Saloons

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The One Make Series

Motor racing is expensive. It is expensive to buy a car to prepare it, to replace the consumable items and to repair the not so durable ones. And the rewards are never going to cover the costs. Only in the very top series is spectator attendance and therefore television coverage, going to be enough to tempt one or more sponsors to shoulder the entire burden. Formula One indisputably, what was the World Endurance championship; and is henceforth the World Sportscar Championship, Formula Three and the major Saloon Car series pull fairly good crowds too, but competing at this level is still much costlier than any private individual can contemplate.

There is of course such an abundance of championships, even apart from single-seaters, that the keen team can almost always find one which will suit the driver, the car and the budget with or without a sponsor; but the excitement of competing. and perhaps the glory of winning, must be deemed reward enough for the team.

A number of attempts to short-circuit the spiral of cost versus popularity have been made over the years, but surely the most successful approach has been the One Make series. A specified car which all competitors use has obvious cost advantages, and rules which enforce a common specification should make for good racing – the example coming immediately to mind being the Formula Ford single-sealer championships. A standard engine and tyres theoreticaliy shows up driver skill rattier than the size of the equipment budget, although in the event the very competitiveness of the various championships has meant that teams intent on winning, have to devote ever larger funds to the tiny differences between engines. and to laying in stocks of the standard tyre ready-scrubbed by different amounts for differing weather conditions. Thus the costs are much greater even allowing for the march of inflation, than the series originators imagined.

Nevertheless, the Close racing which results has made Formula Ford, in both 1600 and 2000 forms, one often most exciting attractions at race tracks all over Britain, and more significantly it offers a demanding training ground for young drivers who want to progress through the various rungs of the sport. There are a number of major sponsors who receive healthy advertising exposure from this type of racing, such as Townsend Thoresen and Dunlop but undoubtedly the biggest beneficiary is Ford themselves. Now single-seater Formula Fords do look like real racing cars which gives them a specific appeal, but on the other hand the benefit which accrues to Ford is a more general image of goodwill and involvement rather than direct showroom sales. Again. not every driver is intent on pursuing a career in racing, but merely looking for fun and excitement certainly available in a number of low-cost formulae such as those of the 750 MC, but there is also the question of having an audience to perform to. As one looks across the scale, circuit attendance figures fall steeply from those which befit the major national sporting spectacle of a Grand Prix or 1000 kms endurance race, via healthy if variable numbers for Formula Three and the RAC Group A Saloon Car Championship, to the club meetings which make up the bulk of meetings in the country where most of the spectators seem to be friends of the competitors. It is against this background that the “Single Make” principle has established a strong position over a number of years.

A number of attempts have been made to run race series using rather prestigious cars, the 70s saw a Porsche 924 Challenge and the BMW County Challenge using 5-series saloons provided a spectacle on the track for several seasons. But it ultimately the organisation of such a programme comes back to the manufacturer s desire to sell more of his product, then it makes sense that that product should be a “bread and butter” one, a car which many of the onlookers might be considering purchasing.

Thus the current choice of such series embraces, broadly speaking, three different cars, all of them small front-wheel-drive hatchbacks competing in the mass market. MG Metro, Ford Fiesta and Renault 5 meet on the track just as in the showroom. All of these use an obviously more sporting variant of the standard car the MG name identifies a sporty version of the Metro (though this is not the fastest — the Metro Turbo Itself competes in Group A Saloons), while Renault have chosen to promote the R5 GT Turbo, shortly to be released for sale in this country. This progression from the R5 TS series previously run is the first all-turbo one make championship in the UK. Ford’s contender since 1982 has been the XR2. although a change from the MkI to the Mk11 version complicated the 1984 season. The aforementioned independent Renaults TS series continued to run under BRSCC auspices last year when supplanted by the Turbo car, offering an even cheaper alternative programme in which older cars could still do well

The Renault 5 GTs are the most sophisticated mechanically with the complexity of a turbocharging system to cope with, and the whole package takes the cue for its prestigious image from this. Renault UK Ltd, while backing the programme substantially, contract the actual administration of the UK series to Two-Four Sports, a promotions company, whose director Robert Fearnall is one of the Championship co-ordinators. The other two are Toivo Kaasik of Renault UK and Mark Poynton of the BARC. Total prize and bonus money available exceeds £80,000, and if one driver were to be particularly successful, it is theoretically possible that he could collect nearly £20,000.

