleton entries. In fact the surprise has come from within the BMW ranks where the independently run, Yokohama-shod, Vic Lee-prepared cars have achieved two victories to the single win of the much fancied, works backed, Prodrive team.

In a championship in which all the cars have the same capacity engines which are further controlled by restricting the revs, it has been the off-season preparation and testing which have separated the front runners from the rest of the field. The advantage has rested in the opening phase of the season with those teams who are familiar with their mounts from last year whereas the newcomers are still on a learning curve. This applies to Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and even Ford since the Sapphire, as we reported in the April issue, is to all intents and purposes a new car.

Of these it is perhaps the Andy Rouse-prepared Toyota which has the greatest advantage since he has been able to build up the Carinas for himself and team-mate Gary Ayles almost “off the shelf” with well proven homologated parts. From the first race he has been running near the front of the field and it would be surprising if he did not achieve at last one victory this year.

Nissan, Mitsubishi and even the much-fancied Trakstar Ford team, thought, are a different matter. Both Kieth Odor in the Janspeed Nissan and Mark Hales in the Mitsubishi, old sparring partners from the Group N championship a couple of years ago when they battled it out for the lead in every race and ultimately the championship in Sierra Cosworths, have a long way to go before they reach that stage in this championship. That they both possess the skill to be up amongst the leaders is without question; the problem lies with the development of a new car. Both teams have rushed to have the car ready for the first race, and both have used the races as extensions of their test sessions. In the circumstances it is not surprising to see them at the tail end of the field simply hoping to reach the finish so as to have clocked on extra miles.

Robb Gravett’s Ford, however, is a completely different affair. To say that is has been a disaster to date is not overstating the case. Allan Wilkinson, who was only signed up a few weeks ago as development engineer, has already left under a cloud and the car is simply not performing. Not only is this proving to be a nightmare for Robb Gravett himself, current Touring Car Champion, but also for fellow director Mike Smith who is still awaiting the chance to compete himself, as well as customer Sean Walker. Unless there is a radical improvement, any chances of retaining the championship will have completely disappeared.

This leaves the BMWs and the Vauxhalls, last year’s pacemakers.

Although the Vauxhalls were back on the pace by the third race at Donington, team drivers John Cleland and Jeff Allam should have been romping away for the opposition. It did not happen. Whether the tyres were to blame, as was suggested, or whether the team had slightly gone off the boil despite their extensive winter testing, the BMW victories have given them a severe jolt. Within a race or two, though, either Cleland or Allam should be taking the victor’s laurels.

What has made the championship so fascinating this year is not so much the sheer variety of cars competing, which makes for stimulating spectating, but the sheer depth of competition from within the ranks of the BMW brigade. It has not been a question of a few hopefuls buying an M3 and competing in the races, but of a number of hardened professionals who are looking beyond race wins and sizing up the championship.

Frank Sytner, Steve Soper, Jonathan Palmer, Will Hoy, Laurence Bristow, Tim Harvey and Ray Bellm are all race winners and expect to become champion. The fact that Will Hoy has won the opening two rounds in his Vic Lee-prepared car, and Steve Soper the third race, has only whetted the appetite of their rivals, particularly Jonathan Palmer’s who has had an unfortunate start to the season having let the pressure get to him too much.

Needless to say there has been a little acrimony in the championship; there inevitably is in the Touring Car Championship. The latest flare-up occurred at Donington when the RAC MSA decided to have a random noise check on certain cars and found that the Vic Lee BMWs in particular failed to pass the test. The problem the team had to consider was that if they got the cars to pass the test at the beginning of the race but they then failed for whatever reason at the end, the offending driver stood to lose two maximum scores, or 48 points. Gary Ayles had fallen foul of the regulations at Snetterton when it was discovered that his car was missing a windscreen wiper. Not having scored, he found that he was now starting the season on -48 points. Should Lee allow his cars to run, particularly Hoy’s, and thereby risk losing the points so far accrued, or should he pack up his trucks and go home?

“It’s not actually an exhaust noise,” contested Lee, “but a high-pitched frequency sound coming from the engine. Where they measure our exhaust from the side, it’s picking this noise up and pushing the decibel meter up six points and taking it to 115dB, five over the limit. We are actually 109 on the exhaust. While we are quite prepared to put the cars in the trucks and go home, the only other option we have is to let them run and then pull off on the last lap and declare the cars DNFs just to get publicity for the sponsors, but it’s something we don’t want to do.”

Surprisingly it was Steve Soper of the rival Prodrive team who was the most upset by the situation, feeling that any victory he might gain would be devalued by the absence of the VLM cars.

“If it’s a cheat and there’s something wrong with the car then it should be out, but motor racing really can’t be to the black and white of the rule book. There has to be an interpretation with a view to commonsense. It is absolutely ridiculous, for example, that Gary Ayles should be thrown out of a race for not having a windscreen wiper and then 48 points deducted from his total. And now there is this business over noise. There should be a warning. Alright, the cars are wrong, but the team are now thinking of going home because they can only leave the race worse off than not starting and that, for me, is not the correct interpretation on how the organisers should run a series.

“If this was to happen in Germany (where Soper spends even more time racing in their Touring Car Championship) the competitor would get a warning. It is only if there is a persistent fault does the driver and team get into trouble.”

In his role as Championship organiser for the RAC MSA, Jonathan Ashman responded: “Whenever you get a technical infringement there are always two extreme points of view. You get one view which immediately says ‘Well, it doesn’t really affect anything much, let him go for the good of the championship,’ while other people say ‘rules are rules and we have to stick to them.’ As the governing body it has to be the latter for us. You cannot say that some rules are more important than others, that’s not really for us to decide. If it goes to a tribunal, it’s for them to say.

“You cannot check everything at every single race. When we started the season we knew that for the first race we could only check a certain amount of things, and then in the second race we could check a bit more. By the third race, for example, we decided that we would take fuel checks and seal some engines. Now there is a four-week gap to the next race, nobody can say that there isn’t time to have an engine check done. It was also suggested that we shouldn’t carry out a noise check before the race, but that we should keep them in the dark and catch them out at the end of the race. Now that would have been unfair!

“With regard to the loss of the two maximum points. If there is a technical infringement the competitor automatically loses two maximums. That’s because it is very difficult at race level to get consistency. If you said it was up to the Race Steward to decide points, you would get different opinions all round the country. So for a windscreen wiper not being on at one race, they might say 'Well, that’s one maximum’ and then here at Donington they might also say that’s one maximum. But then there would be complaints that the penalties are still unfair as one is very different to the other. So the rule book says that if there is a technical infringement there has to be two maximums and then somebody can appeal. So that when it goes to the appeal stage at the RAC, and it can’t go any further than the RAC MSA, it’s up to the people on the panel to decide, judging the merits and de-merits of each case. Most people tend to believe, for example, that the penalty for Gary Ayles’ windscreen wiper did not seem fair and so I would not be at all surprised that when it goes to a tribunal the penalty will be reduced, but only a tribunal can do that. It would be disastrous if each individual Clerk of the Course had that power because you would get massive inconsistency.”

As it turned out, Steve Soper duly won the race with John Cleland in the Cavalier GSi a close second, showing the consistency of the Vauxhall and giving encouragement to the Vauxhall Dealer-sport team.

Despite fears at the beginning of the season that the British Touring Car Championship had taken a wrong turning with the new regulations, the close racing, the amount of spectator support and the variety of cars participating would seem to show those fears were wrong. At the time of writing, the series sure beats the hell out of Grand Prix racing. -- WPK