A drop in manufacturer support and the absence of last year’s champion might suggest all is not well with the British Touring Car Championship. But with an emphasis on entertainment, the fans are still flocking to races
By Rob Widdows
Motor racing has been swimming against the tide these past two years, defiantly riding out the recession, and responding robustly to increased activity by those who seek to put the environment ever nearer the top of the sport’s agenda.
Car manufacturers are going back to their roots, focusing on selling what they build rather than throwing excess cash at racing teams. There is less smoked salmon and Sancerre, more mugs of coffee and sensible sandwiches. Gone are the days, for a while anyway, when manufacturers went racing as a matter of course, as an essential arm of their marketing strategies.
As such they have had to make some tough decisions, like closing factories and shutting down Formula 1 teams. Traditionally, the car makers like to go ‘tin-top’ racing; it’s the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ rationale. But it’s getting harder to convince the number crunchers in the boardroom.
“Our primary reason for supporting Team Dynamics is that the Honda Civic they race is exclusively made in Britain, and the BTCC is one way for us to add awareness to this product,” says Paul Ormond, general manager of corporate affairs at Honda UK. “The core market for the Civic is 25- to 35-year-olds who are looking for their first new car. We give the team help with parts, logistics and some finance, and the BTCC gives us an opportunity to raise the car’s profile in our market. It’s about creating some excitement around the Civic, which is now in the middle of its product life. The BTCC offers value for money and it’s important that we’re not seen to be profligate, especially in these times. The TV coverage and the fan base fully justify our investment in going racing.”
Further endorsement comes from the Goodyear Dunlop Group, with Dunlop having signed a new four-year deal as the BTCC’s title sponsor. Tyre suppliers, of course, play a crucial role in the sustainable success of any major series, but getting them to sign on the line has become increasingly difficult.
“It’s a pure business decision for us,” says James Bailey, corporate communications manager at Dunlop. “We look at the return on our investment from all the different championships around the world and it’s clear to us that the BTCC stands in the top group. Dunlop is the brand for petrol-heads, and that’s why we are in the BTCC and [German touring cars series] the DTM, where we can put our product in front of the fans and on television. The research tells us that this is the perfect demographic – you only have to look at the sports cars and hot hatches in the car parks – and these enthusiasts represent our core market. Added to that there’s the trade marketing and this championship provides a perfect platform for that. That’s why Dunlop has made a commitment to the series.”
So far so good then, and the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship has started the 2010 season with two manufacturer teams – Chevrolet and Honda – while there are 24 cars on the grid. That’s more than last year. But not everything in the garden is rosy. Vauxhall has withdrawn its works team and the bulk of the entry comprises privateer teams who have found an impressive array of commercial partners, not to mention a clutch of drivers prepared to pay for the privilege of being there.
Key to the BTCC’s survival is its television coverage, something that is much appreciated by the sponsors. The 2010 season will benefit from an extraordinary 120 hours of coverage on the ITV network, with live races on ITV4 as well as recorded shows on ITV1 and the Men &Motors channel, not to mention live streaming on the ITV website. On Easter Sunday there was no less than six hours of live coverage from the opening round at Thruxton. Many race promoters would be – and are – envious of this valuable exposure.
The BTCC, or the British Saloon Car Championship as it once was, has had something of a roller coaster ride this past decade. Yes, there is the TV coverage and the crowds keep coming, but it’s not the sell-out carnival it once was in the 1990s. And, as we have seen in both Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship, manufacturers are backing away, looking to save money. Talking to Alan Gow, the BTCC’s driving force, you don’t get much change from questions about recession, about the exodus of manufacturers. Motor racing folk are, by nature, optimistic, putting a positive spin on whatever challenges lie ahead. Taking a rare break from stabbing the keypad of his iPhone, Gow is bullish about the new season.
“Of course motor racing has been feeling the pinch in what has been a nasty recession,” he says. “But look at the entry for this year – more cars than last year, and the teams, drivers and sponsors have all made a huge effort over the winter. The fact that they want to be here speaks volumes for the success of the BTCC. Motor racing has to change its business model to suit the times. Yes, manufacturers have been leaving the WRC and F1, but once you rely on those manufacturers you’re dependent on the problems that can bring. Last year we only had one manufacturer in the BTCC but it was a classic season and the crowd figures are going up. I rest my case. What the public wants is good racing and – I don’t want to sound ungrateful – the spectators really don’t care where the money’s coming from. They just want to be entertained.”
So what is the BTCC’s secret? How has it managed to survive?
“Well, it’s not about me,” says Gow, “it’s about the brand. The championship is bigger than us all, it’s where the teams want to be. You only have to look at the effort they make each year to be part of it. First and foremost, the product – the racing – has to be good.
