British Touring Car Championship

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Hoy fever

The British Touring Car Championship ran as a one-class two-litre formula for the first time in 1991. Gone were the GpA supercars with near-F1 outputs and gone was the multi-class system which few but the competitors ever understood, but which had been a central philosophy of touring car racing since its inception. The idea of the new format was to encourage more manufacturers into the series and in this it has been a qualified success, with BMW and Vauxhall joined by Toyota in a major way, Ford, Nissan and Mitsubishi in a lower-key fashion.

It has been an unqualified success however, in terms of providing a close, exciting championship between various configurations of cars. The series went right to the last round and was fought out between a rear-drive BMW and a front-drive Vauxhall, Will Hoy triumphant in his Vic Lee Motorsport Securicor M3 over John Cleland’s works Cavalier. Furthermore, of the 15 races comprising the championship, eight were won by rear-drive, seven by front. You can’t get much closer matching than that.

An 8500 rev limit and a weight formula offsetting the theoretical track advantage of rear-wheel drive prevented the M3 from wiping the floor with the competition. Vauxhall and Toyota showed that a comparable racer could be derived from a properly developed mid-range family car given this set of rules. It was a brave and intelligent initiative by the RAC MSA. Instead of vainly trying to stay in the afterglow of a golden era, it has instead created a better one. Virtually every manufacturer has an eligible, potentially competitive model in its range.

What it also seemed to do though, for the first time almost, was to give some purist racing credibility to the BTCC. No longer is it seen as an old man’s hobby formula, with a sprinkling of specialist aces. No, this year F3 team managers could be observed watching the touring car pitboards, Formula Ford drivers were heard enquiring where Tim Sugden or Jonathan Palmer had qualified. This year, with only one class, qualifying grids meant something, just like in single-seaters. This year, the tempo of the thing seemed to step up a pace and somehow the shrill engine notes and power-shifting of six-speed gearboxes reflected this.

There are still the specialist aces like Steve Soper, Andy Rouse and John Cleland, but the presence too of those from a purer racing background emphasised the quality of those specialists. From F1 came Palmer and Julian Bailey, from Group C Will Hoy and Ray Bellm, from Formula Ford and Formula Renault Tim Sugden, from F3 Gary Ayles. Andy Middlehurst too has a useful single-seater pedigree. All shone at various times, but the fact that they couldn’t dominate over the truly classy perennials added to their stature rather than detracted from those from outside saloon backgrounds. Palmer now has big respect for Soper’s abilities, Ayles for Rouse’s.

But all must have respect for those of Will Hoy and his entrant Vic Lee. Lee was running as a privateer, a BMW customer. He had secured major backing, running four cars for two major sponsors, but as far as technical development was concerned, he was on his own. Prodrive was the factory-backed UK arm. It was quite an achievement for Lee to have triumphed over the works in this way.

The first weapon in his armoury was Hoy himself. Seriously underrated in his home country for years, Will brought with him not only a deceptive speed disguised by a relaxed fluid style almost at odds with the nature of these cars but also vast experience, including Japanese Touring Car titles. This at a time when the works was relying for its championship push on Jonathan Palmer a fine driver, but one for whom touring cars were a whole new ballgame. Palmer’s class showed through eventually, as he was regularly very quick by the season’s end. By which time, of course, Hoy’s points tally was a long way out of his reach.

Lee’s next point of advantage was the crucial one of tyre choice. The BTCC featured a real tyre war this year between Yokohama, Pirelli and Dunlop and while the latter two both had moments where they seemed to have a genuine speed advantage over a single lap, the Yokohamas were, as ever, sublime over a race distance. Particularly if conditions were hot. Which, given the summer of ’91, they usually were. Lee’s team ran on Yokohamas, Vauxhall on Dunlops, Prodrive on Pirellis. The T26 Yoko — introduced to selected customers, including Lee, at midseason — added more grip to the consistency and durability of the standard E.

 

Thirdly, Lee continued to go his own way on engine development, his units prepared at Eurotech in Coventry. His cars had a plain straightline speed advantage over the works M3s at the start of the year, though later this was reduced as Prodrive set about rectifying matters.

