After winning three of the last four BTCC races of the season – two at Oulton Park and one at Silverstone – I was very confident of a good result in the FIA Touring Car World Cup at Paul Ricard.
Before this race, however, Williams Renault Dealer Racing contested the last round of the Italian Superturismo series at Vallelunga. I was third fastest in qualifying behind the Audi A4s of Emanuele Pirro and Rinaldo Capella. But I stalled on the grid and started last. I had been caught out by the Magneti Marelli rev-limiter: in the BTCC we use a Monk rev-limiter, which has much “softer” cut-Out—with the Magneti as soon as you hit 8500 rpm it cuts the engine completely. And I hit it twice. By lap three I was losing oil pressure and my day was over.
I still believe that the British series is the most competitive in the world, but our trip to Italy had proved that it is always difficult to win and that the Audis would be a threat in the World Cup. We knew that the four-wheel drive A4 would be good at Vallelunga because it does a lot of testing there, and the two infield hairpins enable it to make the most of its traction advantage. It suited Paul Ricard, too.
This track in the south of France is unique in that three of its major corners tighten upon exit. In a front-wheel drive car this makes it particularly difficult and very hard on tyres. The Audis and rear-wheel drive BMWs had the edge over us on this occasion.
On our first day of testing, however, everything was going to plan and I was second fastest. Then a wheel broke just as I turned into the very fast corner at the end of the straight. I went over a gravel trap which scrubbed off no speed at all. Instinctively, I drew my legs up and pulled 10G when I hit the tyre wall. The car was wrecked and I was thankful just to be stiff and sore.
The team spent the next day readying the spare car and I managed just six laps. There was no testing on Thursday, and just two hours on Friday. It was all a bit of a rush
On Saturday l qualified seventh and 10th. This made me the fastest front-wheel-drive runner of the first session, while only Anthony Reid’s Opel beat me in the afternoon. Both of my laps were perhaps a tenth off what the car could do, so l wasn’t that disappointed. It was just one of those things: the car was good, I was happy with the way I was driving, it just wasn’t enough on the day.
I made a good start in the first race to be fifth at the end of the first lap. Pirro was leading and he made a mistake, elevating me to fourth. Then I followed Steve Soper’s BMW past Yvan Muller, also in a BMW, to be third in lap two. But I was already in trouble.
The car had been smoking as I sat on the grid. In the rush to prepare my car, a pipe that is normally protected against the heat had been overlooked, and by lap three the engine temperature alarm was sounding and my race was over. It was a big shame because Steve and I had been catching Frank Biela’s leading Audi.
I made a bad start in the second race and lost two or three places, which I regained by lunging up the inside at the first corner. There was some banging of bodywork but it wasn’t too bad.
After that I passed Rickard Rydell (Volvo), Reid, Roberto Ravaglia (BMW) Capello and Johnny Cecotto to be fifth. And towards the end of the race I was lapping as quickly as Pirro and Biela, who finished first and second for Audi.
A lot of the BTCC runners came home very disappointed, but with a bit more testing and luck I think I could have replaced Soper as the “best of the rest”. I don’t think I could have beaten the Audis. I think we will beat them next season though. At Paul Ricard it was confirmed that Biela and Audi will be in the BTCC next year. They will be very competitive. But my car will be even better next season and they will not dominate as they did at Paul Ricard.