Back to front?

After the thorny question of 'what car should I buy?', the oldest motoring debate is that concerning the merits of front- and rear-wheel drive. In purist racing formulae there is no question about the winning pedigree of the latter, especially when run in alliance with an engine mounted amidships. Yet saloon car racing, particularly where the Auto Trader RAC British Touring Car Championship is concerned, does not permit great engineering freedom in the quest for quick lap times. Britain's two-litre formula has been tightly regulated to balance the lap times of differing drive layouts. This has lured a healthy, and hitherto unforeseen, number of major manufacturers into the contest.

Setting minimum overall lengths, banning turbochargers and establishing differing minimum weights, which favour the front-drive majority, were deemed essential, as was the decision to impose a rev limit of 8500 rpm on the present batch of in-line fours and V6s. Such factors mean that traditional rear-drive saloon car racing pacesetters. notably BMW, are brought into a rigged arena, where they are facing an uphill technical struggle to vanquish the nowadays conventional front-drive opposition.

These restrictions have ruled premier division British saloon car racing since 1991. The result has been an enormous commercial success. Not only have eight manufacturers been drawn in, but the concept has been adopted around the world. Even the previously all-conquering German series has a two-litre division for 1993, and the new 2.5-litre premier class is supported only by Mercedes-Benz, with a 1992 model. and Alfa Romeo, with the only car built specifically to 1993 GTCC rules – an exciting 4x4, 400 bhp version of the 155.

In Britain, seven manufacturer-backed teams (only Peugeot actually builds its own cars) lined up to race at the first Silverstone round, but Andy Rouse's Ford-backed, rear-drive Mondeo V6 should be racing by the time you read this. A ninth marque, Mercedes-Benz, looks certain to join the party later this season.

Before that opening round we had a unique chance not only to compare the respective merits of front- and rear-drive, but also – as it transpired – the fastest two makes on the Silverstone grid.

British rules, which impose a 100 kg/220 lb penalty upon the rear drive BMWs, saw just fractions of a second separate the Schnitzer-prepared 318i four-door saloons from Janspeed's Nissan Primera 2.0 eGT.

I rode shotgun in both as they prepared for what would be a near-95 mph pole position battle around the 1.649 miles of Silverstone's National circuit. To underline the fundamental differences, 32 year-old Joachim Winkelhock sat in the BMW's Ihd seat for BMW and 31 year-old Kieth (sic) O'dor took charge of the rhd Nissan. Coincidentally, both claim 270 bhp for their two-litre. 16v, dohc power units. Nissan estimates that its SR 20 DE four-cylinder yields 190 lb/ft of torque, whilst BMW reckons it has 'only' 173 lb/ft at 7000 rpm from its rpm shrunken (1996 cc) M3-originated unit.

I sampled front-drive to begin with, actually my first ever experience of a two-litre British touring car. The 950 kg Janspeed Primera was a 1992 model with Monza gearing (a hangover of the winter test programme) and a conventional gate for the six-speed gearbox. For the race, O'dor had a 1993-spec Holinger sequential six-speeder which offered a big improvement in downchange quality during the helter-skelter of qualifying. Despite lacking such contemporary niceties, we lapped within 1 .5s of a decent time, two-up. This meant laps in the 64s bracket, about half a second shy of what proved to be the driver-cum-journalist pace in the BMW.

After several flying laps, the Nissan left an impression of fabulously effective brakes and amazing grip generated by 8 x I 8 in magnesium wheels shod by Yokohama. Such speed (adequate, rather than startling, by racing standards) was accompanied by personal regret that I had not brought ear defenders. The driver was kept frantically busy by that 8500 rpm limiter and a close ratio 'box, swapping gears on command from a blinking lamp above the digital dashboard. This often meant changing while cornering, particularly on the exit of Copse and Becketts. Kieth's calm stance amidst such turmoil reminded me of a programmed robot.

The front-drive characteristics were emphasised by my extra weight, with plenty of hopping and skipping in the slower corners. There seemed no need to do more than e-a-s-e the steering lock as the Primera hopped towards oversteer at higher cornering speeds.

For the slowest corner, Becketts, a little rallying technique crept in as modest amounts of left-foot braking countered the tyre-shredding tendency to plough into ever more severe understeer. Mid-corner braking also allows the limited slip differential to countermand increasing unladen wheel spin, but a gentle left foot is required if momentum is to be maintained amongst a tightly packed bunch of front-drive adversaries.

