Touring cars review: British and European championships

Battles Won, Wars Lost

Despite the FISA axe hanging menacingly over its international future, Group A touring car racing has put on a good show this year both at home and abroad. Though the domination of their respective classes by Ford, BMW and Toyota remained unbroken, and individual race results all too predictable, championships could still be contested right down to the wire . . .

The man who really made his mark all season in Britain was Andy Rouse, by convincingly winning every race bar three in his Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500. He suffered bad luck when a turbo intake-pipe worked lose in the first round and a tyre punctured in the last, both times losing the lead; the only other race he lost was at Thruxton, when Steve Soper made the first of his irregular appearances in one of the ETC works Fords. It was a defeat which Rouse avenged more than once later in the year.

No other driver has been able to match Rouse in terms of speed or reliability. Guy Edwards, his Andy Rouse Engineering team-mate, has been an able number two, but has only once finished second.

The remainder of the Ford runners have slugged it out amongst themselves without anyone really stamping their authority; Jerry Mahony has consistently scored points, leading the championship after winning the first race and coming second in the next, and since then recording three thirds, a fourth, a fifth, an eighth and two ninths; Tim Harvey has been quick, but hindered by lack of resources.

Other Class A contenders have included the Holden Commodore VL of Mike O’Brien and the Toyota Supras of MIL Motorsport. Although giving variety to the series, none has been able to touch the Fords. The Alan Docking team’s new Holden Commodore was not homologated until August 1, many months later than expected, and teething problems have kept it down the field; Tom Walkinshaw Racing’s similar car finally made its race debut at Silverstone’s TT in September, where its fifth-row qualifying position augured well for next year.

This has been very much a learning year for Trident Motorsport and its Maserati Biturbo but it is very difficult to believe that it will achieve its stated aim of being a challenger for major honours in 1989, unless its new liaison with a leading engine-builder bears fruit.

The remaining classes have been rather dull. Both Frank Sytner in his Class B Prodrive BMW and Phil Dowsett’s Class D Toyota Corolla FX have won their respective divisions every time except once, while nothing stirs in Class C except some Volkswagen Golf GTis.

The only opposition to Sytner has come from Roland Ratzenberger’s M3 but he has regularly come off second-best. So a scoring system which gives the same points for a class win as for outright victory enabled Sytner to fulfil his long-standing ambition of becoming British Touring Car Champion. After his demise in the last round, Rouse was even cheated of runner-up position in the points table by the ultra-reliabie Dowsett.

The Ford/BMW/Toyota class hierarchy of the national series mirrored that of Europe. As the latter series got underway it seemed far from healthy, with only 22 cars turning up at Monza, but thereafter the European Championship came to life against all odds.

At Donington, for the second round, opposition to the totally dominant works supported Eggenberger-run Ford Sierras came not only from assorted BMW M3s but also from a new contender — a lone Nissan GTS-R. Driven by Win Percy and Allan Grice, this immediately proved very quick and at one stage even led the race before being sidelined with brake problems.

In the five other races it contested during the season (one British and four European rounds) it was usually competitive and ran close to the leaders. After a creditable sixth place in the 24-hour race at Spa at its first attempt, it finished second in one heat at Nogaro having started from the last row. Only at Silverstone, where horsepower is everything, did it fail to measure up to the Fords. By taking victory in that particular race, Andy Rouse not only achieved a lifelong ambition to win the Tourist Trophy, nowadays a round of the European series, but he also beat the works-backed Sierras. The irony is that by doing so he ensured that a BMW driver became European Champion. . .

Of the nine races held until that time, Eggenberger cars had won six and the Schnitzer-run BMWs three. Each time the M3 triumphed it had been the Italian reigning World Champion, Roberto Ravaglia, who had been at the wheel, and when he was not winning he was usually in the results. Unfortunately for Ford’s, Steve Soper, when he did not win he usually retired, and the points from his four wins were not enough to bring him the title.

Belgian driver Pierre Dieudonne, who had only won twice, became Eggenberger’s main hope by dint of his continually good placings, but his chances too all but evaporated at Zolder, where slick pit-work by the Schnitzer team during a sudden downpour enabled Ravaglia to snatch victory.

There is no doubt that this should have been Eggenberger’s year in the drivers’ championship as well as the manufacturers’, for the RS500 was unbeatable on paper and in drivers of the calibre of Soper, Dieudonne, Klaus Ludwig and Klaus Niedzwiedz, Eggenberger had a strong team. That a BMW M3 should win at Donington and Zolder was inexcusable, and illustrated the dearth of other front-running Fords. But at least Ford could console itself that it has won the manufacturers’ title, with the expected challenge from Holden and Toyota never materialising. Its tally was eight wins from eleven starts.

Charly Lamm, team manager of Schnitzer, had backed up Ravaglia’s challenge by employing the likes of Emanuele Piero, Eric van de Poole, Markus Oestreich and Altfrid Heger for his two-car team. They started the season off on German-made Pirelli tyres, but by round five at Dijon were allowed by BMW AG to change one car over to Yokohamas for comparison. At the next race at Vallelunga both cars were back again on Pirellis, but by the Nurburgring they had reverted, for good, to the more enduring Japanese rubber.

In addition to the new tyres, Schnitzer ran two new evolution M3s from halfway through the season. So too did Bigazzi Motorsport, the other BMW works-supported team, which from the start had run on Yokohamas but never quite achieved the same results as Schnitzer despite having Jacques Laffite on its payroll.

In the smallest class, Toyota Corollas ruled supreme. East European drivers Georg Alber and Antonin Charouz in their Marlboro-sponsored car dominated the first four races, but this early-season form was upset by Pierre Fermine and Serge de Liedekerke who won five in the second half.

Considering FISA’s invidious attitude to the series following the demise of the World Touring Car Championship after just one year, and its determination to promote the Procar Championship in its stead, this year’s series proved unexpectedly strong after the first race. But the fears of those involved have proved well-founded. The European Championship was unceremoniously abolished by FISA’s General Assembly in Paris in October despite there being no obvious direct replacement — the much-hyped Procar concept, with its hideous expense and excessive power precluding all bar the wealthiest manufacturers and most experienced drivers, appears equally doomed. WPK