The purists hate it – things like reversed grids, balloted grids and weight penalties – but who cares? No other sport has the best, or the fastest, starting at the front. They start side by side, like in horse racing or athletics, and we can’t do that because the tracks aren’t wide enough. So why not mix up the grids and have lots of excitement over three short races? It’s a fundamental flaw of motor sport – you put the fastest at the front, the slowest at the back, and then wonder why you have no overtaking. That’s crazy. Any sport has to take a look at itself and adapt to the times. Everybody thinks I’m just a marketing person, but I’m not – I’m a petrol-head and I love motor racing. But if you want the crowds to come you have to run entertaining races, simple as that.”
Would he like to run the World Touring Car Championship. Could he do a better job?
“No, it’s far too political,” says Gow. “Once you get into World Championships you don’t have control. The BTCC is much more manageable and the competitors understand how it’s managed. There’s a whole different level of expectation from those involved in the WTCC, plus you have all the travelling, the different languages and the political circumstances under which they have to operate. That’s not for me.” A pragmatic man, this Mr Gow, and maybe that’s a clue to his success.
An interesting development this year is the Next Generation Engine, or NGTC. This is a non-branded TOCA engine, not a standardised engine for everyone, but available to those who don’t want to design and build their own. Two of these new-spec engines are racing this season, both in Vauxhall Vectras. It’s all about – yes, you guessed it – saving money.
“At WSR, Dick Bennetts is probably spending £110,000 on each engine he puts in the BMWs,” says Gow. “That’s the cost of the engine and the two rebuilds he needs during the year.
The NGTC will have the same power – about 300bhp – but it will cost £25,000 for the year. The engines can be leased or bought, you can design and build one yourself, or take one of ours and that’s it – plug it in. The engine will have the same lap times as the normal Super 2000 engine, but it’s turbocharged and about 30kg heavier, so it will be quick out of corners with all that low-down torque but slower into corners because it’s heavier than the S2000.”
Gow is cagey about who designed the NGTC but it’s generally accepted that it came from Vauxhall, which may explain why a team running a Ford or Honda is loathe to use it until such time as they can build one of their own.
Two men who have been there, done it all, are Mike Earle and Dick Bennetts, and both are back this year with their beautifully presented and slickly-run teams of Fords and BMWs respectively. Bennetts, whose West Surrey Racing team is defending its hard-fought 2009 title, has an all-new driver line-up in Robert Collard and Andy Neate, the latter making a courageous return from a huge accident in which he was seriously hurt. The absence of the defending champion is a blow for the BTCC and one keenly felt by WSR. Its sponsor, the RAC, has slashed its budget and Bennetts can no longer afford to run a car for Colin Turkington, whose name remains on the team truck. And that’s not the only headache for WSR. Two of its most experienced engineers, John Morton and Jeff Kingston, have defected to the rival Airwaves BMW team. At the opening round, Airwaves convincingly won the battle of the BMWs, with Steven Kane and Mat Jackson scoring a 1-2. WSR came away with just three points. Early days, but there is work to do.
Earle’s Arena Motorsport entry is an interesting one. Run under the banner of Team Aon in deference to its title sponsor, the brace of Ford Focuses will use the same 2-litre turbocharged engine as last year but this time fuelled by Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), which entails a bigger, heavier fuel tank to comply with the regulations. It’s not every day you see a Calor Gas van, emblazoned with ‘Fast Gas Deliveries’, in a race paddock. Drivers Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole will be hoping to give Ford its first BTCC title since 2000.
“We’re making progress,” says Earle, “but this year will be close and that’s how it should be. We have a strong engine, lots of torque and the car was very good by the end of last year, so we’re optimistic. There are two works teams, but the same rules apply to everybody. If you get everything right, you’ll win, whatever the weight penalties. Running a turbocharged car, we are heavier, and the LPG tank is twice as heavy as a normal fuel tank. So the turbo – which is restricted to 7000 revs as opposed to 8400 for the normally aspirated – is not all about advantages. It’s swings and roundabouts. We’ve had a season of developing our car and the engine programme, and we’ve tested extensively, so we are well prepared. But the others will go quicker as the season progresses.”
At Thruxton the Fords came away with just seven points between its two drivers. Again, there is work to do. A last-minute entry from Triple 8 Engineering with a Vauxhall Vectra for Fabrizio Giovanardi put the cat firmly among the pigeons. The experienced Italian hit the ground running, taking two victories, while another former champion, Jason Plato, kept Chevrolet in the hunt.
On Easter Sunday a remarkable 16,860 people put aside their chocolate eggs and made the trek to Hampshire. This compares with the British Automobile Racing Club’s figures of 17,170 five years ago and 16,400 10 years ago.
Not for the first time, racing faces some daunting challenges. But, as it has done so often since Jack Sears in an Austin and Tommy Sopwith in a Jaguar tied for the touring car title in 1958, the sport will survive. As you can read in Lunch with… on page 80, at the end of that first championship Sears and Sopwith settled the title in a two-race shoot-out in matching Rileys at Brands Hatch, Sears winning on aggregate.
Sadly, we won’t see the likes of that again, whatever tricks Mr Gow has up his sleeve.