Bitter sweet

A double success at Oulton Park was not enough to keep our columnist in the championship hunt

I always drive up the M6 to Oulton Park with a good feeling inside of me. The Cheshire circuit has been kind to me over the years, and every time I line up there I am fairly confident of a victory. In the last two seasons of the British Touring Car Championship I’ve won there four times, including three of this year’s four races. And maybe this gets to the other drivers, too, because last month’s rounds at the track provided me with two of the easiest wins of my career.

Yet I drove back down the M6 secure in the knowledge that I had lost out on the 1995 title. Vauxhall’s John Cleland had kept a cool head to score a third and a second to become the champion. Of course, this is a big disappointment for myself and Williams Renault Dealer Racing, but the blow was softened a little because I’d been preparing for it throughout the previous fortnight.

I was able to do so because I’d had a disastrous weekend at Snetterton. I qualified my Renault Laguna on the front row for both races, and yet I only scored one point that day. On each occasion my car was knocked off the track by Tim Harvey, my Renault team-mate of last year. The second time I thought he was a bit naughty because he could’ve backed off before his Volvo had spun me round. But it was our first clash that had everybody talking. His TWR team was later fined £10,000, and from the size of the fine it was clear that it had done something very wrong. And everybody was connecting the penalty with this incident. But I try to keep out of all this: Tim told me that something had broken on his car and that he could not stop, and I have to believe him. Its done and nothing can change it. Anyway, it turned out that we had fitted the wrong tyres for a wet track that then dried out very rapidly.

By way of contrast, my team and I enjoyed our best weekend of the season at Oulton Park just 13 days later. My team-mate Will Hoy chased me home in the first race to give Williams its first BTCC one-two, and although he was knocked out on the first lap of the second race by Harvey! I survived to win again. In doing so I took second place in the championship away from Volvo’s Rickard Rydell. But there’s only one place to finish in a championship, and that’s first.

There’s one meeting left, at Silverstone, and this will provide us with a showdown against Vauxhall for the Manufacturers’ Championship. Naturally, my employers are very keen to win it, and I will do my utmost for them, but I believe the average man in the street will think that because Cleland has won the drivers’ title in a Vauxhall then the Cavalier was the best car in the BTCC.

And in the middle of the season it was. But now I think we have the best car, especially when fitted with its new engine from Sodemo.

In its first season of touring car racing Williams Renault Dealer Racing has won eight races, six of which as many as Cleland have fallen to me. But the Vauxhall has been that little bit more reliable. John has had just two non-finishes this season, both of which were of his own making in the wet at Brands Hatch. The wet races have cost us, too; at the first Brands Hatch meeting we fitted the wrong tyres, and at Silverstone my windscreen misted up. But the biggest hiccough was when a freak gearbox failure cost me a win at a dry Knockhill. Likewise Rydell will be ruing his statistic of just four wins from 13 pole positions. But we both know that there is no room for ifs and buts in such a competitive championship. However, I am confident that Williams and Renault, with a little help from yours truly, can go one better next season.

There will always be ifs and buts in the path that a driver’s career takes. From my early days in Formula Ford the goal was always Formula One. I didn’t think of doing touring car racing until I got a surprise ‘phone call from BMW inviting me to a young driver evaluation test. This was a real lifeline, because my single-seater career had stuttered to a halt because of a lack of finance.

Now I am making a good living driving touring cars for one of the world’s top teams, in one of the most competitive series in the world. And yet…

When I was invited by Williams Grand Prix Engineering to test its FW17 at Silverstone last month, thoughts of driving in Formula One filled my mind. It is the ultimate. And to drive such a car is a fantastic thrill. But it can also be frustrating.

I think I did a good job for the team, but I wasn’t physically fit enough to do myself justice. It also provided me with a glimpse of what might have been. There is only one Schumacher, one Prost, one Senna the rest of the F1 field are good, but they are not supermen. I’ve always believed that I could do well in Formula One given a good car, but I can think of 30 others who could do the same.

On the day itself I lapped faster than Alain Prost in the McLaren, and went three-tenths faster than Jacques Villeneuve had done on his first day in the Williams, although I had the new spec’ engine and the track was undoubtedly quicker, which was probably worth a second in my favour.

My biggest problem was that my neck just couldn’t stand the strain inflicted on it by the huge cornering G-forces. There’s nothing that can prepare you for that, and I was limiting myself to just four laps at a time because of it. Towards the end of the day I was given some new tyres, a light fuel load, and told to go for a time. Really, I wanted to call it day, but I went out, made a couple of mistakes, and went only marginally faster than I had done before lunch.

The car is truly amazing. You get used to the speeds on the straights within a couple of laps, but forcing yourself to brake later and later, and turn into corners like Becketts and Bridge at fantastic speeds, takes more than a day. This is where I was losing out.

I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t switch to F1 if Williams was ever to ask me, but I would only do so for a front-line team. Winning is where the buzz of motor racing comes from, not running in the middle of the pack, and my Renault Laguna has provided me with enough of the former feeling to know that I like it.

But touring cars can also provide you with the disappointments and dangers. The shocking news of Kieth O’dor’s tragic death at Avus might just shake us out of the complacency that has crept into this category. We like to think of touring cars as being the safest form of the sport, but clearly some things need to be changed.

The talking will come later. For the moment, I would like to pass on my condolences to Kieth’s family and friends.