The backbone of Hoy’s championship was laid with back to back victories in the opening two rounds — the whole combination really was ready from the off — and thereafter he scored only one further win. His drives were invariably neat, intelligent and quick and it’s somewhat ironic that the only time he got himself into trouble was at the penultimate round when he was deliberately driving at less than full attack in order to play safe.

Vauxhall and Cleland stayed in the hunt until that final round thanks to the Scotsman’s speed and sheer fire. He actually won four races, though one of those the infamous rain-shortened event in June didn’t count for points. The Cavalier was almost certainly a more difficult car to drive quickly than the M3, but it had a straightline speed advantage borne of superior aerodynamics and a fast corner stability advantage thanks to front-wheel-drive. On the other hand, it — and all the other front-drivers — lost out scrabbling for traction exiting slower corners and lacked the M3 ‘s almost single-seater-like turn-in response. Its competitiveness was increased further when Dunlop switched from crossply to radial construction in the season’s second half.

Some days the Cavalier’s qualities combined with Cleland’s prodigious speed to just disappear. Other times, it started near the front then faded as quickly as its tyres. It was this inconsistency which prevented a much stronger tilt at the championship.

Andy Rouse took third place in the series with the Kaliber Toyota Carina. Taking a car with no competition pedigree and turning it into one of the most formidable pieces of equipment in the championship speaks volumes for Rouse’s engineering prowess and the budget made available to him.

The combination started off the year just a little way off a winning pace, but the breakthrough came in the Donington double-header race in July where Rouse won twice. He won again at Brands in August. Aside from a performance blip at Thruxton, the Carina/Yokohama/Rouse combination was probably the quickest of all in the second half of the year. Much of that superiority came from a noticeable straightline advantage even over the Vauxhall, though generally it was less nimble than the Cavalier or M3.

There was plenty to suggest that the ‘works’ BMW team, operated by Prodrive, had underestimated the quality of the opposition. It began the year with a power deficit and its championship chasing driver was new to touring cars. But, like Vauxhall, probably the most critical variable in its overall performance was that of tyres. The Pirellis were fully competitive with the best Yokohamas in cool conditions. But there weren’t many cool races . . .More usually, Palmer, Steve Soper and Tim Sugden would find themselves struggling after a handful of laps. Ironically, Palmer failed to win a race though he did set pole at the penultimate round — while both Soper and Sugden triumphed in the second car they shared between them. It was Soper who took fourth in the series thanks to three immaculate wins, fitted in when his German programme allowed. Sugden took an excellent debut win on a cool June day at Brands.

Tim Harvey waited until the final round before opening his winning account in the Labatt’s-backed M3 that was run by Vic Lee alongside the Securicor Hoy and Bellm cars. He had, however, been pushing hard for victory in each of the previous two rounds.

Reflecting the quality of the field, there were several front-running non-winners aside from Palmer, including Jeff Allam in the second Vauxhall, Hoy’s team-mate and mentor Ray Bellm and Gary Ayles in the second Toyota. Andy Middlehurst had a promising first BTCC season with Graham Goode, who did a splendid job on limited resources in developing a normallyaspirated 16-valve Ford Sierra. The Janspeed Nissan Primeras were developed in low-key fashion and had begun to show genuine promise in the hands of Kieth Odor and, latterly, Julian Bailey. Previous champions Robb Gravett and Frank Sytner had desultory seasons with their respective Trakstar Ford Sierra Sapphire and Pyramid M3, interspersed with the odd good result.

While the feeling of awe when watching the 550 horsepower RS500s being driven at their limits had virtually disappeared when watching the new breed of racers, there was still spectacle to be observed. Spectacle of a different nature, that’s all. The sight of multi-model doorhandle scraps provided both spectacle and a case against those who said that one car would always dominate. The success of the formula looks set to be reflected by greater manufacturer involvement with Renault, Mazda and Peugeot all rumoured to be running next year. A genuine RAC-inspired success story.– MPH

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