At the hop

The BMWs of Joachim Winkelhock and Steve Soper would squat down and catapult off the line as the lights flashed green. They would breeze past their front-wheel drive rivals, who would be consumed by wheelspin or, worse still, too much grip. Thus, weight transfer under acceleration was a vital factor in this year’s hugely popular Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship; it mattered not where the weight-handicapped Bavarian machines qualified, they always seemed able to get into the first corner first, from where they would establish the early lead so vital in these frenetic sprint races. First away, always ahead.

And the season panned out similarly. Seven wins from the first eight races proved just enough to give the established order – BMW and Yokohama – its third straight championship, although the writing looked to be on the wall for this successful combo by the end of the season.

This year’s championship was definitely “a game of two halves”, which the world renowned Schnitzer outfit won on away goals. Undoubtedly, the team had the right tools; its new four-door challenger was slightly longer, narrower and taller than the coupe which so dominated the latter part of 1992, but was basically an evolution of this proven machine. It was the short notice of BMW’s British plans and the commuting that made the job difficult. Charly Lamm’s team put its reputation on the line and did nothing other than bolster the claims of it being the best in the world. New car, new championship, new tracks, same old story – very impressive.

That BMW wound up as the winningest manufacturer was not a great surprise, but there was a twist in the tale. It didn’t go entirely to script. Surely, Steve Soper was supposed to be the champion? Not at the behest of BMW, but according to the prognostications of the pundits. The man from Bushey is oft mentioned in the same breath as Roberto Ravaglia and Klaus Ludwig as being one of the best saloon car drivers in the world, and Winkelhock had not been much of a problem for him in the German series . . .

The man from Stuttgart arrived on these shores with the reputation of being an all-out, seat-of-the-pants racer. A chain smoker with a fairly relaxed outlook on life. He was not expected to be the constant threat to Soper he proved. However, he quickly made it clear that he wasn’t willing to pay lip-service to his illustrious team-mate by leading briefly in the first race. It was abundantly clear the Brit had a fight on his hands. Wins for the late-braking German at Donington Park, Oulton Park (twice), Pembrey and Brands Hatch meant he was able to drive for points towards the end of the season – a fact rendered virtually academic by the late arrival of the Ford Mondeo – and his controlled drives at a streaming wet Donington showed another side to his character. Steve had some wretched luck, but Jo won because he was quicker when it mattered most.

And that was in the early part of the year when the latest lowline, sequential gearboxed, front-wheel drive cars were ironing out the bugs, which for some took most of the season. Their buzzword of the year was “hop”, which put simply is a form of axle tramp in the horizontal rather than vertical plane. Vauxhall, Toyota and Peugeot were all blighted, and curing it seemed nothing more scientific than trial and error even for the likes of the super-successful Vauxhall Dealersport team.

Those who found an antidote to this virus included Ray Mallock and Andy Rouse. The former’s team runs the Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall Cavaliers, which put the works team to shame on a fraction of the latter’s budget, while the latter took some flak for his initial decision to run Ford’s latest challenger in a rear-wheel drive format, before coming up trumps with yet another pacesetter, albeit with its driven wheels at the front.

As touring cars get stiffer and lower, and move towards single-seater-like responses – minor suspension tweaks bringing about major changes in a car’s trackside manner – this pair of experienced racers appeared best able to interpret driver feedback and the glut of information from the on-board computers. Mallock admitted that a great deal of Group C accumulated knowledge had gone into the re-engineering of his Cavaliers, especially in the infinitely adjustable rear suspension, while Rouse was adamant his V6 cars did not enjoy a huge power advantage, and put their pace down to an excellent chassis. Certainly, the Mondeo, which has a wider track than any of its rivals, rode the kerbs like no other front-wheel drive car could, and the impressive Paul Radisich, a personable New Zealander, scored three wins towards the end of the year to finish third in the series having only tackled half of the races. Ecosse’s David Leslie would have scored a similar number of victories had the luck gone his way, but instead had to settle for a solitary Thruxton success.

Of the other manufacturers, the Yokohama-shod Nissans, Dealersport Vauxhalls and Toyotas enjoyed brief spells at the front, but were unable to maintain this momentum.

The improving Kieth O’dor gave the Janspeed-built Primera its first BTCC win, the team scoring a memorable 1-2 at the British Grand Prix meeting, but this proved to be a false dawn. Although viewed as the best handling car of the field, it is still lacking in the horsepower stakes, and is thus at a disadvantage once its speed through a corner is compromised during a typical saloon car scrap. It also vehemently dislikes having to compromise its optimum line.

John Cleland scored his only win of the year in front of his countrymen at Knockhill, but suffered a fraught year with Vauxhall. For its fourth year of competition the Cavalier received a major revamp, including a far stiffer shell and an engine sited four inches lower than previously. The Scot was as aggressive as ever in it, but a switch to a viscous differential mid-season proved a backwards step, and saw him visit parts of the grid he had only previously seen in his mirror. Half a second in this championship can be the difference between a clear view of the first corner or a neck straining peek at the green light.

After a fraught year with Andy Rouse, Toyota switched camps to TOM’S GB, and the team which had been geared to go F1 before the plug was pulled brought with it the most sophisticated car of the series. Its engine was the lowest of the low and perhaps the strongest in the field, but the new front suspension proved tricky to set up, the car being very finicky about temperature changes and possessing an unnerving tendency to alter its attitude mid-corner. Both Will Hoy and Julian Bailey had their moments, the former Lotus driver scoring an impressive win at Knockhill, but the season will be forever remembered for their spectacular collision at Silverstone, where Bailey tipped his partner into a roll as they were running first and second in the Grand Prix support race.

Both Peugeot and Renault struggled, although the latter scored two wins at a wet Donington Park. The former was lacking in racing experience, being basically the ex-rally team, and took most of the season to dial out a time-consuming hop; a stiffened rear subframe proved very beneficial, and as last year, its 405 showed promise towards the end of the season.

The Renault 19s were hopelessly off the pace initially, thanks in the main to an unsuitable rally gearbox which meant the driveshafts had to run at a ridiculously steep angle. The arrival of the Hewland sequential unit improved matters, but the team was never able to rid the car of fast corner oversteer and slow corner understeer. One plus in its favour was the form of Alain Menu, the Swiss driver regularly hauling the car round faster than it wanted to go, and consistently outpacing team-mate, and 1992 champion, Tim Harvey.

Mazda provided the biggest “if only” story of the year. Armed with the stunning Xedos 6, which featured the same Ford Probe engine as the Mondeo, the all-action Patrick Watts looked set to take the series by storm after setting pole position at Snetterton. This moment of glory lasted until the first corner however, whereupon he landed in a field. From then on it was a case of “nearly was”. Undoubtedly, Watts was hindered by the pressure of being the team’s only driver, while a lack of budget restricted engine development to a bare minimum.

Eight manufacturers, with at least two more to come for ’94, huge crowds and millions of TV viewers the BTCC is on the crest of a wave. Undoubtedly, it is going to get even better next year. But will the bubble eventually burst as in Germany, or will be the series become a self-perpetuating entity in the NASCAR mould?

Manufacturers will come and go, and in this respect TOCA will have to look after the privateers who have been the backbone of the championship for many years, but who tend only to get TV coverage when they crash and who are being forced out by the million-pound budgets of the leading teams. There is a delicate balance to be struck here, and if one can be reached the series should continue to grow and grow.

By the way, this year’s top privateer was Matt Neal in a BMW.