If you drive for Williams you are expected to win races and challenge for championships. So when it was announced that this famous Formula One team would run the Renault Lagunas in the 1995 British Touring Car Championship, most of the people who have watched the likes of Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill win Grand Prix after Grand Prix for Williams, naturally expected us to dominate the BTCC. But it’s not that easy…
Williams Renault Dealer Racing is just seven months old; we have done very little testing with the new cars; the BTCC is the most competitive touring car championship in the world. Because of these circumstances I knew that I would have to be patient – pick up points at the start of the year and then make a big push towards the middle and end of the season when we were on the pace, if not setting it.
But after just six races I am leading the championship – for the first time in my career – and have chalked up my first win of the season. We are making faster progress than I expected. It’s far too early to talk about winning the title, however.
I secured my victory at Thruxton. This is a very fast circuit, and the problem it has with noise restrictions means that you get very little time to test on it. But I knew the Renault would be very good there; we still have a bit of a problem with the Laguna on slow corners and there are very few of these at the Hampshire track… I scored a pole position and a third in qualifying, and led the first race from start to finish.
I pushed very hard from the start of this race to open out a gap over the pre-race favourite, John Cleland in the Vauxhall. The Cavalier has proved very easy on its tyres, and because Thruxton has a very abrasive surface some anticipated that John would overtake me later in the race. But my car felt strong and, although he did close onto my tail for the last few laps, I was able to hold him off – just.
In the second race my biggest problem was Cleland’s young team-mate – James Thompson. He’s just turned 21. He was starting from his first pole position. And he was going to crack, they said. Indeed, on the first lap he was a little bit ragged, but the race was red-flagged because of a big accident involving Charlie Cox’s Ford Mondeo. We waited 20 minutes for the re-start and I think this gave him a bit of time to calm his nerves.
I stayed right with him for the first two laps, but thereafter he began to pull away. There was nothing I could do about it, and so, after seven laps, I decided that 18 points for second place was better than none at all. I knew also that this would be good enough to give me the lead of the championship. It’s a very long season – 25 races that all count towards your final points total – so it is important to be a consistent points-scorer. That’s not to say that I will be willing always to settle for second if I’d been pushing hard and catching him, I would have gone for a win.
James drove a very mature race. He was very impressive, and his performance proves my theory that experience is not vital to win BTCC races. If you are a good driver, in a good car, you should be able to win. And at the moment the Vauxhall is the best car. The Renault is quick, but the Cavalier looks better on the brakes and in the slow corners. But this is good for us – we have already beaten it and our car still needs a bit of sorting.
A testing programme has taken a bit of a back seat while our new team was set up, but now we have our test car and the time and the manpower to do all the track work we’ve been promising ourselves. The week before Thruxton we did two solid days of running at Snetterton. This was our best test yet and, although some of the things we tried didn’t work, we were still building up data on the car. As I said, we still have some problems with the Laguna, but I think we are close to solving them.
With a new car and a new team you must always expect a few hiccups in the early races, but my Laguna has been very reliable so far this season. It is my team-mate, Will Hoy, who has had all the problems up to now. At Thruxton he managed just one good lap in qualifying because of his troubles, and this was good enough to put him on the front row for the second race. But his car developed a problem just before the start of this race and he retired at the end of its first lap. I feel sorry for him… but rather him than me!
Neither of us had a very good day at Brand Hatch last month rounds three and four of the BTCC. The opening race was red-flagged, and as we waited for the restart it began to rain. We were allowed to go back to the pits to change our tyres. Will and I chose intermediates because it was only drizzling, but moments before the start it began to rain much harder. And when it’s wet Brands Hatch is like a skating rink. After lots of opposite lock I finished seventh while peering through a misted windscreen.
I bolted on full wet Michelins for the second race, and almost took the lead on the first lap when Cleland and Rickard Rydell’s Volvo slid off right in front of me. I just missed them, but lost a lot of speed and lots of places. I was fighting back through the field when I was tapped into a spin by the Toyota of Tim Sugden.
I was very unhappy with what he did, Kelvin Burt had just passed him and I was following the Ford driver through when Tim saw me and turned in on me. It was not a big impact, but I went round and finished sitting sideways on the track. This is the worst position to be in and can be very dangerous. Thankfully, nobody hit me and I recovered to finish ninth.
I was angry with Tim, but I was more angry that nothing was done about it. They were very difficult conditions and Tim made a snap decision… but the Race Director had plenty of time to look at the video before making his decision. It all seems so inconsistent at the moment. To me, there was some blatant bad driving at Brands Hatch and nothing was done about it. But if you misjudge your braking distance by an inch in a genuine attempt to overtake and hit somebody, you are fined and/or thrown out of the race. It’s very strange. The next time I’m called in to explain mine or somebody else’s actions I may plead the Fifth Amendment!
By the time you read this I may have lost or extended my championship lead because we raced at Silverstone the weekend after the Thruxton meeting. The National circuit has lots of second gear corners, so it will be a tougher test of my Laguna. If we go well there I’ll know that we have made progress.