Almost 10 years on from its triumphant escapades in the defunct European Touring Car Championship, Volvo is coming back to the sport.
The Swedish company’s return is not without imagination . . .
Tom Walkinshaw is not a man you’d choose as a poker opponent. The Scot, head of a vast business empire that includes motor racing preparation specialist TWR, gives little away when you’re questioning him. His answers are polite, but short and to the point. It’s hard to know what he thinks about the idea of preparing an estate car for the British Touring Car Championship. You get the feeling that he’s uneasy about the gimmicky nature of the whole idea, but that he’s quite enjoying the opportunity to tease the press. . .
When Volvo took the wraps off its new touring car at the Stockholm Motor Show, early in February, it was indeed an 850 estate that lurked beneath the shroud, just as pre-launch speculation had suggested it might be. On the other hand, there was an identically liveried 850 saloon nestling in a quieter corner of the exhibition hall, away from the glare of the TV-friendly spotlights.
So what’s it to be? Is the estate just a trick to maximise exposure and amuse the opposition, or could we really see Jan Lammers and Rickard Rydell trying to thread it around Knockhill later this year?
“It’s 50/50,” says Walkinshaw. “The first cars we’re building up are four-doors, and we’ll be testing later this month. The original test hack was an estate, though, and we will be looking at it. We’ll race whichever is faster. Our objective this year is to build a car capable of finishing in the top three, and which is ready to win in 1995.”
Simple logistics tell you that Volvo is likely to start the year with the saloon, but beyond that, who knows? The impetus for a return to competition came from Martin Rybeck, the man in charge of product development at Volvo’s Gothenberg HQ. “Obviously, from a PR point of view we’d like to see the estate racing,” says Rybeck, “but we are not going to sacrifice performance for media exposure. This is a three-year programme, and we want to win. We are happy just to get the project off the ground in 1994, but for the next two seasons it is imperative that we are in a position to win races and to challenge for the championship. It is ridiculous to think that we could just get in and start winning races directly.”
Walkinshaw concurs. “It’s a very competitive formula, and there are very few things that you can do to gain an edge. Realistically, though, I think we can expect to be challenging for a place in the top three by mid-season.”
TWR may have been away from the BTCC for several years (it hasn’t run a full programme since 1983), but its involvement with touring cars has been continuous. There were programmes in Europe with Jaguar and Rover, and in Australia a long-standing arrangement with Holden is still extant.
All the same, TWR and Volvo represents something of an unlikely combination. “There were approaches from both sides before the deal was struck,” says Rybeck, “but we were happy with TWR because of the good relationship we had when we were competing against each other in Europe 10 years ago.”
Erm, hang on a second. What about the acrimony, allegations and counter-allegations that marred the ETCC from time to time in the mid-I980s?
Rybeck smiles. “You have to separate the people from the racing. TWR has good, professional people, and we respect that. Our objective is to win at all costs, so you have to employ the best people, develop the best chassis and hire the best drivers.”
So how much is Volvo prepared to spend? “Enough,” says Rybeck, refusing to be drawn into specifics. “I can’t tell you exactly how much will be spent on racing. In the 1980s, we spent money on racing the cars, and that was it. Now, there’s much more involved. The overall price includes marketing, promotion and other aspects.”
Rumours suggest a commitment of £15 million over three years, which is on a par with the sort of money Alfa Romeo recently confessed that it would be investing on the same series.
“This is more than a simple racing deal,” continues Rybeck. “Obviously we want to make more people aware of the 850. In the two-and-a-half years since its launch, it has been well received, but not enough people know about it outside Sweden. The BTCC is an ideal solution. Britain is an important market for us anyway, but also I believe that the touring car series has the second largest spectator following in the UK after football. On top of the racing, though, TWR will also be developing parts for the after-sales market, for road cars. It’s a two-way thing.”
For a car that hasn’t yet turned a wheel in anger (although there is video evidence that the estate test hack has thundered up and down at Bruntingthorpe), the 850 has already attracted an inordinate amount of attention. And it has the word ‘Securicor’ writ large upon its flanks. The delivery company was previously associated with Toyota, whose Carina looks set to be even more competitive this season in the hands of proven winners Will Hoy and Julian Bailey. So why jump ships? “It’s always regrettable to end a successful association,” says marketing director Denis Norton, “but TWR and Volvo offered us a new and appealing dimension. We’re not trying to sell cars, so winning races isn’t the be all and end all for us, it’s an added bonus. Simply, the BTCC offers us instant and widespread exposure, and I think this new project offers us our best chance of that.”
Even if it never races, the 850 estate will surely prove to be the marketing tool of the year, perhaps even the decade?
Drivers Lammers and Rydell (chosen, insist all parties, for his potential rather than his nationality, though Tom concedes that his Swedishness helped when it came to choosing between a couple of candidates of equal ability) provide a balance of youth and experience. The former reckons he has racked up over 100 events with TWR, including victory in the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours. Although now 37, the Dutchman was racing in F1 as recently as 1992, and he proved to be an effective performer in European F3000 last season. “I was looking originally at either F3000 or IndyCars,” he explains, “but the money is always hard to find and the chance to get involved with a major manufacturer like this represents a step up in some ways. Certainly, you feel more like a professional driver operating with TWR. I have absolute faith in both Tom and Volvo. I’m sure that the car will ultimately prove to be a winner, but we don’t know how much work that will take until we put it on the road and see where we are.
“Last year, I rediscovered a lot of my single-seater sharpness, and it’ll be nice to put it to good use somewhere. I’ve still got a bit of homework to do on the BTCC – I’ve only seen a couple of races on the telly – but I’m fully aware how competitive it is.
“You see companies like Nissan and Toyota getting involved in all sorts of racing or rallying projects at the same time. Volvo has only its BTCC programme, which helps.”
It seems unlikely that the Swedes will remain thus focused for long, however. “If the programme is a success,” says engineer Anders Kull, “then we hope to make kits available for other markets, such as Italy.”
Britain, though, is the urgent priority.
“Many people have asked us ‘Why Volvo?” says Walkinshaw, “but we’ve evaluated the 850 and to us it looks like an excellent basis for a racing programme, with a good engine and suitable suspension. Besides, we know how competitive Volvo is. We’ve had plenty of trouble trying to beat them in the past.”
Everything seems polished, and there’s a tone of measured confidence about Walkinshaw’s delivery which is entirely understandable, given TWR’s past record.
And then you look over Tom’s left shoulder, and you see an estate car glistening beneath the spotlights . . .
So, serious project or PR stunt?
They say that the estate has certain aerodynamic advantages, but BTCC success is nowadays measured in terms of torsional stiffness, which clearly favours the saloon.
Doesn’t it . . ? S A