Should the establishment be fazed by the arrival of world champion Audi? Paul Fearnley looks forward to the 1996 British Touring Car Championship
There is a sense of foreboding in the BTCC. The arrival of Audi and its four-wheel drive A4 has the 'establishment' all of a twitter. The memory of the Ingolstadt manufacturer's dominance of last season's FIA Touring Car World Cup looms large as the teams gather themselves for another attack on the world's most competitive two-litre touring car series.
There were a number of excuses why the BTCC brigade failed to bring home the spoils from Paul Ricard: the layout of the track; the lack of tyre testing for the front-wheel-drive cars; the alleged 'active' diffs on Audi's part. These all played a role in the A4's success. But there can be no denying that Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro headed up a memorable 1-2 for an extremely professional outfit and its extremely capable car.
BMW was the best of the rest in the south of France last October, but the traction avants of the BTCC reckon they have the measure of Munich's rear-wheel-drive offering. Audi is another matter altogether. Nobody knows quite what to expect. There is a nagging fear that the total-traction A4 may replicate the dominance of Team Schnitzer in '93 and Alfa Corse the following season.
However. In both of those seasons the 'invaders' caught the locals unready and unaware. This will not happen this season Williams and TWR will see to that and yet . .
In the shape of Johnny Cecotto and Joachim Winkelhock, BMW has twice denied Audi its home Super Touring title, but the tracks featured in this series tend to have long straights, perhaps Audi's only weakness. And so, when Biela waded through a number of BTCC videos to get a flavour of the tracks he will encounter in first season of UK racing, he liked what he saw. . .
But Audi's British campaign is not free of question marks. Rather than send an established outfit to our shores, it has decided to form a brand new team under the auspices of long-time Arrows team manager, John Wickham; as a team-mate for Biela it has plumped for John Bintcliffe, who has no previous experience of touring car racing; regulation changes concerning differential/s should ensure that the only thing running to and from the said units will be mechanical. No wires. No hydraulic actuators. None of the whizz-bang gizmos that have clouded the issue in recent seasons. This will quell talk of Audi's 'trick' diffs, but nobody can be totally sure that this was the reason for its Paul Ricard romp.
And if it's a rainy summer, well ...
Heading up our defence, so to speak, will be Renault, Volvo and Vauxhall probably in that order.
Williams made an incredible impact in its first season of touring car racing, its Laguna winning 10 races thanks to the efforts of Alain Menu (seven victories) and Will Hoy (three). This gave it the manufacturers' championship at its first attempt. What makes this all the more impressive is that the Didcot concern was far from satisfied with the car it used in '95. A drastic lack of preparation time deemed that this be so. So, of last year's front-runners, the Laguna has perhaps the most scope for development in readiness for '96. For its rivals, this must be as big a worry as Audi. It lacks the unknown element, however. We know that Williams will improve on its previous offering and be winning races.
No matter how big the shadow cast by Audi, therefore, Menu is my pre-season favourite.
The Volvo 850s that have rolled out of TWR's workshop over the past two years have always been at the forefront of Super Touring technology initiating the fashion for pushing the diff fore of the engine and gearbox to improve weight distribution. Because of this, it is hard to visualise the team making great strides during the off-season. I could be horribly wrong, however, and Tom Walkinshaw's men can never be discounted. They have removed one element of doubt by switching from Dunlop to Michelin although this has as much to do with an unwillingness to play second fiddle to Audi on the rubber front and new signing, the impressive Kelvin Burt, will ensure a very strong driver line-up, perhaps the strongest, alongside '95 qualifying sensation, Rickard Rydell.
Vauxhall won seven races and the drivers' title for John Cleland last season, so there was plenty of speed on tap. But the key to this success was the Cavalier's driveability, ease on its tyres and matchless reliability. All of this was an offshoot of a six-year development programme.
This season will see the arrival of Vectra. Wider and longer than the Cavalier, it also has much greater scope for improved weight distribution in and around the engine bay. Ray Matlock was the man who swung touring cars towards singleseater responses, and under his tutelage the Vectra should be winning at some point during the season, But not straight away. As I write, the Vectra is as quick as its predecessor: it possesses fantastic traction and pin-sharp turn-in... and a wayward tail that must be tamed.
