On top of the world

Paul Radisich, Touring Car World Champion – it’s got a nice ring to it. In fact I think I’ll say it again – Paul Radisich, Touring Car World Champion.

To retain this title – I won it at Monza last year –doesn’t make up for failing to win the British Touring Car Championship – that’s a year of effort and the World Cup was just one week – but the kudos it carries makes it very worth winning.

And as far as I was concerned, I had to win the FIA Touring Car World Cup at Donington Park. I’d been thinking about it since the final round of the British Touring Car Championship, also at Donington Park. Even when I was sharing a Ford Falcon with Glenn Seton at Bathurst – except when it’s five-litre V8 was propelling me down Conrod Straight at 180 mph – my mind was on the World Cup.

I’d worked out what my strategies would be, who my main rivals were likely to be – I’d covered every eventuality. I’d put so much effort and concentration into the week of testing, qualifying and the race, you can imagine how my heart sank when a comfortable lead was threatened as my Ford Mondeo’s gearbox became notchy with just four laps left. . .

As you know, I was very disappointed to lose the BTCC to Alfa Romeo’s Gabriele Tarquini. To be honest, we were struggling with the car towards the end of the season and a success in the World Cup looked unlikely. Indeed, all the teams that run front-wheel drive cars had been disappointed by the format chosen for the race; it was half as long again as a normal BTCC round, and it was widely believed that the Audis and BMWs would dominate because they look after their tyres better.

But so close if this form of racing that you only need to find half a second to switch from being an also ran (ie not winning) to a pacesetter. More often than not this amount of time can be found in the tyres. With the championship won at Silverstone Michelin gave everybody the tyre they had developed especially for the World Cup at the last Donington meeting. Our car has always gone well at this circuit, but immediately it was clear that the new construction of the tyre suited the Mondeo extremely well, and we qualified on the front row, won the final race comfortably, and probably would’ve won the second race but for a duff spark plug. This gave both me and Team Mondeo a huge boost.

For the World Cup my plan was to be quickest on every day during the previous week’s testing. There is a psychological side to this, it gives you confidence and gets your rivals talking, but it’s more to do with the fact that if you do something you might as well do it well. Apart from Friday when Steve Soper’s BMW was quicker, I managed to achieve this aim.

But there’s more pressure in qualifying as you normally only have one chance to set a time. And I was adamant that this had to be done in the morning, because as the ambient temperature rises later in the day the track gets slower. I was halfway round my first qualifying lap in the morning when the red flags came out and I had to abort it. A car had gone off at McLeans and when this was recovered the track was re-opened with just four minutes remaining. Qualifying is always a gamble and a lot of the drivers decided to wait for the afternoon, but Soper and I went out again. It worked perfectly for us as we both got completely clear laps, and Steve held pole position for about 20 seconds until I took it off him. Of course, the temperature might have dropped and made the afternoon session supersonic, but on this occasion I was right.

For me, the key to this race was to be in pole position. I expected it to be the toughest race of my career but I wanted to get out front and control it as best I could. Thus I was disappointed when John Cleland’s Vauxhall Cavalier got the jump on me at the start. He’d surprised me with his pace in qualifying – he was fourth quickest – and he surprised me when I glanced left and saw him going by, a gear up on anybody else.

At Monza last year I had also got pole position. I was also beaten away from the line – by Nicola Larini’s Alfa Romeo on that occasion – only for the race to be red flagged. Thus I got a strong sense of déjà vu when I saw the red flags being waved as we approached the Melbourne Hairpin. Fate?

At the second time of asking I was a lot more relaxed and made a better start. Steve Soper still got a slightly better one than me but I did enough to keep the inside line for Redgate. It was a long race and Steve have me a little room; I think he was confident that his car would be stronger than mine in the second half and was willing to wait. But his action had unforeseen circumstances.

Intently I watched a very fraught opening lape in my mirros as Soper, Cleland, Tarquini and Emanuele Pirro’s Audi battled it out. This played totally into my hands, for not only did it totally eliminate three of them – John, Gabriele and Emanuele – from the equation, but it also allowed me to cross the line with a big lead over Soper.

I was then able to keep the gap steady. Steve had quite a big lead over the third placed man, and I think both of us were looking after our tyres as much as possible. But every time he pushed a bit harder I was able to respond to hold the gap at around two and a half seconds.

Then I missed a gear. My heart stopped. A selector had got damaged and the change suddenly became very heavy. It’s difficult to open up a gap but it’s easy to lose one, and Steve quickly started to close. It took me half a lap to realise that the problem wasn’t going to get any worse, and to adapt my driving style to the problem; I was now having to lift of the throttle to make the car jerk on the upchanges. I was back on track.

Motor racing provides a lot of horrible moments like these, but it also gives you some sweet ones, one of which was crossing the line still in front. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and to celebrate I went out and won the following TOCA Shoot Out race. This was just a bit of fun, and showed me that sometimes things are easier if you’re totally relaxed. But this is what makes races like the World Cup so difficult and so satisfying to win.

Paul Radisich, Touring Car World Champion. A good feeling. PR