Paul Fearnley on the weight-watching game which currently divides the British Touring Car Championship
All… No, that would be unfair. Most saloon car racing is contrived.
The immense success of America’s NASCAR series is presided over by the despotic France lineage, with Bill France Jnr, like his father before him, determined to prevent one manufacturer gaining too great an advantage. The concerns of industrial giants General Motors and Ford are placed a clear second to the quality of the racing, as the organisers regularly fiddle with aerodynamics to keep the racing close. And the huge crowds and assembled host of blue chip sponsors love it. Like it or loathe it, Ford and GM cannot do without it.
The winner-penalising sliding weight scale in the Deutsche Touren Mersterschalt [the German Touring Car Championship) and its progeny, the burgeoning FIA International Touring Car Championship, has always been frowned upon by racing purists. But it’s made for some great racing and a wide variety of winners. And the huge crowds and host of blue chip sponsors love it as long as there’s TV coverage. That’s another story.
The latter system, however, was briefly blown apart by Audi. It monstrous V8 200 quattros possessed a sizeable performance advantage, even taking into account its greater base weight over its rear-wheel-drive rivals, and the Ingolstadt manufacturer was regularly accused of sandbagging in order to avoid gaining any extra weight at the wrong time. In 1990, Hans-Joachim Stuck won the German title with the 200 and his massed ranks of fans loved it and the following year Frank Bela doubled up for the four-wheel drive machine.
Audi was playing the game to perfection and reaping the benefits. It was also reaping the benefits of being a little bit different. Sentiment plays no part of its motorsport ethos: the wailing and gnashing of teeth of Escort and Chevette owners was easily drowned out by the popping and banging of its Quattro as it changed rallying forever. Its 200 quattro then blitzed America’s beloved heavy metal in the IMSA racing series.
It was cast as the black hat in the GTCC, too. When in 1992 a wrangle over the 200’s crankshaft saw it withdraw from the series, there wasn’t so much as a crocodile tear.
Now this renegade manufacturer is lording it in Britain and the Super Touring series of South Africa and Italy and Germany…
Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Opel would dearly love for a fourth manufacturer to ease some of their ITC burden. They would not wish it to be Audi, though. “They almost ruined the DTM, and now they are ruining Super Touring!” was a recent view expressed by a Mercedes power broker.
Harsh? There is a semblance of truth. But is Audi to be blamed? Its current dominant A4 Super Touring car runs to the FIA-proscribed 1040 kg four-wheel-drive weight limit; its front suspension, recently protested in the BTCC by Vauxhall Sport, has been ruled legal by the FIA just as it was 20 months ago. Its BTCC rivals are the first to admit that Audi is doing a great job. Like Bill France, however, they feel something has to be done to save a championship’s future. There are 10 manufacturers represented in the BTCC, eight of them use the front-wheel configuration. The weight of opinion is with them but, if minorities get organised, they can be formidable in defence and decisive in rush attack. Super Touring’s four-wheel-drive citadel is as well built as Biela’s race car.
Its British rivals were extremely keen to lob some lead shot over its walls, but they had to wait for BTCC supremo Alan Gow to give the order. I envy the Aussie’s position as much as I do a United Nation infantryman’s in a war zone. It is no surprise that BMW, which has participated in and witnessed plenty of Audi wrangles in the past, is keeping its head down. It knows that Ingolstadt plays a canny hand in the corridors of power; only last month the FIA Touring Car Commission recommended that the weights remain unchanged.
BMW is wise, for flak could fly from any direction. And it’s usually the smallest niggle that can trigger it off. This argument may be about the good of the championship, but it is expressed in terms of centres of gravity, millimetres of tyre wear, hundredths of a second etc. Teams have to be so blinkered and focused to be successful, but it can lead to tunnel vision. And disinformation. I have stood and listened to several engineers, with years of motorsport experience behind them and a string of letters after their names, give cogent, persuasive, impassioned arguments as to why their particular manufacturer is being hard done by. But as they stretch my technical knowledge beyond breaking point, I can’t stop the feeling that, given a little more money, they would be arguing just as passionately and convincingly for the rival camp.