Cleland and his Cavalier were the racing equivalent of slippers by the fire. The Scot is now breaking in a new pair of boots. He must push the Cavalier from his mind or James Thompson, his young, devil-may-care team-mate, might prove too hot for him to handle
Honda should be best of the rest. The Motor Sport Developments-built Accord impressed in its first season of BTCC racing especially as its Yokohama rubber was never really on a par with the Michelin and Dunlop rivals. This has been redressed by a swap to Michelin, while the car itself has just about the best basic spec' of the lot - double wishbones all round and a very slippery shape. I still think this won't be enough to win a championship as competitive as the BTCC, however. Honda doesn't seem to want it bad enough' as capable as David Leslie and James Kaye (the drivers loyally retained from last season) are, neither strikes me as a potential champion. Wins? Yes. Title? No.
Peugeot is another manufacturer racing a new model in '96, and I think the 406 could be the surprise of the season. The key to this is the improved relationship between the French and British arms of the programme that has gone hand-in-hand with departure of Jean-Pierre Jabouille from the former. Budget is still marginal, but Peugeot France has done a good deal of testing with a car that offers a bigger footprint than the 405, a more slippery shape and a more advanced rear suspension. Like Honda, its driver pairing of Tim Harvey and Patrick Watts is not one that screams 'Champion!' , but the former has plenty of experience of winning BTCC races and the latter is easily fast enough to claim a victory here and there . . .
There can't have been many BTCC seasons when the chances of a Ford victory can be dismissed into the realms of fantasy The Blue Oval is rebuilding. At the moment this is a euphemism for disorganised chaos.
Andy Rouse has been jettisoned. In his place comes long-time British F3 front-runner, Dick Bennetts' West Surrey Racing. The New Zealander is extremely capable. He will need to be.
Reynard has also been brought on board as Ford joins the single-seater merry-go-round, but the Bicester concern's view of a racing Mondeo is unlikely to hit the tracks until the middle of the season.
Until then WSR will make do and mend with an interim model sourced from German team Schubel. Even this is running late. Decisions are taking forever - Steve Robertson has only just been confirmed as Paul Radisich's team-mate after a protracted selection process testing time is slipping away, and a 'grin and bear it' season appears to be in the offing.
BMW is rebuilding, too. But its regeneration appears more ordered.
McLaren is the Munich marques single-sealer 'in', to the extent that the bulk of its motorsport arm has been relocated to the UK's racing corridor. This ties in with its priority targeting of the BTCC after the disappointments of last season. The wholly McLaren 3-Series is planned for '97 but input from Gordon Murray, and a more BTCC-friendly aerodynamic package should see it back on the pace this season. This is a feeling bolstered by the return of '93 champions Winkelhock and Schnitzer, and the UK arrival of the most successful touring car driver of recent times, Roberto Ravaglia.
That's 16 works cars, with perhaps an extra BMW for Peter Kox on occasion.
Nissan and Toyota may also be represented. The former company is known to be keen to return to the tray in '97, and Rouse is being linked to a season-long Primera programme, while Anthony Reid who will race for Nissan in Germany this season is expected to contest selected BTCC rounds. However, Toyota's involvement is under greater debate: the TOM'S-built Carina E showed much promise towards the end of the '95 but, at the moment, it looks unlikely to make an appearance in '96 in a works capacity.
Then there's Hyundai and Chrysler. The Korean manufacturer continues to be linked with Prodrive, and rumour has it that a car may emerge to race in the dying embers of the BTCC season. Chrysler's Stratus is very real, and will be raced by the PacWest team in the inaugural North American Touring Car Championship. If this goes well, the Reynard-influenced car may race in Europe as part of the rebirth of the Chrysler name on this side of the pond.
Add between six and eight privateers - a battle that should boil down to a duel between the Ford Mondeo of Total Cup-holder Matt Neal and Richard Kaye's Vauxhall Cavalier - and the series Is once again in rude health.
Now pass me that long-range weather forecast.