I left the Nissan exhilarated, but queued persistently to bag a ride in the Schnitzer BMW. Just as Ferrari and Lotus mean something special to the Grand Prix fan, Schnitzer and BMW are amongst the touring car elite.

Schnitzer UK team-mates Steve Soper and Joachim Winkelhock are governed by artificial handicaps. There is no longer antilock braking (BMW Motorsport and Alfred Teves had developed this to such a successful pitch that it has been banned in this category) and a further 25 kg ballast has been imposed.

The chance to witness Winkelhock's forceful style (which brought him a new class lap record in the ensuing race, as he harried Soper all the way to the flag) was a welcome bonus.

At first glance, there is not much difference between the BMW four-door used this season and the two-door 318iS coupé that brought Tim Harvey (now with Renault) the 1992 title. In fact, the four-door body apparently brought a small, but worthwhile, bonus in torsional stiffness, a factor that is multiplied out of all roadgoing recognition by 130 ft of steel tube roll-cage. The 318i racing saloon is at least as slippery as its mainstream rivals. The roof, 50 in from the ground, is four inches lower than that on a production version, and the resultant Cd is just 0.30.

The low ride height shared by all BTCC front-runners was enough to offset the plump presence of nine-inch wide Yokohamas on 8 x I 8 forged magnesium BBS wheels.

We were treated to a mini-Schnitzer pit stop routine, tyres inspected and driver questioned, before the Fina-backed 318i was manhandled out of the garage.

A BMW Motorsport computer dictated a surging idle speed of 1500 rpm or so. There follows a stolid clonk from another Holinger six-speed gearbox working through an H-plan gate (this time complementing a longitudinal four-cylinder motor) and we were off along the pit lane at invigorating velocity. I was treated to some classic BMW cornering antics, by a man then professing to be overawed by the challenge of running at largely unfamiliar British circuits.

I could have been back with Dieter Quester, conquering the kerbs of Brands Hatch in a factory 2002 from the '60s, or Hans Stuck demonstrating how easy it is to two-wheel any large racing BMW coupé with 330-440 bhp. The raw technique was the same: head down, front wheel up; feel those kerbs rumbling beneath you as the rear wheels search for the dirt beyond the exit kerbing, slithering under full power.

Playing back my cassette recording of the three-lap run, one can picture each of Silverstone's corners approaching and diminishing as the blaring M3 motor resounds coarsely off the tin walls of our four-door cell. Hidden amidst a cacophony that is interspersed with the fastest 'across the gate' gearchanges I have heard since Gilles Villeneuve is the sheer violence of the deceleration, Simply massive forces are generated by 14 and 12 in diameter disc brakes, clamped via 20 pistons in fat calipers.

Even with a six-point harness on, I was being thrown forward with the ferocity of a 30 mph accident. I was forced to realise that the rear-drive BMW could be braked a lot later (by eye, 50 metres at the close of the longest straight) than the Nissan. Consequently, you turn into a corner much later with rear-drive than you do with front. This observation drew nods of agreement from seasoned observers such as Will Hoy (1991 British champion), who has raced both rwd BMWs and fwd Toyotas.

But Will and Prodrive boss David Richards both put forward a counter-argument for fwd: "The front suspension is usually set up soft for good traction. That means the drivers can ride over kerbs, no problem at all." Will was particularly keen to emphasise that front-drive kerb-hopping was a genuine time saver under stress, adding that that this was a habit best avoided in a BMW. With 1400 lb springs, all that happens, if you take liberties over the kerbs, is that it darts all over the place."

Back inside that BMW — the chassis used by Soper to win the season-opener — I muttered, semi-coherently, into the tape recorder. It was, truly, one of the most action-packed rides of my saloon car experience. Those brakes and that slapstick gearchange are fabulous. Then there is the handling... I can see just why these modestly powered two-litre projectiles can set lap times that are faster than those achieved by turbocharged RS500s with virtually twice their power.

On reflection, I will never again argue in favour of front-drive on a racing circuit. It may be an efficient mass production layout, cheaper and safer for the average driver, but for racing purposes the purity of mid-corner response and the balance of a car that does not have to fight transmission forces through the front wheels, leave no room for any further argument.

Besides, if fwd is so efficient, why does BMW have to carry over 220 lb in ballast to give the others a chance?

At the circuit, on the day, that seemed the end of the back-to-back argument. To rub the message home, Winkelhock demonstrated to talented former F3000 frontrunner, and nowadays BTCC regular, Alain Menu, that he could take him around faster as a passenger in the BMW (63.5s) than the Swiss could manage racing one of the new, unsorted Renaults 19s solo! J W