One Month, Four Seasons
From the frozen wastes of a British spring to a potentially hot new era for touring cars
The British famously have a habit of banging on about the weather – but of late there has been good cause…
The landscape felt wholly alien – and not just because it was about 15 degrees warmer than the UK. I’ve been to the venue more than 25 times since my first visit, in 1992, and customarily it has been stuffed with trucks and motorhomes, parked with millimetric precision beyond the public’s reach, but this was the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya laid bare. No Formula 1 apparatus, just a bunch of club-level bike racers on one side, here to test for the afternoon while teams from the World Touring Car Cup were a few metres distant, preparing their pit garages ahead of the following morning’s pre-season test.
WTCC promoter François Ribeiro prides himself on the championship’s family ambience: there’s a great sense of camaraderie at race meetings – and that was even more apparent here, a couple of weeks before the opening races in Marrakesh (which took place on April 7-8).
The WTCC is a touch different this year, of course. The acronym’s final ‘C’ stands for Cup rather than Championship, a subtle distinction made because there is no official prize at stake for manufacturers. Works entries are prohibited, although Alfa Romeo, Audi, Cupra (Seat), Honda, Hyundai, Peugeot and VW appear to have spared little effort making sure teams have appropriate hardware.
Built to TCR regulations (introduced in 2014 and since adopted by much of the planet), the cars look the part – and the calibre of the entry bodes well, with promising youngsters such as Aurélien Panis and Yann Ehrlacher pitched against proven winners (Gordon Shedden, Rob Huff, Norbert Michelisz, Esteban Guerrieri, Tiago Monteiro, Thed Björk) and what might affectionately be described as The Antiques Roadshow (Gabriele Tarquini, Fabrizio Giovanardi, Gianni Morbidelli, Yvan Muller – combined age 205). Tarquini went on to win two of the opening three races, Vernay the other.
And if you thought Muller had retired, you’re correct. “I was perfectly happy with my decision,” he says, “but as I’m building up my own team I thought I might as well put my experience to good use. But this is not a comeback, as such…”
Monteiro’s appearance was well received. He hadn’t raced since a testing accident last September – when brake failure at the end of Barcelona’s main straight pitched him into the wall and out of WTCC title contention. He flew in from Miami (where he has been receiving treatment for nerve damage that blurred his vision), attended the official launch party and then returned almost immediately to the States to continue his rehabilitation and get himself back on track as soon as possible.
Last year there were typically about 17 cars on a WTCC grid – and this year there will be 25, with a provision for one wildcard entry in a field that is for now limited to 26. The global schedule includes 10 three-race weekends, two in China (Ningbo and Wuhan, rather than Shanghai or Beijing) but none in traditional racing heartlands such as France, Italy or the UK. “We’d love to race in Pau,” Ribeiro says, “but I get the impression that the organisers aren’t terribly interested. And it’s hard to generate a crowd in Italy unless you have Ferrari or Valentino Rossi, so…”
Should anyone in Britain wish to catch the new-look WTCC, the closest venues are rounds three and four at the Nordschleife (May 10-12, supporting the Nürburgring 24 Hours) and Zandvoort (May 20-21).
No hardship, in either instance.
I’ve rarely known a racing season take quite so long to get properly into its stride. A BMRMC motorcycle clubbie at Brands Hatch (March 11) was welcome, but suffered delays after a significant fuel spillage at Clark Curve. When racing resumed, there was still a lake of water and detergent across that part of the circuit: everybody simply adapted and got on with their day’s sport – as bikers are wont to do.
The Goodwood Members’ Meeting followed – the first time since Easter 1975 (Oulton Park, predictably) that I’d seen a cocktail of F5000 cars and snow. The GMM has swiftly become my preferred Goodwood event – less frantic than the Revival, but blessed with the same elegant mechanical body language. ’Twas a pity (though understandable) that the conditions deterred some from taking part, yet this was still a fine spectacle – if slightly surreal. It’s not often that you see David Coulthard thundering through a blizzard in a Mercedes 300SL, nor a grid of post-war F1/F2 cars lining up with the white-capped South Downs as a backdrop.
One week on, the campaign finally seemed to gather competitive momentum. I hadn’t particularly planned to return to Brands Hatch – in the Australian GP’s televised slipstream it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one of the best I’ve made in recent times. I’d just watched a highly technical contest during which Mercedes’s pocket calculator ran out of batteries, now here was a bunch of committed racers who could make the cost of an F1 front wing sustain their hobby for a decade or more.
People complain that there have long been too many one-make championships – largely because it’s true – but there is still something uplifting about watching those that are well supported in full flow. This was traditional club racing at its bygone best, hordes of Mazda MX-5s and BMW Compacts hunting in packs, the accent very much on racing rather than worrying about whether wheels were suitably shiny or every panel was straight.
One MX-5 race commenced with a two-car lead battle, yet finished with about seven of them trying to occupy more or less the same bit of Kent. And a special mention to Philip Adcock, who put his BMW Compact on its roof at Paddock within a minute of the morning’s opening practice session, but was on the grid – minus any window glass – for both races.
Glorious simplicity, yet also simply glorious.
Few racing weekends can have embraced so many contrasts – and it began when I checked into my hotel. The good news? I’d lucked into a large room with a balcony. The bad? The view comprised the local Vauxhall dealership and a drive-through burger restaurant. A glamorous pastime, sometimes, motor racing.
The opening rounds of the British GT and BRDC F3 Championships blended the uplifting with the torrential. On the Saturday (which I’d missed), Billy Monger had returned to single-seater racing for the first time since losing his lower legs in a violent accident at Donington Park, almost a year beforehand, and finished third. He also set fastest lap during race two on Monday morning, by which time the place was awash. Inspiration is much too weak a word.
And then there was Flick Haigh’s GT performance. The 2009 Caterham Classic Graduate champion put Optimum Motorsport’s Aston Martin Vantage on pole, built up a comfortable initial advantage following a safety car start – and stayed ahead until handing over to co-driver Jonny Adam. Lamborghini duo Jason Minshaw/Phil Keen closed the gap and looked set to challenge, but a clash with a GT4 Ginetta left them with a broken wheel and Haigh duly became the first female racer to share an outright victory in one of the world’s most competitive GT domains.
Other notable results included a maiden F3 victory for Manuel ‘cousin of Pastor’ Maldonado, the Venezuelan resisting fierce pressure from Tristan Charpentier and Jamie Chadwick in the reverse-grid race two. “He’s pretty quick,” a member of the Fortec team told me, “but he does go off quite a lot.”
Might sound familiar…
By the time the second GT race was due to begin, conditions had deteriorated to a long way south of appalling and, after a short stint behind the safety car, the red flag was shown prior to the balance of the meeting’s abandonment on safety grounds. Three days later, stewards concluded that a result should be declared – and full points awarded – on the basis of three neutralised laps. There might be something in the regulations that permits this, but that just means the regs are wrong.
After the race social media was aflutter with questions about entitlement to refunds, but MSVR managed to run all but four of the weekend’s scheduled 17 races, couldn’t be blamed for the weather and in truth had little option but to bring proceedings to a halt.
Oulton has one permanent lake but had acquired several temporary tributaries by the time racing was curtailed.