”Is crash. Is frightening. Is fast. Is funny.” Giampiero Simoni’s grasp of English may be marginal but no one bettered the young Alfa Romeo driver’s summation of the British Touring Car Championship. It may not be motorsport for the purist, but I defy anyone to dismiss it as being dull 40,000 spectators at OuIton Park and nine participating manufacturers can’t all be wrong.
True, the series has taken a couple of knocks recently: Alfa Corse and Team Schnitzer the champion teams for the past two seasons have left for pastures new, as has Nissan, and Audi knocked its British plans on the head to concentrate on the German and Italian series, but the BTCC remains the most varied if no longer clearly the most competitive touring car championship in the world.
In have come Williams, Derek Warwick, Johnny Cecotto, David Brabham, Kelvin Burt, Prodrive, Toyota Team Europe, Honda, a Volvo saloon and wings, to provide plenty of talking points and, thankfully, no obvious pre-season favourite. It’s not for nothing that the FIA has dumped the formula’s down-in-the-mouth nomenclature of Class 2 for the more upbeat, Saatchi-ism – Super Touring.
Twenty-five races with all scores to count, no room for error or rest in qualifying as each session will provide for a separate grid for the double-header races, uncompromising tactics, evenly matched cars and yawning gravel traps to win the BTCC will require a slice of luck, a healthy dose of skill, and a soupcon of a car advantage. But who will rise above this colourful, harum-scarum scrum? Alain Menu. Or Paul Radisich. Or Cecotto. Not forgetting John Cleland, Rickard Rydell and Warwick. That’s as far as my neck sticks out I’m afraid.
Williams, which has taken over the running of the Renault Lagunas, and Warwick, whose first season of touring car racing this will be, will undoubtedly hog the early headlines, but both parties would prefer a low-key entrance as each knows that the first half-dozen races will be vital. For if a pattern has emerged over the last couple of seasons it is that if an individual is to possess an advantage in this nip and tuck series, it is more likely to be in April and May than in August and September. Both Joachim Winkelhock and Gabriele Tarquini grabbed an early lead and held onto them to secure the 1993-4 driver titles. And to this end, winter testing has stepped up markedly during the off-season so that three sessions per week is now week is now approaching the norm for many leading teams.
But time is always short in motor racing, and the bulk of the teams were hard pushed to hit the first deadline of the year – February 14 – by which time an exact copy of the rear wings and front spoilers they intend to use throughout 1995 had to be in the possession of the FIA in Paris. Yet the new Honda Accord hadn’t turned a wheel before this date, while the Laguna’s singleton run in its winged form on February 13 had been marred by rain.
The new aerodynamic regulations designed to prevent the bickering that marred last season provides the biggest question mark over the forthcoming season. All cars will be allowed to run wings, front and rear, of a size fixed by the FIA, even if the corresponding road car is not so similarly well hung. This was the only way of controlling such appendages, and as the bulk of the manufacturers are still concerned that the race cars should visually bear close relation to those sold in their showrooms, this was vital. But what works in the wind tunnel may not perform on the track, especially on such an unstable platform as a touring car, and for many the mid-February deadline provided a last-minute panic. Therefore, I can guarantee a few sleepless nights for aerodynamicists around the world until their calculations have a chance to prove themselves in anger.
But the joy of this championship is its unpredictability: the firmest of favourites can easily find himself embedded in the nearest available gravel trap. However. I will predict that after six races — if not sooner — teams will have decided on which of its men to push, while the other will be asked to perform a holding role. But who will carry these torches?
Menu should be Renault’s leading light. He’s a star in qualifying and brilliantly fast on cold tyres. For Ford I prophesy it will be Radisich. The two-times World Cup winner ended last year as the man to beat in his wingless Mondeo, which bodes well for this. Cleland will be Vauxhall’s man. The Scot is a fearsome competitor who, like Radisich, will benefit from wings for the first time in 1995. His Cavalier will be in its sixth season of racing, but Ray Mallock’s superb suspension has breathed new life into the design. Rickard Rydell proved he was major talent last season with his handling of the unwieldy 850 estate, and it is inconceivable that TWR could come up with such a run-of-the-mill car for two seasons in succession. Many pundits consider Johnny Cecotto to be the best of BMW’s coterie of star drivers, and if it wasn’t for the fact that both he and the relatively new BMW Motorsport International Team were new to the BTCC, the curly haired Venezuelan would have my definitive vote. As for Warwick I have a gut feeling that the former F1 man will be on the pace from the off as the door-handling should hold no fears for an ex-World Stock Car Champion. But will the excellent Prodrive team benefit from the win-or-bust backing that saw the works Alfa Corse outfit sweep the board in 1994?
Can TTE’s involvement improve the Carina’s fortunes? If an improved chassis puts Julian Bailey somewhere on the first three rows, his dicing prowess would make him a threat for victory. The Peugeot 405 Mi16 had the aerodynamics of a breeze-block in 1994, yet it allowed the spectacularly fast Patrick Watts to secure three podium finishes. Kelvin Burt will partner Radisich at Ford. He’s been successful at every stage of his career, but will he be running scared as a poor season in touring cars could put the tin-lid on his Formula One aspirations? If David Brabham can prevent Cecotto from dominating the team, as is his wont, will the Aussie be a threat for wins in his first season of touring cars? For sure, Warwick will have his work cut out to beat his young teammate, the maturing Giampiero Simoni, and former champions, Tim Harvey and Will Hoy, are both capable of winning races for Volvo and Renault respectively. What am I saying? They could just as easily carry their new teams’ torches. Will Volvo and the fledgling Honda benefit from exclusive contracts with Dunlop and Yokohama? Will Michelin overstretch itself by supplying the rest?
Questions. Questions. And very few answers but isn’t that the fun? Don’t answer that.