On the face of it the battle for the Touring Car World Cup should have been fairly straightforward. The British championship’s best, led by John Cleland, Alain Menu and Rickard Rydell would lock horns with the four-wheel-drive Audis of Italian champion Emanuele Pirro and his German partners Frank Biela and Hans Stuck. The expectation was clear — the British front-wheel-drivers would emerge on top.
The evidence? In the BTCC BMW struggled to make the top 10, yet in Germany and Italy it was winning races. Alfa Romeo’s Gabriele Tarquini could challenge the 4wd might in Italy but had struggled to score points in Britain. And, on its recent visit to Vallelunga, which was heaven for Audi thanks to its tight hairpins which require fearsome acceleration, hadn’t Renault been close to the pace of champion Pirro?
So what went wrong at the World Cup? Why was it that Menu’s fifth position in the second race was the best place a front wheel-drive car achieved all weekend? It could be easy to blame a lack of preparation but Williams, TWR, Mallock and Rouse know what it takes to prepare cars for all sorts of tracks across the globe. More likely the cause was the same problem that has been at the root of much of Super Touring’s evils this year — wings.
With only one chance per year at hitting the bullseye of homologation for aero wings, the likes of British racers Renault and Volvo have to tailor those packages to the British tracks. Indeed, Rouse’s Ford team came back from a pre-event test highly encouraged by the pace of its Mondeos. But one complaint of those not running at the front of the World Cup field was that the tracks of the UK are far different to those found in mainland Europe. For example, no Euro track can simulate the plunging drop of Paddock Bend, the climbs and jumps of Knockhill or the bumps of OuIton Park. In the same fashion, no British circuit has the 140mph sweep of Signes, the tricky double right at Beausset, the lengthy Mistral straight or even the abrasive nature of the Paul Ricard track.
Consequently Audi claimed the first three places on the grid for each race, as the front tyres of the front-wheel-driven cars suffered on the tightening corners and their bigger wings slowed them on the straights. Worse still. BMW, the poor relation of this season’s BTCC, whisked its multitude of cars into the top 10. More used to the long straights of Spa. Avus, Zeltweg and Imola, the German cars were back on form. “It’s a little hard to understand how cars we can beat in Britain are suddenly so much quicker than us here” said a bemused Alain Menu. To see the Swiss going for a lap time was to know that he was sparing little effort in his bid to keep up with the German cars.
Renault UK boss Michel Gigou believes that there is too much at stake to allow a manufacturer to race at a track so different to those on which it has built its success. “It would make more sense if were all allowed to make and use a wing package tailored to the chosen World Cup track. The down force they give is vital,” he claimed.
Johnny Cecotto’s BMW was the prime example off the pace in the UK for, amongst other reasons, its Euro-friendly, low downforce wing kit, it simply flew in France. No doubt BMW’s vast experience helped. Its official teams have current experience of five different race series, ensuring a massive data file which helped put three 318s into the top six of each race. Likewise, European experience worked for Audi, which had raced at Ricard in the 1993 French series when Biela took the title. However, had it not been for an incorrect choice of gear ratios, which left him grabbing for gears when he should have been negotiating a corner on lap four, Emanuele Pirro could reasonably have expected to be world champion. His momentary first race off-course excursion dropped him to seventh, way behind team-mate Frank Biela who went on to win the race.
Although Pirro stormed away to victory in the second race, Biela’s fine drive through from fifth place past the BMWs of Cecotto, Yvan Muller and Steve Soper was worthy of champion status. Soper had expected that his title hopes would be strongest late in each race when the Audi tyres were past their best. But the Ingolstadt firm and Dunlop again showed their experience and preparation. Britain has a lot to learn from Biela and Audi when they hit the UK championship next season.
Behind the leading cars there were equal measures of close racing and damaged cars. With so much at stake and just two races in which to make an impression, collisions were inevitable. However, the sheer scale of the carnage was surprising, and often the innocent bore the brunt. Take the start of Race One, for example. Into the first corner, Anthony Reid, 19th on the grid, was hit from behind. He in turn hit Roland Asch’s Ford into Kelvin Burt, who clouted Rinaldo Capello’s Audi (ninth on the grid) and gave it a race-ending puncture. John Cleland and Will Hoy, 14th and 18th respectively, were both subject to an unguided attack from Roberto Ravaglia which ended their chances. Ravaglia was desperate to make up ground having been turfed off in the first corner shoving match.
The idea of one race doesn’t work” mused Cleland later. “If there is so much at stake people will take very silly risks. It would be far better to race at a couple of tracks, maybe a week apart. The real frontrunners would have a far better chance of showing through.” Eventually he joined the desperation club, stoving-in the front of his Cavalier on Hoy’s Renault as they dived inside Rydell’s Volvo.
In truth Cleland was glad to see the back of the Paul Ricard race. His week had started badly. Already due to miss Monday’s testing as he was only then returning from racing at Bathurst, his flight was diverted to Strasbourg on Tuesday morning when French airports went on strike. “Strasbourg could have been in Russia as far as I knew. I just hired a car and asked them to give me directions to Paul Ricard. They said I should just go south for seven hours!” said the Scot. Although it took him three days of testing to catch up on the opposition, Cleland and Vauxhall were never in the ballpark. Even team-mate Reid, who thought testing had given him a strong Race Two set-up, later described his 10th place battle with the Hondas of Klaus Niedzwiedz and Armin Hahne as the hardest race of his life. “It was positively dangerous. The car just had a mind of its own,” claimed the Japanese series contender.
Perhaps it will only be if the 1996 World Cup goes to the USA, where neither Audi nor BMW has raced touring cars, that he and the rest start on equal terms.