British Touring Car Championship

Preview

The British Touring Car Championship has always been popular, but during the last couple of years it has become even more so. There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily it is the televising of every round in 1989 and 1990 on BBC TV's Grandstand that has brought the exciting and close racing typical of saloon cars into the living room of many an armchair enthusiast.

During this time the class structure of the championship has been streamlined so that this year, for the first time, there will only be one class. While the Ford Sierra Cosworths have been the only cars to win races over the last few seasons, the championship winners have not necessarily emerged from within their ranks. And if one is to keep the television pundit from being too confused, then the overall champion should be seen to drive a winning car.

While the Ford Sierra Cosworths were undoubtedly the star of the show last year and the years before, the championship had become too much of a one-make series even though there was often exciting racing going on in the other classes all the way down the field. The ruling which has outlawed the turbocharged Cosworths and restricted engine capacity to 2-litre (and required a minimum overall length of 4.2 metres/13 ft 10 ins to discourage 'hot hatches') this year has opened up the championship and encouraged other manufacturers to enter the fray, either with a works team or else through a dealer-backed equipe. There are also a number of privateers planning to enter different cars.

As in the 2-litre class last year, BMW is the most popular marque, sleeved-down M3s being entered by a good number of teams. Principally, though, it is the works assisted Prodrive team from Banbury which will be the one to beat. In 1988 they supplied the machinery for Frank Sytner to win the championship outright, and last year they helped him to a class win ahead of John Cleland in the Vauxhall.

This year they have dispensed with the services of the irrepressible Nottinghamshire driver and have instead recruited to their ranks ex-Zakspeed and Tyrrell pilot Jonathan Palmer in the number one car while the second car will be rotated between Christian Danner, Steve Soper and James Weaver. There is rumoured that there will be a third car for rally driver Jimmy McRae, but the outcome depends on available finance.

The other strong BMW team will undoubtedly be that of Vic Lee Motors. Last year they had a late start to the season with Jeff Allam driving an ex-Bigazzi car, but as they gained more experience, they began to get closer and closer to the front of the 2-litre class. This year Allam has left but VLM are committed at the time of writing to entering four cars in the championship.

Two of the drivers will be Laurence Bristow and Tim Harvey, the successful partnership of the last two seasons who may have transferred their allegiance from Ford to BMW, but have still retained the sponsorship of Labatt's, the Canadian lager, and look set to give the Prodrive cars a run for their money. The other two VLM M3s will be run for Ray Bellm and Will Hoy.

Frank Sytner, meanwhile, has moved to another BMW team and is rumoured to be teaming up with Finnish saloon car champion Hakki Salamentio.

Vauxhall Dealer Sport will be entering two Cavalier GSi 16-valves again for last year's mainstay John Cleland while they are welcoming to their ranks Jeff Allam. The cars will be prepared by Dave Cook again as they were last year.

It has been a long time since Ford have had to enter a team officially in the British Touring Car Championship, but since one of their machines is no longer de rigueur to win a race, they are compelled to organise a team to represent their interests.

There are a number of front running teams Ford could have selected, and they have chosen one of the best there is in Trackstar, last year's championship winners. Naturally reigning BTCC Champion Robb Gravett will be the number 1 driver but at the time of going to press, the second driver has yet to be decided. It would seem to lie, however, between Sean Walker and co-director of the team Mike Smith. That Ford and the team are taking the championship very seriously can be judged by the fact that they have employed Allan Wilkinson, former chief engineer at Ford Motorsport and, through his experience with Toyota, Audi and Ralliart, hailed as one of the best design engineers around. Rod Vickery, meanwhile, who has acted as a saloon car team manager for a number of years, joins Trackstar as Marketing Director after working 18 years with Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

Another normally aspirated Ford Sapphire Cosworth being entered this year is that for David Brodie, but the machine being prepared at the Brodie Brittain Racing workshop at Bracknell is four-wheel drive. At the time of writing, this car is being hotly denied, but it is almost certain to enter the fray this season.

After winning the BTCC three times in the Eighties, Toyota is returning to the series and has employed the services of four times BTCC Champion Andy Rouse and Gary Ayles. The two car Carina team, which is being operated from Rousesport's Coventry workshops, will be sponsored by Kaliber, the alcohol-free lager and ICS, two of Rouse's longstanding sponsors.

At this stage it is difficult to assess their worth as Carinas have not been seen on the track at this level in Britain, but anything Rouse turns his hand to has to be respected.

Japanese interest in the series has been increased with the participation of Nissan and Mitsubishi, a Primera entered by Janspeed and a Lancer by Maguire. Again it is too soon to pre-judge the teams or their mounts, but it is certain that they will have a tough time against the well sorted opposition.

We can also expect to see a Renault, Lancia, Peugeot and Rover participating if plans succeed for the multitude of private entrants, but they are unlikely to be among the front runners. It is known, too, that in one or two cases the manufacturers whose products are being campaigned are rather anxious about this and are putting on a lot of pressure to dissuade the entrants from pursuing their quests.

Despite last minute ructions about tyre sizes, which illustrates just how far the governing body have to go in controlling one of their premier championships, the series is shaping up to be a classic one this year.

Both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' championships will be fiercely contested, but the points' system is different in each.

Only the best-placed car of each manufacturer will receive points, and then it must be amongst the top 10 home. A win brings the manufacturer a maximum of 10 points while tenth place receives just one point.

The Drivers' championship, though, is more widely spaced. The winner of each race receives 24 points, second place is awarded 18 points, third place 12 points, fourth place 10 points, fifth 8 points, sixth 6 points, seventh 4 points down to 1 point for tenth place.

The season-opener is at Oulton Park on March 29th, followed by a meeting at Snetterton on April 14th. We just hope that the taste is as good as the smell! -- WPK