But the engineers can talk until the cows come home. I know what I saw early in May. I watched Frank Biela charge from last on the grid to third place at Thruxton. Given another couple of laps he would have won. I also watched him set his fastest lap of the race on his penultimate tour, an unheard of feat in a series where tyre performance starts to deteriorate as soon as the driver lets the clutch out at the green light_ In the first race that day he had cruised home to his fourth win from five starts. There was plenty left in the locker, and his second race performance proved that.
Careful now. Is it too early to be paranoid? Has a pattern yet to develop? Anyway, if the BTCC is so strong, so competitive, why has it got a glass jaw when it comes to overseas sucker punches – the Schnitzer BMWs in ’93, Alfa Corse in ’94 and Audi this year? Is xenophobia playing a part? For I have twice witnessed John Cleland score doubleheaded victories at Donington Park by the proverbial country mile, yet there was no outcry for his Cavalier to be fitted with a drag anchor. Renault dominated the final two meetings of last season, scoring three 1-2s, without so much as a murmur of discontent. Yet at Silverstone National last September, the Lagunas appeared to have a bigger performance advantage than had Biela when he won a race at Brands Hatch Indy this April.
Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Sport: “We already have one co-driver sitting in our cars with the extra weight we carry, maybe we should carry another child and a dog!
“At the moment our cars are very competitive. I understand that the championship has to be a competitive one. If you just watch the championship from the results you will see that Audi is very strong. But if you look at the pole positions, there have been two for rear-wheel drive, two for front-wheel drive and two for four-wheel drive.” The suggestion is that he believes the front wheel drives must up their games rather than drag the Audis back to their level. UlIrich’s wording is careful. He has played this game before. “I wouldn’t allow myself to tell the likes of Williams and TWR that they are doing things wrong. But I don’t think that the front-wheel-drive cars are working on the competitive level they would like to be.
“We come into a season 95 per cent ready and look to find the last five per cent during the season, because I think this is the right way to do it. Other teams come to the season and look to make big changes during the year. The frontwheel-drive cars will get better. “
But four-wheel drive is a problem. It’s different. There is an element of the unknown. And it’s obviously much better. ‘Ha!’ counters Audi, ‘so why did the 1995 total-traction projects of Ford and Nissan yield a tiny fraction of not a lot?’ Good point…
Well then, it’s expensive, in the minority and should be banned. But isn’t Super Touring meant to mirror a manufacturer’s road car fleet, and if there’s a small percentage of four-wheel-drive cars on the road shouldn’t there be a small percentage on the grid? This has always been a proud boast of Super Touring.
Oh dear. What to do!
Mr France would simply ban four-wheel drive forthwith. Well, you build front-wheel drive, dontchya? Hey, it’s only easy if you make it easy.
Gow was more cautious – he had to be, he has more interested parties to keep sweet than his American counterpart and as of May 20 the Audi will have to lug around an extra 30 kilos, with an additional 30 to be added at any time before the end of the season, if necessary.
“It is not the intention of TOGA to artificially create differing race winners,” insists Gow, “but merely to keep the performance differential between the competitors as narrow and as equitable as possible, thereby ensuring close and exciting racing while still allowing the natural order of success to be achieved.”
But here is the rub: “It is appreciated that those cars [front-wheel drive] form the majority of the field, and that the best interests of the championship and those competitors will be served by narrowing the perceived performance differential, at least in the short term, through the introduction of this weight revision.”
In the long term, a complete ban of four-wheel drive ban might be preferable to a gradual, painful death by excess weight. Audi will still win the BTCC this season, after which, and by popular demand, it may have to look to its front-wheel drive laurels. Compromise is not its style, however, and it’s more likely to take its expertise elsewhere. But not NASCAR! It can be a lonely but successful existence in four-wheel drive land.