In the hot seat -- John Cleland

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 He might team up with Frank Sytner, enjoys chatting with Steve Soper and sits next to Alain Menu on long-haul flights. What the hell has happened to John Cleland?

Why did you switch to circuits after contesting the Scottish Rally series? — Ian O’Connor, Caterham

The only reason I went rallying is that at the time I was a Colt dealer. Also, where I lived in the Borders there were no racetracks and everyone was into rallying. I thought it would be good for the profile of the business and at the time I wasn’t sure what to do in circuit racing. It was a means to an end. But I knocked more trees down that year than the Forestry Commission! Every time I saw Tarmac I was right there, but the gravel took a bit of learning. I was getting better, but I realised circuit racing was where I should go.

Was the Vauxhall Carlton Thundersaloon you raced In the ’80s as fearsome as it looked? — Jamie Spenceley, Telford

Oh yeah. It was hand-built by Dave Cook in Yorkshire. It had the 6-litre V8 Chevrolet and it just used to go like the clappers. We did a test for Autocar at Millbrook and the 0-60 time was something ridiculous like three seconds — and it peaked out at 185-190mph. It was great to drive and really rewarding as well. We had the Senator before that — it came across from Australia in Marlboro colours. We rebadged it (from a Holden Commodore) and repainted it, but apart from that it was as Peter Brock had raced it. When we first took it out at Mallory I opened the ashtray on the rear door panel and it still had the Australian mechanics’ cigarette ends in it!

Have you ever been tempted to try single-seaters? — Flora Guinness, Twickenham

I started motorsport fairly late in life, and at that time hillclimbs and sprints were what I could afford to do. By the time I got that side of things together it was a wee bit late — even then to be in single-seaters you had to be under 30. My first competition in a single-seater was sharing a Pilbeam-Vauxhall with Alister Douglas-Osborn at Prescott hillclimb. On the first run I broke his class record, then he broke that and we went faster and faster all weekend. It was just a ball, but it was a complete blur!

How did you get on with Ray Mallock? — Ian Rennie, Berkhampstead

Ray Mallock is not a very good people person, although I have massive regard for him as an engineer. In 1994 he inherited me because I came with the Vauxhall package, whereas he always liked his David Leslies and Chris Goodwins. But I’d been getting better results with a car that was not as competitive as theirs. Ray saw me as a wildcard and a joker and I had a day job — everyone else who drove for him was in the factory every day. But at the end of ’94 I went to see him and said, ‘I’m serious. I’ll put a general manager into the business. I’ll put my heart and soul into this.’ We went to test the new aero package for the first time at Brands Hatch and I said to my engineer Phil Barker, ‘It feels really good. The only thing is that the PI dash is wrong — it’s giving me the wrong lap times.’ He said, `No, you did that.’ It was easy. I went back to Ray and said, ‘We’re gonna win this. I’ll f**k around and I’ll joke outside the car, but I’m really serious about winning this.’ And we did. If I hadn’t produced the results he would have thought, ‘What a prick’ — maybe he still does! But I had a brutal focus: `Don’t f**king get in my way.’

Do you think your loyalty to Vauxhall damaged your career in the long run? — Helen Mackenzie, Penrith

The only manufacturer in all my time in touring cars that never offered me a drive was Honda. I always wanted to have a two-year deal, and I never got one until the end of ’94. Great: in ’95 we won the championship, but then in ’96 we got the new Vectra… In the winter of ’95 John Wickham from Audi Sport UK phoned me and said he wanted a driver. I said, ‘Thanks but I have an agreement with Vauxhall and I’m standing by it.’ And with Audi I might have gone forwards. But Vauxhall were really good to me. Until the Vectra, which single-handedly destroyed the credibility of Vauxhall in motorsport until recently, came along they always gave me a car I could be in the top three in the championship with.

Time heals, but do you still think Alain Menu is an “overpaid Swiss clot”?  — Steve Brandon, St Albans

That was the nature of touring cars. It sounded like I was firing from the hip, but I always — always — thought about what I said and did so for a reason. It was to attempt to destabilise people. Some people don’t like that, but if you look at sportsmen at the top of their profession, they all try and gain an edge before it even starts. If I could destabilise him, make him think I was frigging angry and have no idea if I was a loose cannon, then great. We had two dozen paid professionals, there was pushing and shoving but it was more subtle than it is in the UK today. There was an art to removing someone from his slot and not leaving any paint on him or you! Alain and I sat on a plane together for 24 hours on the way to Bathurst last year — we’ve got a mutual respect and we’re friendlier than we were. One problem with Alain, though, was that he didn’t really socialise with the rest of us so I think he was regarded as a little bit standoffish.

Which BMW dealer would you least like to do business with, Steve Soper or Frank Sytner? — John Wilman, Lancaster

Probably Steve!  Me and Vauxhall were the driver/car combination that was constantly giving BMW a pain in the arse. Things get said and the adrenalin runs, but that’s what happens when you’re always a thorn in their flesh. Steve has actually put some Volvo business my way and I’ve put some BMW business his way. Oddly enough, last year we were at Autosport International and stood talking for an hour, mostly about the motor trade. And if I had a pound for every time someone said Wow — you two talking to each other!’ I’d be very rich!

Apart from the Australian V8 enduros you already compete in, is there any other kind of racing you’d like to try nowadays? — Ken Powell, London

I’d love to do the 24-hour events at Spa or the Nürburgring in a competitive car with a couple of really good team-mates. I really enjoy thinking about a race. Bathurst is six and a half hours — you’ve got to think on your feet and I’ve got an ability to do that. I’m not sure about Le Mans though— it’s probably a bit late for that.

Who did you have in mind when you said you wouldn’t trust some of your BTCC rivals to drive you to the pub? —  Eric Burchill, Derby

Tim Harvey!  I’d rather walk. You see a driver get out of his car at the end of a race not covered in sweat, not all red, and he’s the one letting the car do the work. And the guys who get out worn out are the ones who are just crisis-managing an accident. There were a number of guys who worried me actually. But it happens everywhere. I did the Sandown 500 recently in Australia, and the team marked the entry list with a highlighter pen to tell me who to keep clear of— and by the time they finished there were only three drivers left! The ones I’d have trusted my life with were Will Hoy and Jeff Allam — you’d guarantee they’d bring the car back.

Ever fancied historic racing? — Charlie Rose, Cocklake

Frank Sytner told me, ‘We’ve got to get you involved and we can share a car.’ Maybe something like a D-type or a Maserati or something with a real bit of character. If the right thing came along I’d be up for it.