The young kid in the works Formula Ford has been hyped up by his team, by the manufacturer of his car — which competes heavily in the racing marketplace with another — by his team manager, by the mechanics. He’s only in his teens, seen nothing much of life out of school other than raced karts since he was nine or so. He’s impressionable; he’s particularly open to influence from those within his orbit he respects — people like his team manager, his mechanics. The very same people who with a ‘go out there and get ’em’ mentality have probably built up his confidence to the level where he’s almost ready to fight a war. That’s how intense it gets. So it’s no real surprise when he takes his chief rival off, blatantly drives him off the circuit. He probably feels briefly satisfied, elated even, unaware that he has crossed a barrier. The hype, the building up of his confidence has gathered its own momentum and gone over centre. He’s now crossed the boundary of what racing officialdom deems acceptable behaviour. He is banned from racing for a period of several months, to give him time to reflect.
In a race on the same bill a vastly more experienced driver in a much higher profile championship commits a similarly cynical offence to the only driver in a place to deprive his team of the title. But this is no fresh-faced teenager lacking the experience correctly to distinguish acceptable boundaries within an adrenalin-blurred environment. He is perhaps the highest paid professional driver outside F1 and probably the finest exponent of his particular craft. However, this time the drivers represent not mere racing marketplace rivals, but manufacturers of road cars. The sales numbers, the stakes, are vastly higher. This is the British Touring Car Championship and for BMW’s Steve Soper, who has just pushed Vauxhall’s John Cleland into the gravel trap, this is just another race in a hectic two-country schedule in which he is paid to represent the German manufacturer. No action is taken against him.
To those who two years previously watched the F1 World Championship being decided by Ayrton Senna simply not lifting for the first corner and punting Alain Prost off the track, there is probably a touch of déjà-vu about the conclusion. No action was taken there either.
Touring Car racing is big news, and getting bigger. Its inherently spectacular nature has ensured that it has maximised its regular TV coverage, to the extent where members of the general public — not just hard-core racing followers — are aware of it. Combine that with the strong identification these people make with the cars they drive on the road and implications of the potential sales value of the series to the manufacturers is obvious. Money. It’s hardly an original theory, but that, by common consent, is what is increasing the pressure to win in Touring Cars, what is making incidents like that at Silverstone for the BTCC finale predictable and what — it is suggested — is responsible for the apparently easy-going outlook on driver discipline within the series.
Four-and-a-half-million people in the UK tune in to each round of the BTCC. Placing a total cash valuation on such things is difficult. There are two components to it. There’s the direct exposure of the company’s name and, in air time, that’s worth an estimated £200,000 per race. At a budget of around £1.5 million per 15 race season for a two car BTCC team, that figure appears realistic. In comparison, a three month slot for a British TV ad would cost around £6 million. But additionally, there is the less easily definable, and longer term, value of brand image that involvement in such a series gives the manufacturer. As one entrant commented: “In that sense it’s not really a question of can a manufacturer afford to be involved, but whether it can afford not to be.” At the time of writing BMW, Toyota, Vauxhall, Peugeot, Mazda, Nissan and for next year Renault have decided that they cannot afford not to be there.
But that’s only the value placed upon being involved. It doesn’t fully explain the ‘win at all costs’ mentality that decided this year’s title. Ask around the paddock and a surprising twist begins to surface. When not racing in the BTCC, Soper races in the German Touring Car Championship, a series with an even higher profile than its British counterpart, even though the gap may be narrowing. There, escapades such as that between Soper and Cleland are commonplace. A BMW driver will drive a Mercedes pilot off the road or vice-versa pretty much at every round once the title battle has begun to hot up. There are the perfunctory angry words exchanged, but on the whole this sort of thing has found greater acceptance in Germany. To the Germans, winning seems all. For them Soper is a sublime company man. When he’s not winning himself – and he does that often – he’s ensuring that the company is winning, regardless of how. It is an ethic he seems to have imported into the British series.
After that controversial Silverstone race, where BMW’s Tim Harvey became BTCC champion, there were said to be some embarrassed faces within the BMW GB camp. In contrast the German faction present was apparently delighted. “For me, that was a low-life form of winning, especially for a prestigious company like BMW,” said Cleland. “If we accept this type of attitude and don’t fight it, we’re on the slippery slope. After that race I thought ‘am I going to have to review how I approach this and take up a different stance?’ Then I think ‘no’, because then I would be giving in to what I disagree with.” The words echo those of Prost on the same matter in F1.
It all conforms to something of a pattern within a sport where now in F1 drivers are excluding others from the same team, trying to wrap up the title behind the scenes before it has even started or screaming petulantly when they can’t get the car they want. It’s winning that counts, no matter how it is achieved. That is an intellectually inferior ethic. Given that the sport and Touring Cars in particular is now generating interest from the masses, rather than only those with a knowledge and love of the sport, perhaps it’s not an altogether surprising one. But for its own sake, it’s to be hoped that Touring Cars doesn’t become too like F1 for its own good.