Such an occurrence is highly unlikely, though, due to the wide spread of prize and bonus awards: apart from £150 to the winner of each round (even sixth place receives £60), and £100 to every driver who starts each round, competitors can scramble for the Philips Pole Premium, the Stew Lap Leader Award, the De Carbon Fastest Lap Award, and Facom premiums for the highest dealer-entered car, both Renault and others. Michelin provide £100 for the best turned out entry at each round, plus what they call their Flying Colours for the driver who makes the best improvement from his grid position, and most of these bonuses are substantially increased for the final round held at the new Jerez circuit in Spain, to which free transport is provided by Autotrans.

It may seem odd for a British series to hold its final in Spain, but just as Renault is an international company, so the Turbo 5 Cup is an international promotion. There are equivalent series in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and of course France (run by a factory faction rather than by an independent organisation), and all these challenges come together at the Jerez meeting for their own final round, and for an international race. However, since the technical regulations vary from country to country the cars are not necessarily evenly matched. In 1985 it was the British who found themselves at a disadvantage, but co-ordinator Robert Fearnall believes things will be fairer in 1986.

In addition to the financial support of the factory, Elf Oil, Michelin Tyres, and the other sponsors, competitors receive practical aid. Renault UK have a parts van at each round, though this is for emergency supplies only — all parts are supposed to be ordered through a local Renault dealer. The standard Michelin tyres (one wet, one dry) are available through the nominated supplie,. EARS, and the French tool company Facom have an extensive range of tools on free loan to registered entrants.

About two-thirds of the field (the maximum number of registrations accepted is 40) are entered by a third party, wheher a local Renault dealer or another sponsoring firm, and the rest are effectively private runners, some on a tight budget with minimum preparation. This is a smaller proportion than in Metro or Fiesta fields, and probably reflects the higher costs of running in this, the most sophisticated formula.

Generally accepted as the cheapest series is the Ford Fiesta XR2. This will be the fifth year of the Championship, which is managed on behalf of Ford by Stuart McCrudden Associates, and McCrudden himself feels that it is this very stability which has brought about the healthy grids and close racing which have characterised the series. So far, 38 cars have been completed for the forthcoming season, and prize money has been increased. A win is now worth £150. matching the R5 GT Cup, but starting bonuses are smaller at £50, rising to £100 for the three most distant rounds, Zolder, Zandvoort and — Ingliston!

The main sponsor for the series is Ford Credit, the independent financial arm of the giant manufacturer, for whom this will be the second year of involvement. Unlike the other championships, the Fiesta series has had several main backers; in 1982 it was the magazine Popular Motoring, followed by the Daily Mirror. It was carried through 1984 by its own momentum, until Ford Credit took it over for the ’85 season. Another Ford company involved is Motorcraft, who back a “celebrity car” which appears at each round in the hands of a well-known personality. This adds glamour for the crowd, attracts media attention, and helps to boost the image of the series, tempting race organisers to include a round as a support at a big meeting. The Motorcraft car was driven amongst others by televisions Mike Smith, but it was the similar celebrity car in the Renault series which attained the widest publicity in 1985, being crashed by pop star Andrew Ridgely more than once.

Both Ford and Renault cars are tied by very strict regulations limiting engine work to “blue-printing” and suspension modifications to some lowering and stiffening. However, the Renault’s turbo system probably lends itself more to rule-stretching, despite strict scrutineering and the penalty of exclusion, the measuring system used to check the boost pressure can be misled, which must be a strong temptation to the more ingenious engine builders.

Overall championship winners can expect £1,000 in the Fiesta series — equal to what the third placed Renault driver will receive. To the victor in the turbo cars goes not only a cheque for £2,500, but also a brand new Renault 5 GT Turbo, worth £7,360. According to Ford’s own figures, that would almost pay for a season in Fiestas. With an initial cost of £6,000 for a can plus some £2.000 preparation, the Sponsor Guide issued by Stuart McCrudden’s organisation suggests that the 15 rounds in the Championship should add up to something over £4,000. While this is probably optimistic, there are a number of privateers who operate on tiny budgets and still figure in the points.

BL’s MG Metro series allows considerably more in modifications, particularly in the suspension department. All four corners can be turreted, and while the Hydrolastic system must remain, the cars run virtually on the bump stops. Bushes may be replaced, and the front discs changed for ventilated ones; an adjustable-bias brake system is acceptable, as is an adjustable rear anti-roll bar. Seam-welding the shell for rigidity is not allowed, but the roll-cage can be tied in to the body at many points to achieve extra stiffening. So a Metro can be the most expensive car to build up, especially if the necessary £1,000 or more is spent on a trick gearbox and limited-slip differential.

Yet according to Roger Dowson, whose Silverstone-based firm runs a Metro for Laurence Bristow as well as the MG celebrity car, a competitive car can be built for perhaps £8.500. Where the Metro requires a bigger investment is in setting-up. The freedom in suspension settings means that correspondingly more time needs to be spent in tuning the handling, something which is likely to highlight the driver’s consistency. With evenly matched cars, smoothness is usually an asset, but just as in FF1600, the competitive instinct sometimes becomes downright aggressive, and the Renault Cup suffered in this respect in 1985. Saloons are famous for producing panel-to-panel racing, but the lightweight Renaults displayed a great deal of body damage in their first season, at least one driver withdrawing as a result of the behaviour of some competitors. Panel costs are higher, too, for this the youngest design; the much more common Metro equivalents being available to teams at very low prices. Whereas an R5 front wing is about £20 and a door £60, a Metro driver can buy the same parts for £10 and £25 respectively and a Metro bumper for only £5.

All the series have offered close racing despite appreciable differences in power, the CVH Ford engine should give some 108 bhp, the MG Metro about 110-115 bhp (as opposed to the 180 bhp of a good Metro Turbo in GpA), and the R5 perhaps 125 bhp when set up by a turbo specialist. But again the French machine loses out to the others on the cost of spares. Initial shortages of certain parts. particularly head-gaskets, were a problem for teams at the beginning of last year, but this is unlikely to be a problem in the new season.

Availability of parts is no problem for the Renault 5 TS which has been around for a number of years, and the TS series has been helped along in its now independent manifestation under the BRSCC by Charles Ivey. The older original body-shape cars had considerably softer suspension than the later generation cars, and develop some truly alarming roll angles when pressed. Nevertheless, racing has continued to be tight, eventual Champion Mark Fish leading over a close fight for second between Steve Jones and John Richardson, the latter just losing out.

Whether one make saloons is an advisable path for a young and keen newcomer with ideas of, say, Formula Three is debatable. The acknowledged route is via Formula Ford, and not many drivers switch to single-sealers once they have settled into a saloon seat. Yet a cheap series like Fiestas might just be the ideal way for a young driver to learn the circuits.

Even using identical cars, engines and tyres, advantages can be gained by being more lavish with supplies. On these front-wheel-drive cars, it is the front left tyre which takes the greatest punishment, and while a set of fronts may be persuaded to last for perhaps three races on a Metro, a front-runner like Paul Taft or Roger Jones will most likely change at least the left one for every race, at a cost of £55. Rears, on the other hand, have an easy life, lasting for maybe half a season. Taft’s Metro also sports cockpit-adjustable anti-roll bars and brakes, and gave him a number of victories, although a gear ratio infringement resulted in his losing points and thus the title, which went to Jones.

The Metro Challenge has established itself as a regular support to the RAC Saloon car series, and also figured at last year’s Silverstone GP, thus reaching the biggest audience any race can expect to have. Such a link-up has no doubt been helped by BL’s involvement in GpA with the Rover Vitesse and Metro Turbo, and by the emergence of Steve Soper, winner of the first Metro Challenge, in GpA and the ETC rounds. A successful graduate is bound to add credence to a race series. Renault’s Cup is still making its name. and Two-Four Sports aim to keep up the prestige of the Turbo badge by associating where possible with Formula Three (the Super Prix at Brands Hatch). WSC (Silverstone) and ETC (Donington), and offering a complete package of the race itself, the associated promotion, and the lure of a “personality” in the celebrity car.

The Fiesta series, though not pitched at quite the same level of meeting, offers strong inducements to Ford dealers to back a car, including the £500 Ford News Dealer Trophy for the dealer supporting the highest placed can overall, and is currently negotiating with TV AM, presenters Ann Diamond and Wincy Willis to drive at the Brands Bank Holiday Monday meeting at the end of March, a move which would result in the television exposure which sponsors crave.

With healthy grids in all of these one-make series, race organisers and drivers alike should be looking forward to the new season with anticipation, and the all-important racegoer will also benefit with some exciting racing expected. But for the drivers, the chance to indulge in close racing and perhaps win some vital funds for the following season must be a novel experience. And will someone be able to beat Renault 5 GT Turbo Cup winner Rob Hall’s jackpot of £5,320— plus that car?

G.C.